Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Reminiscence From the Sands of Time; Part 2

     When we left off George H. Hill and his comrades had just landed at Andersonville Prison in Georgia, a few days after the Battle of the Wilderness.  In this part of his narrative he describes his 5 month incarceration there.  Keep in mind, George's 3 year term of enlistment expired July 16, 1864.  If he had managed to stay with his regiment,  he would have gone home then.

[Part Two]

    Would to God remembrance of this hell, controlled and rejoiced in by that fiend incarnate, Capt. Henry Wirz, this blot upon humanity, could be erased from our nation's history.  To describe the sufferings of its inmates from exposure, starvation and neglect requires greater power than mine.  To exaggerate its terrors is an impossibility.  No one not actually a prisoner in this "Chamber of Horrors" can form a conception of its reality.

     The sergeant having charge of squad No. 1 (prisoners were divided into squads of one hundred each), John McElroy, has published in book form a description of life inside the stockade at Andersonville.  I pronounce it the most vivid and truthful of any attempt I have ever seen.  He knew of what he wrote.  Twelve thousand half-clothed skeletons crowded around us, and besieged us with questions of news from home.  Except from prisoners entering from time to time, nothing was known inside those walls of union success, while discouraging reports of real or imaginary victories of the rebel army were freely circulated.  "Where is Grant?" "Where is Sherman ?"  "Has Charleston been taken?"  "Is there any chance of parole or exchange?"  And a thousand other questions, all of which we answered, and all of which we, in turn, asked again and again of each new lot that followed us into this crater of misery and death.  Counted off into squads - for the purpose of drawing rations - we were directed to assemble each morning at the call of the bugle, and then left to ourselves to find, if possible, an unoccupied spot large enough to lie down upon.
     Next morning rations were issued for the day - a piece of corn bread about four inches square, and a small slice of bacon.  Twice each week we had in addition half a pint of bean soup, cooked as farmers cook it for their hogs (pods and all).  The last part of my stay here, when the number had increased so there were twenty thousand or more, the ration consisted of corn bread alone, and the size was reduced at least one-half.

     No shelter but the sky - no bed but the earth - no cover from the hot sun by day and the heavy dew by night - exposed alike to rain and sun, there we remained, hoping against hope, revived and encouraged one day by news brought by prisoners of union success, and discouraged the next by the boastful bragging of the rebel guard.  Seeing one after another whose acquaintance we had formed sink and die; ourselves reduced to living skeletons; many to idiotic imbeciles; kept alive only by the one hope that the war would end. And let me say here - among that dying throng not one word of copperhead disloyalty; not one wish for that end to come in any way but with victory and honor to the nation and the flag.  Twelve thousand nine hundred men died in Andersonville.
     Think of it, nearly thirty percent of all who entered that prison, gate were buried (most of them in unknown graves) in the cemetery just outside the stockade, while of those that lived at least fifty percent were walking skeletons of what we call men.

     It was here, when it seemed to me we were deserted both by God and by the government we loved so well, and when we had almost abandoned hope, I heard for the first time that song (sung by new prisoners from Sherman's army) to which I never listen, even after so many years, without a thrill of joy left over from that memorable night:

"Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching,
Cheer up, comrades, they will come,
And beneath the starry flag we shall breathe the air again
Of the Freeland in, our own beloved home!"

     If George F. Root could have seen the joy which came to that throng of helpless, almost hopeless beings, as they crowded around and listened to what seemed to them an inspired message, and could have heard their shouts for repetition, over and over again, he would have felt gratified that at least one of his compositions had received its reward of merit, and that he had made good use of his God-given talent to do good to his fellow-men.

     At last Atlanta fell, and victorious Sherman started to rescue the prisoners at Macon and at Andersonville. This necessitated a change of location, and to more safely make this move the report was given out that we were to be sent North for exchange.  So many such rumors had come to us which had proved groundless that until the first lot actually left we took but little stock in this one; but when once convinced there came a struggle - every prisoner anxious to get away, and under such circumstances it is not strange that selfishness predominated to an extent that it became almost a fight for life to get counted into a squad to leave.

     Accompanied by Fuller - between whom and myself had ripened a friendship born from mutual suffering - I left Andersonville with the fourth lot of five hundred, and after five months in hell was once more out into the world again. Sixty men in each lot, we were put on board a train of freight cars and started, as we believed, for home.  At Macon we stopped for wood and water. Rations of corn bread and bacon were issued to us, which we were told must last us three days.

     While stopping here we overheard a conversation between one of our guards and a soldier on the depot platform which dispelled our dream of home - we were simply being moved to Florence, N.C., where another stockade had been built, and no exchange was contemplated.  Turning to Fuller, I declared I would never enter another stockade alive, and together we began to plan our escape from the train, preferring, if necessary, to die by bullet rather than the slower death of starvation or disease which we knew awaited us by further imprisonment.

     Fortune favored us. At a Junction we changed cars, and noticing one car with rickety flooring, we managed to get in line to count into that particular car.  Once inside, we persuaded a young soldier of the 32d Mass., Billie Crossett, to lie down over a large hole, and covering him with our jackets, we insisted he was too weak to stand when our car was inspected by the officer in charge to see if it was properly filled and guarded.

     After the train started we began to perfect our plans, taking into our confidence three more of our fellow-prisoners, Jim Trounsell, Henry Klingingsmith, and John Rice, all members of the 11th Penn., the Bucktail Regiment - We planned to wait until night and then at the first stop after dark to quietly drop down through the hole, lie flat on the road-bed, and take chances of the train passing safely over us.  We kept the rest in the car ignorant, even of the hole itself, lest too many would attempt the escape, thereby causing commotion and detection.  It seemed as if night would never come, but about sunset we stopped at a small station in South Carolina, called Sumpter, and our car being at the platform, which was crowded with old men, women, and children (at that time every man able to carry a musket was in the rebel army) we overheard the guard on top of the car ask, "How far to Florence?"  "Ten miles" was the reply, and our hearts fell, for we knew this was the last stop.  It was now or never, and I crawled through the hole, followed by Rice, Crossett, Trounsell and Klingingsmith, and watching our chance when the guard was busy talking to the girls, we slid out between the wheels, under the depot platform, and lay down as close as possible to the building in single file.  (For some reason Fuller did not follow, and I never heard of him again.)  The train moved on, and there we were.

To Be Continued...

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