Sunday, May 11, 2014

Reminiscences From the Sands of Time - Part 4, final.

      Corporal George Hill's narrative continues.  The story is taken up when George and his comrades have been re-captured after  roaming the Carolina countryside in search of freedom.  (George Hill pictured- photo courtesy of Carol Robbins & Alan Arnold).

 "Reminiscences From the Sands of Time" by George H. Hill, 13th Mass. Company B.

      The glory of capturing yankee soldiers was too much for them to sacrifice, and we were marched to the ferry and put across by the saddest-faced darkey I ever saw. I think his disappointment was almost as heartfelt as our own.  Taken to a plantation we were locked into a kind of a woodshed and left to our meditation.  I leave to your imagination the feeling of disappointment which tortured us.  It beggars description.  We were well fed and, barring the scornful looks of the "women folks," well treated while here.  We were guarded by the men who captured us, each in turn parading in front of the door, until next day when we were taken out and started off, we knew not where.  We begged not to be returned to Florence, feeling that any other place was preferable to being again confined with the dregs of Andersonville.  The first night, after a journey of about twenty miles, we slept in a jail, in a small village called Albermarle, and such terror did a yankee possess to the women of this quiet place that we were put into a stone cell, entrance to which was so small that we were obliged to crawl through on our hands and knees.  We were fairly treated and decently fed, and next morning again on the road. We now learned our destination was Salisbury, N.C., which place we reached at about four o'clock in the afternoon, and were, after eighteen days of liberty, again inside the prison walls.  We were the first Federal soldiers to enter Salisbury prison.  When we left it, five months later, over twelve thousand had been buried from its confine, and thrice that number had entered through its gateway.
Sitting on the ground with those men - they were good-natured old men and evidently pitied us - we tried to convince them that we could do no further damage to their cause and agreed not to take up arms again (knowing our time had expired some months before"); but all in vain.

     Salisbury prison differed from Andersonville in that it was not remote from a settlement, but on the contrary was directly in the village or town.  It had originally been a hospital, and consisted of an enclosure of about one and a half acres, with a stone paved yard between the buildings, which formed a square and were six in number - one large brick building, two stories, used at this time as quarters for deserters and others under sentence from the rebel army, a wooden structure used as a hospital, and four small brick buildings, which may have been used as storehouses.  Beyond, or back of these, was an open space, and all of this was surrounded by a high board fence.  A platform extended entirely around on the outside of this fence built high enough for the guard to look over and into the yard as they walked to and fro.  We were not allowed to enter either of these buildings, but finding a hole leading underneath the hospital (which set on posts about eighteen inches above the ground) we crawled in and made our home on the dry earth, delighted to find this shelter after our experience at Andersonville.  We received rations twice each day, consisting of half a loaf of white bread - the first we had tasted since our original capture - and a good-sized piece of bacon, and congratulated ourselves that we were, although prisoners again, better off than we would have been had we gone to Florence.

     A few days passed, and then prisoners taken from our army - now in front of Petersburg - began to arrive in squads of fifty to a hundred or more.  Daily the number increased, and although at first the fresh and vigorous condition of the men so recently captured presented a striking contrast to the half-starved associates we had left at Andersonville, the exposure and lack of opportunity for cleanliness soon robbed them of all this, and another crowded den of misery was added to the inhuman record.

     Our retreat under the hospital was quickly filled, and filled so full that we lay at night "spoon fashion," so close together that it was not possible to turn without first getting general consent of the entire line, as all must turn together, and it was no uncommon thing to hear some one cursing over an apparently obstinate fellow who would not move, and at last hear the exclamation, "This man is dead,"  "Well, turn him over," would be the reply, and so accustomed had we become to death that no further note would be made of it until morning, when he would be dragged out and taken to the dead house (one of the small buildings had been devoted to this purpose), and after being stripped of his clothes left until the old wagon drove in for its daily load.  It was cold weather now, rations had been cut down one-half, and but for the extra clothing gotten from the dead we would none of us have lived.  No man was buried with clothes on, or with shoes or stockings, in Salisbury.  The needs of the living were too great to admit of sentiment, and we were only too glad to "walk in dead men's shoes."  We had water to drink, drawn from two wells, one of which we dug ourselves, but none to waste, so a bath, even of hands or face, was a rarity.  One day when we were, as usual, lounging away the time under the house, Klingingsmith, who had gone out by the gate to see what he could hear of news
from some prisoners coming in, came rushing out of breath to the entrance and shouted "Hill, Rice, Trounsell, come out here - come out!"  Thinking the war was ended, or at least Sheridan had captured Salisbury, we scrambled out and there stood Billie Crossett.

     Words cannot describe that meeting; we hugged him, we kissed him, we danced around him, we shook him, we hugged him again, while he, poor baby that he was, cried and laughed with joy at meeting us again.  We gave him all we had to eat and took him into our cave, and that night the "spoons" were closer than ever, for room had to be made for Billie.  We had enough to talk about for the next week, telling him our experiences since we left him, nearly two months before, on the edge of that terrible swamp, and listening to him as he recounted how he waited a day longer than we asked (so as to be certain sure not to endanger us) before he made a move; then of his visit to one of the cabins at ten o'clock at night, his kind reception by an old negro woman, who took the shoes and stockings from off her feet and gave them to him to wear, how she kept him hid for nearly two weeks, bringing others to see and talk with him, nursing his wounded feet and feeding him with the fat of the land, until, becoming impatient to follow us - whom he imagined safely inside the federal lines - he insisted upon moving on; how then one of them walked with him two nights on the way and left him then only because a longer absence would excite suspicion and invite pursuit, how he traveled all alone, with no one to speak to all the long nights, and hid all alone all the longer day, until his nerves gave out, and he felt he must speak to some one or he would be insane; actually trembling at every rustling leaf, and in imagination feeling the grasp of his pursuers at every step, he sees a light ahead, and reaching a house, he staggers to the door and knocks, the door opens and there stands an officer in rebel uniform.  Who cares, in such a state of mind?  Not he, and he tells his story.  The motley suit he wears, furnished by his colored friends, his youthful face, so uncommon in the Federal ranks - so common in the rebel army - discredits his claim to being an escaped union soldier and he is held as a deserter from one of the regiments at Raleigh, is taken there and to a dozen different camps to be identified.  At last, convinced that he is what he claims to be, he is sent, with a lot of newly captured prisoners, to Salisbury, and while standing in line to be counted, thinking all the time how hard it was that he could not have kept on with us to freedom, his hand is grasped by Klingingsmith, and he hears his name spoken in a voice he knows so well.  All this, and more, he tells us, and always ends with tears as he repeats how lonesome he had felt in his travels, and how happy it had made him to be with us again. Once more united, we began to plan another escape.

     We started tunnel after tunnel, one of which was thirty feet long, three feet below the surface, but the difficulty of disposing of the loose earth taken out brought discovery and defeat.  A concerted attempt made one night to break down the fence and overpower the guard resulted in the death of eight, and wounding of twenty of the most daring spirits among us, and the more rigid oversight of the enclosure.  Thereafter, any man moving around after dark was shot at without warning, and the most trivial excuse was sufficient to excuse a wound from the rifle of one of the youthful sentinels who now promenaded the platform, twenty feet apart.

     This ended hope of escape, and we settled down to wait for death, or release by victory of our comrades at the front.  So passed the winter of 1864.  The mortality became fearful.  Twice each day the big truck wagon backed up to the dead house and drove away with its load of naked bodies, six or eight deep, with legs and arms hanging over its sides and end, to be buried in a trench out-side.  No word from home had we received.  Tons of letters, I have since learned, were sent through our lines, but scarcely a dozen to my knowledge ever reached the prison to cheer those poor fellows starving for news of loved ones so far away.

     One bright spot there was.  Regularly there entered, each day, this pen of misery an old gray-haired, tender-hearted man of God, a catholic priest, whose kind sympathy and hopeful words of encouragement saved many a man from despondency and death.  I am not a catholic, but the memory of that holy Father, as he moved in and out among the sick and dying in Salisbury prison, speaking words of hope and comfort, regardless whether to Jew or Gentile, has left an impression on my mind that the lapse of time cannot efface.

     The triumph of the republican party, and the re-election of Lincoln in November, thus demonstrating the determination of the North to submit to no compromise, was the death-blow of the rebel cause, and the continued victories of our armies, both east and west, news of which came to us through incoming prisoners, encouraged us that the end was near and so we held on to hope that our release was not far distant.

     About the middle of January rumors of an exchange of prisoners began to circulate around the yard, and on the twenty-fifth of that month the first squad - of which we formed a part -was marched through the gate and put on cars (which were on the track just outside) and started for Wilmington.  It was proposed to exchange at Fort Fisher, which place had been captured by General Terry.  Our former experience made us suspicious that again this was but a ruse to change our location, and when at Raleigh we were taken from the cars and marched to a grove of trees, and a guard stationed around us, we felt certain that we had been fooled again.  Train after train arrived, and each in turn dumped its load of disappointed prisoners and backed away.  No explanation could we get, but a sort of gloom appeared to settle down upon the rebels guarding us and we knew something was wrong with them, at least.  That night watching our opportunity when the guard was down the line, Klingingsmith and I slipped across and deliberately walked into the town.

     It was about ten o'clock and the streets were nearly deserted.  We had read occasionally a copy of the "Raleigh Standard," which found its way into the prison, and knew that the editor, Mr. Holden, was as near a union man as he dared to show.  We were desperate, and determined to find out, if possible, what was to be done with us.  Hailing a passing negro we inquired where Holden lived, and soon we stood at the door and boldly rang the bell.  The door was opened by a negro girl, and as the light fell upon us she started back, exclaiming:  "For de good Lord's sake, what you yankees doing way up here?"  We asked for Mr. Holden, and she called, "Massa Holden, here be two yankee prisoners done be got away!" and at once a nice-looking, middle-aged man appeared. He asked us in, and when we had explained our motive in coming to him he (without in any way committing himself) informed us that the city of Wilmington had been occupied by federal troops, which necessitated a change of plans as to point of exchange and, on that account, we were stopped at Raleigh to wait for orders; advised us to return to our comrades as the surest way to reach our lines, wished us a safe journey to our homes and friends and then - evidently to dispel suspicion of his loyalty - sent us guarded by a negro, to whom he gave a revolver and instruction to shoot us if we attempted to escape, back to camp.  We entered where we had left, the sentinel evidently preferring to make no report lest his carelessness in allowing us to get out might get him into trouble.  The news we brought (we were careful not to report whom we had talked with) was received with delight by our comrades who, missing us, had concluded we were off again for good.

     Two days later we again boarded the train and about noon stopped in the open country about three miles away from Wilmington.  "We were ordered off the train and, as we looked ahead, we saw the engine was just at a fence which crossed the track, and on one side stood a group of rebel soldiers and on the other side an equal number of "officers in blue," and just beyond on a small knoll we could see a squad of cavalry, one of whom held a staff from which waved an American flag.  We moved slowly along, helping those too weak to walk, and as we passed through the line of rebel officers were counted and checked, and then by the Federals, each one receiving from the latter, as he passed, a grip of the hand and a word of encouragement.  I can only imagine how others felt.  I know how I felt myself.  My legs trembled; I could scarcely stand; every drop of blood seemed centered in my heart, and as I passed those rebel officers I could hear the thump, thump, thump, and I held my breath in abject fright lest something in my action should give offence and they should hold me back again.  Slowly the prisoners moved along, and at last I was inside the union line.  Not daring to look behind, I raised my eyes to the flag and staggered on.  Thinking of no one; caring for no one; only wondering if it was true, walking as if in a dream, almost on air, towards the flag; until at last, standing beneath its folds, the blood began to flow again, and again I felt myself a man.  Turning now, the pent-up feelings of a soldier's life seemed to come to me as of old, and memories of cruelty and wrong struggled for relief. Sheltered by the emblem of my country's power I almost shrieked in triumph, and then, with failing strength, burst into tears.

Just then an officer stepped beside me, grasped my hand and threw his arm around my waist, exclaiming, "My God, George Hill, is this possible?" And looking up I saw Bill Blanchard, a private soldier of my own company in the old 13th  when I was captured, but now a captain of the 27th U.S. Infantry Colored Troops, and serving as officer of the guard.  (Bill Blanchard,  pictured)  Insisting I should go with him, despite my filth and rags, he took me to his tent, furnished me what he called "a lunch," but what seemed to me a feast; sent to the quartermaster's and "drew" a complete outfit - hat, shoes, stockings, and underwear - and took from his own trunk trousers and coat;  went with me to a small stream near by and assisted me in ridding myself of the remnants of clothes I wore, and also of the five months' accumulation of confederate soil I carried on my person, and then, arrayed in garments clean, which seemed to me richer than those we read of as being worn by King Solomon, I went with him to the headquarters of his regiment and was royally entertained.  Amidst all this a feeling of guilt at apparent desertion of my comrades oppressed me and at last I insisted upon following them to Wilmington.  An ambulance was ordered and I rode into the city, found the boys quartered in one of the deserted stores and wondering what had become of "The Captain."  They had all they could eat, but were yet in rags, as no extra clothing was to be found with an advancing army — my own good fortune being an exception — but what of that?  A happier lot of men you never saw. But little remains to be told.  Obtaining a sheet of paper and envelope I wrote to my father, announcing my release, and the arrival of that letter was the first they had heard from me since I was reported "missing in action," ten months before.  It came to them at home like a message from the dead, for they had given up hope that, even if a prisoner, I could have survived the exposure and suffering of which they had heard so much.  The joy at home is best imagined; again my powers of description fail. 

      As soon as transports could be provided we were sent north, to parole camp, at Annapolis, and (my regiment having been mustered out six months previous, expiration of term three years) I was, after a week or two doctoring, furnished transportation and ordered to Boston; was honorably discharged from the service of the United States March 26, 1865, and left for my home in Maine.

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