This is an excerpt from Chapter XVIII: Prisoners-of-War in Salisbury, Andersonville, Florence, and Belle Isle that can be found in The History of the Ninth Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion by Edward O. Lord, A. M. Republican Press Association, 1895, pages 613-627.
This volume is part of the The Civil War Collection Part II: The Soldiers’ Perspective from Accessible Archives.
Andersonville and Florence
By Corp. Augustus P. Horne, Co. B.
It is well I remember the first night the Ninth New Hampshire passed in the Wilderness, when myself and tent-mates, of Company B, were lying on the ground, listening to the groans and cries of our wounded comrades who were being carried to the rear. And we remarked, one to the other, that in all probability it was the last night we should be together; though we were happily disappointed in this respect, as none of us were injured the next day. But on the morning of the 12th of May came the Battle of Spottsylvania, and this history records the casualties which the Ninth New Hampshire sustained in that most heroic and desperate charge—the long list of dead and wounded, and of those nineteenth century martyrs who were consigned to a living death in the prison-pens of the South.
I was among the number taken prisoners at the “bloody angle,” and on passing through the rebel breastworks, what a sight met my eyes! The dead and wounded were lying in the mud and water, so many of them that it was difficult to pass along without stepping on someone, showing that if we had been hit hard, they had been treated to a dose of their own medicine.
On the morning of May 14 we were started on our way to the summer resort known in history as Andersonville—a name which makes me shudder to think of after more than thirty years have passed away, but as no tongue or pen can adequately describe its horrors I shall not make the attempt. We were three days in going fifteen miles, but at length arrived at Gordonsville, Va., both tired and hungry, as we had received but one ration in the three days. The reason we were so long on the road was because the Union cavalry was bothering our guards, and every little while the scouts would come in to report. We would be halted for a time, then would make back tracks, and advance by another route.
Arrived at Gordonsville, we were searched for money, watches, knives, and what other valuables we might chance to possess; and we could not say with truth that those who stole our purses stole trash, for it did leave us very “poor indeed.” Then we were packed into freight cars, sixty to a car, like sardines in a box, and were started on our way to Georgia. After passing through Lynchburg, Va., Charlotte, N. C., and Augusta and Macon, Ga., we arrived at Andersonville on the morning of May 25.
Our first salutation was from that Dutch pirate, Captain Wirtz: “What makes you all huddle up together, just like so many d—d old women? You Yankee ———!” he shouted, at the same instant drawing his pistol. “Scatter right smart into line, so you can be counted into hundreds!” After having been parceled off into squads, some one of our number was put in charge and we were marched inside the stockade. Andersonville prison. What horrors it recalls, what sighs and groans, what prayers and tears! What dying out of hope, what wasting away of body and mind, what nights of darkness settling down on human souls! Its doors an entrance to a living charnel-house, its iron-barred gates but the outlook of hell! It was the Inferno of the slave Confederacy, and well might have had written over its portal, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
What would the reader have thought, could he have looked inside, as we did, and seen the boys in blue strung up by the thumbs, with their toes just touching the ground, to make them reveal some plan of escape; or having their rations denied them for two and three days at a time, to make some half-starved and weak-minded man point out a hidden tunnel for a loaf of bread? The camp was alive with all kinds of vermin,—what wretchedness!—and on every hand were men without clothing, dependent on rags or anything that would serve to hide their nakedness and protect their emaciated and sore-eaten bodies from the burning sun. In those days we could only hope that somewhere there was a Gilead filled with healing balm, and that God’s rainbow still arched the skies of calm.
Still the weak and suffering, maltreated and hunger-tortured men lived on, refusing with scorn the inducements presented to tempt them to take the oath of allegiance. They were offered plenty of food and clothing to work as shoemakers, carpenters, and overseers of plantations; but I am glad to say that only a very few ever went out in that way, and those who did were men that had enlisted for bounty, and had no real interest in the flag of the Union. Inside the stockade, our ears were greeted with cries of “Who’ll swap a hard-tack for a pint of rice!” or “An ear of corn for a pint of beans!” “A bone for a piece of corn-bread!” like hucksters at a county fair or a circus. The poor fellows, in fact, had lived so long on one kind of rations, at Libby and other prisons, that anything for a change tasted good to them.
After wandering around for a while, looking for a place to camp, I finally found a spot just large enough to lie down on, near the south gate. Here I established my “quarters,” and held them until the grounds were enlarged on the farther side of the creek. After being enlarged there were but thirty-two acres, and on the first day of July, 1864, there were no less than thirty thousand of the boys in blue starving and dying in that hell upon earth! Four out of the thirty-two acres were a swamp, with a creek running through it, and there we got our water to wash with and to drink, and as the work-house and camp of our rebel guard lay just outside, they had the privilege of bathing in it and watering their horses and mules before we got it to drink.
Morning after morning, while we were there, we would see from forty to fifty dead bodies laid out side by side near the prison gate,—men who had died all alone in the darkness, and had been brought by their comrades to be carried out by the carts that came in with our rations. They were piled into the carts, one on top of another, like so much cordwood, to be buried in long trenches, heads to heels, with only a thin covering of mother earth. Such was the sad fate of fifteen thousand brave and true-hearted men, who suffered and died, only to be buried in an unknown grave! What a burden of sorrows, disappointments, hopes, and miseries lies embodied in that one word, unknown! Those noble, heroic souls, dying among comparative strangers, had lost their names, their individual histories. Some fond wife, mother, sister, or sweetheart mourns them, or vainly waits for their coming. Each sound of footsteps at the door causes heart-throbs of expectancy, but no more in life shall they behold those faces which once gladdened the household. Sick, and in prison, they lingered and died unknown!
So we lived on, waiting for the day to come that should open wide our prison door. The hollow eyes grew bright when we heard the boom of Sherman’s guns at Atlanta, and some one would say—“Boys, they are coming to set us free!” Then the wind would shift, and perhaps we would hear nothing for several days. Sometimes it seemed as though we could hear the crack of the Springfield rifles, and the boys would go so wild with joy that at last the rebels caused poles with white cloth on the top to be placed thirty-five feet from the “dead line,” and no gatherings were allowed outside of these for fear we would break through.
We had all sorts of men inside those wooden walls, from the preacher of the Gospel to a highway robber or murderer, and the camp got so permeated with crime that we had to organize a “vigilance committee,” which made short work of those suspected of desperate crimes. Finally we formed a gauntlet, and with the permission of the rebel commander drove quite a number of “suspects” outside. On searching their quarters, dead men were found buried in the ground. One of these wretches was convicted and hanged, and after that we had peace and order. We had a police court, and tried and punished our prisoners in due form. A man convicted of stealing rations, clothing, or anything of value from another, was consigned not to the whipping-post but to the whipping-barrel. The offender was laid across the barrel, hands and feet were secured to pegs driven into the ground, and he was then given from one to twenty lashes on the bare back, which was usually a sure cure.
It rained almost every day while I was in Andersonville, either a storm or a thunder-shower, and one afternoon in the latter part of July we had the most terrific thunder-shower I ever heard. It rained so hard that a part of the stockade was washed away, but the Johnnies “got a move on,” and quickly established a heavy guard. But even if it did not bring us our freedom, the shower was a blessing in one respect—it opened for our needs “Providence spring.” Before it came all the place we had to get our water to drink was from the creek I have already spoken of, but the next morning, inside the dead line, a spring of pure, cool water was flowing out of the sand. Whether it was the hand of God, as when Moses smote the rock in the wilderness, or a freak of nature, I can only say, like Esek Harden, “God knows, not I;” but the spring continued to flow as long as I remained.
All those long, weary days and months thousands of prayers went up to God from inside those dreary walls. Homesick and suffering, sick and in prison, still they prayed—boys for their mothers, husbands for their wives and children, and all that they might see home once more. “Nearer, my God, to thee,” “Just as I am,” “Home, sweet home,” and kindred songs rose and fell on the evening breeze, and there were services on the Sabbath and prayer-meetings during the week. So one can see that we were not all bad, in spite of our surroundings.
About the time that Sherman was breaking through at Atlanta, the news came that we were to be exchanged, and all who were able to move or crawl were put into freight cars, both open and closed, and started for Savannah. On arriving there we were confined in the jail yard, along with the black and white men who had been put in there for crimes; but it was only a few days before we were again loaded into the cars. This time our destination was Charleston, S. C., where we camped on the old fair-grounds for about two weeks, while the rebels were trying to find a place for us. By night we watched the burning fuses from the big guns, and sometimes could even hear the whistling of the shells as they flew through the air.
At length a vacancy was found at Florence, S. C., ninety-six miles from Charleston, and this was our abiding-place until January 1, 1865. There were 10,000 of us at Florence, and as the weather was getting quite cold we had to burrow in the ground like rabbits. Having dug as deep a hole as we could, we would crouch in it during the long, cold nights, with no blankets or covering of any kind, and try to sleep. So the time wore away, the men growing weaker and weaker and dying faster and faster, fading and falling like the leaves of autumn; but the day came at last when we started for “God’s country.” We were sent from Florence to Annapolis, Md., and on arriving there were given a bath and the first clean clothes we had had for eight months. At the time I was taken prisoner I weighed one hundred and sixty-five pounds, but at Annapolis tipped the scales at ninety-six; and speaking of clothes, you should see the suit I wore at Florence—made from meal-bags, the trousers cut out with a knife and a shirt made by cutting slits for the head and arms, with no sleeves.
The night before we left Florence, just at dark, a new batch of prisoners was put inside the stockade. One of them was a German who could speak but little English, and he, knowing nothing of the rules, stepped inside the dead line, and was promptly shot down by one of the guards. The poor fellow lay on the ground all night, and we listened to his cries for help, but were not permitted to do anything to relieve his sufferings; as the guard who had done the cruel deed would not let us remove him, lest he lose the furlough which was the standing reward for the putting to death of a “Yank.” Such an incident as I have related was of too frequent an occurrence to excite much comment among us, but pages on pages might be filled with stories of the deprivations and sufferings endured by northern men in the prison-pens of the South, without conveying any adequate idea of the terrible reality.