||A Sampler of Civil
|Text from Harpers Weekly
February 20, 1864, pages 122 (3)
I could never think of Jem as dead,
though I certainly had no definite grounds for my belief to stand onin the very
teeth, too, of the formidable fact that all effort to find himand many and strenuous
ones had been madehad thus far proved futile. He had enlisted as a privateJem
had always a dash of romance about himand had thereby nothing to distinguish him in
that awful mangled heap at Gettysburg; and yet I could never fancy his poor body lying
under that mournful slab raised for "the unknown," though bankrupt of reason for
So when I found myself at Richmond, with that curious
aptness of the soul for winnowing out the few grains of good perdue in a whole
harvest of evil, my heart gave a quick upward bound at the thought, "Perhaps I shall
find Jem here"Jem was my younger brother, and my pet from petticoats
upotherwise the outlook wasnt too bright.
The rebels had made a dash on our hospital, which was in
about as good fighting condition as the general run of hospitals, took fifty of our boys
out of their beds, among them one poor fellow, Simms I think, with his leg just off, and
their surgeons; probably by way of padding for an article in the ExaminerI
know of no other reason, as we were all non-combatants, and they had already mouths enough
to feedand there we were, huddled together in the street, Eugene Delacroix, a cool,
resolute fellow, Robert Allan, and myself, with our poor men lying all about, some
groaning and ghastly with pain, and the most merciless sun beating down upon us, scorching
out our very lives as we stood there three mortal hours. Probably some red tape was to be
unwound somewherebut at last they brought carts into which they huddled our sick and
wounded and dashed off, jolting and jostling them as they drove recklessly over the rough
pavement very much after the manner of a butcher with a load of calves.
Allan said something about it and was immediately
overhauled by the Chief of Police, the Provost Marshal, and Heaven knows what all; and
then we were relieved by the Richmond authorities of whatever money we were so unfortunate
as to have about us, and marched with lighter pockets, if not hearts, to Libey Prison.
Then I began to look out for Jem and got my first sup of disappointment. They had placed
us of course in the officers room. Jem was a private, and might be one of the
hundred and fifty tramping noisily over our heads, or in some of the rooms below, or in
some other prison; and in either case he might almost as well have been in Soudan for all
hope of meeting him; or, and it was my last hope, he might be in the hospitals, where it
was possible that we should be allowed to do service. Delacroix suggested that.
The room, our future prison, was in the third story and
crowded, for there were already some two hundred officers confined there. The air was
stifling, loaded with so many breaths; the hot glaring sun beat in pitilessly at the
broken unshaded window, added to which, at that moment, were the fumes of the single stove
allowed for the cooking of the rations. Ah! If the tender, white-handed mothers and wives,
if the gay girls dancing in Northern ball-rooms could but have looked in this bare,
cheerless, unceiled room, with unglazed panes at best, and frequently only bits of canvas
and strips of boards nailed over the openings, unplastered walls, unevery thing belonging
to common decency or comfort, I think their merriment would have grown half-terrible to
them, and, through the sweet delirious waltz-music, would sound out something like a wail!
Each day a certain number among us were detailed for cooking and scrubbing service, and in
due course of time I had my turn at both, and fell into it, I think quite naturally; but I
could never get over my secret wonder at Delacroix when similarly employed, he was so
precisely the man that it was impossible to imagine in any such predicamentI had
always an undefined notion that the laws of nature contained a special clause for his
benefit, and that no dilemma would ever dare face him, much less offer him its horns.
As for poor Allan he succumbed at once, and went about in
a very miserable way indeed, though men of more calibre might be pardoned for being a
little down on their luck. There were put up bare wooden bunks for about half of us; the
rest must sleep on the floor: pillow and mattresses there were nonea blanket you
might have if you were fortunate enough to have brought one with youotherwise none.
The rations were scanty; but water, the muddy, brackish water of the James River, was even
more sparingly dealt out. I thought of the old border-riders vowing candles as long as
their whingers to St. Mary when in a scrape. I would have given one as long as the Bunker
Hill monument to St. Croton could he have interfered in our behalf. Not specially heroic
this, but still I maintain worth the chronicling; for to keep up good heart and firm
courage, as the majority of our men did, unwashed, unrested, half-starved, as we soon
were, and treated like dogs through long monotonous days of a dreary and cheerless
captivity, needs more pluckenduring pluck of the kind that will bear a strain on it,
than ever was required for a forlorn hope.
Meanwhile the days crawled ondragged is too fast a
word for prison timeand constantly I was on the sharp look-out for fun. As Delacroix
had said, we soon obtained access to the hospitals for Union soldiers, visiting them
daily. They were three in number, and from the first hour of our entrance I should have
thought complaint a blasphemy. They used to bring there the poor wretches from the tobacco
factories and Belle Isle, worn almost to skeletons, sometimes with the skin literally
dried on the bone, moving masses of filth and rags, snatching at any article of food as
they passed, groveling and struggling weakly for it like dogs, many of them actually in
the agonies of death, taken there that they might be said to have died in hospital. In one
day the ambulance brought us eighteen, and eleven out of them died; in fact, we saw little
but such sombre processions. We had little medicine to give them, and no food but a scanty
measure of corn-bread and sweet potatoes; and this for men down with dysentery and typhoid
pneumonia. These, too, were men in the last stages of disease; hundreds more, fit subjects
for hospital treatment, were left on the island and in the prisons for lack of hospital
accommodation. In the three Union hospitals the average of deaths was forty a day. We
lived in an atmosphere of death; corpses were on every side of us. We did what we could;
but after all it was little more than standing with our hands fast bound to witness
sufferings that we could not alleviate. I had done looking for Jem. I hoped now that he
was dead. Better that his handsome head lay low among a heap of unknown slain than to have
been tortured all these months in a Richmond prison.
Our own condition was not improving. The weather was
growing colder, and the wind whistled most unpromisingly through our broken windows.
Stoves were put up, but no fuel was given to burn in them; and sleeping on bare planks,
without mattress or covering, was getting to be a problem. There was a falling off also in
the matter of rationscorn-bread and two ounces of rice now was our daily allowance;
added to this, daily brutality and insolence on the part of the under-keepers, dead
silence from home, and the long, hopeless winter setting in; but the edge of all this was
blunted for me by the hospital horrors. My very sleep was dreadful with dying groans and
pitiful voices calling on those who, thank God! will never know how they died.
One morning the ambulance had brought a load of fourteen
from the island, and when I came to the hospital, a little later than usual, I found
Delacroix standing by the side of one of thema young man, judging from the
skeleton-like but still powerful framean old one, from the pinched and ghastly
facea dying one, at all events. Used as we were to horrors, I saw that Delacroix was
laboring under some unusual emotion. He was white to the very lips. I understood why when
he muttered in my ear the word "Starving!" Low as it was uttered, the poor boy
caught the word.
"Yes," he said, feebly. "It is quite
useless, gentlemenno," turning from the bread that Delacroix offered, "I
loathe it now. For days and days I have been mad for it. I have had murder in my heart. I
thought if one died the rest might live. Once we caught a dog and roasted him, and
quarreled over the bits. We had no cover; we lay on the scorching sand, and when the
terrible heats were over came the raw fogs and bitter wind."
He stopped, seemingly from exhaustion, and lay a few
moments silent; then the pitiful voice commenced again.
"We were very brave for a while; we thought help was
coming. We never dreamed they could go on at home eating, lying soft, and making merry
while we were dying by inches. I think if my brother knew? If ever you get back I charge
you, before God, find out Robert Bence, surgeon of the _____ Maine. Tell him that his
brother Jem starved to death on Belle Isle, and that thousands more areAh! just
Heaven! the pain again! O Christ! help me! have?!
The words died away in inarticulate ravings. He tossed his
arms wildly over his head; his whole frame racked with the most awful throes. And this was
my poor boy; so wasted, so horribly transformed, that I had not known him. His glazing
eyes had not recognized me. His few remaining hours were one long, raving agony. He never
knew that his brother was by his side. I died over and over again, standing there in my
utter helplessness. I had never so thanked God as when his moaning fell away into the
merciful silence of death.
Delacroix, who had remained with me, vented his grief and
wrath in the bitterest curses; but I was stunned. My grief was so vast that I could not
then fully comprehend it. There were in store for me days of future horror, hours of
sickening remembrance of his agony, of maddening thought of that most awful and protracted
torture; cold, hunger, disease despair, all at once; but then I waited in silence till
they had taken him away, with the nine others dead out of the fourteen brought there in
the morning, and then went mechanically back with Delacroix. It was after sundown, but the
first sight that saluted us in the prison was a row of pails and brushes, and the keepers
detailing the officers for the duty of scrubbing. At that Delacroix burst out, angrily,
"How the devil do you think we are going to sleep on
these floors after they are scrubbed, and without fires to dry them? Is your Government
trying to kill us with sleeplessness, since it cant starve us out? Already we have
walked all one night this week, because lying down was impossible."
The keeper turned, with an ugly grin on his brutal face:
"Since you are so delicate you can try the dungeons
for a day or two. You wont be troubled with scrubbing there; and you find the
company that is fit for a Yankeein the vermin."
So Delacroix was marched off to the dungeons, as poor
Davies had been the week before, though scarcely over the typhoid feveras Major
White and Colonel Straight have since been, and many another hapless officer, for a
trivial offense or none at all. They kept him there three days in that noisome hole. He
came out looking a little pale, but plucky as ever. The spite of a brutal man is a hound
that never tires. The keeper watched his opportunity, swore that he saw Delacroix looking
out at window (this high offense was punishable with death), and put him down
againfor four days, this time. Then we got another turn of the hand-screw. We were
no longer allowed to attend the hospitals. Delacroixs eyes flashed.
"There goes the last obstacle to escape. While I
thought I could be of use to our poor fellows here I would not go; but nowI have had
plenty of time to think down there, and I have thought to purpose. I have a plan. If you
like you can try it with me; if not, I go alone."
To know how sounded that word "escape" one must
first have realized a prison. The risk was enormous, and failure meant the damp dungeons
of the Libey, of which Delacroix gave no alluring description. The plan, however, was
feasible. By agreement each managed to secure a sleeping-place near the door, and when all
was quiet stole out, shoes slung about our necks, to the upper story, where was a
sky-light, through which we were soon out on the rood, and in present possession of our
freedom, though it was to be regretted that it was so many stories high. We went straight
to the end of our rood, Delacroix, in his walks, having noted that the second building
above us was empty; but the adjoining house, unfortunately, was a two-story building, so
that we were forced to descend by help of the lightning-rod, which Delacroix did well
enough, going down hand over hand with the ease of a cat; while I, less agile, met with
one or two slips, and came down with a final thump, which should have startled the guards
below, but did not, luckily for us. Then we found ourselves on a level with the
third-story window of the next housethe empty one.
"But how if it shouldnt be empty?" I
"It is empty," returned Delacroix,
energetically, leaning across the little chasm of division to open the sash. "Now,
will you go first?"
In I wentbare floorempty roomsopen
doors; that looked uninhabited, at any rate. Delacroix followed; and then we began to make
our way down in the Egyptian darkness, getting several stumbles, and nearly breaking our
necks on the last flight of stairsa most villainous one. The lower door was bolted,
but, being on the inside, it proved no such mighty matter to open it. Then there was a
cold, damp rush of air, and we dimly made out that we were in a small back yard,
over-looked by tall buildings, showing ghost-like against the sky. The gate was locked,
and we did not stop to pry it open, but took the fence in gallant style, and away! Scarce
any one was stirring, and walking leisurely through the dark and quiet streets, by morning
light we were well out of Richmond; and now commenced the real perils of our journey;
first the brightening light, which urged us to all possible speed in finding a cover.
Delacroix had a pocket-compass, and by it we struck a north-easterly course, going on
bravely till presently we came plump on a fortperil number two, "Down!"
whispered Delacroix, dropping on hands and knees in the grass. I followed his example in
all haste, and so we wormed our way some hundred yards onward. Suddenly Delacroix clutched
my wrist. Something was vibrating in the aira dull, heavy, regular sound, caught all
the more readily from our nearness to the ground, and with it a curious, faint tinkle,
growing nearer, sounding out loudly now on the raw air. Both exclaimed, at the same
instant, "Cavalry, by George!" It was an even chance whether they would ride us
down or miss us; but there was nothing left save to crouch lower in the grass, and crouch
we did. Doubtless some sweet saint at home was praying for us, for the chance proved in
our favor. On they came, at an easy gallop, spurs and sabres jingling, and chatting
carelessly; passed us, little dreaming who were their neighbors for that moment; died away
into silence the echo of hoofs and tinkle of spurs. But now daylight was a very positive
affair indeed, further travel too dangerous, and even Delacroix admitted, with a groan,
that remaining where we were was our only safety.
"Remaining where we were" sounds like ease and
resta peaceful phrase, in fact, conveying a notion of repose; but it was a
marvelously hard thing to do. There was the probability of discovery; then, spite of
peril, we were in a very desperation of sleepiness, and dropping off continually, to wake
up in a panic, fancying that our foes were upon us. We were chilled to the heart; what
with night-dews, and raw air, the dampness of the earth, and the enervation of our
imprisonment; and as the day wore on we grew ravenous as wolves. Surely night was never
before half so welcome, though words have not in them an expression of the difficulties of
our way. The sacred soil stuck to our tired feet as if it had been in the Secession
interest, and were all the briars sworn rebels they could not have caught and torn us more
persistently. Once we floundered into a morass. "Courage," quoth Delacroix,
"the Libey dungeons are worse." Twenty times over I should have lain down in a
sullen despair, had it not been for his undaunted courage, pushing on spite of everything,
Daybreak found us in the "open," quite out of
reach of any cover. A little ahead the road turned sharply, cutting off our view, but both
heard a sound of singing, to which quick steps sounding out in the frosty air kept time,
and the singing and walking grew every moment plainer. It was coming toward us. Delacroix
laid a hand on his pistols, but I had already caught the words,
"Berry early in de mornin, when de Lor
When de Lor pass by, and invite me to come,"
Chanted to one of the barbaric refrains, so often heard on
the plantations, and stayed his hand. The next moment the singer same in sighta
negro, as I had thought. He would have passed us without seeming notice, but Delacroix
stopped him, saying, briefly,
"We are Union officers, runaways from Richmond;
weary, starving, and in want of a hiding-place. Will you help us?"
A sudden gleam lighted up the mans dark face.
"Sartain, masr. De Linkum men fight for poor
nigganigga help when he kin. Dis chile hide masr safe as ef he be in
"And if he betrays us"
"Ill blow his brains out," returned
"Small consolation that."
"It is our only chance, at any rate, and besides the
sky wont fall. He is honest."
But for all that he watched him like a cat. At the first
suspicious move our colored friend would have found short shrift. I had my hand on my
knife, and Delacroixs revolver was in dangerous readiness. As yet, however, there
was no need for action. We met not a soul, and guiding us to a fodder-house, he assured us
that we might rest there at ease till dark.
We were so dead tired that we scarcely waited for the end
of his assurance before we threw ourselves on the floor and were off asleep. From a rest
as deep and sweet as the peace of Heaven I was startled by a hand on my shoulder. My knife
was out on the instant.
"Cut de pone, masr, not me," cried our
negro guide, retreating in some alarm. He had brought us some corn pones. We fell on them
like starved wolves, and then off to sleep again, till the dark made it safe to recommence
our journey. Our guide did not take the road, however, but struck across toward what we
recognized as the colored quarters of a plantation. "Supper first," he observed,
sententiously, ushering us into one of the low wooden buildings. We had expected solitude
and silence, and got a shock. The room was crowded, and fresh comers pouring in every
"It is a trap!" cried Delacroix. "We are
"Masr too quick," answered our guide;
"dis am a spression ob de feelin in de cullud brest, dat all. Ebery one,
big and little, come to bress de Lorand de brave Linkum ossifers. Hercules, gib de
gemmen seats; you, Cesar," to a little grinning twelve-year old imp, "quit dat
yer. Git de oder little chaps and deflect youselves as pickets. Sojer march rounand
roun, gun on he shoulder: hold he head so high. Cant eben see poor nigga, he
sech great man. O Lor! tink de nigga no count; neber tink we hab pickets too,
and de Linkum men right under he nose, he! He! Sue, push dat yer chicken dis way. Lizy,
gib us de pone and milk. Don stan nudgin and winkin. Step about
gals, be spry.
It was plain that this was a man in authority, though how
much was due to calibre, and how much to a ragged military coat, minus the buttons, and a
hat, curiously jammed and broken, was too delicate an analysis for men in our condition.
The room was crowded, for the news of our hiding had gone from mouth to mouth through the
entire plantation, and every soul was there to welcome us. There was little or no noise;
but the intense, thrilling excitement on every dusky face was a thing not soon to be
"Telled ye so!" cried one old woman;
"allers said de good Lor hear de groanin and sighin sometime. Oh!
chilen, I pray night and day all dese yer years sence dey sell away my little Sue.
O Lor, make dem like a wheel; and ole Sam, he say dat a debils prayer;
but I hearn it in de Biblehearn Masr Arnold read it he ownself; and now, sure
enuf, de Lor hab make em no countjest like a wheel rollin,
rollin, cant fin no rest till dey roll straight down to eberlastin
ruin; and de jubilees comin and de Lor bress dese men dat bring it. De
Lor ob glory keep em safe;a nd oh! masr, tell de good Linkum men strike
hardhes groanin sech a weary time."
She was interrupted by our guide, who plainly thought his
prerogative in danger.
"Dats enuf, ole Susan. Curus how womens
tongues kin run. Time to sperse, laides and gemmen, and, member now, no noise. Now
ef masrs ready"
The sentence was completed by a sudden dropping of his
military coat and dignity together, placing him at once in his former light of an every
day member of society. The remainder of our journey had in it little of adventure. Our
guide led us around the pickets, moralizing all the way on, "He hold he head so
hightink nigga nocount," and ferried us across the Mattapony. Here we
were given into the keeping of another negro, passed a damp but monotonous day in the
woods, were treated to another plantation supper; then another day hiding, another night
in pushing through morass and forest, another guide. As good old Bunyan has sit, "we
were bemired to purposewere torn and foot-sore; but at last we reached the
Rappahannock. There our guide left us, and there we passed a day watching men oystering in
the river, and wishing for a few of them on shore. The programme was simple now. We had
only to wait till midnight, take one of the gun-boats; but oh! those hours of chilled and
The friends who welcomed us with open arms gazed at us
with a sort of terror, so wan, ragged, haggard, ghastly, was our appearance. Delacroix
looked at least five years older; while Ibut small marvel if I have changedI
have always in my ears that moaning voice, "Tell him that his brother Jem starved to
death on Belle Isle!" I have the vision before me night and day of that writhing
frame, that lone, raving agony; and there are thousands more to freeze and starve! God
design © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC
Images, logos, and all other content © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC., unless otherwise noted.
Please report problems to firstname.lastname@example.org