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Prison Life in Andersonville By John L. Maile Characters: 7176

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

At the time of our incarceration in Andersonville, the crisis of the war of the rebellion was reached. General Grant was fighting the great battles of the Wilderness in Virginia; the investment of Petersburg was about to begin, and General Lee was resisting the impact of the Federal forces with unsurpassed skill and heroism. General Sherman was also hastening his preparations to penetrate the vitals of the Confederacy by his famous "March to the Sea."

Skirmishes by the contending forces were of daily occurrence, and frequently battles were fought that now loom large in history. To bury the dead was not difficult; but the care of the wounded was a grave concern to both armies. An affair of still greater magnitude was the gathering up of the captured officers and soldiers, the transporting of them hundreds of miles, and the placing of them in prisons for safe keeping.

The Confederate authorities adopted a simple and logical plan. Foodstuffs for their armies could not be gathered in war-swept Virginia, nor to any great extent from the border States. In Georgia and Alabama, in parts of the Carolinas, Mississippi and Louisiana faithful slave labor produced an abundant supply of rice, corn and bacon, sweet potatoes and beans.

To transport these bulky materials to the armies of Lee, Hood and Johnson required every locomotive and freight car that could be mustered on Southern railroads. Hence the northward-bound trains were heavily laden. Those going southward were empty, and were available to carry away the thousands of Union prisoners. At several points in the South Atlantic and Gulf States, stockade prisons were set up, notably that in Southwestern Georgia, named after an adjacent hamlet, "Andersonville."

This celebrated place of confinement for Federal prisoners below the rank of commissioned officer was located about sixty-two miles from Macon. It consisted of a stockade made of pine logs twenty-five feet long, set upright in a trench five feet deep, inclosing some sixteen acres, afterwards enlarged to twenty-six acres.

This inclosure was oblong in form, with its longest dimension in a general north and south direction, and had two gates in its western side, near the north and south ends respectively. It was commanded by several stands of artillery, comprising sixteen guns, located at a distance on rising ground. From four directions the guns could sweep the prison interior with grapeshot or shells.

A line of poles was planted along the lengthwise center of the pen. We were informed that if the men gathered in unusual crowds between the range of the poles and the north and south gates, the cannon would open upon us.

A report was circulated among us to the effect that General Sherman had started an expedition to release us; and we were informed that if his troops approached within seven miles of the stockade the prisoners would be mowed down by grapeshot. The fact is that one of his generals proposed a sortie that never was made. "About July 20, 1864, General Stoneman was authorized at his own desire to march (with cavalry) on Macon and Andersonville in an effort to rescue the National prisoners of war in the military prisons there."

Outside and against the stockade platforms for guards were placed two or three rods apart, and were so constructed that the sentinel climbed a ladder and stood waist high above the top of the wall and under a board roof, which sheltered him from the sun and rain.

Each of the guards faced the vast mass of prisoners and was ordered to closely watch the dead line before and

below him half way to his comrade on his right and left.

The "dead line" formed a complete circuit parallel to the inside of the stockade and about twenty feet therefrom. It consisted of a narrow strip of board nailed to a row of stakes, which were about four feet high. "Shoot any prisoner who touches the "dead line" was the standing order to the guards. Several companies from Georgia regiments were detailed for the duty, and their muskets were loaded with "buck and ball" (i. e., a large bullet and two buckshot). The day guard at the stockade consisted of one hundred and eighty-six men; the day reserve of eighty-six men. The night reserve consisted of one hundred and ten men; the outlay pickets of thirty-eight men.

A sick prisoner inadvertently placing his hand on the dead line for support, or one who was "moon blind" running against it, or anyone touching it with suicidal intent, would be instantly shot at, the scattering balls usually striking others than the one aimed at.

The intervening space between the wall and the dead line was overgrown with weeds, and was occasionally tested by workmen with long drills to ascertain the existence of tunnels. In attempting to escape by this means the prisoners endeavored to emerge at night some distance from the stockade and take to the woods. To frustrate such attempts, which would inevitably be discovered at roll-call the following morning, man-tracking hounds were led by mounted men on a wide circuit around the prison, with the well-nigh universal result that the trail was struck and the fugitive taken.

Later a stockade was erected parallel to the first, and some ten or twelve rods beyond. Tunnels could not be carried so far with the means available. They were dug with knives and the dirt was taken out in haversacks or bags drawn in and out by a cord. The work of digging was usually carried on at night. During the day a sick man lay over the tunnel's mouth in a tent or under a blanket. That the roll-call sergeant might not discover the fresh earth, it was sifted early in the morning from the pocket and down the trouser leg of a comrade, who walked unconcernedly about. The little grains of earth which he dropped were soon trodden under foot.

To increase the difficulty of tunnel escape, slaves and teams were employed to build piles of pitch-pine along the cleared space beyond the outer stockade. At night, when these were lighted, a line of fires was made which illuminated a wide area. From these fires arose columns of dense smoke, which in the sultry air of a midsummer night hung like a pall over the silent city of disease and starvation. Yet the city was not wholly quiet, for undertones of thousands of voices that murmured during the day at night died away into the low moans of the sick and the expiring, or rose into the overtones of the outcry of distressful dreams. In the edge of the gloom beyond the fires, patrols paced to and fro until the dawn. Every evening the watch-call sounded, "Post number one, nine o'clock and all is well." This cry was repeated by each sentinel until it had traveled around the stockade back to the place of starting. "Nine and a half o'clock and all is well," was next spoken, and likewise repeated. Thus every half hour from dark to daylight the time was called off, and this grim challenge greeted our ears every night until the survivors bade the Confederacy good-bye. Not that our captors benevolently wished to increase the sense of the shortness of the time until our release, but to be assured that the guards were keeping awake.

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