From the New York Times, 3/8/1891
HUNGRY DAYS AND NIGHTS
FOOD A SUBJECT OF CONVERSATION AND OF DREAMS.
HOW LIBBY PRISONERS FARED AND THE COST OF VICTUALS - MERCHANTS EVEN THERE - THE DISAPPEARANCE OF A HAM.
Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
In writing my reminiscences of Southern war prisons, I have given the incidents in something like chronological order. But, before going on to describe the building of and the escape through the famous Libby tunnel, it may be well to state certain facts about which I have often been questioned by friends who learned of my imprisonment. Officers who gambled in the army did not lose their love for games of chance in Libby Prison. These men were in the minority, but the few packs of greasy cards in their possession - how they got them I cannot pretend to say - were in pretty constant use - and poker was as fascinating to its votaries within those gloomy walls, more so perhaps, than if played in the most luxurious “card parlor” of New York City.
Money? No, there was no visible money, but wooden chips were used in lieu of ivory ones, and the losers gave notes or orders, on their pay to the winners. Some men, and these the men who could least afford it, had not only lost their back pay, but pledged their “honor” for large sums, and with such men “a debt of honor” contracted at a gambling table is even more obligatory than a debt of duty. It was reported that one expert at poker had won from his fellow-prisoners over twenty thousand dollars, the greater part of which, I am told, he collected at the close of the war.
In striking contrast with the narrow selfishness of the poker players was the great good done by “The Libby Minstrels.” This troupe had been organized by Capt., now Col., Maas, of the Eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, then a resident of Reading, and now, I believe, a clerk in the Philadelphia Custom House. Capt. Maas was a quiet, unobtrusive man, but he had the talents - every prisoner in Libby certainly believed so - of a first-class comedian. He was a wonderful mimic, a master of the negro and Pennsylvania Dutch dialects, and he could tell a funny story and sing a comic song in a way that made the listeners forget for the time their hunger and their rags.
Capt. Chandler of New York - I cannot recall his regiment at this moment, but I hope the brave fellow is living and well - had a violin which he had bought from the Confederates when money was more plentiful and the rules less strict. In his line Capt. Chandler was an artist, and the belief was very general among the prisoners that he was better than Paganini at his best, and that he could have given any living fiddler points and then beaten him with the greatest ease.
Among 1,300 men, some of whom had been actors, and all of whom were eager to further and maintain the enterprise, there was no trouble in organizing a minstrel troupe of a superior class. Beef ribs supplied the bones, and these were the most conspicuous instruments in the orchestra, Chandler’s fiddle and Maas’s extemporized banjo comprising the rest.
The entertainments were given at night in the cook room. The tables were arranged at the Casey Street end, so as to make a stage; blankets were tacked up for scenery, and charred wood from the stoves supplied the place of burnt cork, and gave the actors an appearance of the genuine thing. A majority of the audience stood in a solid mass, the shorter men up front and the taller ones to the rear. As a printed programme was out of the question, “the interlocutor,” who acquitted himself with professional dignity, always announced the changes, and there was a very general belief that to save the tax on his memory he made them up as the performance went on. Songs, sentimental and comic; dances, principally comic; stump speeches, broadly comic; railroad collisions with nothing tragic in them, and jokes - old, but all the better for that - constituted the principal features.
Many of the Confederate officers came in to these entertainments, and their presence was always made the occasion for war jokes and satire against the prison management, which they had the sense to take good-naturedly. As there were no ladies in the audience, many of the stories had what Thackeray calls “a strong garrison flavor,” but it should be said in justice to the performers, to whom we were indebted for so much pleasure, that they were broad without being vulgar and humorous with being obscene. The audience lent a hand by asking the interlocutor questions and joining in the choruses. I recall the following conversation between a tall man at the back of the room and the manager on the stage:
Tall Man - Brother Johnsing, may I ask a question?
Brother Johnsing - Before I replies to dat ar’ proposition I wants some information, Sah.
Tall Man - What is it?
Brother Johnsing - Did you buy a reserved seat, er is you a deadhead?
Tall Man - A deadhead, I’m happy to say.
Brother Johnsing - Fire away, Sah, deadheads am privileged folks in dis building; dey are de on’y ones kin leave it widout bein’ exchanged.
Tall Man- Ain’t you hungry?
Brother Johnsing - Monstis hungry; has yeh found anything to eat?
Tall Man - If Jeff Davis released you on condition that you did not take up arms again during the war, would you accept?
Brother Johnsing (in thundering tones) - No, Sah! I’ll allow Ize on’y a d-d nigger, but I ain’t got’s low as dat yit.
This declaration from the stage was greeted by three cheers, and “three cheers more,” followed by a tiger that might have been heard at the Executive Mansion on the hill.
I recall a snatch of one song entitled “Ham Fat,” that always made me feel hungrier, and which, as Capt. Maas sang it, was always accompanied by long-drawn “Ahs!” and the smacking of a thousand pairs of lips in concert:
“They took me in at Gettysburg upon a July day;
They confiscated all my kit, and trotted me away.
But when I get out of Libby I’ll go to Uncle Sam,
For he’s got the bread a-bakin’ and he frying ob the ham.”
Chorus - by full company and audience.
“Ham fat, ham fat - tinkleam a tan;
Ham fat, ham fat - how are you Sally Ann?
Oh, creep down to the kitchen softly ez you can,
For de meat is brown and sizzlin’ in the ham fat pan.”
These minstrel entertainments were always through before the guards announced 9 o’clock and shouted “Lights out.” At the close the performers came to the front and one or sometimes a quartet, would sing “Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” “We Are Coming, Father Abraham,” “Glory, Hallelujah,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every man throwing his voice into the chorus in a way that stirred the heart, and reminded the Methodist prisoners “powerfully of camp-meeting times,” so one of them expressed it.
Sometimes two or three courts-martial were under way at the same time in Libby, and they were conducted, if not with the solemn decorum of the genuine thing, with marked ability, for the legal profession was well represented in prison, and it was surprising how many of the lawyers were clever speakers. One peculiarity of these courts was that no matter how strong the evidence or able the defense for the accused, he was invariably found “guilty as charged,” and one sentence was pronounced on every class of imaginary offender - “imprisonment for life - unless sooner exchanged.”
And here one of the saddest incidents of my Libby experience comes to my mind. One afternoon I was a member of a mock court that had before it for trial my friend, and the friend of all who knew him, Capt. Forsyth of Sandusky, who, with many of his regiment, the One Hundredth Ohio, was swept away in one of Longstreet’s fierce charges at Chickamauga. The Captain was, of course, found guilty, and I recall that the sentence was slightly varied in his case; it was, “And you shall be confined in prison till you die or are exchanged.” As these courts were organized to divert our thoughts and make us laugh, we laughed at Forsyth, little dreaming how soon the gallant fellow was to be “called” from Libby without exchange.
Col. Carlton and all the captured officers of the One Hundredth Ohio had their quarters in the north end of the Upper Chickamauga Room, as close to the barred windows as it was safe to get. Nearly every hour in the day the guards in the street below would raise their rifles to fire at the prisoners, who, in the surging throngs, ever moving to keep warm, were frequently thrown beyond the danger line. The guards were acting under orders, but they always shouted a warning, which was quickly heeded. It was the morning after the mock court-martial, and Forsyth and Lieut. Kelley of the same regiment chanced beyond the danger line. There was a guard below who had never fired at a Yankee in battle, or he would have given some warning of his purpose.
The crack of a rifle rang out on Carey Street. A death cry thrilled through the Upper Chickamauga Room, and a crowd of ragged men, trembling with horror and burning with indignation, gathered around two comrades prostrate on the floor. One raised the young Captain’s head to his knee, he was a comrade who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him in many a battle. He called his name, but the sound fell on the ears of one who had answered another call.
The bullet that pierced Forsyth’s brain and passed through it struck Kelley in the throat, and so great was the flow of blood that it seemed for a time that he, too, must die. Young Kelley belonged to the family after whom Kelley’s Island, in Lake Erie and not far from Sandusky, is called. Major Turner came up with a doctor and a guard, and Kelley was taken down to the hospital, where he recovered in a few weeks. The Captain’s body was carried down to the dead cart - and that was all. The guard, who was neither arrested nor relieved, said that when he raised his piece to warn the prisoners back “it went off by accident.” He had murdered a Yankee, but before the indignation of the veteran Confederates he did not care to boast of the deed.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to bring greenbacks into Libby had no trouble in disposing of them through Little Ross or Adjutant Latouche, at the rate of from fifteen to twenty for one. For my $100 I received $1,600. On the face of it this looks like a respectable sum of money, but even if its purchasing power had been greater, it would not have gone far where so many were in need. A people less proud and more prudent than the Confederates would have yielded to the inevitable before this. Their army was thinned out, their currency was nearly valueless, and food, even of the most essential kind, was fabulously high. While our money lasted we paid $10 a peck for white potatoes, $2 a pound for lard, slightly rancid; $5 a peck for cornmeal, $1 apiece for eggs - half of them bad; 75 cents a pound for flour, and $1 each for runty red onions; the latter were a great luxury. Coffee was away out of sight, better a luxury for free men and Presidents, and sugar, of a sticky, semi-molasses character was almost beyond reach.
The money was going down every day and the prices were going up, yet these heroic people clung to their cause, though even through the prison bars we could see that desperation had taken the place of hope.
I have often been asked to describe the feeling of prolonged hunger, but no man can describe a feeling, whether it be pleasureable or painful. It is possible to tell of the accompanying thoughts, but even here the most graphic pen would find itself almost at a halt. For weeks, aye for months, I have had, night and day, the sensation of an awful burning inside that water could not quench nor hard corn bread appease. Imagining that if the food could be made to rest for a while over that burning spot it might relieve me, I have gnawed at my corn bread, lying down, hoping that it would allay the intense craving; but the experiment failed, and, after it, I felt a keener agony for having my mind concentrated on the seat of the pain.
In my dreams - and this was the experience of others - tables piled high, not with desserts, but with juicy meat and mountains of white bread and flagons of milk and mounds of golden butter and pots of odorous coffee, would be spread out before me. Maddened by the hunger, still burning me in my sleep, I would reach out to eat, only to have the food elude my grasp. Then I would wake with a start to hear the ceaseless coughing of the long ranks on the floor, and to curse in my heart the guards, who shouted from their posts that “All was well!” Often in thinking of the happy days gone past, when full and plenty were before me at my own father’s board, I have called myself a fool for not having eaten more when I had a good chance.
I had one friend, named Von Klodt, whose imagination was so powerfully excited by his continuing hunger that he could talk about nothing but food. The Lieutenant was an Austrian officer who had come over here to learn war from experience. He secured a staff place for which he was well qualified, being a man of courage and culture, and withal a generous, kindly gentleman; but the poor fellow was captured. I could see him getting leaner and more ragged day by day, but he bravely tried to cheer me and himself up by describing the dishess to be had in the famous restaurants in Vienna. As he spoke about them, his blue eyes would enlarge and he would smack his lips as if he were enjoying the rare viands his imagination had conjured up. He would talk to me by the hour on that one subject. He had come to believe that eating was the one great purpose of life. Heaven - his heaven certainly at that time - was a place where the saints devoted themselves to Vienna cooking, and the angels did nothing but wait on new arrivals from Southern prisons. From the way he talked I was led to believe that if he ever got out and reached Austria he would resign from the Emperor’s service and devote the rest of his life - when he was not sleeping - to eating. As I recall these tantalizing talks with Von Klokt I actually feel hungry again.
Of all places one would think that Libby Prison would have been the last in which the commercial spirit that has added so much to the wealth of the Republic would manifest itself, but fidelity to the picture compels me to say that there were a few men in prison who made money out of the necessities of their fellows. Two of these men, who had come in with their greenbacks, exchanged them for graybacks and went into business. They messed alone, slept alone, and, with an eye to the main chance, they conducted business alone. They were established on each side of the door that led from the Lower Chickamauga into the Lower Potomac room. They had invested their money in white potatoes, red onions, tobacco, and wheat flour, and these articles they sold in driblets at much higher rates than the Confederates.
These fellows lived well, and they might have continued to prosper had not hunger been more powerful with some of the prisoners that their reverence for the Decalogue. One night a raid was made on these prison sutlers, and the next morning their stock in trade and their money were gone. After this they became as hungry and ragged as the rest of us. I feel pretty sure that the survivors from the Upper Potomac room could to-day name the principals in this brilliantly executed raid. I mention this selfishness because its rarity made it conspicuous among the many prisoners, who, in the main, were as self-denying and sympathetic as they were patriotic and brave.
Since my prison experience I have been strongly of the opinion that there is a limit to the temptation which even the strongest man can stand. This has certainly been my own experience, as the following incident will prove: Near the particular post that marked the place where two friends and myself tried to sleep under one blanket at night - it was in the Upper Chickamauga room - a solemn, saturnine man could be found at all hours, seldom moving, and always brooding over the situation. He was a regimental Quartermaster, and it was impossible to get him to talk, even about food or exchange, two subjects on which every other man in prison was ready to grow eloquent, prophetic, and imaginative at a moment’s notice. Like Dundreary’s bird, this gentleman, because there were no other birds of the same feather at hand, ‘flocked by himself.” When boxes of food and clothing were being received and delivered from friends in the North, ‘the hermit of the Upper Chickamauga,” as some of us called him, received a god supply, and as he never asked anybody to partake of his bounty, his luxuries held out long after the rest of us were famishing.
As a Quartermaster, this man had learned the art of caring for himself, and if he is living today - as is my sincere wish - he must be one of the richest men in Wisconsin, for he had a positive genius for economy. The last of his supplies remained in the shape of a ham, and this ham he kept suspended from a nail in the post directly over where I lay. Every morning he would cut off a slice and hurry down to the stove and cook it in a pan made of corn can, and he would save every drop of the gravy by sopping his corn bread in it.
The poorest man in the country to-day does not envy the richest the possession of his millions as I envied that Quartermaster the possession of that ham. When he went down to cook the precious slice I would follow him, just to inhale the odor. The perfumeries of all time never distilled anything more delicious than the smell of that frying ham. I saw it growing smaller day by day, and I used to speculate as to how long he could make it last. The peninsula of bone that connected the two rich continents of meat grew longer every morning. That ham, like the forbidden fruit to the first mother, gradually and irresistibly possessed me with a yearning to try it. I suggested to Capt. Edmund Dawn, who slept with me and was one of the leaders of the prison prayer meetings, that we raid the Quartermaster’s ham, but he shook his head and said “It wouldn’t be right.”
“If I - appropriate it, will you help eat it?” I asked.
“Well,” said my pious and gallant friend, “if Heaven was to send a little meat in my way about this time, I should eat it with thanks, nor ask where it came from.”
This declaration from so good an authority on ethics decided me, and I laid my plans accordingly. The next morning at daylight, when the guards came in to drive us into the Upper Potomac for roll-call, I remained under my blanket on the floor - no unusual proceeding on the part of prisoners.
A guard lifted the blanket with his bayonet and asked:
“Are you sick?”
“Yes, report me as one, but I don’t care to be sent to the hospital,” I replied.
The guard left, and as soon as his back was turned I sprang to my feet and plucked down the ham. Even in that moment of sin and greed I had some humanity left. I broke the bone on the floor and hung up the part with the end attached (it was the smaller) and the big, luscious lump I concealed inside my blouse, and then, afraid to look at the man I had despoiled, I hid my face in the blanket. In a few minutes the Quartermaster appeared, and such a roar and such a storm of profanity I never heard before, not even from a mule driver with a stalled team. He questioned me and I referred him to the guard. But he must have doubted me, for he asked: “Why in h-- didn’t he take it all?”
“I cannot pretend to explain the gentleman’s consideration,” I said, with a boldness that surprised myself.
Until the remnant of his ham was gone, the Quartermaster carried it about with him and slept with it.
As soon as I could do so with safety, I invited my own mess down to the stoves. I cooked every scrap of the ham and sopped the corn bread in the delicious gravy. It was not till the sumptuous repast was over that Capt. Dawn made any comment; then he drew his ragged sleeve across his yellow mustache and whispered:
“May God forgive you, Captain; but wasn’t it good!”