DUGANNE - TWENTY MONTHS IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF

C H A P T E R   X L .

A DAY AT CAMP FORD.

LONG before daybreak the camp begins to stir. There is restlessness among our prison legions -- home-sickness, doubtless, in the souls of many sleep-locked hundreds of these ragged citizens. I hear the hum of voices arising out of morning's grey shadows; the crackling of new-lighted bivouac-brands ; the matinal twitter of red-birds. Presently the east reddens, and I see the morning star setting over yonder wooded hills outside of our prison-yard.

How royally the sun rises, atmosphered with golden mist, robed in purple haze of woodland exhalations! The camp is alive and vocal. A thousand voices call to other thousands. Tatterdemalions toll out of burrowing places, creep up from caverns, and emerge from hut-openings. Red-capped zouaves, wide-breeched; blue-bloused cavalry men, yellow-trimmed; all hungry-looking; sergeants with service stripes; jack-tars in poly-patched trowsers; wagoners in broad hats; barefooted cannoniers -- rank and file generally -- hatless, bootless, shirtless. They swarm out upon the main street; flow into crossways; jostle one another at cooking-fires; pass and repass, laden with fuel, rations, water-vessels. Another day begins.

I mingle in the throng that pours along "Fifth Avenue." I pass the "bakery," where an enterprising New Yorker sells his ten-cent leathery doughnuts and caoutchoue grape-pies for a dollar in greenbacks. I glance a moment at our "jeweller's" window -- where a corporal tinkers watche ; elbow through the crowd surrounding a lieutenant's turning-lathe, which whirls out chess-men at three dollars per set; peer into a door where sits a captain "editing" our prison-journal, "The Old Flag;" -- then reach the "spring," dash head and arms in water, comb tangled locks, and look about me.

"Motley's the only wear!" says Shakspeare, and in Camp Ford we agree with him. Such costumes never were beheld before, outside of Rag Fair or the "Beggars' Opera." I wish our Uncle Abraham, or Sam, could see this "sans culotte" procession marching up Pennsylvania Avenue. Such head-gear, from a zouave cap to rimless crowns and crownless rims, and tattered handkerchiefs, and wisps of straw! such effigies of garments! armless shirts and legless trowsers; bits of blankets tied about the loins; such patches, of every size and hue! such scarecrow figures of humanity! Their wives and mothers would not know them from the chiffoniers who rake out Northern gutters.

But they are all United States soldiers and sailors men who have met our foes on land and wave, brave rank and file of fleets and armies sacrificed by stupid commanders, and neglected in their misery by the power which should protect them. God bless them, ragged and rough as they are; for the fire of undying loyalty burns in their bosoms, and they love the "Old Flag," in spite of those who disgrace it!

I sit down at my "shebang" door, to the morning's sumptuous repast. I have corn-meal pan-cakes, with a treacle syrup made of melted sugar at eight dollars per pound in greenbacks. I have a slice of bacon, which cost two dollars per pound. I drink my coffee, made of burnt rye, and am abundantly filled. I watch the mice running over my verandah.

We grow used to both vermin and reptiles. There was a jovial "scare" one night, around the wide-mouthed fire-place of our "Big Mess." Stories and songs were current, with occasional jokes about exchange, while flaming logs roared cheerily; when, suddenly, a monstrous snake-head darted out upon the hearth, and presently a coil shot up amid the smoke and fire, surmounted by the crested neck and forky tongue. Our valiant soldiers of the Union sprang up wildly, and, for a minute's space, the serpent-visiter, a bull snake, five feet long, possessed that battle-field. The bipeds rallied, however, and attacked his reptileship with clubs and chunks of wood, driving him back within the fire-place, where he was soon despatched. This snake had chosen a hollow log for hibernation, where he lay all torpid till revived by scorching heat to crawl out, literally "from the frying pan into the fire."

In laying the floor down in my log hut, we unearthed a serpent of the kind called ground rattle. It burrows under the surface like a mole. One morning, I was awakened by a serpent of the house species, which pursued a little mouse into my hammock. I think the reptile seized the tiny fugitive in his jaws; for presently both fell upon a table under me, the mouse escaping, while the snake lay stunned an instant, and was killed by one of our mess.

Of copperheads, rattlesnakes, and hooded vipers, I saw many in the swampy neighborhoods of Camp Groce, but at Ford prison they seldom showed themselves within the stockade, unless brought in with our firewood. But of venomous pedipalpi and myriapoda we have many specimens. It is a daily chance to find a centipede upon the door-sill or the hearth. Some measure several inches, hard and horny, with a stinger like a rattle snake's tooth. An officer, lying in his bunk of a morning, felt a crawling, stinging sensation on his breast, approaching one of his arm-pits, then descending his shirt sleeve. Lying still and almost breathless, he had the presence of mind to loose his wristband very quietly. A centipede crawled down his arm, out at his wrist, and thence upon the blankets. The officer sprang out to the floor, procured a stick, and killed the animal. It was an old one, and had left its trail upon his breast and arm as legibly as if a line of dots were burned in the skin. The insect's "hundred feet," stung as they moved upon the cuticle, and left a crimson trace of smarting vesicles.

The scorpion, or stinging lizard, as we called it, is another of our insect enemies. Its quick dart from beneath a slab of wood, with curving tail erect, becomes quite familiar to us. I never heard of serious injury from the sting of one, although it is reported to inflict a fatal wound in August or July.

But from another member of the tribe Arachnida we have had positive evidence of noxious capabilities. The horrible spider, the tarantula, is an especial object of hostility, and our boys torment one, when captured, as sailors would a shark. They take good heed, however, to impale it with a pointed stick, before exciting its wrath; for the insect is a plucky one, and can spring upward vertically, to attack. It is a most repulsive object, with its crab-like mandibles and furzy claws, its dorsal hair, and bloated belly. When our prisoners first began to build their log buts at Camp Ford, they suddenly lost a comrade by some strange wound which he discovered on his neck. The surgeon said, it came from a poisonous bite, and tried to arrest the virus, but in vain. The neck swelled tumorously, and the poor man died. A short time afterward, in breaking earth for a new hut, on the ground where he expired, the diggers found an old tarantula; and no doubt remained that their unfortunate comrade had been bitten by it.

So much for our more malignant insectivore. As for beetles, bugs and aphides, there is no occasion to mention them. Prison-vermin are no respecters of persons in rags and tatters; and our corral-dwellers boast no extensive changes in their sheets or shirts -- poor fellows!

While I am still eating my frugal breakfast -- corn mush, rye coffee, and a cutting of bacon fat -- some one scrapes a salutation on the threshhold. It is "Old Tim," a gunboat man-o'-war's-man.

"Will yez plaze walk out here, sur?" says Tim, with a peculiar wink and head-jerk, in the way of invitation.

"What's the matter, Tim?"

"O, yez never nade ax, if yez just go wan fut wid me, sir! 0, begorra! it's the divil's own matther ye'll clap eyes on, sur!"

I rise from my tripod seat, and follow Tim to the main street. A press of blue shirts and blue blouses fills up the area near our meat-block. There is much excitement apparent in the crowd through which Tim makes his way, and I become convinced that "our army can swear terribly," when it finds occasion. I am sure that I bear a variety of expressions, designating persons and places unmentionable in Sabbath reading. Presently, gaining the front of officers, I behold the spectacle which gives rise to general curiosity.

The spot where I stand, with all the throng, is half way up the hill side on which our corral extends. The base of this declivity, as we know, is crossed by our lower stockade posts, and on the other side of those posts rises the eminence whereon head-quarters stand. Thus, while the rebels can look down on us, from the commander's house, we, on our part, can overlook the stockade and observe whatever passes outside. And now an incident is transpiring which possesses a novel interest for Northern men.


From a lithograph of a sketch made by James F. McClain
Courtesy of the East Texas Historical Association

Yet it is only a "nigger" wench, receiving customary flagellation.

Such, without doubt, would be the careless observation of a Southern gentleman or a Southern lady, who might cast a casual glance upon the scene. Custom makes all things commonplace. But to me, I must confess, and to rough Jack Tars and private soldiers standing round me, habit has not yet familiarized the sight of woman-whipping. Hence, a very honest vent of expletives, in plain vernacular, gives relief to some among us.

It is a rebel soldier who is doing the whipping duty; whether on a chattel of his own or one belonging to headquarters, we know not. The woman stoops, with lifted arms, holding her single garment, an old calico gown, rolled up above her head, exposing all her person from the shoulders downward, to the flogging. Quite apart from any log building, on an open hill-side, this rebel brute has dragged his helpless victim out into the view of Northern men. Compelling a poor slave to strip the clothing from her limbs, and hold it up at arm's-length, while he whips her, as no Northern man would whip a dog, this cowardly fellow seems to brave the indignation of our gallant boys, who fling out maledictions that, no doubt, are audible to him. We, on our hill, can hear the cracking of his lash as it descends on the back, and hips, and legs, and curls around the body of this shrieking woman! Black she is, and a slave; but she is of the sex that claims our mothers. No wonder that the blood boils in American veins, and that the hearts of men respond to a woman's cries beneath a Southern sun! I hear "Old Tim." emit some words that are neither pater nor ave; and presently he touches my arm.

"Sur," says Tim, "do yez know what I thought uv the nagurs whin I kim to Dixie Land?"

"What was it, Tim?"

"Throth an' I thought an' I said, God forgive me, that slavery was made for the nagur; an' a very good thing it was, in its place, more be token!"

"You thought that, Tim?"

"Faix, I did, Sur! An' do yez know what I think now, Sur?"

"What is it, Tim?"

"I'm bowld to say, sur -- as I said before -- that slavery is a good thing in its place, Sur; but its place is down there, sur! -- down there, wid the Southern Confederacy, an' Jeff Davis on top uv it, sur!"

Tim stamps with his foot on the ground, and points his dexter digits downward, with a significance unmistakable. And a murmur and swell of hard words all around us, in response to Old Tim, consigns the Southern Republic, if words could ever consign it, to the influence of a climate much hotter than the equator.

Meanwhile, the lash rises and falls with renewed strokes; the black back, loins, and legs of the slave-woman become striped with gules; her piercing cries ascend to the heavens, mingled with curses and threats from her rebel scourger.

I walk back to my cabin, marvelling whether such things have been daily witnessed on a thousand hill-sides during seventy years of our mission as a people.

The rebel-drum is beating roll-call. I hurry to the officers' line, which rests its right upon the western gate and stretches its long ranks within the stockade. Presently, the rebel adjutant rides in on horseback, followed by a score of guards with muskets, and their officers with lists of prisoners. The official greybacks then divide, each to a separate detachment of the Yankees. Then our names are read or spelled out by an intelligent "Southern gentleman," who is given to stammering, and makes hard work of the patronymics. Meanwhile, we are standing under a broiling sun, which tries the flesh of fat men and the temper of the leanest of us. But, at length, a welcome drum-roll gives dismissal, and the dress-parade is over. We are our own masters for the day, within the stockade lines.

The sun mounts higher. Everybody seeks a shelter. Our rations must be drawn, for beef comes in daily; but the messmate who is "cook" attends to this. Time must be killed till dinner hour, and so we look about for weapons to way-lay him with.

The noon heats come, but tempered by a pleasant northern breeze. Our green verandahs cast inviting shade. We gather at our doors, with books often read but still pored over. I loiter upon Shakspeare; dog-ear a fine-print Plutarch, lent to me by "a good Union man outside." Colonel Burrell comes up and chats; Major Anthony sits down to chess with me. I write awhile; then study tactics; then beget me to my hammock, swinging just outside of the log-house, under trellised pine-boughs.

A rebel orderly comes in with letters for a few of us. The disappointed listen, wondering why their letters never come. I get a Houston paper, and a crowd surrounds my doorway, waiting for the news. "Another victory for the South!" "Ten thousand prisoners captured by General Lee!" "Grant totally defeated!" "Washington to be attacked immediately!"

Cool comfort this in midsummer. It refreshes us. But nothing yet about "exchange." "O, bother on the lying secesh paper!" "Nothing about exchange!" "Bosh!"

We eat our dinner. Beef like shoe-leather. A "duff" or corn pudding, with molasses, at the moderate price of "thirty dollars in Confederate," per gallon. Rye coffee, and an after-dinner smoke, in wooden pipes, with Texan "tabac," at the rate of fifteen dollars per pound, in greenbacks.

Meantime, near my cabin, industry thrives. Next door, chairs are built on Teutonic pattern, by a German officer. Here, also, genial Captain Talley, whilom of the City Belle, with Captain Watts, whom he calls "Uncle John," is joining stools and scooping mighty wash-bowls out of pine slabs, and manufacturing a chess table, whereat I sit, in roomy-bottomed arm-chair, not long afterwards. In rear of this atelier sundry Western captains play fourhanded chess upon a double board of their own making.

Through our cabin window, latticed with a Venetian blind -- my own sole patent -- I can spy that gallant Buckeye, Major Berring [Bering], with his mess ; busily engaged in straw-plaiting for summer hats; while Captain Sowery [Sowry] times his fingers with a song, and Captain Cochrane trolls a rousing negro chorus. I bespeak a wide-brimmed chapeau, to wear with my new suit of clothes, which our French tailor is about to fashion from a regulation blanket of good butternut woollen.

Major Berring and two brave captains challenge to four-handed chess. We borrow the mammoth board, for this absorbing game, and presently fall-to. So fly the hours.

The sun declines, and locomotion recommences. We visit and make calls. Our youngsters practice at gymnastics in the central square, where turning poles and parallel bars have been erected. Wrestling trials are improvised among the men. A game of quoits goes on. The Kansas boys are playing at ball. More venerable prisoners sit and gossip in their arm-chairs.

We hear the thrum of stringed instruments. Our "fiddler," Captain May, is "entertaining ladies." Motherly Mrs. ALLEN is visiting our corral, with divers rebel dames and demoiselles in her train. They sit in wide arm-chairs of Yankee manufacture, chat with Yankee officers, and hear their Yankee songs, accompanied by Yankee fingers upon banjoes made by Yankee hands. Meantime our Yankee fiddler tunes his catgut, and anon he gives us "Sounds from Home" -- which draw the tears from eyes of rebel ladies. So the twilight finds us.

Now the moon rises, silver-orbed, in an unclouded field of blue. Our "secesh" visitors have gone, and Yankee instruments are struck to gayer measures. I hear Cyclopean Johnson, the engineer, out-calling for a dance. "Gentlemen, choose your partners! Forward two' Ladies change! All balancez! Promenade all!"

Dance on, poor prisoners! Cheat your hearts out of loneliness!

 

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12/18/2000