SWIGGETT - THE BRIGHT SIDE OF PRISON LIFE

C H A P T E R   V .

THE STOCKADE.

 

In about six days we reached our place of abode, which was about four miles distant from the town of Tyler, in a northeast direction, and on the side of the main road to Marshall. The stockade was called Camp Ford, and was situated in the midst of a section thickly covered with a growth of pine timber, the enclosure consisting of about six or seven acres in a comparatively open space, where the trees had been cut off. The trunks of from one foot to eighteen inches in diameter had been split in two, and cut so that they were about nine feet long. These had been sunk in the ground about three feet and one-half to make the fence around the prison, and the tops of these slabs were about the height of an ordinary man's eyes from the ground.

The enclosure had been recently enlarged, and there were no buildings in it except in the old portion, and these now stood in the northwest corner, where there was a beautiful spring, which gave an abundance of clear and good water. The stockade had two gates, the main entrance being on the north side and the other through the eastern fence or wall. The guardhouse was opposite the main gate, the headquarters of the rebels in a house over 100 yards down the road toward Tyler, and the hospital about 300 yards beyond.
We stood for over an hour, in all our glory, before the stockade, while the rebels looked us over and checked us off; then we were marched by details into our attractive future home.

My company was directed to the southwest corner of the enclosure, and assigned to quarters consisting of tree stumps, tangled oaks and scrubby pine brush.

Who can adequately describe the feelings which possess a man at such a time!

The remembrance of the patriotic inspiration, and hopes of glory, which actuated the enlistment; the recollection of how the desire for the comforts of life and the pleasures of home associations was suppressed in order that the country's need might be served; feelings of thankfulness that death in battle had not been the result; and then a self-questioning as to whether death would not be preferable to a long, dreary imprisonment; all combine to make one realize the extent of such a misfortune: but a man becomes more miserable when nursing his miseries, and the active employment of mind and body in attempts to remedy present evils is the best means of avoiding depressing influences; so most of us turned our attention to making the best of our situation.

The next morning we held a council, and at once set about laying out a town within the enclosure. Before night the place, if one could have lost sight of the enclosing fence, looked like a very young prairie town. We had regular streets laid out, including a boulevard, and the discussions as to names were as serious as if our town had been a future city. In the southeast corner of the stockade we reserved ground for a public square, where hundreds of men could be seen promenading each pleasant evening. On the south side of this square the sinks were located.

There was an unfinished cabin quite near us, which was partly occupied by old pioneers, and we bought a half interest in the structure. It had two rooms, one low side, and a shed roof. By patching up, one side of this desirable flat was made habitable, and several of us moved in and took possession. We got poles and some oak staves, which sufficed to make rough bunks. Our party consisted of seven officers of the 36th Iowa, and Lieut. John H. Hager, of the 120th New York, who was my berthmate. By the way, I think Lieutenant Hager was the most contented prisoner of the entire lot. He could sleep night and day. Notwithstanding the flies would swarm on him so thick that you could scarcely recognize him, still he would sleep, undisturbed except by sweet dreams.

The ground was staked out for the different companies and allotted to them, all being made as comfortable as possible.

Our party built a porch to our flat, the occupants of the other side joining with us. We got out, under guard, for the purpose of getting the material, and we soon had a protection from the sun before our residences.

I had had malaria for some time before being captured, and a chill every other day for about six months previous to the time of our unwilling visit to the Confederacy, but no chill had I felt since the day of our disaster. Account for it as you will, the facts remain. I was still very weak, however, and our long march had not helped my recovery. I remember that in building the porch to our abode I was scarcely able to carry my share of the brush. While the march had helped to weaken me, the excitement of it had sustained me, but I went to pieces when it was over.

The commander of the stockade at that time was a Colonel Allen, an ex-United States regular, and he was disposed to be as kind as possible to his prisoners. The first protection for the men was such as could be had quickly by throwing up bowers of brush and tree limbs, but Colonel Allen allowed us to go out under guard and cut timber for cabins, and in about six weeks we had completed cabins for all, thus being fairly well housed.

It is needless to say that all the prisoners had the fever of escape, but the chances were very few. Major McCauley, who lived next door to me, succeeded in getting away in a manner which will be spoken of later on.

Our town was soon one of 4000 or 5000 population and built like a Western boom city, avenues and streets being carefully laid off and appropriately named. We had lots of fun in naming some of these streets, and the lots were bought and sold in regulation style. We had a solid business street and efficient police regulations.

Before he left, my friend, Major McCauley, together with Jack Armstrong, a captain in a Kansas colored regiment, and several others, including myself, used to sit under our front porch spinning yarns, devising plans of escape and cracking the backs of a species of bug with a hard shell, which used to be prevalent about our quarters in those days. We planned a good many escapes, but could not hit upon the right method of getting away.
Colonel Allen and his wife were very nice people, and did what they could for us, but it was his business to keep us there, and, while many escaped from the stockade, very few got away.

In policing our enclosure they used a dump cart, which would drive in, be filled with leaves and other litter lying around and then be taken to a ravine outside and dumped.

We conceived the idea of using the cart as a means of escape, and forthwith set about carrying out the scheme. There were some prisoners among us from a Zouave regiment, and one of them was an innocent-looking boy. We enlisted his services, and he soon had the confidence of the cart-driver and was allowed to drive the cart around within the enclosure while it was being loaded. Selecting a favorable opportunity, Major McCauley and Captain Armstrong were laid in the cart and covered with leaves. The major's legs were too long, and, in drawing them within the limits of space allowed, his knees reared themselves so high that, when we had covered them as well as we could, there was very little covering on top. The captain was inclined to be corpulent and was full-blooded, so that, when the leaves covered him, he breathed heavily, and a close observer could notice a regular upheaving of the mass of leaves. We hoped for the best, however, and watched the progress of events with keen interest.

The cart finally started for the exit, and several of us made our way to a good point of observation.

By the time the vehicle had reached the gate the jolting over the rough ground, and the captain's breathing, had settled the leaves until, like the ostrich, the occupants felt secure with their heads covered, but were exposing telltale signs of their presence. McCauley's knees appeared above the leaves like mountain peaks above the timber, while the captain's stomach just showed, like the back of a porpoise above the water as he plunges.
An officer at the gate surveyed the cart, and we expected to see our friends hauled out, but he only smiled grimly and said not a word, while the cart proceeded on its way to the ravine.

We looked at each other in astonishment, and we could see the captain's stomach give an extra heave, evidently with a sigh of relief.

Our astonishment was soon changed to amusement as the officer spurred his horse toward the cart, and then stood quietly by, with a smile on his face, as the driver backed up to the ravine and prepared to dump the cart. A creak, a rush, a cloud of leaves and dust, a glimpse of two tumbling figures, and we saw our friends sitting in the bottom of the ravine, looking up wonderingly at the smiling officer on the bank, who said to them:
"Well, boys, where are you going?"

"To Camp Ford," replied Armstrong; "will you be kind enough to show us the way?" "Certainly; will you ride or walk?" said the officer, pointing to the waiting cart and the grinning driver.

"Thank you, but we'll walk if it is not too far," was the answer, and the two men limped back to the stockade, good-naturedly smiling at the laughter and jokes which greeted them from such of the inmates as had witnessed the escapade.

For some little time past I had been feeling miserable, my limbs swelling as if with dropsy and my appetite being very poor. I had begun to fear that I was likely to die, when Hiram Pratt, one of the members of my company, proposed a course of treatment which he claimed to have seen used with success in similar cases. After deciding to try his remedy, I was helped to the spring, disrobed and had the cold spring water poured slowly on my back for a few minutes. Almost instantly I felt some relief, and, with a daily repetition of the treatment, I soon became myself again. The cure was so complete that for fourteen months I was entirely free from all signs of the trouble.

Among the many schemes devised for escape from our prison were innumerable tunnel devices, and many of these were planned and worked upon, but nearly all the various workings were discovered in one way or another, and but one was a success, although many men escaped at different times in other ways.

The stockade was full of rumors about probable parole, and these stories, evidently prompted and encouraged by our captors to prevent attempts to escape, kept many of us from risking recapture, and possible death, by uncertain attempts to regain our freedom.

The Fourth of July was soon near at hand, and we asked permission to celebrate the day within the stockade. The consent being given, a number of us went out under guard and cut poles and brush, with which we built a large bower in our public square, as well as a. grand stand. When finished we had shelter for over 500, and an enthusiastic crowd gathered about the stand on the Fourth. Colonel Leek had prepared an oration, and Colonel Dugan had written an original poem for the occasion. We applauded both oration and poem; when several speeches were made by those among us who were gifted and inclined that way. Long before we had finished one of the men on the outside of the crowd got so excited that he took off his red shirt and raised it on a pole, amid the cheers, hoots and yells of those about him. Our captors promptly marched a squad of soldiers into the stockade and broke up our gathering giving as a reason that we had flown the American flag. This was not so. We had several flags among us, but were very careful to keep them out of sight.

While we had several flags, we knew that any display on our part of the stars and stripes would cause appropriation, and we possessed our souls with the knowledge that Old Glory was in no danger while kept in hiding.


 

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3/19/2001