SWIGGETT - THE BRIGHT SIDE OF PRISON LIFE

C H A P T E R   V I .

INCIDENTS.

 

It was the custom of our captors to bring in guards and count us daily. Our town was divided into wards, and the men of each ward fell in at a certain place to be counted, several guards being assigned to each ward to do the counting, which was done by roll-call. We worked this roll-call in various ways to facilitate exchanges, having some man impersonate another who was dead and whose chances of exchange had been good, and covering up escapes by answering to names of those not present. I personally know of one case where a resemblance caused a living man to become dead and buried on the records, while he was carried on the rolls and subsequently exchanged under the name of the man who lead actually died. Several men escaped whose names were answered in person afterward by others, who took their place in line and then slipped back to their own places to respond to their own names. In this way a number of men were exchanged under the names of those who had escaped and whose absence had been covered up. This was possible, owing to the roll-call and the few guards who handled large numbers of men, but it was afterwards stopped by a numerical count when a few cases of doubt had occurred.

When the rebels started the new system of counting we used to bother them all we could by causing disappearances. One of the first attempts we made at this was to secrete about 150 men in the lofts and corners of the various buildings which then existed, as well as above the lower weight poles on the roofs of our cabins; the usual custom of hanging blankets to air on the eaves of our quarters enabling us to cover the men who were hidden there.

There was a great excitement, and furore when the count showed the shortage and apparent escape. Dogs and searching parties were sent out in all directions without avail, and the next morning it was more excitement when the count was in excess of the required number. We did this constantly, in a small way, although our fun was spoiled after the first large discrepancy, but it served to increase chances of escape by making the rebels pay less attention to a small shortage. They would not attempt to hunt through the stockade for a few men, and after a few cases of finding the missing ones at the next or the following count they could not be sure of an escape until too late to follow with any chance of success.

Exchanges at this time were considerably delayed by the trouble which resulted from the paroles given to the large number of prisoners at Vicksburg. These men were tired of fighting, had no desire to serve the Confederacy again, and not only refrained from again carrying arms against the United States, until regularly exchanged, but sought to avoid doing it at all by keeping out of the way of exchange.

In one of the boat fights on the Red river the rebels captured an army paymaster in citizen's clothes. He was sent to our stockade, was exchanged in due time and sent home, and I learned years after that he had had $150,000 of government money concealed on his person, which he had succeeded in saving and taking back with him.

In this day, when men seem to think it right to get all you can and keep what you get, you will find few like this paymaster.

There were all sorts of trades constantly going on between the prisoners and with outsiders. One of the most amusing scenes I ever witnessed occurred in the case of a farmer who bought a load of assorted truck to sell to the men in the stockade. He had a dilapidated old wagon and a sorry-looking specimen of a mule team, which he drove up to the enclosure and left in charge of his negro boy while he went to headquarters for a guard to escort him inside of our camp and protect him while selling his goods.

The rebels were too busy to give the desired attention to him as soon as he wanted it, and while he was waiting for the detail the guards at the stockade began helping themselves to the contents of his wagon, the negro driver, who was only about fourteen years old, having no ability to prevent the plundering. This made the owner furious, as he witnessed it from a distance, and he came over to the wagon, asking Adjutant McCann for permission to go in without a guard, saying that the prisoners would not steal as much as would the men who should protect him, and expressing his willingness to take his chances alone.

All this conversation was within the hearing of both prisoners and guards, and the adjutant, with a wink at the crowd, ordered the gate guard to permit the passage of the outfit.

A broad grin of satisfaction spread over the faces of all as the large gate swung open, and the crowd of about 500 prisoners that usually stood about the main entrance opened ranks to permit the passage of the wagon, the negro boy driving and his master, with an unmistakable air of triumph, standing erect beside him.

When inside of the enclosure the wagon was driven up our Broadway, the crowd closing in behind and following, and when the merchant and his rig made a stand on Market street he lead a crowd of from 1000 to 1500 customers around him, and trade opened up quite briskly, he exchanging his stuff for cash and such available trinkets as were possessed by the boys, putting his own price upon both the goods sold and the articles taken in trade. He was selling out at a rate which caused the money fairly to pour into his hands, and all went smoothly until he made the mistake of raising prices and getting too independent, when his troubles began.

When his talk and manners had given offense to many of the prisoners, and his unjustifiable prices had caused the disapprobation of all, some of the men began slyly to help themselves to small articles. Discovering this, he struck at one of them with his cane, which was snatched from him, whereupon he drew his revolver and swore he would shoot the first man who took anything more.

His lone pistol could not intimidate so large a crowd, and there was something so absurd about the idea that the men laughed in derision, daring him to shoot and promising faithfully to kill him and put him out of his misery if he did.

The poor little negro boy who held the reins was so badly scared that he almost turned white.

After a few exchanges of courtesy, during which the man was so impolitic as to arouse the anger of the crowd at his littleness and bravado, the linch-pins were quietly removed from the axles of his wagon, somebody started his mules, and, in a minute, he and part of his load had been dumped on the ground, amid the yells and shouts of the now excited men, and in less time than it takes to tell it his entire wagon and load had disappeared piecemeal, carried off to various parts of the enclosure and secreted, and he was left standing in the midst of a crowd that had only laughter and sarcasms for his tirade of abuse.

Finally, he became too personal, and then he was violently taken in hand. They took away his revolver, smashed his ancient plug hat, plundered his pockets of his receipts and generally maltreated him.

During the fracas some silver coins were scattered about in the crowd, and a general scramble took place for their possession, during which several heads were ornamented by other than the usual bumps.

When the crowd at last let the merchant depart he was the most bedraggled specimen of humanity that I ever saw.

The guard came in and dispersed the crowd, but there was not enough of his wagon to be found to be of any use, and he slowly and painfully walked out of the enclosure, leading one of his mules, while his boy followed close behind with the other, the master shaking his fist at us and indulging in a forcible, if not elegant, flow of language.

He got more from the boys than his whole outfit was worth before he began to overcharge and put on airs, so that no one felt sorry for him, while all enjoyed the scene of his downfall and spoliation.

After the trader had gotten outside of the stockade the rebel guards took up the matter, joking him severely and laughing at his troubles, consoling him with:

"You can go in without a guard whenever you please. The pris'ners 'lnot steal any more from you than we will!"

Colonel Allen, who, up to this time, had been in charge of our stockade and given us all the attention and comfort possible, was now removed, and a Colonel Borders sent to take care of us. We much regretted the removal of Colonel Allen.

Among the prisoners were a number of steamboat men, who lived by themselves and were called the steamboat squad. They were an unruly crowd and caused much annoyance. The 5th Kansas boys had a row with some of them, and one day the steamboat squad got together and came up to clean out the 5th. At once there was great excitement and we all feared a riot. The leader of the steamboat men was a big Irishman, and his loud-mouthed threats, together with the rough appearance of his crowd, seemed to indicate a hard time for the boys, while no one cared to interfere personally. The 5th was drawn up in line, armed with clubs, to receive the attack, but an officer proposed to settle the dispute by a single stick fight with the steamboat leader, which was hailed with delight by all hands. I do not propose to describe this battle, but everyone who witnessed it was surprised to see the big Irishman receive, in short order, an unmerciful drubbing, which settled what would probably have been a general fight if the two factions had come together; and thus we had some keen excitement to vary the monotony, while disastrous consequences were fortunately avoided by the presence of mind of one man, or, rather, by his skill with the single stick.



 

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3/19/2001