SWIGGETT - THE BRIGHT SIDE OF PRISON LIFE

C H A P T E R   V I I .

EVENTS.

 

A noteworthy and impressive feature of our stockade life should not be overlooked. I refer to the religious services held regularly by many of the prisoners. On every Sunday morning a crowd would gather in one corner of the stockade, and men representing numerous religious creeds would meet in unison to worship Him.

Much religious enthusiasm was frequently manifested at these meetings. Many professed conversion, and a number of backsliders were reclaimed. The experiences related by those who had been raised amid Christian influences were particularly interesting. With tears in their eyes men would relate how they had received the parting blessings of pastor, wife, parents and other loved ones, only to come to the army and be surrounded by irreverent comrades. They would tell how hard it had seemed, to be deprived of the help and consolation of regular and customary religious services in the midst of such surroundings, and how much harder the trial had been when the change to prison life had taken place and the separation from home had become total; the recital, an earnest assurance that religious faith was a great consolation in time of adversity, and a stirring appeal to others to have faith that He did all things well, being sufficient to awaken dormant feelings in some, to inspire new thoughts and resolutions in many and to cause all to feel more resigned. No doubt as to the support and consolation afforded by religious faith could have existed in the mind of anyone observing the earnestness and fervor of the leaders in these gatherings.

The religious exercises were not sufficient, however, to suppress the natural inclinations of most of the prisoners to gamble on the slightest provocation; in fact, the confinement and the necessity for doing something to kill time were the means of increasing the ordinary tendencies in this direction.

In ordinary army life it was a common thing, during most any halt, to see "keno" and "chuck-luck" games going on. The halt would scarcely be called before "chuck-luck" boards would begin to appear from knapsacks here and there and rubber ponchos be spread for "keno" games. Five minutes later one could scarcely look in any direction without seeing games of chance in full blast. The prison certainly witnessed more of this in proportion, as the dealers were not reformed in the least, and the gullible ones were as numerous as ever, while the victims of the mania for trying to gain much for little, with the chances all in favor of losing more, were increased by the causes mentioned and from the rebel guards who were allowed to remain within the stockade. After roll-call each morning a dozen or more games would be called in as many different parts of the prison, and an interested crowd would soon be gathered around each game in the open air to watch the betting, which would, at times, cause quite an excitement.

Lieutenant and Adjutant McCann, of the prison guards, always took a lively hand in these games, and he could be seen almost every morning squatting down or sitting flat on the ground, where he could partake of the excitement of "bucking a sure-thing game." One morning, while he was intently engaged in this occupation, some waggish prisoners quietly appropriated his revolvers without his being aware of the transaction; to slip them from the belt being an easy matter when he was in such a posture and so much interested in trying to "break the bank."

When McCann "went broke" himself he left the stockade, still without noticing his loss, but it was not long before he became aware of the theft and indulged in some righteous indignation. He gathered a detail of guards and returned to the stockade, demanding the return of his pistols. Of course, no one had seen them, and not a soul in the enclosure knew anything of them.

The suggestions and remarks, together with the adjutant's ire on this occasion, made the scene an amusing one, but it soon took a serious turn. One of the prisoners would suggest that the officer had lost his "guns" in the woods before entering the stockade; another would remark that his own men were no better than others, and that some of them had probably "cramped" the weapons; the next would suggest that he might find the pistols in his own quarters if he looked more carefully; and the men kept this up until the officer became nearly frantic with anger. He made numerous threats, but they were insufficient to cause the surrender of the lost revolvers, and no suspicion of any particular parties could well exist under the circumstances, as any one of the 6000 prisoner might have been the malefactor.

The fact that two good revolvers were in the hands of the prisoners was not one calculated to cause indifference on the part of the rebels, as untold trouble might result; so, after a council of war at headquarters, it was decided that cutting off the rations of the entire crowd within the stockade until the missing articles were found would probably inspire the prisoners with better sight, and we were informed that unless the pistols were surrendered within twenty-four hours we should have no more to eat after that time until we discovered and returned the adjutant's armory.

This action was regarded as a "bluff" by the prisoners, and, after a general discussion, it was decided that our sight could not be improved by such methods; but when we had fasted for twenty-four hours, and the beef and meal wagons had failed to put in an appearance at the regular time, we concluded that the rebels meant business, and it was not long until someone discovered the lost revolvers, when our guards were advised as to where the weapons could be found.

The surrender of the adjutant's arsenal put an end to an amusing and exciting episode, but it also ended the "keno" and "chuck-luck" games, so far as the guards were concerned, for their commander forbade any of them remaining within the stockade after roll-call. The adjutant never recovered his lost temper -- that is, while we knew him, and was a cross officer after this occurrence. Whenever he would enter the stockade, subsequent to his disarmament, someone would shout "keno," and the cry would be taken up by a thousand voices. This did not help him to forget the revolver incident, and, naturally, did not improve his temper.

"Keno" was also a watchword to notify anyone engaged in tunnel-digging or other contraband work that it was hazardous to proceed at the time, and by the time any officers or guards entering the stockade could reach any suspected point all unlawful actions would be stopped and any traces covered.

We had a tunnel started in a cabin, the mouth of the hole being sunk in the fireplace. Whenever the watchword, "keno," would sound the digger would hurry out, a false bottom would be set in the fireplace and hurriedly covered with ashes and burning wood, and all evidences of the work effectually hidden from sight.

This tunnel-digging was slow work, as a case-knife was the most effective tool which we possessed, and all the labor of shaping the hole had to be done with this inappropriate implement. Our method of removing the dirt could not be called primitive, inasmuch as the means employed were of neither ancient make nor style, but the device certainly was not of the timesaving kind. A cigar-box, with a string attached, was the vehicle for conveying the dirt from the interior of the works to the surface of the ground, and every ounce of dirt that was loosened by our improvised excavator had to be removed by this apology for a tram car. When the loaded car came to the mouth of the tunnel it was carefully conveyed to some old hole in the neighborhood and there dumped, light dirt sweepings from the ground being scattered over the fresh soil from the tunnel. The lack of speed in the work was offset; by the corresponding amount of care that was taken in doing it.

There was every reason in the world for believing that our tunnel would become a success, and it would have done so had it not been for the action of some traitorous prisoner, whose identity never was discovered. This man, whoever he was, had good reason to thank his lucky stars that we were not able to locate him.

Some miserable coward informed the rebels of our work, and, after repeated surveys, they managed to swamp the enterprise, catching the digger, who then happened to be Abel Crow, in the tunnel. Crow was taken outside and made to mark time for hours in the effort to compel his betrayal of the others interested with him in the work. When the guards thought he was about tired out they would question him as to who were his helpers, but he was true blue. He stuttered a good deal under ordinary circumstances, and, when excited, could scarcely be understood by anyone not used to his manner of speech. His uniform reply to the questions asked was:

"M-m-m-my n-n-n-na-na-n-na-name is A-a-a-ab-a-ab-el-Abel Cro-cro-cro-Crow, and I d-d-do-do-don't kn-know any b-b-bod-y else."

The rebels tried to get this man to say more, and they kept at him until forced to give up the attempt as a bad job, when they complimented him upon his grit and sent him inside without further punishment.

The tunnel had reached fully thirty feet beyond the fence and picket line when the work was stopped, and Abel told one of the guards who were assisting him to mark time during the attempt to learn the names of his co-workers that he could stop work in the tunnel and plainly hear the guard's "One o'clock and all's well," which he knew to be a d--d lie, further informing his listeners that if they had not been in such a d--d big hurry the job would have been finished in about two more days and nights and many of the prisoners. would have handed in their resignations.

The statements of Crow to the guard were made in his own stammering way, which must be imagined by the reader, with the assistance of the illustration given of Abel's ability for speech-making, and his combination of frankness and reticence made him no enemies.

Of the disappointment consequent upon the failure of this tunnel to reach the outer world at the proper time and place little need be said. It was only one of many failures, and while the progress made had encouraged a very strong hope, if not expectation, of success, the result was not so exceptional as to cause despair. All who had had confidence in the success of the scheme were naturally a little crestfallen, but we still continued to nourish hopes of a different result in some other case.




 

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3/19/2001