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Harper's Weekly 02/20/1864


IN THE “LIBEY.”

I could never think of Jem as dead, though I
certainly had no definite grounds for my belief to
stand on—in the very teeth, too, of the formidable
fact that all effort to find him—and many and strenu-
ous ones had been made—had thus far proved futile.
He had enlisted as a private—Jem had always a
dash of romance about him—and had thereby no-
thing to distinguish him in that awful mangled
heap at Gettysburg; and yet I could never fancy
his poor body lying under that mournful slab
raised for “the unknown,” though bankrupt of
reasons for my conviction.


So when I found myself at Richmond, with that
curious aptness of the soul for winnowing out the
few grains of good perdue in a whole harvest of
evil, my heart gave a quick upward bound at the
thought, “Perhaps I shall find Jem here”—Jem
was my younger brother, and my pet from petti-
coats up—otherwise the outlook wasn't too bright.


The rebels had made a dash on our hospital,
which was in about as good fighting condition as
the general run of hospitals, took fifty of our boys
out of their beds, among them one poor fellow,
Simms I think, with his leg just off, and their sur-
geons; probably by way of padding for an article
in the Examiner—I know of no other reason, as we
were all non-combatants, and they had already
mouths enough to feed—and there we were, hud-
dled together in the street, Eugene Delacroix, a
cool, resolute fellow, Robert Allan, and myself,
with our poor men lying all about, some groaning
and ghastly with pain, and the most merciless sun
beating down upon us, scorching out our very lives
as we stood there three mortal hours. Probably
some red tape was to be unwound somewhere—but
at last they brought carts into which they huddled
our sick and wounded and dashed off, jolting and
jostling them as they drove recklessly over the
rough pavement very much after the manner of a
butcher with a load of calves.


Allan said something about it and was immedi-
ately overhauled by the Chief of Police, the Provost
Marshal, and Heaven knows what all; and then we
were relieved by the Richmond authorities of what-
ever money we were so unfortunate as to have about
us, and marched with lighter pockets, if not hearts,
to Libey Prison. Then I began to look out for Jem
and got my first sup of disappointment. They had
placed us of course in the officers' room. Jem was
a private, and might be one of the hundred and
fifty tramping noisily over our heads, or in some of
the rooms below, or in some other prison; and in
either case he might almost as well have been in
Soudan for all hope of meeting him; or, and it was
my last hope, he might be in the hospitals, where it
was possible that we should be allowed to do serv-
ice. Delacroix suggested that.


The room, our future prison, was in the third
story and crowded, for there were already some two
hundred officers confined there. The air was stifling,
loaded with so many breaths; the hot glaring sun
beat in pitilessly at the broken unshaded windows,
added to which, at that moment, were the fumes of
the single stove allowed for the cooking of the ra-
tions. Ah! if the tender, white-handed mothers
and wives, if the gay girls dancing in Northern
ball-rooms could but have looked in this bare, cheer-
less, unceiled room, with unglazed panes at best,
and frequently only bits of canvas and strips of
boards nailed over the openings, unplastered walls,
unevery thing belonging to common decency or
comfort, I think their-merriment would have grown
half-terrible to them, and, through the sweet de-
lirious waltz-music, would sound out something like
a wail! Each day a certain number among us were
detailed for cooking and scrubbing service, and in
due course of time I had my turn at both, and fell
into it, I think, quite naturally; but I could never
get over my secret wonder at Delacroix when simi-
larly employed, he was so precisely the man that it
was impossible to imagine in any such predicament
—I had always an undefined notion that the laws
of nature contained a special clause for his benefit,
and that no dilemma would ever dare face him, much
less offer him its horns.


As for poor Allan he succumbed at once, and
went about in a very miserable way indeed, though
men of more calibre might be pardoned for being a
little down on their luck. There were put up bare
wooden bunks for about half of us; the rest must
sleep on the floor; pillows and mattresses there
were none—a blanket you might have if you were
fortunate enough to have brought one with you—
otherwise none. The rations were scanty; but
water, the muddy, brackish water of the James
River, was even more sparingly dealt out. I
thought of the old border-riders vowing candles as
long as their whingers to St. Mary when in a scrape.
I would have given one as long as the Bunker Hill
monument to St. Croton could he have interfered in
our behalf. Not specially heroic this, but still I
maintain worth the chronicling; for to keep up
good heart and firm courage, as the majority of our
men did, unwashed, unrested, half-starved, as we
soon were, and treated like dogs through long mo-
notonous days of a dreary and cheerless captivity,
needs more pluck—enduring pluck of the kind that
will bear a strain on it, than ever was required for a
forlorn hope.


Meanwhile the days crawled on—dragged is too
fast a word for prison time—and constantly I was
on the sharp look-out for fun. As Delacroix had
said, we soon obtained access to the hospitals for
Union soldiers, visiting them daily. They were
three in number, and from the first hour of our en-
trance I should have thought complaint a blasphe-
my. They used to bring there the poor wretches
from the tobacco factories and Belle Isle, worn al-
most to skeletons, sometimes with the skin literal-
ly dried on the bone, moving masses of filth and
rags, snatching at any article of food as they pass-
ed, groveling and struggling weakly for it like
dogs, many of them actually in the agonies of
death, taken there that they might be said to have
died in hospital. In one day the ambulance brought
us eighteen, and eleven out of them died; in fact,
we saw little but such sombre processions. We
had little medicine to give them, and no food but a
scanty measure of corn-bread and sweet potatoes;
and this for men down with dysentery and typhoid
pneumonia. These, too, were men in the last
stages of disease; hundreds more, fit subjects for
hospital treatment, were left on the island and in
the prisons for lack of hospital accommodation.
In the three Union hospitals the average of deaths
was forty a day. We lived in an atmosphere of
death; corpses were on every side of us. We did
what we could; but after all it was little more than
standing with our hands fast bound to witness suf-
ferings that we could not alleviate. I had done
looking for Jem. I hoped now that he was dead.
Better that his handsome head lay low among a
heap of unknown slain than to have been tortured
all these months in a Richmond prison.


Our own condition was not improving. The
weather was growing colder, and the wind whistled
most unpromisingly through our broken windows.
Stoves were put up, but no fuel was given to burn
in them; and sleeping on bare planks, without
mattress or covering, was getting to be a problem.
There was a falling off also in the matter of rations
—corn-bread and two ounces of rice now was our
daily allowance; added to this, daily brutality and
insolence on the part of the under-keepers, dead
silence from home, and the long, hopeless winter
setting in; but the edge of all this was blunted for
me by the hospital horrors. My very sleep was
dreadful with dying groans and pitiful voices call-
ing on those who, thank God! will never know how
they died.


One morning the ambulance had brought a load
of fourteen from the island, and when I came to the
hospital, a little later than usual, I found Delacroix
standing by the side of one of them—a young man,
judging from the skeleton-like but still powerful
frame—and old one, from the pinched and ghastly
face—a dying one, at all events. Used as we were
to horrors, I saw that Delacroix was laboring un-
der some unusual emotion. He was white to the
very lips. I understood why when he muttered in
my ear the word “Starving!” Low as it was ut-
tered, the poor boy caught the word.


“Yes,” he said, feebly. “It is quite useless,
gentlemen—no,” turning from the bread that De-
lacroix offered, “I loathe it now. For days and
days I have been mad for it. I have had murder
in my heart. I thought if one died the rest might
live. Once we caught a dog and roasted him, and
quarreled over the bits. We had no cover; we
lay on the scorching sand, and when the terrible
heats were over came the raw fogs and bitter wind.”


He stopped, seemingly from exhaustion, and lay
a few moments silent; then the pitiful voice com-
menced again.


“We were very brave for a while; we thought
help was coming. We never dreamed they could
go on at home eating, lying soft, and making mer-
ry while we were dying by inches. I think if my
brother knew— If ever you get back I charge you,
before God, find our Robert Bence, surgeon of the
—Maine. Tell him that his brother Jem starved
to death on Belle Isle, and that thousands more are—
Ah! just Heaven! the pain again! O Christ! help
me! have—”


The words died away in inarticulate ravings. He
tossed his arms wildly over his head; his whole
frame racked with the most awful throes. And
this was my poor boy; so wasted, so horribly trans-
formed, that I had not known him. His glazing
eyes had not recognized me. His few remaining
hours were one long, raving agony. He never
knew that his brother was by his side. I died over
and over again, standing there in my utter help-
lessness. I had never so thanked God as when his
moaning fell away into the merciful silence of death.


Delacroix, who had remained with me, vented
his grief and wrath in the bitterest curses; but I
was stunned. My grief was so vast that I could
not then fully comprehend it. There were in store
for me days of future horror, hours of sickening re-
membrance of his agony, of maddening thought of
that most awful and protracted torture; cold, hun-
ger, disease, despair, all at once; but then I waited
in silence till they had taken him away, with the
nine others dead out of the fourteen brought there
in the morning, and then went mechanically back
with Delacroix. It was after sundown, but the first
sight that saluted us in the prison was a row of
pails and brushes, and the keepers detailing the
officers for the duty of scrubbing. At that Dela-
croix burst out, angrily,


“How the devil do you think we are going to
sleep on these floors after they are scrubbed, and
without fires to dry them? Is your Government
trying to kill us with sleeplessness, since it can't
starve us out? Already we have walked all one
night this week, because lying down was impossi-
ble.”


The keeper turned, with an ugly grin on his
brutal face:


“Since you are so delicate you can try the dun-
geons for a day or two. You won't be troubled
with scrubbing there; and you will find the com-
pany that is fit for a Yankee—in the vermin.”


So Delacroix was marched off to the dungeons,
as poor Davies had been the week before, though
scarcely over the typhoid fever—as Major White
and Colonel Straight have since been, and many
another hapless officer, for a trivial offense or none
at all. They kept him there three days in that
noisome hole. He came out looking a little pale,
but plucky as ever. The spite of a brutal man is a
hound that never tires. The keeper watched his
opportunity, swore that he saw Delacroix looking
out a window (this high offense was punishable
with death), and put him down again—for four
days, this time. Then we got another turn of the
hand-screw. We were no longer allowed to attend
the hospitals. Delacroix's eyes flashed.


“There goes the last obstacle to escape. While
I thought I could be of use to our poor fellows here
I would not go; but now—I have had plenty of
time to think down there, and I have thought to
purpose. I have a plan. If you like you can try
it with me; if not, I go alone.”


To know how sounded that word “escape” one
must first have realized a prison. The risk was
enormous, and failure meant the damp dungeons
of the Libey, of which Delacroix gave no alluring
description. The plan, however, was feasible. By
agreement each managed to secure a sleeping-place
near the door, and when all was quiet stole out,
shoes slung about our necks, to the upper story,
where was a sky-light, through which we were soon
out on the roof, and in present possession of our
freedom, though it was to be regretted that it was
so many stories high. We went straight to the
end of our roof, Delacroix, in his walks, having
noted that the second building above us was emp-
ty; but the adjoining house, unfortunately, was a
two-story building, so that we were forced to de-
scend by help of the lightning-rod, which Delacroix
did well enough, going down hand over hand with
the ease of a cat; while I, less agile, met with one
or two slips, and came down with a final thump,
which should have startled the guards below, but
did not, luckily for us. Then we found ourselves
on a level with the third-story window of the next
house—the empty one.


“But how if it shouldn't be empty?” I whis-
pered.


“It is empty,” returned Delacroix, energetical-
ly, leaning across the little chasm of division to
open the sash. “Now, will you go first?”


In I went—bare floor—empty rooms—open doors;
that looked uninhabited, at any rate. Delacroix
followed; and then we began to make our way
down in the Egyptian darkness, getting several
stumbles, and nearly breaking our necks on the
last flight of stairs—a most villainous one. The
lower door was bolted, but, being on the inside, it
proved no such mighty matter to open it. Then
there was a cold, damp rush of air, and we dimly
made out that we were in a small back yard, over-
looked by tall buildings, showing ghost-like against
the sky. The gate was locked, and we did not
stop to pry it open, but took the fence in gallant
style, and away! Scarce any one was stirring,
and walking leisurely through the dark and quiet
streets, by morning light we were well out of Rich-
mond; and now commenced the real perils of our
journey; first the brightning light, which urged us
to all possible speed in finding a cover. Delacroix
had a pocket-compass, and by it we struck a north-
easterly course, going on bravely till presently we
came plump on a fort—peril number two. “Down!”
whispered Delacroix, dropping on hands and knees
in the grass. I followed his example in all haste,
and so we wormed our way some hundred yards
onward. Suddenly Delacroix clutched my wrist.
Something was vibrating in the air—a dull, heavy,
regular sound, caught all the more readily from our
nearness to the ground, and with it a curious, faint
tinkle, growing nearer, sounding out loudly now
on the raw air. Both exclaimed, at the same in-
stant, “Cavalry, by George!” It was an even
chance whether they would ride us down or miss
us; but there was nothing left save to crouch lower
in the grass, and crouch we did. Doubtless some
sweet saint at home was praying for us, for the
chance proved in our favor. On they came, at an
easy gallop, spurs and sabres jingling, and chatting
carelessly; passed us, little dreaming who were
their neighbors for that moment; died away into
silence the echo of hoofs and tinkle of spurs. But
now daylight was a very positive affair indeed, fur-
ther travel too dangerous, and even Delacroix ad-
mitted, with a groan, that remaining where we
were was our only safety.


“Remaining where we were” sounds like ease
and rest—a peaceful phrase, in fact, conveying a
notion of repose; but it was a marvelously hard
thing to do. There was the probability of discov-
ery; then, spite of peril, we were in a very despera-
tion of sleepiness, and dropping off continually, to
wake up in a panic, fancying that our foes were
upon us. We were chilled to the heart; what
with night-dews, and raw air, the dampness of the
earth, and the enervation of our imprisonment;
and as the day wore on we grew ravenous as wolves.
Surely night was never before half so welcome,
though words have not in them an expression of
the difficulties of our way. The sacred soil stuck
to our tired feet as if it had been in the Secession
interest, and were all the briers sworn rebels they
could not have caught and torn us more persistently.
Once we floundered into a morass. “Courage,”
quoth Delacroix, “the Libey dungeons are worse.”
Twenty times over I should have lain down in a
sullen despair, had it not been for his undaunted
courage, pushing on spite of every thing, himself
included.


Daybreak found us in the “open,” quite out of
reach of any cover. A little ahead the road turned
sharply, cutting off our view, but both heard a sound
of singing, to which quick steps sounding out in the
frosty air kept time, and the singing and walking
grew every moment plainer. It was coming to-
ward us. Delacroix laid a hand on his pistols, but
I had already caught the words,


“Berry early in de mornin', when de Lor' pass by,
When de Lor' pass by, and invite me to come,”
chanted to one of the barbaric refrains, so often
heard on the plantations, and stayed his hand. The
next moment the singer came in sight—a negro, as I
had thought. He would have passed us without
seeming notice, but Delacroix stopped him, saying,
briefly,


“We are Union officers, runaways from Rich-
mond; weary, starving, and in want of a hiding-
place. Will you help us?”


A sudden gleam lighted up the man's dark face.

“Sartain, mas'r. De Linkum men fight for poor
nigga—nigga help when he kin. Dis chile hide
mas'r safe as ef he be in Washington.”


“And if he betrays us—”

“I'll blow his brains out,” returned Delacroix,
promptly.


“Small consolation that.”

“It is our only chance, at any rate, and besides
the sky won't fall. He is honest.”


But for all that he watched him like a cat. At
the first suspicious move our colored friend would
have found short shrift. I had my hand on my
knife, and Delacroix's revolver was in dangerous
readiness. As yet, however, there was no need for
action. We met not a soul, and guiding us to a
fodder-house, he assured us that we might rest
there at ease till dark.


We were so dead tired that we scarcely waited
for the end of his assurance before we threw our-
selves on the floor and were off asleep. From a
rest as deep and sweet as the peace of Heaven I
was startled by a hand on my shoulder. My knife
was out on the instant.


“Cut de pone, mas'r, not me,” cried our negro
guide, retreating in some alarm. He had brought
us some corn pones. We fell on them like starved
wolves, and then off to sleep again, till the dark
made it safe to recommence our journey. Our
guide did not take the road, however, but struck
across toward what we recognized as the colored
quarters of a plantation. “Supper first,” he ob-
served, sententiously, ushering us into one of the
low wooden buildings. We had expected solitude
and silence, and got a shock. The room was crowd-
ed, and fresh comers pouring in every moment.


“It is a trap!” cried Delacroix. “We are be-
trayed.”


“Mas'r too quick,” answered our guide; “dis
am a 'spression ob de feelin' in de cullud brest, dat
all. Ebery one, big and little, come to bress de
Lor' and de brave Linkum ossifers. Hercules, gib
de gemmen seats; you, Cesar,” to a little grinning
twelve-year-old imp, “quit dat yer. Git de oder
little chaps and deflect youselves as pickets. Sojer
march roun' and roun', gun on he shoulder: hold
he head so high. Can't eben see poor nigga, he
sech great man. O Lor'! tink de nigga no 'count;
neber tink we hab pickets too, and de Linkum men
right under he nose, he! he! Sue, push dat yer
chicken dis way. Lizy, gib us de pone and milk.
Don' stan' nudgin' and winkin'. Step about gals,
be spry.”


It was plain that this was a man in authority,
though how much was due to calibre, and how
much to a ragged military coat, minus the buttons,
and a hat, curiously jammed and broken, was too
delicate an analysis for men in our condition. The
room was crowded, for the news of our hiding had
gone from mouth to mouth through the entire plant-
ation, and every soul was there to welcome us.
There was little or on noise; but the intense, thrill-
ing excitement on every dusky face was a thing
not soon to be forgotten.


“Telled ye so!” cried one old woman; “allers
said de good Lor' hear de groanin' and sighin' some-
time. Oh! chil'en, I pray night and day all dese
yer years sence dey sell away my little Sue. `O
Lor', make dem like a wheel; and ole Sam, he say
dat a debil's prayer; but I hearn it in de Bible—
hearn Mas'r Arnold read it he ownself; and now,
sure enuf, de Lor' hab make 'em no 'count—jest like
a wheel rollin', rollin', can't fin' no rest till dey roll
straight down to eberlastin' ruin; and de jubilee's
comin' and de Lor' bress dese men dat bring it.
De Lor' ob glory keep 'em safe; and oh! mas'r,
tell de good Linkum men strike hard—he's groan-
in' sech a weary time.”


She was interrupted by our guide, who plainly
thought his prerogative in danger.


“Dat's enuf, ole Susan. Curus how women's
tongues kin run. Time to sperse, ladies and gem-
men, and, 'member now, no noise. Now ef mas'r's
ready—”


The sentence was completed by a sudden drop-
ping of his military coat and dignity together, plac-
ing him at once in his former light of an everyday
member of society. The remainder of our journey
had in it little of adventure. Our guide led us
around the pickets, moralizing all the way on, “He
hold he head so high—tink nigga no 'count,” and
ferried us across the Mattapony. Here we were
given into the keeping of another negro, passed a
damp but monotonous day in the woods, were treat-
ed to another plantation supper; then another day
hiding, another night in pushing through morass
and forest, another guide. As good old Bunyan
has it, “we were bemired to purpose”—were torn
and foot-sore; but at last we reached the Rappa-
hannock. There our guide left us, and there we
passed a day watching men oystering in the river,
and wishing for a few of them on shore. The pro-
gramme was simple now. We had only to wait
till midnight, take one of the boats, and drop down
the river to the gun-boats; but oh! those hours of
chilled and aching waiting!


The friends who welcomed us with open arms
gazed at us with a sort of terror, so wan, ragged,
haggard, ghastly, was our appearance. Delacroix
looked at least five years older; while I—but small
marvel if I have changed—I have always in my
ears that moaning voice, “Tell him that his broth-
er Jem starved to death on Belle Isle!” I have
the vision before me night and day of that writh-
ing frame, that lone, raving agony; and there are
thousands more to freeze and starve! God help
them!



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