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Hell And The Survivor
A Union soldier had a better statistical chance of living through the Battle of Gettysburg than of surviving the prisoner-of-war camp called Andersonville. But Charles Hopkins did it and left this never-before-published record.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
Daylight came and found us yet in a swamp—not knowing whether we were nearer or farther from the Bull Pen. We had been unable to guide by the stars, as none shone, and as the fog did not lift during our leave-taking. Exhausted now from lack of food, pressing labor of escape, the condition of body, the rags upon us, wet, clammy, and cold—we had used some water in our mode of transportation—we were not clean. The month of August, in a southern clime, and yet we shivered, though not from fear. We found a little piece of rising ground, carefully surveyed it, painfully dragged ourselves to the high point and lay down to rest—or die—either was welcome. We had placed, as we thought, at least five or six miles between a cruel death and liberty—as we were the first five to leave the tunnel. While resting in this uncertain prospect of success, our thoughts reverted to those behind us, hoping they had succeeded, at least as well as our party, though it was certain they had not made the breach very wide, for the progress was slow, nerve-wracking crawling to liberty, not knowing at what moment detection would come. Our little party rested and slept as circumstances would permit—the sleep of exhaustion. Two of our party should not have made the attempt. One we felt sure could not last long in this struggle; but he was determined not to go back alive. The other was so much of a cripple that he was helped when one could hardly help oneself, yet, true to each other in peril, willing to do all that could be done to assist one so determined to live or die—at liberty. A third one was not strong by any means. The night struggle had told very much on his nerves, as he feared recapture and its possible results. Each tried to cheer the other by some funny story, but the eye never lied, though the lips spoke encouragement.
After a short delay we started with the hope of getting farther on in the swamp to avoid being hunted out by bloodhounds. We knew if we had been discovered that the alarm would soon be given and the manhunt would soon follow. We had made only a hundred yards perhaps when we were stopped by the sudden breakdown of one of the party. He urged us on—to leave him and save ourselves, but we could not and our progress was slow now, and very laborious on all. Suddenly we heard the bay of hounds some distance away. They had found our trail! We did not know which party they were following, and hoped not ours—which was somewhat selfish, but natural. The sound grew nearer and nearer and hope died within us. We realized it was our trail they were on. Either by the sense of smell of the hounds or intuition as to the direction we had taken, at all events we were being closely hunted. We lifted our comrade to his feet and again started with the desperation that small hope of escape engendered—the savage baying of the hounds seemed to nerve up all of us. We reached a strip of swamp and entered but a short distance when the weak comrade sank helplessly down and died, while we waited, hoping to be missed by the hounds.
After making sure that our comrade was dead, we left him sorrowfully, while each of us really hoped that our turn would come before recapture and we would be left among the “unknown,” as none of us knew the full name of the comrades, except two of us, and that was someone from Company B of my regiment by the name of Buckalew, of Trenton, New Jersey. We hurried along through the brush, briars, and cone of pines, now stopping to listen intently for that dreadful bay of the hounds, so near that it seemed our death warrant. The sound stopped and we were encouraged and for several hours felt safe—night would help us, we parleyed in stifled voices, as to direction. I had made observation before day and felt that we were going northwest and must soon strike a road leading from Oglethorpe; others argued that I was wrong. Three of us parted with the most obstinate one, he going south and would not be convinced of the fact that we three were moving northwest. Along toward sundown, hearing no sounds of hounds, we thought that we were safe and halted to reconnoiter our position before resting for the night march intended.
A few moments later came an awful surprise—the baying of hounds and on our track! We moved to a rising ground and not a moment too soon. We took to some small trees in the opening—two of us were fortunate in having strength enough to swing up clear of the ground and the teeth of the savage brutes at our feet, but the sight that met our gaze when we had recovered from the fright of being hamstrung by the dogs was one that time could never efface from memory. Frightful dreams we have had, but this was no dream. The other poor emaciated comrade, who had exhausted all his strength to keep up with us thus far toward home and liberty, had no power to lift himself out of reach of those hellish brutes. They tore him, limb, muscle, and flesh- such as there was—so that he prayed his captors to shoot him. He could not stand or move himself from his position, and they did a merciful act, unintentionally—shot him to death; so another “unknown” rested while some fond mother or other loved one would wait in vain for him or record of his death. Buckalew and I were ordered to come down from our roost. We came down, of course, when convinced that we were not to be dog meat, otherwise we preferred the death just witnessed and did not hesitate to say so.