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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
The hours waned. We were left alone in the care of the guards. While the conversation was going on and the eating ditto, we noticed that we were hiding a goodly quantity of the toothsome sweets. Left to ourselves we found in a short time that there was danger in eating our fill—the potatoes were eaten without salt, salt being scarce, and were very dry eating, and we drank much water, as the water was good, the result being a fullness quite a stranger to us for several months, so much fullness that it caused pain, and for the rest of the night we both gulped and retched in misery and severe pains. After a while we became worn out and actually slept, and morning came all too soon for us. Our relief from pain, with sleep to follow, was due to the kindness of a colored lady who concocted a dose of hot water and wood ashes mixed, not so palatable but gave comfort in an hour. She knew her business on home remedies. When we awoke, the first topic of conversation was, “What will be done with us when we reach camp?” My last experience was not pleasant to think of and we preferred death in some other way. We were ordered out after our host had given us a square meal of the “inevitable” salt pork and corn pone, but which was delicious to us. At the door was a wagon and team, to our surprise. We wondered if this was for us. The team was typical Georgia style, two very aged and sleepy mules, looking as of stone, and quite immovable, but they were alive as they moved when the whip cracked and from the cavernous throat of the driver was something smoky, and the sound lifted, lifted the long, drooping ears to near perpendicular—of course the team understood while we did not. The dogs and extra men had gone into camp or elsewhere, we did not care—which left two guards and the driver to look after us; but that was enough in our condition and no arms. We rode all the way “home” in the wagon with some sweet potatoes and a few onions; beside them were two small sacks of potatoes. We wondered why they were separate from the general lot and it worried us, we could not study it out, but when camp was reached we learned to our surprise that they were the “compliments” of the hostess of the night. God bless her—while we enjoyed her hospitality, we did suffer from excess of sweets! The gifts, no doubt, were for the very accurate information that my comrade had so freely given on things he knew as little of as he knew of Heaven.
We bid our coachman good-bye, sending our heartfelt thanks to our hostess for her kindness; but the coachman’s tip was not extended, for the most obvious reason that we were “short of change. ” Waiting under guard, we thought, “What, oh what, will be done to us this time?” as I would surely be recognized. I had no use for the “necklace” I had worn once—and still have the scars on my neck and jaws. To be instantly killed would be charity and mercy rather than again endure that suffering which I felt must end all for us. Sure, swift death was preferable to the slim hope of surviving once more from that awful torture—we certainly could not look for any mitigation of the same at the hands of Wirz when recognized. This soliloquy ended abruptly. “Hyer, you Yanks, who you-uns as been run away, git up in line! We will take you-uns to see Captain Wirz!” Great God, how that name was burned into my brain!
I had told my comrade of that torture and how both of us were facing that—or worse, if possible. My comrade said, “I will follow your lead, wherever it may be.” I replied, “I have only one life to sacrifice and do not want yours to account for.” He said, “Never mind, I will go with you.” We slowly picked up the little sack of potatoes—I don’t know why, I suppose it was mechanical—it seemed just then that I should never want for more of anything in this world, for I was convinced that I was on the last lap of life, if Wirz was to pass on my punishment. Just at this time there were some new prisoners at the south gate in line to march in, and had just commenced to move. We were close both to gate and the moving line, there was some confusion among the guards, and I saw at a glance our only hope. I softly spoke to my comrade, “Step in line and I will follow a file or two back.” He hesitated and wanted me to go first. I looked him in the eye and signed for him to be quick; he did so reluctantly. I flanked in a few files back and passed to the other side, moved up to his file, . and beckoned him to come with me. We passed well up to the front before the gate closed and the inner gate opened, both of us now free to move as fast as we could. We pushed along until inside the dead line, aided by those new men to whom I quietly told in a hurried manner why we were so anxious to get in front before discovered, and two of them did crowd us up front i» a jiffy. Once past the dead line we were safe to move anywhere and hurried to our old “home.”