- Historic Sites
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 counting process over, we were assigned to the Twenty-seventh Detachment. Each detachment was composed of 270; each mess was again divided by three, and I was in the lower third mess. Our guards here were bold and sneering, none of them having smelled the battle’s smoke, being raw levies of old men and boys that could hardly carry the arms they had, but were backed up by the Florida Artillery. They much enjoyed our despondency and chagrin and mental suffering, and delighted in tormenting us with that saying of that fiend Winder [Gen. R.B.], that “they would kill more Yanks here than Lee would at the front.” We could not, nor would not, then harbor the thought of this truth, which was indelibly impressed upon us so soon thereafter as an actual fact. That which we thought impossible in any civilized nation, even in a barbarous one, was absolutely possible here. Barbarians would disfigure and torture starved, sick, and wounded men and thus cause death in their anger; but that human beings could coldly calculate and compass the destruction of human life by slowly starving, killing piecemeal as a result of such calculation, was beyond conception by any but those who knew from its contact. The huge gates became more and more distinct as we solemnly marched—as it seemed to our own funeral—and to many thousands it was literally true. We reached the “stockade.” It was here that we had our first introduction to the infamous wretch, Henry Wirz, who was to be the arbiter of our fate. One would think, from the thousands he had received, he would be glutted with satisfaction; but not so, he was just as joyful as though we were the first toy he had owned in his boyhood, intolerant, boastful, and profoundly abusive to the “damn Yanks”—“they [would] not bother Lee again after [he was] through with them!”
After some delay those big gates yawned before us like the cavernous mouth of some great monster; and we were “lockstepped” in, fifty and sixty at a time, or all the “lock” would hold; the gates in our rear would close and a similar pair of gates would open in our front. Our gaze was riveted to the inside. Moving thousands, all who got near us as we passed in, crowded that single street—if you can so term it—to a “pack” twenty or more deep, each watcher intent to discover some comrade, brother, father, or acquaintance among the incoming “fresh fish,” as the prisoners before us termed us. Oh, what misery was there depicted upon so many of those gaunt, hopeless faces, filthy and black from pine smoke; ragged and almost nude with the vermin plainly seen upon the poor apology for clothing! Some begged to know the fate of friends, others to learn of the death or capture of someone close to them by some tie or relationship; some met a brother as unfortunate as themselves, and bemoaned their fate.
Indeed, this picture in its great Stockade frame was a rival to Dante’s picture of Hell. The stories of those who had tasted the bitter realities of this place were enough to chill the swift, warm stream that made the hearts of heroes beat so rapidly till now. A beautiful May day, and Sabbath, yet we could not rejoice while marching into “Hades” with those gates creaking a requiem behind us, and to so many, forever. Well may the legend “He that enters here leaves hope behind” have been placed over the entrance, for truly it was so.
The prison was a parallelogram of about two to one as to its length and breadth, about eighteen acres at this time—it was enlarged July 1st to about twenty-seven acres—and one-third of this not habitable, being a swamp of liquid filth. This was enclosed by wooden walls of hewn pine logs, from eight to ten inches square, four feet buried in the ground, eighteen feet above, braced on the outside, cross-barred to make one log sustain the other, and a small platform making comfortable standing room for the guards, every one hundred feet, with above waist-high space below the top of stockade, reached by a ladder. A sloping roof to protect the guards from the sun and rain had been placed over them. Later in 1864 the second line of stockade was built and a third was partly built for protection if attacked by Federal troops, it was said, but we knew it was to discourage us from “tunneling”—the distance being too great. The Florida Artillery had cannon stationed at each corner of the stockade, thus commanding a range from any direction; four guns were so placed near the south gate and over the depressed section of stockade at which point the little stream entered the enclosure.
The “dead line” so much talked of and feared was a line of pine, four-inch boards on posts about three feet high. This line was seventeen feet from the stockade walls, thus leaving the distance all around the enclosure an open space, and incidentally reducing the acreage inside and giving the guards a clear view all about the stockade or “bull pen,” the name given it by its inventor—the infamous General Winder. He was the friend of Jefferson Davis, who named him as a “Christian gentleman,” and he was the architect and builder of this wooden Hell. The Richmond Enquirer , known as the organ of the Confederacy, said of Winder, when he was removed from command of other prisons to make his headquarters in Georgia and in command of all prisons, “Thank God that General Winder has been sent from Richmond; but God help those who fall under his care.” That was a strong recommendation of Da vis’s “Christian gentleman,” and by a bitter upholder of Davis and the “Cause”! To intrude inside this dead line was instant death, or wounds that would cause death, by the rifle of a watchful, ready, willing, murderous guard.