- 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
Inside the camp death stalked on every hand. Death at the hand of the guards, though murder in cold blood, was merciful beside the systematic, studied, absolute murder inside, by slow death, inch by inch! As before stated, one-third of the original enclosure was swampy—a mud of liquid filth, voidings from the thousands, seething with maggots in full activity. This daily increased by the necessities of the inmates, being the only place accessible for the purpose. Through this mass of pollution passed the only water that found its way through the Bull Pen. It came to us between the two sources of pollution, the Confederate camp and the cook house; first, the seepage of sinks; second, the dirt and filth emptied by the cook house; then was our turn to use it. I have known over three thousand men to wait in line to get water, and the line was added to as fast as reduced, from daylight to dark, yes, even into the night; men taking turns of duty with men of their mess, in order to hold their place in line, as no one man could stand it alone, even if in the “pink” of physical condition; the heat of the sun, blistering him, or the drenching rains soaking him, not a breath of fresh air, and we had no covering but Heaven’s canopy. The air was loaded with unbearable, fever-laden stench from that poison sink of putrid mud and water, continually in motion by the activity of the germs of death. We could not get away from the stink—we ate it, drank it and slept in it (when exhaustion compelled sleep).
What wonder that men died, or were so miserable as to prefer instant death to that which they had seen hourly taking place, and so preferring, deliberately stepping within the dead line and looking their willing murderer in the eye, while a shot was sent crashing into a brain that was yet clear.
The month of June gave us twenty-seven days of rain—not consecutively, but so frequently that no one was dry in all that time. Everything was soaked—even the sandy soil. Still, this watery month was a blessing in disguise as it gave water, plenty of which was pure to drink. The boast of Winder was that the selection of this spot for his Bull Pen was the place where disease and death would come more quickly by “natural causes,” when a removal of two hundred feet east would have placed us upon a living, pure, deep and clear stream of water, properly named “Sweetwater Creek,” which had we been allowed to utilize would have saved thousands of lives—but no, that was not the intent of its inventor. To kill by “natural causes” was made more possible by this location.
Shortly after we went into the Bull Pen there was a gang of ruffians—Union men—who set to robbing anyone whom they could of any kind of valuable from a tin cup to a watch or money, if the victim was so lucky as to have any cash. Myself and four friends had preempted a spot that gave just room for us to get to Mother Earth and not crowd our neighbor. Near us, on the south side, was a party of old prisoners having been taken at Chickamauga in October before, and they had a covering made like a shed roof, thatched with pine tops while green, and this kept the sun off until late in the afternoon—though not rainproof by any means. These men informed us to be ready at all times to resist “raiders,” who would not stop at murder to obtain any object of value a man might have. Only two hundred feet east of us, and near the clump of trees in the southeast corner, was a coterie of men known as the Raiders, composed of some of the worst element the army had in it, bounty-jumpers, men who took a bounty payment when enlisted but, soon as enrolled, would desert to some other recruiting station and repeat the operation again and again until caught, getting large sums of money to squander at gambling and worse methods of parting with their ill-gotten gains. This crowd was not the only lot of “bad men.” One gang was led by one Collins, nicknamed Mosby—of Confederate guerrilla fame—with less honor and manhood, however, for Mosby attacked his sworn enemy while the Raiders robbed and murdered their own army comrades. Another gang was formed and headed by a man called Slim Jim, who had been the right hand of Collins in the raids of the camp, and they fell out about the “swag,” as most thieves do. The Mosby gang attacked us one night after our warning, but we put up such a hot fight that they veered away and some other poor devils were the victims.
About this time, June, there was a feeling among the “respectable and honor-loving class” that something must be done to protect life and preserve order. Meetings were secretly called and held. No one was permitted to join the movement except those known to be loyal to their comrades’ welfare. The genius of a detective was needed and was found in many unexpected men. One Sergeant Keyes was made the leader, and so strong a formation was founded that it became very dangerous to raid. This resulted in a change of front on the part of Slim Jim—Ellis was his name—who from fear of being made a victim of Keyes’s new law-and-order crowd, called Regulators, joined them in order to get square with Mosby’s gang, who still did some business because of its numbers and had attempted to rob Slim Jim. Mosby Collins was deadly, and he and Slim Jim each wanted the worthless life of the other and both deserved the gallows. The Regulators grew strong because of the determination of its members to make this home or abode of the wretched safe against robbery and murder.