- 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 nights of July, after sundown, steadily cooled so that before morning it became quite cold for most of us, minus clothes and no covering. In August and September—to the thirteenth—we found ourselves getting up on all fours, gradually stretching out to the rays of the sun, to nearly normal height. Any day now you could see numbers of men wading from knee to waist deep in the liquid, fetid filth of the swampy level—groping with the hope of finding some roots to dry or wood to cook over the half-cooked stuff sent in—such was the scarcity of wood inside, with acres and acres of wood about us, only to look at. Woe to him that had the slightest sore or abrasion of the skin which might come in contact with that polluted mass—gangrenous sores resulted and low fevers. The horrible sores the contact produced seem incredible to tell of, but the facts were undeniable. Cancer-like, they ate into the little flesh that the victims had, bared the sinews and bone—the poor fellows rotted by inches. Starvation, polluted water, exposure to sun and rain and cold nights, and many of them of a truly sleepless night, brought on fevers that were almost surely fatal—causing delirium of several types.
At all times the cases of insanity were numerous. Men strong in mentality, heart, and hope were in a few short months, yes, often in a few weeks, reduced to imbeciles and maniacs. Today they know you and look upon you as friends and comrades; tomorrow they are peevish, whining, childish creatures, or raving maniacs. Some would beg for something to eat; others asked for wife, mother, children, or other relatives; some in their delirium were home talking to their friends, enjoying the good eating that Mother set before them—they seemed happy, many forever talking of hunger, and a goodly number were furiously wild, and had they been strong they would have been dangerous, not knowing their closest friend, trusting no one, raving and cursing in fearful language. Happily, may I say it, all such died soon, worn out and exhausted by this emotion.
The average deaths per day for seven and a half months were 85. But during the months of July, August, September, and October the average was 100 per day. One day in August, following the great freshet, I counted 235 corpses lying at the south gate and about. Many of those had been smothered in their “burrows” made in the side hill in which they crawled to shield themselves from sun and storm; the soil, being sandy, became rain-soaked and settled down upon the occupant and became his grave instead of a protection. Others, who had no shelter, in whom life was barely existing, were rain-soaked, chilling blood and marrow, and life flitted easily away, and left but little to return to clay. These holes or burrows in both the flats and up the north slope were counted by thousands; no doubt there were some that never gave up their dead, the men buried in their self-made sepulcher. No effort was made to search unless the man was missed by a friend.
Such were Winder’s “natural causes”!! These were murders committed by most “unnatural causes” and methods—systematic causes! Orders were issued that all should be vaccinated, and yet in all that den of filth, dirt, starvation, polluted water, vermin, flies, reeking with the filth of the open sinks, and polluted swamp mosquitoes ever at hand, smallpox cut no figure whatever, to October at least. Squads of ninety were ordered up to the gate for their possible death warrant, vaccination. Some were fortunate enough not to “take”; others, the moment they were treated and could turn aside, wiped the vaccine off and cleansed the spot by sucking the blood from it in order that no vaccine virus be left to work its destruction; some evaded by tricks and lies. The writer did his own “scratching” and covered the wound with mucous from his mouth—which may have been as dangerous had it been left to work its “scurvy” destiny—and bared his arm for inspection, which was no trouble, as my shirt was armless. The inspector passed me as “done.” By this deception we perhaps escaped a death that hundreds found at the hands of those who had used impure vaccine matter.
The famous Providence Spring, so much read of, was made possible by the great storm and freshet of August 9, 1864. It broke in the stockade near the south gate, inside the dead line, and swept to the lower side and broke through there also. Near the north gate, some fifty to sixty feet south on the slope, the heavy downpour of rain rushed down the slope inside the dead line and under the strata of sand, found a clay bottom, and struck a small thread of pure water, and food-famished prisoners feasted their eyes on it for days. It grew a little larger and promised hope to those who might be able to drink of its purity. Being out of reach, all sorts of devices were invented to get some of it. The coy little life-giving stream persistently wriggled its way inside the dead line, though we were glad to welcome it to our side of death’s border. Small it was but to that camp would have been like drinking diamonds—so precious were its drops to the minds of those that knew not pure water for months.