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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
Wirz, the helpmate of the devil, concluded that even those precious drops of nature’s nectar, so hardly and dangerously earned, were entirely too good for the “damned Yankees,” and would in a measure defeat his “natural causes” system of death, and right here is where Providence Spring comes to our rescue. Wirz sent a force of Negroes into camp to stop the flow of water of this Providence Spring. Their efforts were in vain—fruitless, but oh! how fruitful to us poor wretches as the stream of life resented the brutal interference of Wirz, and in its wrath burst forth a torrent compared to its original flow. All the curses and demoniacal ravings of Wirz availed him nothing—he could not stop it or turn it away, being located so that it reached us eventually. We now could get water from near the dead line—pure as crystal. Wirz went so far as to lead it out of reach, yet its flow of pure water into the former reekings and seepings of the Rebel sinks was still a vast improvement, for it purified the stream and increased the flow.
This condition of things stood for a few weeks when a committee of seven was appointed to meet the “Devil” at the south gate to bid him “good day” and induce him to allow the water of Providence Spring to be led into camp by the method of sinking several rice tierces or barrels at intervals with a trough from each to the other, also from each of them inside the dead line to one inside the camp, so that the long single line of waiting men could be cut into several lines, thus preventing waste of water and the long, tedious wait to get it. By appointment Wirz met the committee. The committee was so arranged that four were chosen to speak. When halted and formed in front of his “Satanic Majesty,” the speaker nearest him when the halt came was to open negotiations for the water supply. When ranged in front, it fell to my lot, being directly in front, face to face, to make known our request, and we thought it a reasonable one under the circumstances; but you can imagine our surprise as well as my colleagues’ when Wirz ripped out a sulphurous oath, accompanied by “reinforcements”—a brace of navy revolvers, aiming them at us, we mean both singular and plural—for we imagined that we could see the points of each bullet in both guns, though they were aimed in different directions. Then followed this most exquisite language: “No, the water of the creek is good enough for you God-damned Yankee sons of—. Go back, or I will blow your damn brains out and send you to Hell!!” Think of it—he send us to Hell!! We were there now!!
Hapkins had made one ill-fated attempt to escape by disguising himself as a Rebel soldier and now, pessimistic about the chances of a tunnel succeeding, resolves to try again.
At that time Wirz thought it a real joke for a Yank to imagine that he could get away from him. Tunnels by the score were dug and started—a few only were successful in the matter of escape, and fewer still made good an escape after digging out.
After some time in camp, I felt in my system that which indicated illness ere long, having contracted scurvy and other camp diseases that waste the strength and flesh rapidly, aided by the slow stages of starvation, for lack of nutritious food in quantity and quality. I felt that I could not expect to survive what men who were as rugged or more so than I had ever been had succumbed to. In this desperate mood, with yet a clear brain, I thought I could not wait the slow progress of our tunnel, then under way, and once more I togged up in borrowed plumes, and determined to walk out and die if discovered. To stay was death—to die in the effort to escape was possibly a quicker death. I chose the north gate this time, with the hope of reaching the woods near the cemetery, and then the good services of some black friend would come to my aid—the Negro was, without question, our friend when possible to avoid detection.
I reached the outer wicket and, when about to step away, an officer bent a little to get a view of “my phiz,” as I may have been more bashful than on first trial, and he may have been more careful than other officers. He peered under my hat. I boldly faced him and coldly looked him in the eye—he knew I was no Reb and said, “You are a Yankee!” I stiffly replied, “I am, why!” I had started, knowing discovery might mean death, and would, had it been known by Wirz that I had been out before in the same bold way. The reply of the officer, though I was prepared for the worst, as I thought, chilled me to the marrow. “I must take you to Captain Wirz!” I replied, “You may as well let me inside, I have met the captain and need no introduction!” Suiting my action to my wish, I moved to step inside of the wicket, but he stopped me. I thought to flatter him and said, “Colonel, I shall be better satisfied, and thank you for your kindness.” (He was not a colonel nor had he any kindness.) “No, you must go and see the old captain!”
Well, I thought, I did not want to, for in my former experience about the water question, it had not been very pleasant. What could this be—now, that he was mad whenever he heard of an attempt to escape and this attempt so open and bold, and the first to be tried in this way up to that time! You may guess how I felt—my memory was again sharpened. I felt as though I were already condemned and on my way to a quick death. I was also busy in thought of the nice diplomatic things I might say to him, that my life be not taken on the spot. How nicely particular I was when starting out—that if death must come that it be quick. Was I now quibbling over a “nicety”? No, not so much as to a quick death as to the one who was to do the job.