- 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
To describe the pain that racked body and brain is beyond my power of expression. Within the first half hour, I was wishing that I might be killed at once, twisting the head continuously from one position to another to rest the spot most pressed upon by the hard and not smooth edges of the “collar” until at last the neck was girdled, raw, bleeding, feeling like a hot band of iron about the neck, and jaws and chin in the same condition. What more could I hope but to die soon—that punishment lasted eight long hours; but after the first hour a semiconsciousness in a measure gave relief. Why my brains were not cooked or destroyed is a wonder—in that emaciated condition by starvation. How I suffered that day and for weeks to follow. I cursed myself for thanking Wirz for my life at the outset. Had I known that which I was to experience, nothing would have daunted me from exasperating Wirz to the point of killing me at once.
After getting over the effects of that torture, my mind was still on liberty, regardless of what might follow, realizing I was fast breaking in strength and preferred to die alone in a swamp of anywhere but in Andersonville Bull Pen, even if home and friends be not reached and final resting place be “unknown.” Hope of ever seeing home and friends again had about died within me, but escape I would, dead or alive!
The tunnel that I had been party to digging, when I had strength, was nearing completion, though much more of a job than the “failure,” having to project one hundred feet farther to be beyond the second stockade, which was built to prevent or discourage tunneling, as well as a barrier against attack from Sherman’s raiders, in an effort to release the prisoners. With August came death, dealing heavy strokes daily. Nearly three thousand of the flower of the youth of the North were silent—they had answered to the call of the Reaper, and passed from torture and misery. The projected tunnel was located some seventy feet from the north gate.
On a foggy night acceptable to our party, between twelve midnight and two in the morning, fifteen men crawled through the long, stuffy hole—like rats—to the end and opening. Now the greatest caution must be observed and it required the stoutest hearts to face it. All could not go at once. Each man must move like a snake and as silent—none to follow until the preceding man was at fairly safe distance in matter of time. They were to have five in each party as near as possible for mutual comfort and protection. Crawl, crawl through dirt, weeds, and briars, until the brook was reached, then the crawl was a horror—through mud and filth to the railroad, under that to the site of an old sawmill up the flume, or the remains of it, slimy and dank, to the intake, and lastly into the water, covered with frog spawn, briars, and rushes—simply a nasty, shallow mudhole backed by a swamp reeking with the seepings through dead vegetation of generations. Wading, crawling, and striving in all ways to place as much distance between us and the Hell behind us, before the daylight gave our trail to the Rebs, and to find some safe place where the tired, starved, almost bloodless frames could rest. Blood was oozing from countless wounds from briars crawled through and the dead pine and gum branches that met us at every move in the dark. Among our five were two that needed help and received it from the rest of us in every way possible—not caring alone for ourselves. Though pressed by them to make good our own escape, they felt the time had come for them to give way and starve in the swamp. Their plea fell upon deaf ears. Chilly, smothered with mud, weeds, dead pine needles that had been rotting for years, feeling our way, breaking a path or trail for the weaker ones, stepping into holes deeper than the general surface, plunging neck-deep into the slimy mess, even head first into some of them, praying for daylight—at least a little, that we could see our surroundings!