Author: John McElroy

Chapter XL


The Winter days passed on, one by one, after the manner described in a former chapter,—the mornings in ill-nature hunger; the afternoons and evenings in tolerable comfort. The rations kept growing lighter and lighter; the quantity of bread remained the same, but the meat diminished, and occasional days would pass without any being issued. Then we receive a pint or less of soup made from the beans or peas before mentioned, but this, too, suffered continued change, in the gradually increasing proportion of James River water, and decreasing of that of the beans.

The water of the James River is doubtless excellent: it looks well—at a distance—and is said to serve the purposes of ablution and navigation admirably. There seems to be a limit however, to the extent of its advantageous combination with the bean (or pea) for nutritive purposes. This, though, was or view of the case, merely, and not shared in to any appreciably extent by the gentlemen who were managing our boarding house. We seemed to view the matter through allopathic spectacles, they through homoeopathic lenses. We thought that the atomic weight of peas (or beans) and the James River fluid were about equal, which would indicate that the proper combining proportions would be, say a bucket of beans (or peas) to a bucket of water. They held that the nutritive potency was increased by the dilution, and the best results were obtainable when the symptoms of hunger were combated by the trituration of a bucketful of the peas-beans with a barrel of ’aqua jamesiana.’

My first experience with this "flat" soup was very instructive, if not agreeable. I had come into prison, as did most other prisoners, absolutely destitute of dishes, or cooking utensils. The well-used, half-canteen frying-pan, the blackened quart cup, and the spoon, which formed the usual kitchen outfit of the cavalryman in the field, were in the haversack on my saddle, and were lost to me when I separated from my horse. Now, when we were told that we were to draw soup, I was in great danger of losing my ration from having no vessel in which to receive it. There were but few tin cups in the prison, and these were, of course, wanted by their owners. By great good fortune I found an empty fruit can, holding about a quart. I was also lucky enough to find a piece from which to make a bail. I next manufactured a spoon and knife combined from a bit of hoop-iron.

These two humble utensils at once placed myself and my immediate chums on another plane, as far as worldly goods were concerned. We were better off than the mass, and as well off as the most fortunate. It was a curious illustration of that law of political economy which teaches that so-called intrinsic value is largely adventitious. Their possession gave us infinitely more consideration among our fellows than would the possession of a brown-stone front in an eligible location, furnished with hot and cold water throughout, and all the modern improvements. It was a place where cooking utensils were in demand, and title-deeds to brownstone fronts were not. We were in possession of something which every one needed every day, and, therefore, were persons of consequence and consideration to those around us who were present or prospective borrowers.

On our side we obeyed another law of political economy: We clung to our property with unrelaxing tenacity, made the best use of it in our intercourse with our fellows, and only gave it up after our release and entry into a land where the plenitude of cooking utensils of superior construction made ours valueless. Then we flung them into the sea, with little gratitude for the great benefit they had been to us. We were more anxious to get rid of the many hateful recollections clustering around them.

But, to return to the alleged soup: As I started to drink my first ration it seemed to me that there was a superfluity of bugs upon its surface. Much as I wanted animal food, I did not care for fresh meat in that form. I skimmed them off carefully, so as to lose as little soup as possible. But the top layer seemed to be underlaid with another equally dense. This was also skimmed off as deftly as possible. But beneath this appeared another layer, which, when removed, showed still another; and so on, until I had scraped to the bottom of the can, and the last of the bugs went with the last of my soup. I have before spoken of the remarkable bug fecundity of the beans (or peas). This was a demonstration of it. Every scouped out pea (or bean) which found its way into the soup bore inside of its shell from ten to twenty of these hardcrusted little weevil. Afterward I drank my soup without skimming. It was not that I hated the weevil less, but that I loved the soup more. It was only another step toward a closer conformity to that grand rule which I have made the guiding maxim of my life:

’When I must, I had better.’

I recommend this to other young men starting on their career.

The room in which we were was barely large enough for all of us to lie down at once. Even then it required pretty close "spooning" together— so close in fact that all sleeping along one side would have to turn at once. It was funny to watch this operation. All, for instance, would be lying on their right sides. They would begin to get tired, and one of the wearied ones would sing out to the Sergeant who was in command of the row—

"Sergeant: let’s spoon the other way."

That individual would reply:

"All right. Attention ! LEFT SPOON!! and the whole line would at once flop over on their left sides.

The feet of the row that slept along the east wall on the floor below us were in a line with the edge of the outer door, and a chalk line drawn from the crack between the door and the frame to the opposite wall would touch, say 150 pairs of feet. They were a noisy crowd down there, and one night their noise so provoked the guard in front of the door that he called out to them to keep quiet or he would fire in upon them. They greeted this threat with a chorus profanely uncomplimentary to the purity of the guard’s ancestry; they did not imply his descent a la Darwin, from the remote monkey, but more immediate generation by a common domestic animal. The incensed Rebel opened the door wide enough to thrust his gun in, and he fired directly down the line of toes. His piece was apparently loaded with buckshot, and the little balls must have struck the legs, nipped off the toes, pierced the feet, and otherwise slightly wounded the lower extremities of fifty men. The simultaneous shriek that went up was deafening. It was soon found out that nobody had been hurt seriously, and there was not a little fun over the occurrence.

One of the prisoners in Libby was Brigadier General Neal Dow, of Maine, who had then a National reputation as a Temperance advocate, and the author of the famous Maine Liquor Law. We, whose places were near the front window, used to see him frequently on the street, accompanied by a guard. He was allowed, we understood, to visit our sick in the hospital. His long, snowy beard and hair gave him a venerable and commanding appearance.

Newsboys seemed to be a thing unknown in Richmond. The papers were sold on the streets by negro men. The one who frequented our section with the morning journals had a mellow; rich baritone for which we would be glad to exchange the shrill cries of our street Arabs. We long remembered him as one of the peculiar features of Richmond. He had one unvarying formula for proclaiming his wares. It ran in this wise:

"Great Nooze in de papahs!

"Great Nooze from Orange Coaht House, Virginny!

"Great Nooze from Alexandry, Virginny!

"Great Nooze from Washington City!

"Great Nooze from Chattanoogy, Tennessee!

"Great Nooze from Chahlston, Sou’ Cahlina!

"Great Nooze in depapahs!"

It did not matter to him that the Rebels had not been at some of these places for months. He would not change for such mere trifles as the entire evaporation of all possible interest connected with Chattanooga and Alexandria. He was a true Bourbon Southerner—he learned nothing and forgot nothing.

There was a considerable trade driven between the prisoners and the guard at the door. This was a very lucrative position for the latter, and men of a commercial turn of mind generally managed to get stationed there. The blockade had cut off the Confederacy’s supplies from the outer world, and the many trinkets about a man’s person were in good demand at high prices. The men of the Army of the Potomac, who were paid regularly, and were always near their supplies, had their pockets filled with combs, silk handkerchiefs, knives, neckties, gold pens, pencils, silver watches, playing cards, dice, etc. Such of these as escaped appropriation by their captors and Dick Turner, were eagerly bought by the guards, who paid fair prices in Confederate money, or traded wheat bread, tobacco, daily papers, etc., for them.

There was also considerable brokerage in money, and the manner of doing this was an admirable exemplification of the folly of the "fiat" money idea. The Rebels exhausted their ingenuity in framing laws to sustain the purchasing power of their paper money. It was made legal tender for all debts public and private; it was decreed that the man who refused to take it was a public enemy; all the considerations of patriotism were rallied to its support, and the law provided that any citizens found trafficking in the money of the enemy—i.e., greenbacks, should suffer imprisonment in the Penitentiary, and any soldier so offending should suffer death.

Notwithstanding all this, in Richmond, the head and heart of the Confederacy, in January, 1864—long before the Rebel cause began to look at all desperate—it took a dollar to buy such a loaf of bread as now sells for ten cents; a newspaper was a half dollar, and everything else in proportion. And still worse: There was not a day during our stay in Richmond but what one could go to the hole in the door before which the guard was pacing and call out in a loud whisper:

"Say, Guard: do you want to buy some greenbacks?"

And be sure that the reply would be, after a furtive glance around to see that no officer was watching:

"Yes; how much do you want for them?"

The reply was then: "Ten for one."

"All right; how much have you got?"

The Yankee would reply; the Rebel would walk to the farther end of his beat, count out the necessary amount, and, returning, put up one hand with it, while with the other he caught hold of one end of the Yankee’s greenback. At the word, both would release their holds simultaneously, the exchange was complete, and the Rebel would pace industriously up and down his beat with the air of the school boy who "ain’t been a-doin’ nothing."

There was never any risk in approaching any guard with a proposition of this kind. I never heard of one refusing to trade for greenbacks, and if the men on guard could not be restrained by these stringent laws, what hope could there be of restraining anybody else?

One day we were favored with a visit from the redoubtable General John H. Morgan, next to J. E. B. Stuart the greatest of Rebel cavalry leaders. He had lately escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary. He was invited to Richmond to be made a Major General, and was given a grand ovation by the citizens and civic Government. He came into our building to visit a number of the First Kentucky Cavalry (loyal)—captured at New Philadelphia, East Tennessee—whom he was anxious to have exchanged for men of his own regiment—the First Kentucky Cavalry (Rebel)—who were captured at the same time he was. I happened to get very close to him while he was standing there talking to his old acquaintances, and I made a mental photograph of him, which still retains all its original distinctness. He was a tall, heavy man, with a full, coarse, and somewhat dull face, and lazy, sluggish gray eyes. His long black hair was carefully oiled, and turned under at the ends, as was the custom with the rural beaux some years ago. His face was clean shaved, except a large, sandy goatee. He wore a high silk hat, a black broadcloth coat, Kentucky jeans pantaloons, neatly fitting boots, and no vest. There was nothing remotely suggestive of unusual ability or force of character, and I thought as I studied him that the sting of George D. Prentice’s bon mot about him was in its acrid truth. Said Mr. Prentice:

"Why don’t somebody put a pistol to Basil Duke’s head, and blow John Morgan’s brains out!" [Basil Duke was John Morgan’s right hand man.]


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Chicago: John McElroy, "Chapter XL," Andersonville, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in Andersonville Original Sources, accessed July 14, 2024,

MLA: McElroy, John. "Chapter XL." Andersonville, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in Andersonville, Original Sources. 14 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: McElroy, J, 'Chapter XL' in Andersonville, ed. . cited in , Andersonville. Original Sources, retrieved 14 July 2024, from