Author: John McElroy

Chapter XXX.


After Wirz’s threat of grape and canister upon the slightest provocation, we lived in daily apprehension of some pretext being found for opening the guns upon us for a general massacre. Bitter experience had long since taught us that the Rebels rarely threatened in vain. Wirz, especially, was much more likely to kill without warning, than to warn without killing. This was because of the essential weakness of his nature. He knew no art of government, no method of discipline save "kill them!" His petty little mind’s scope reached no further. He could conceive of no other way of managing men than the punishment of every offense, or seeming offense, with death. Men who have any talent for governing find little occasion for the death penalty. The stronger they are in themselves—the more fitted for controlling others—the less their need of enforcing their authority by harsh measures.

There was a general expression of determination among the prisoners to answer any cannonade with a desperate attempt to force the Stockade. It was agreed that anything was better than dying like rats in a pit or wild animals in a battue. It was believed that if anything would occur which would rouse half those in the pen to make a headlong effort in concert, the palisade could be scaled, and the gates carried, and, though it would be at a fearful loss of life, the majority of those making the attempt would get out. If the Rebels would discharge grape and canister, or throw a shell into the prison, it would lash everybody to such a pitch that they would see that the sole forlorn hope of safety lay in wresting the arms away from our tormentors. The great element in our favor was the shortness of the distance between us and the cannon. We could hope to traverse this before the guns could be reloaded more than once.

Whether it would have been possible to succeed I am unable to say. It would have depended wholly upon the spirit and unanimity with which the effort was made. Had ten thousand rushed forward at once, each with a determination to do or die, I think it would have been successful without a loss of a tenth of the number. But the insuperable trouble—in our disorganized state—was want of concert of action. I am quite sure, however, that the attempt would have been made had the guns opened.

One day, while the agitation of this matter was feverish, I was cooking my dinner—that is, boiling my pitiful little ration of unsalted meal, in my fruit can, with the aid of a handful of splinters that I had been able to pick up by a half day’s diligent search. Suddenly the long rifle in the headquarters fort rang out angrily. A fuse shell shrieked across the prison—close to the tops of the logs, and burst in the woods beyond. It was answered with a yell of defiance from ten thousand throats.

I sprang up-my heart in my mouth. The long dreaded time had arrived; the Rebels had opened the massacre in which they must exterminate us, or we them.

I looked across to the opposite bank, on which were standing twelve thousand men—erect, excited, defiant. I was sure that at the next shot they would surge straight against the Stockade like a mighty human billow, and then a carnage would begin the like of which modern times had never seen.

The excitement and suspense were terrible. We waited for what seemed ages for the next gun. It was not fired. Old Winder was merely showing the prisoners how he could rally the guards to oppose an outbreak. Though the gun had a shell in it, it was merely a signal, and the guards came double-quicking up by regiments, going into position in the rifle pits and the hand-grenade piles.

As we realized what the whole affair meant, we relieved our surcharged feelings with a few general yells of execration upon Rebels generally, and upon those around us particularly, and resumed our occupation of cooking rations, killing lice, and discussing the prospects of exchange and escape.

The rations, like everything else about us, had steadily grown worse. A bakery was built outside of the Stockade in May and our meal was baked there into loaves about the size of brick. Each of us got a half of one of these for a day’s ration. This, and occasionally a small slice of salt pork, was call that I received. I wish the reader would prepare himself an object lesson as to how little life can be supported on for any length of time, by procuring a piece of corn bread the size of an ordinary brickbat, and a thin slice of pork, and then imagine how he would fare, with that as his sole daily ration, for long hungry weeks and months. Dio Lewis satisfied himself that he could sustain life on sixty cents, a week. I am sure that the food furnished us by the Rebels would not, at present prices cost one-third that. They pretended to give us one-third of pound of bacon and one and one-fourth pounds of corn meal. A week’s rations then would be two and one-third pounds of bacon—worth ten cents, and eight and three-fourths pounds of meal, worth, say, ten cents more. As a matter of fact, I do not presume that at any time we got this full ration. It would surprise me to learn that we averaged two-thirds of it.

The meal was ground very coarse and produced great irrition in the bowels. We used to have the most frightful cramps that men ever suffered from. Those who were predisposed intestinal affections were speedily carried off by incurable diarrhea and dysentery. Of the twelve thousand and twelve men who died, four thousand died of chronic diarrhea; eight hundred and seventeen died of acute diarrhea, and one thousand three hundred and eighty-four died of dysenteria, making total of six thousand two hundred and one victims to enteric disorders.

Let the reader reflect a moment upon this number, till comprehends fully how many six thousand two hundred and men are, and how much force, energy, training, and rich possibilities for the good of the community and country died with those six thousand two hundred and one young, active men. It may help his perception of the magnitude of this number to remember that the total loss of the British, during the Crimean war, by death in all shapes, was four thousand five hundred and ninety-five, or one thousand seven hundred and six less than the deaths in Andersonville from dysenteric diseases alone.

The loathsome maggot flies swarmed about the bakery, and dropped into the trough where the dough was being mixed, so that it was rare to get a ration of bread not contaminated with a few of them.

It was not long until the bakery became inadequate to supply bread for all the prisoners. Then great iron kettles were set, and mush was issued to a number of detachments, instead of bread. There was not so much cleanliness and care in preparing this as a farmer shows in cooking food for stock. A deep wagon-bed would be shoveled full of the smoking paste, which was then hailed inside and issued out to the detachments, the latter receiving it on blankets, pieces of shelter tents, or, lacking even these, upon the bare sand.

As still more prisoners came in, neither bread nor mush could be furnished them, and a part of the detachments received their rations in meal. Earnest solicitation at length resulted in having occasional scanty issues of wood to cook this with. My detachment was allowed to choose which it would take—bread, mush or meal. It took the latter.

Cooking the meal was the topic of daily interest. There were three ways of doing it: Bread, mush and "dumplings." In the latter the meal was dampened until it would hold together, and was rolled into little balls, the size of marbles, which were then boiled. The bread was the most satisfactory and nourishing; the mush the bulkiest—it made a bigger show, but did not stay with one so long. The dumplings held an intermediate position—the water in which they were boiled becoming a sort of a broth that helped to stay the stomach. We received no salt, as a rule. No one knows the intense longing for this, when one goes without it for a while. When, after a privation of weeks we would get a teaspoonful of salt apiece, it seemed as if every muscle in our bodies was invigorated. We traded buttons to the guards for red peppers, and made our mush, or bread, or dumplings, hot with the fiery-pods, in hopes that this would make up for the lack of salt, but it was a failure. One pinch of salt was worth all the pepper pods in the Southern Confederacy. My little squad—now diminished by death from five to three—cooked our rations together to economize wood and waste of meal, and quarreled among, ourselves daily as to whether the joint stock should be converted into bread, mush or dumplings. The decision depended upon the state of the stomach. If very hungry, we made mush; if less famished, dumplings; if disposed to weigh matters, bread.

This may seem a trifling matter, but it was far from it. We all remember the man who was very fond of white beans, but after having fifty or sixty meals of them in succession, began to find a suspicion of monotony in the provender. We had now six months of unvarying diet of corn meal and water, and even so slight a change as a variation in the way of combining the two was an agreeable novelty.

At the end of June there were twenty-six thousand three hundred and sixty-seven prisoners in the Stockade, and one thousand two hundred—just forty per day—had died during the month.


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Chicago: John McElroy, "Chapter XXX.," Andersonville, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in Andersonville Original Sources, accessed August 21, 2019,

MLA: McElroy, John. "Chapter XXX." Andersonville, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in Andersonville, Original Sources. 21 Aug. 2019.

Harvard: McElroy, J, 'Chapter XXX.' in Andersonville, ed. . cited in , Andersonville. Original Sources, retrieved 21 August 2019, from