DUGANNE - TWENTY MONTHS IN THE DEPARTMENT OF THE GULF
C H A P T E R X L I V .
AT length the hopes so long cherished, so often dampened, drew near realization. Early in May, a Confederate officer arrived at Camp Ford, with orders to enroll the names of prisoners preparatory to an immediate exchange. Enrolled we duly were; but "immediate exchange" receded into uncertainty. Still, our confidence increased when, in June, the chaplains taken at Mansfield, together with several citizens, were allowed to set out, with their paroles, on a march without escort to our lines. Genial "Father Robb," of the 48th Ohio [probably Hamilton Robb, Chaplain of the 46th Indiana, Ed.], a Baptist preacher, who had been my guest during his captivity, and who had labored zealously in his vocation, was one of the chosen. With Rev. Mr. McCulloch, a Presbyterian, brother of a gallant captain of that name, who was likewise a prisoner, "Father Robb" had awakened much interest in religion among the soldiers; so that prayer-meetings were held nightly and several conversions took place under their ministrations. These gentlemen left us about the first of July, and shortly after we welcomed the return of our mustering officer with instructions to parole the "oldest prisoners."
It was a season of mingled rejoicing and disappointment; of joy to us who numbered ourselves among the "earliest settlers," and of "hope deferred" to more than three thousand still left in prison. But, the brave follows whom we were to leave shared not a little, after all, in the satisfaction; since our "exchange" would be a guaranty for them that the waters of relief were moving and would, in due season, reach their own feet.
It was immediately after our "celebration" of "Independence Day" that we "old prisoners" received the "glad tidings," of coming liberation. That "Fourth of July" will long be remembered. Hogarth ought to have been superincumbent over the corral, to take a sketch on thumb-nail, of our motley multitude. Description would beggar itself in an effort to compute our rags and tatters flattering on Texan breezes! Fancy might limp in following the bizarrerie of looks, motions, and habiliments which, swaying in a dense crowd, made up the "great unwashed" outline of our "fierce democracie" on this immortal day of Independence. But God bless the gallant hearts! They were all loyal American soldiers, though the tongues of many nationalities betrayed their diverse origin; though the "rich Irish brogue" and "sweet German accent" mingled with New England's nasal idioms and the broad vernacular of Western Prairie Land. God bless them all! They love the "Old Flag," with their honest souls, and their blood has been shed to defend it.
Under the green canopy of our verandahs, united one with another by interlacing foliage, so that the street before my cabin was completely screened from the sun, we raised our platform, and wound about the neighboring posts some blankets of red, white, and blue. Grouped about the rostrum were representative officers from a hundred regiments, embracing colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants, hailing from every loyal state and from some rebellious ones; bearing the martial monograms of regiments from Maine to Louisiana; wearing on their frontlets the bugles of infantry, the crossed sabres of cavalry, the trumpets of sharp-shooters, the turrets and shields of engineers, the crossed cannon of artillerymen, and the flaming shells of our ordnance corps. Interspersed with these were gallant sons of Neptune, with gay gold bands on caps and coat-sleeves. But, to tell the truth, ponderous majorities of this loyal audience were not extremely particular regarding costume, as evinced by the advent of our orator in his shirt-sleeves and our poet in a butternut coat which bore strong resemblance to a gipsey's blanket. Squatted on Texan soil, grouped by log-house corners, and perched upon tripods, they stretched to left and right, a goodly block of sui generis American timber. And their "hurrahs" were as lusty, their "Star Spangled Banner" as sonorous, and their "God Save America" as impressive -- albeit the vocal thunder set their rags all fluttering -- as if they had stood, in pipe-clayed lines, with glittering muskets at an order, and the Flag of Stars displaying its brilliant folds above them.
Once, twice, does rebel jealousy threaten to mar our "celebration." Hardly have the "Declaration's" noble truths been flung upon Southern air -- scarcely has our orator commenced his exordium -- when a tramp is heard approaching, and the voice of a Confederate captain roars out:
"Disperse, Yankees! Get into your quarters! Be off Quick! Every man of you!"
A file of rebel guards backs the speaker's authority. We recognize the officer of the day, and some one attempts an explanation.
"We had permission from Col. Borders to have this meeting," says our chairman, Col. Burrell, brave defender of Galveston wharf, who sits on the platform in bran new glory of blue coat and shoulder-straps, which have hardly been aired by previous wearing.
"I'll see about that," muttered the rebel, turning away toward the guard-house.
Our boys began to steal back again, and our orator lifted his voice for another effort. But before he could launch the American eagle on her wonted flight into the milky way of eloquence, a rebel sergeant was in the midst of us.
"Into your holes with you!" he yelled, with an oath. "Don't let me order you again!"
Thus adjured, our mass meeting began to disintegrate slowly; the boys dispersing toward their cabins, with lowering looks and wrathful objurgations. They knew their own impotence, and that to resist the insulting authority of their jailers could result in no good, and might afford pretext for a general massacre. Nevertheless, free blood asserted itself in the reluctant step, and the "curses not loud but deep," which accompanied the forced degradation of our retreat.
At this juncture, however, the officer of the day returned. He had communicated with Col. Borders and ascertained that our "Yankee celebration" was "legal," and conducted under high sufferance. So our harmless crowds were graciously permitted to congregate under the verandahs once more, our orator again ascended his rostrum, and the rebel guards fell back to the rear. Opposition only gave spice to our enjoyment, and we cheered our orators, pledged our "regular toasts," (with nothing to drink,) and sang our national songs with renewed ardor.
Short leave-takings; full hearts; hurried hand-shakings and the "old prisoners" are outside the corral, so long their city of bondage. I mount my horse -- a Texan pony, hired for the hundred-mile journey to Shreveport, in consideration of some two hundred dollars of Confederate currency. Then, waving our hands, in parting adieus to comrades left behind, we take up our line of march. A dozen others besides myself have bargained for horseflesh, and bestride their various nags. The rest move on in slow procession. So, the first day, we count twenty miles of traveling, and a like number the day following. On the third evening we reach Marshal, where we bivouac near a railroad track, and have Yankee music and singing at the camp-fire of rebel Major Smith, who commands our escort. Next morning, resigning my saddle to a footsore Kentucky officer, I avail myself, with several comrades, of permission to make the day's journey on a twenty-mile section of railroad. Thereafter, with faces and hearts toward Shreveport and "exchange," we march cheerfully on our last twenty-mile stretch to the Red River.
We halt upon our toilsome march -- a line of foot-sore prisoners. We have been upon the road since daybreak, and it is now past noon. But here are clumps of forest, and tracks of beaten mud conducting to a spring. The highway forks before us, from this piece of timber, skirting it, and we see two roads, one trending to a hollow at our right, the other branching up a hill in front. A mule-team and a laden wagon, on which sits an ancient negro, with a poll as white as cotton-wool, appear descending to us. "Watermelons!" shout our "boys;" and, quite forgetful of lame joints, they spring up from the shady roadside, and run forward to the sun-parched highway.
"How much, uncle ?" "What d'ye ax a-piece, uncle?" "Give us a couple, Sambo!"
"Fifteen dollar fur dis yer, an' ten dollar fur dat dar," croons the ancient darkey, who has been sent, probably, by his master, from a neighboring farm, to make a profitable market out of passing Yankee prisoners. He points to large and small specimens of the emerald fruit, heaped up in rich profusion, but is answered by indignant groans.
"Dry up, old cotton-head!" "Fifteen grannies!" "What's Confed. money worth?" "Git off that box, old man!" Then there is a movement forward, and by the flanks, and a reconnoisssance in force at the wagon-tail.
"Let' dat alone dar! -- I sees ye!" The old negro plunges off his box upon the melon-pile. A yell rises from besieging Yankees, as a nimble drummer-boy grips one of the tempting spheroids, ducks suddenly under the wagon, and presently emerges from the press, followed by half a dozen comrades eager to cut into the prize.
"Gorramity! dar's anudder gwine!" screams Uncle Ned, as a burly follow, ragged and barefoot, seizes one of the largest specimens within his reach, and swings away with it as leisurely as if it had been bought and paid for. At this juncture, a third melon is suddenly whirled up from the heap and finds its way beyond the ring, scrambled after by a dozen scamps with watering mouths.
"Pass round the 'greenbacks,' boys!" yells a sans culottes, whose tatters hang about him in a fringe, like Adam's fig-leaves.
"O! de lor-a-massy! 'top dar! 'top t'ief! Free watermelon done gone, an' nary dollar fur massa! G'lang, ole mules! Git out dis yer place!" And, casting himself over the melon-pile, with his long gorilla arms sprawling out to cover it, the superannuated darkey flings his heels across the box, and kicks his mules to start them; but in vain! Twenty hands have laid hold upon the wagon-wheels and pull them back, while shouts and laughter drown the hapless peddler's lamentations.
"Free watermelon done gone, an' nary one dollar fur massa!" "G'lang, ole mules! Fo' watermelon done gone, an' nary dollar fur massa! G'lang, ye ole fools! Seben watermelon done gone, an' nary dollar fur massa!"
"I say, Uncle Ned! what'll ye take for the balance?" "Drive on, cotton-head: you're lighter than you was!" "Tell your massa to charge 'em to Gineral Banks."
"Free mo' watermelon done gone, an' nary dollar! Fo' mo' watermelon done gone, and nary dollar fur massa!" The ancient darkey bows his white wool in despair, sprawls over the diminished fruit-heap, belabors his wretched mules with both heels, like a drummer with drumsticks beating the roll-call. All the while be glares, rheumy-eyed, upon laughing tormentors, who snatch melon after melon from under his hands, while their comrades hold back the wagon-wheels, stopping all mule-power.
At length, however, a violent effort of the animals, goaded by drubbing heels, succeeds in starting off the wain, and, with a sudden turn, the half-unloaded vehicle is whirled from out the crowd of Yankees, and goes spinning toward the hollow in a cloud of dust. The prisoners toss a portion of their plunder to the rebel guards, and vent a loud hurrah, which adds new speed to the affrighted mules as they plunge down the hill. But backward come the cracked bewailings of poor Uncle Ned:
"Free watermelon done gone! 'leben watermelon gone! seben watermelon! cl'ar gone! done gone! Nary dollar fur massa! Done gone' cl'ar gone -- nary --"
Dust, clamor, lamentations! I laugh as I recall that scene. How ludicrously it reminds one of the rebel government and its predicament. This crazy wagon-load of watermelons is no bad symbol of Confederate commonwealths -- their mule-power progress stopped by Yankee strength, while, one by one, the watermelon States are lugged off bodily by force of Yankee arms, and cotton-headed Davis is sprawling vainly over all with impotent bemoaning --
"Free mo' watermelon done gone! Fo' mo' watermelon done gone! -- cl'ar gone -- an' nary dollar fur massa! Done gone -- cl'ar gone!
But eager longing for liberty and "home" outstrips the incidents of travel. Fain would I linger, with pleasant roadside halts at farm-houses; fain recal my gossip with whites and blacks; and my confidential chats with loyal Texan guards -- eliciting life-histories during short rides in advance of leg-weary pedestrians. But I must hasten over our three-days sojourn at Shreveport; catered for by honest conscript, "Uncle Jack," trusty purveyor for hungry Yankees; with whom I left my last Texan relic in the shape of goat-skin breeches; -- I must pass by head-quarters of Kirby Smith, where hang our "Ironsides" banners, as trophies on rebel walls: I must leap from the levee, and leave behind my long-kept dress-coat, stolen now from rifled knapsack! But what matters the loss of a uniform! What boots it, though I emerge from rebel toils with but aboriginal costume! Here flows the Red River! At its mouth the Mississippi rolls: beyond is -- Liberty!
All of our nine hundred will not see the Promised Land of their loyal love -- their heart-weary yearnings. This old soldier from Maine -- whom we were wont to make merry with, as a half-crazed seer of spirits -- this poor dying MOORE! he has made his last march! his comrades bear his body past my bivouac, as we halt on the shores of Red River. And this pale-faced, patient Lieut. Hugg; who has borne suffering so long and bravely; he will never behold the sun-rise again over pine-woods of his native New Jersey. He will pass away, with gallant Captain Adams, under the Stars and Stripes; but the Crescent City moon will look down upon their coffins.
But the STARS AND STRIPES! the "Father of Waters!" the blue Atlantic! the glorious, undivided, indivisible UNION! with all treasures of home; all wealth of responsive hearts! are not these still for us? We have descended, at last, the maurky tide of ochreous waters. Far behind us are the ruined mansions and devastated gardens of Alexandria. Yonder lie Federal gun-boats, watchful at Red River gates, like grim mastiffs. Below them, with her prow turned hitherward, moves a Mississippi steamer. Her colors -- streaming aloft -- flash in meridian sunlight. "Our Flag is still there!"
Presently, we see the small "messenger-boat" passing and repassing. Our Federal Commissioner of Exchange, Col. DWIGHT, has arrived in the river-steamer, bringing Confederate prisoners to exchange for US. Col. Skuymanski, rebel "Commissioner of Exchange," confers with him.... and the assurance comes, at last, that we are -- FREE!
It is thirteen months since I unbuckled my sword; eleven months since I heard from home and the beloved who waits for my coming. But now I stand under the "Old Flag" again! I clasp the hilt of a Federal sabre! and, thank heaven! Here -- at the mouth of Red River -- I lift to my lips a well-remembered seal, and trace, with misty eyes, upon a letter-sheet, the dear word -- WIFE!
So, with grateful heart -- looking forward to our future -- I praise the gracious Providence which holds in keep both nations and individuals; and which is mighty forever to save and succor; whether its mercy be invoked from CABINETS and CONGRESSES, or from CAMPS and PRISONS!
Return to the 48th Ohio at Camp Ford