Hell on Earth
.... was Andersonville
Hell on earth was Andersonville, the South‘s prisoner of war camp in rural Georgia. It might as well be July 1864 again. Cpl. Michael Cassidy, captured near Plymouth, N.C., was taken to the belly of the beast. The young Irishman was scared anyway, being in the custody of enemy soldiers. One had taken the butt of a rifle and moved him along. The soldiers didn’t like the way he spoke.
“Sarge, we got one of those damn Micks,” the soldier said. “Boy, you Micks got off that boat and were stupid enough to put on these blue uniforms. You all are some kind of special fools. We got just the place for ya, Mickey.”
He let loose a wicked laugh and Cassidy and his captured comrades were shipped in a box car deep into the heart of Georgia. They smelled Andersonville miles before they ever got there. There had been a slaughterhouse near Baltimore. Every now and then smells would waft over to the Irish shanty. That was perfume compared to Andersonville’s stench. The closer they got, the worse the smell got. It was like having feces placed under your nose. It was inhumane.
They were greeted by the Commandant, Henry Wirz. He sat on a horse and spoke to the new arrivals in his thick European accent. He explained the rules. After that he would ride back across the compound to his comfortable quarters. The prisoners went off to the squalor.
On 26 acres, 33,000 men were jammed together. If you had enough room to lie down, it was a miracle. There was mud from torrential rains in spring. The summer heat blistered the men. And still more prisoners came. Some men left. They were dead.
Then there were the memories. The ones he couldn’t even share with Marshal Dillon the night before.
There was the man with the scar. Oh yes, it had been him. Devil Dunbar was what he was called. One day, when he was in a foul mood, the man had taken his revolver and simply shot two men. They were being used as an example not to cross him. Their fate would await others who looked cross eyed at him.
“That is the way I get rid of you damn sons of bitches,” he had said. He laughed. It was the vile laugh of a sadist, who hated humanity.
When he drank, he got even uglier, if that was possible. One of his sports was to take plantation dogs and sic them on prisoners, as if they had been disobedient black slaves. Pity the poor prisoner bit by the dogs. The odds of the wound healing were slim to none. Maggots were a foot deep.
The men who protested were singled out for more punishment, as if being in hell wasn’t punishment enough. The man with the scar would put a ball and chain, or Captain’s Jewelry, around some. Everyone was weak and sick. The extra weight was horrid. If that wasn’t bad enough there were stocks, which most had only heard about from Colonial America. Men shackled by heavy boards. Men were thirsty. They would wear the boards for two days.
Even without the boards, the men wanted water. The main stream was hideously polluted by human and livestock waste. When completely thirsty, a man would drink almost anything, Fr. Cassidy thought. In horror he had seen it. He had done it.
Some took nothing more than poor excuses for spoons and tried to dig to deep water wells. Most everyone was dirty. Only when it rained did some get cleansed and the stench would go from unbearable to simply hideous. Fr. Cassidy could swear there were times when he could still smell the hell, which was Andersonville.
And still it wasn’t enough for the man with the scar. He held sway over dozens of guards, who mistrusted and hated him, yet didn’t have the courage to challenge him. He was vicious. It was almost as vicious as the diseases which descended on Andersonville.
Most of the men had lice. That was common. It was disgusting, but typical of the filth. It was a horrible feeling have the little vermin crawl into your nose or ears, but so much of Andersonville was terrible, this was just part of the pain. Some of the men adapted. They would pass the time by actually having lice races. Fr. Cassidy, breathing heavily during his nightmare, would be in awe of how humans could adapt to conditions, even in hell.
Other diseases were ghastly. The men had plenty of misery, but no food. The little they were given was not nutritious enough for a rat. The result was scurvy. The lucky victims would only lose a half a dozen teeth or so. Then there were others, like Robert Milligan. Fr. Cassidy met the young private on the boxcar. Milligan was another good Irishman. Robert was a teen and had bright eyes. He had no business being anywhere close to a war. This war was an ugly business and getting only more monstrous. Exhibit A of man’s inhumanity against man was Andersonville. Robert was a nice youngster. Fr. Cassidy couldn’t imagine Milligan ever pulling a trigger on a fellow man. He was that nice of a young man. Yet here he was in hell with the rest of them.
The scurvy blackened Robert’s feet. Robert needed both cut off. Even with that, he had been lucky. He was one of a few that was admitted to what passed for a hospital. Fr. Cassidy prayed Robert had survived. He was never sure.
Michael Cassidy made his seven months in the camp by using his wits. He avoided the Raiders, fellow Union soldiers who had gone mad and victimized fellow prisoners. Michael befriended Sgt. Vincent Jones. The Vermont soldier was smart and the two enjoyed each other’s company.
Jones managed to secretly heat a small supply of water every day. He shared it with Michael. That saved the young Irishman from dysentery. Fr. Cassidy was given the same cornmeal the rest of the prisoners got. He picked out the hard shards of cob. He was also spared the pain of typhoid fever. In the midst of it, Michael prayed the rosary every day, sometimes many times a day, imploring the Blessed Mother to save him and as many others as possible. The Confederates could take his health and his freedom. They could never take his faith. That wasn’t negotiable.
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