Camp Sumter Prison, Georgia
Confederate States of America
The swampy ground was littered with bodies, filling in the gaps between the makeshift tents. Some of the skeletons were still alive. That was nothing new and the Lieutenant was no longer shocked by it. Camp Sumter, Andersonville as the Union prisoners called it, was Hell and rotting corpses were its natural residents. He’d seen so many. He’d known their names. What was different this time was that some of those bodies were Rebels. And why did it have to be two of the few Rebels that were actually decent men? Decent men, Pitkern and Reynolds, Confederate guards who were picked off by snipers and lying half submerged in the mud. They hadn’t been the ones who treated Union soldiers as human rubbish. Not everyone here was like the commandant, Henry Wirz.
Was God so far away and unmoved that the better men died while evil men lived? If only for a second, while he was forced to step over the pair of Confederate men who’d once willingly given up their own rations to save a Union man’s life, Navy Lieutenant Thomas Turner was amused by the irony that he might have accidentally declared himself a ‘better man.’ He hadn’t meant to; he was far too flawed to be a better man. Now it was too late for him to have such a high goal: he was a dead man. The Lieutenant slipped in the mud, nearly loosing his footing, scrapping his boot against Pitkern’s frozen hand. Looking down, he apologized, very sincerely; he didn’t want to be disrespectful, but he was not in control of where and how fast he was moving. Did he really need to care? A dead man was a dead man, and beyond any worries about his empty carcass. Still, a man shouldn’t disrespect the body of a fallen enemy, it simply wasn’t done.
One good thing: all the shelling and gunfire meant that neither Commandant Wirz nor any one of his minions were going to spend any time out in the open, admonishing or gloating at the Lieutenant’s followers, and that was a pleasing thought. It was highly unlikely they were even in the camp. Cowards. His men didn’t deserve disrespect; they were brave and honorable. But, they were good as dead too. Once he was executed, most of them would follow. The deliberation about their lives had taken little more than an hour as to which, the leader or the followers, would die first. A lesson had to be taught. A lesson, he thought, that evil wins?
Several shots blasted out from the distance, followed by bullets ricocheting off the few solid features in the camp. The Rebs escorting the Lieutenant quickened their pace, desperate to know where the next bullet was coming from and who would be the next to fall.
It had been decided far too quickly by the Confederate officers: the Lieutenant would die first as the example to the overcrowded prisoner-of-war camp, then one third of the ‘Regulators’ would follow. The remaining two thirds would be put to hard labor, their nearly skeletal forms forced to rebuild a fence they’d torn down in their escape attempt, the same fence demarking a three foot zone inside the camp wall; something they called the Dead Line. If any of them survived, they were to tell other prisoners what swift justice awaited anyone who caused disruption in Hell.
He raised his unshaved chin as he was hauled past two rows of men he’d once commanded. Honest men. Regulators. They had been lined up so that each could have a clear view. In the few eyes he dared look into, he saw the same confusion, anger, fear, hopelessness. He prayed that no one saw such things in his eyes. He knew that all that was left was resignation. He didn’t feel the scalding fear he once had; his muscles weren’t as rigid; his stomach had quieted; his head felt oddly clear as though he was already disconnected from the world of men. Accepting. It made things easier. There was no more to fight for. It was done.
In the five months he’d been a prisoner, Lieutenant Turner had learned that there were four types of inmates in Andersonville: those who were too weak, sick or dying to matter; the Raiders who terrorized their fellow Union soldiers; the Regulators who did their best to stop the Raiders; and those men too new and in shock to understand what was happening to them. It had taken him one week to move from being in shock to being an active Regulator. He was thin, but not yet diseased or emaciated, so he fought. Killing would never become glorious, but he did it, to stop the vultures picking the bodies of their own kind. For Christ’s sake, they were all Federal, they were all Union. Desperate to survive, yes, but they were still comrades in arms. The Raiders were nothing but demons and traitors, proof that evil resided here.
He was yanked by one arm up the steps. He really couldn’t feel his hands or legs anymore, which he considered an acceptable thing. His guards were in a rush, looking around frantically, expecting at any second that a sniper would put a lead ball into their brains. Perhaps they’d get him by accident, saving them all the trouble of the execution.
The stockade one hundred yards away exploded into splinters and fire as a shell hit it dead on. Everyone dropped down into a fetal crouch; covering their heads and searching for the rain of debris which could do damage on its own. It was almost funny that in the few minutes many of them had to live, they would be so concerned that they might accidentally get killed. The Lieutenant liked observing all things ironic. Maybe a little bit of God was there for him after all, allowing him one little moment of humor before he was dead. Slowly, everyone stood up and returned to what they were doing, which in his case was being killed, one way or another.
The rope they tied around his neck was old and looked as if it had seen a thousand other uses before this particular job. They were too hurried and the temporary hangman was too concerned for his own neck. As the rope was tightened he began to feel his stomach again, which was not good. His entire body began to stiffen and his heart began to pound. How long was this going to take? He’d been calm, prepared, but now he was loosing control over his fears. The Lieutenant began quietly repeating his father’s favorite Psalm, despairing that it wouldn’t help him maintain the dignity he sought to keep. He would not be afraid. Damn God and every angel, he couldn’t appear afraid.
A filthy rag was tied over his blue eyes, and his fright turned to rage. Were his hands free he would have torn it off. No one asked him if he needed a blindfold and he was no coward. He didn’t want it. If they couldn’t stomach the appearance of his face once his neck was broken then they could just put that rag over their own damn eyes, though he did consider for a second that it might be good if the hangman kept his eyes open and his mind on his job. But the Confederate’s mind wasn’t on the business at hand; it was on the increasing bombardment and gunshots.
The front gates gave way in a blast that sent out a concussive wave the Lieutenant could feel through his whole body. The scaffold he was standing on shuddered. He was suddenly aware that, despite a day of solid resolution, acceptance and courage, he wanted the support to stay under his feet. He was not willing to die if he didn’t have to. He wanted to live. Union troops were on the verge of entering the camp. There was no need for them to go through with this. Was it Sherman? Had he come to free the prisoners? Screams and shouts of panic met his ears though he couldn’t see what was happening. Lifting his head up, he could see a tiny bit out from under the blindfold. Confederates, who were assigned to watch him hang and then to shoot his men began abandoning their assignments to race for the front of the camp. Mortar fire began in earnest, ripping out sections of the rough hewn logs that made up the twelve foot stockade wall, spraying mud and splinters everywhere. Union forces were trying to open up the camp, allowing the prisoners to escape. It was a good tactic. In the confusion and multitude of escape routes, more prisoners could get out. The Rebs wouldn’t be able to wrangle them like cattle in the meat houses. Cannon, detonating shells, muskets and repeating-action rifles all blended into one deafening, continuous assault on the ears and mind.
All of the Rebel soldiers were running in one direction or another. His men were no longer guarded. They would live if only they could avoid being hit by friendly fire. He called out to them to take cover. Look for a way out. He cried out to them, run!
Irony. The only Confederate to stay his post was too rushed or inexperienced to know that the knot goes under the left ear, not at the back. A measured slackness was required in the rope. And that an average size, underweight man, like the Lieutenant, needed approximately a six foot drop to break his neck. The only Rebel who was stalwart enough to keep to his job didn’t have the knowledge to do it right. He heard his men calling back to him: someone shouting to grab his legs.
The feeling of falling, dropping, was more horrible than he’d feared. His eyes wanted to burst from his head; canon fire dissolved into a freakish ringing in his ears; his body thrashed violently trying to find footing that wasn’t there. The old rope not only strangled him, it cut his flesh. What dread or hope raced through the Lieutenant’s mind as he struggled was lost to unconsciousness.
From the Volcano Lady by T.E. MacArthur