HART’S ISLAND

The train headed north, making its way to New York where Allen Kell and the thousand prisoners captured at Sutherland’s Station would be processed into the hastily constructed Hart’s Island Prison Camp on Long Island, New York. Any relief the prisoners had over not being sent to Elmira soon turned to fear and despair. They were told they would head home as soon as the war ended and they took an oath of allegiance to “faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder.” Until their release occurred they were to consider themselves prisoners in every sense of the word. Anyone attempting to escape would be shot.

Within days, the population of the camp swelled to over three thousand, all contained within the confines of less than in five acres. There weren’t enough tents and Allen Kell was thankful to be crowded into a tent away from the camp’s sinks…not that it really mattered. The stench was discernable anytime the wind blew from the wrong direction.

The prisoners received the news of Lee’s surrender with mixed emotions on the morning of their third day on Hart’s. Disbelief, relief, anger and fear coursed through the detainees while the small contingent of guards used up a month’s worth of ammunition until their superiors ordered a halt to their celebrations. Little changed inside of the camp. Poor food, and little of it, boredom, the stench from the sinks and death followed them daily. No day past without burial details being formed under guard to take gray clad soldiers to their final resting places. Buried in mass, their unmarked graves were dug by ex-slaves, nothing to mark their passing or their extreme suffering.

A week later, Allen Kell awoke early with a sense of foreboding. Moving silently as not to disturb the rest of the prisoners sleeping fitfully in the overcrowded tent, Allen Kell stretched outside of the tent flap. As he did his eyes fell upon the flag flying at half-mast outside of the camp’s gate. “Some bigwig Yankee musta died,” he thought. Wandering over to the guards congregated outside of the fence, he stood at attention and waited.

“Whatcha’ want Reb?”

“Who died, must have been someone important?

“President Lincoln was assassinated last night by a yellow-bellied rebel coward. Shot in the back of the head in front of his wife.”

Allen Kell stood silently, dumbfounded and confused, attempting to sort out his feelings. His hesitancy might have saved his life.

“Word to the wise Reb. When its announced at roll call there better be no celebration if you know what’s good for you and your…kind.” He said “kind” as if he had bit down on a turd.

Allen Kell went straight back to his tent and broke the word.
Once again Dugan shot off his mouth, “Well ain’t today the grandest of days!”

“Dugan, you stupid Mick! I should have let you charge the Yanks at Sutherland’s Station. Those Yankee guards are as pissed off as any yellow jacket nest you’ve stepped in. They are just looking for an excuse to shoot us all. We need to get the word out. No one is to celebrate when it is announced unless you want to eat Yankee lead. Go pass the word.” As Dugan turned to go Allen Kell cautioned him, “Dugan, I don’t much care if the Yanks shoot you or not but if you cause the death of anyone else, I will choke the very life out of your black soul.”

Later in the morning the Commandant, Colonel Wessells, broke the word. There was no open rejoicing over Lincoln’s death. A few diehards, like Dugan, silently smiled believing Lincoln’s assassination gave the Confederacy hope but mostly there was fear and confusion. For several days the prisoners feared reprisals. Exercise was suspended until further notice and they were told any groups of three or more seen talking together might be fired upon.

***

Young Wyatt was sick. Too weak to get to the sinks, he had shit himself.

“Gawd, we got to get him to the hospital. The stench is awful.”

It was Dugan. The more Allen Kell was around Dugan the more he wished Dugan had resisted and gotten himself killed.

“As God as my witness Dugan, if you don’t quit yur bellyaching I’ll ….”

“I know, you’ll choke the life out of me…one of these days I might just want you to try.”

Allen Kell felt a touch. Weakly Wyatt pleaded, “Don’t fight! I got the bloody flux ain’t I Allen Kell?”

“No Wyatt, you just got a touch of the ‘quick step.’ We goin’ to get you to the hospital. They’ll treat you and you’ll be right as rain.” He hated himself for the lie. The surest way to die was a trip to the hospital. At least it was shady and airy…and away from the stench of the sinks. Maybe they had some laudanum to ease the cramps.

He and Dugan half carried, half drug Wyatt to the gate. Either one could have carried him by themselves had they too not been in such a weakened state. Allen Kell doubted Wyatt weighed more than one hundred pounds. The guards allowed them to pass and under guard escorted them to the hospital where they turned Wyatt over to the staff.

“Wyatt. You’ll be right as rain and back with us before you know it.”

Wyatt attempted to smile, knowing it was a lie. “Thanks for tryin’ Allen Kell. I want to ask a favor. My momma and my sister live in New Orleans. If you ever get down their way could you look ‘em up? Adele and Lucrecia Noel. They live off Magazine Street in the Irish Channel, all you need to do is ask around. Everybody knows Adele. If you do get down there, can you tell them I was brave?”

“Sure, Wyatt but it won’t be long you’ll be telling them yourself, okay. Just rest now and get stronger.”

He died three days later. One more piece of Allen Kell died with him.

***

A month later, they took the loyalty oath and within a week Allen Kell was headed toward home. Transportation passes and enough bacon and hardtack for a week, two if he was frugal. Four railroad changes to get to Pittsburg and then onto a barge being towed by a side-wheeler to New Orleans. His trip home would have to be delayed.

Until LEGACIES is published try more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

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