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Christmas at Andersonville

In 1863, Union soldier Daniel Webster Whittle was incarcerated as Civil War POW at Andersonville, Sumter County, Georgia. Though the war began as a struggle to maintain the Unionist North and the U.S. Federal system against the secessionist, states-rightist South, the other issues became even more the reason to continue the war.

Federalist systems opposed to states rights paled beside free vs. slave, and, religiously and social, brother against brother. How could God permit families and even churches to be torn apart by such issues, bringing hardship and death to innumerable households across the length and breadth of America?

Troubled in conscience and his faith nearly shattered, Daniel Webster was one Unionist and Christian who did not throw his faith away in the test but faced God with his question: “How can these things be in a Christian land?”

Union President Abraham Lincoln would later, in his speech at his second inauguration, would speak to the same agony of conscience and soul, but this was no help to the likes of Whittle and others who like him were caught in the juggernaut of a society-destroying conflict.

After he had been there six months, having seen many hundreds perish from disease, poor food or the lack of it, and some killed trying to escape, Whittle organized a diversion for himself, to save his own sanity. He had been reading the New Testament his mother had packed in his kit just before he marched off for war. His childhood faith challenged by the appalling conditions and the brutality of the guards and the stench of death everywhere, Whittle joined with other men to produce a Christmas pageant.

Despite the lack of materials and the laughter that greeted their first, awkward attempts, interest was stimulated to the degree that things they needed were found somehow in the vast camp and donated for their use. The pageant was named “Christmas from Bedford Falls,” being the sort of Christmas most would remember from hometowns and villages. The story was one that Whittle composed on the spot, telling how a rich miser, who owned the town bank, got control of the town and its sole means of sustenance, the mill.

Unable to control his lust for power, which dominated even his lust for money, the miser closed the mill, then foreclosed on the properties of all who owed something to the bank. The story tells how the tables were turned on him, and how a little girl proved the catalyst that brought about the moral transformation of the miser and also the deliverance of the town.

The Christmas play was based on Whittle’s story, and performed by the actors before the camp commanders, and it was successful, for all the men were issued an extra ration for Christmas, though this sorely depleted the stocks on hand. What occurred next was considered a miracle of the first magnitude, comparable to the one that Elijah the Prophet occasioned in his dealings with the poor widow of Sidon in the Bible, in the account where she and her son were down to their last meal when the propeht demanded it. Obeying, her oil cruse and meal jar never ran out until the famine ended over a year later after she fed the prophet all she had on hand. Likewise, the ration that had been removed for Christmas was found restored early on December the 26th when the cooks went to draw the food out for the first meal’s preparation.

With the slaves emancipated by the decree of President Lincoln and the war between the brothers ending in 1865, Whittle returned home to Bedford Falls, New Hampshire, but he never forgot his experiences. He could not put from his mind what happened there, nor the marvelous provision that had followed the Christmas play. He became a successful businessman selling corn and wheat commodities to the European markets, but his heart was not in it, and he quit the thriving business and became a traveling evangelist, preaching the Gospel and also composing songs. One of the songs was based on his camp experiences during the war, “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”

He handed out fliers and printed testimonies of his life and wartime experiences, and the account of the Andersonville miracle continued to attract throngs to his meetings, and eventually Christmas cards were printed up by one firm that carried the story on it. The cards were very popular for a time, and eventually the story, without Whittle’s control, was changed and shortened, so that the play itself became the focus, and the miracle, which strained the belief of some, was left out. This form came to Ira Sulkowsky around 1987, and he added it to his collection.

In the 22nd Century, the play was found in a computer database and revived for a performance before the king, Alfred the Second, at the sublunary Pluto base where the House of Windsor was living in exile during the Chillingsworth dictatorship.

The Sulkowsky cards and paintings, however, were removed from Earth by the Alpha Centauriians on a return visit to Earth. This archive was lost and forgotten, yet emerged much later at the terminus of the wandering colony.

July’s sultry depths were a poor time to rouse spirits in the prison camp, Daniel Whittle discovered. There was scarcely any shade in the camp for most of its thousands, and the men suffered hideously until nightfall. Then their misery increased as hordes of nightfliers rose from the surrounding swamps and swept into the camp, wave after wave of biting, burrowing gnats and drilling, swamp-fever carrying mosquitoes. Men tried everything to protect themselves, but so few men possessed enough clothes to cover their bodies, that there wasn’t much they could do. Sleep was impossible as the clouds of insects made Andersonville a living hell, worse than the merciless burning of the sun during the day.

“Hey, Seth,” Whittle called just before dawn, prodding a mess of cardboard, sticks and mud. The mess groaned and a half-naked man emerged.

“What?” cried the man. “Is it you Whittle? God help us! These bugs will kill all of us yet! “

His own body covered with a wide variety of sucking, stinging, clinging, altogether noxious and bothersome insects, Whittle could not help but agree, but he ignored them as best he could due to the business at hand.

“Buck up, Seth! They’ll soon have all your blood, and then they’ll leave you alone. Now how about it? Can you come and practice with the boys?”

Seth, a lanky West Virginian, nodded and got to his feet. “I must be crazy to do this for you. I sure don’t feel like Christmas!” He spat, wiping the streaming sweat and insects on his brow with a rag of a shirt sleeve.

With Seth tagging along, Whittle made his round, calling the men who had agreed to help with the production.

Suddenly, a trapper from west the Missouri River country stepped between Whittle and a former boy who had agreed to play Emily, the play’s heroine.

“You ain’t taken him, Whittle—he’s my errand boy for the duration!”

Suddenly, the hundred or so men in the vicinity stiffened and there was a deadly quiet, for Big Moe, as he was called, was a gangleader in that part of the camp and lorded it over them all with threats and a force of vicious thugs.

Whittle couldn’t be put off now, he knew if the play was to succeed. The light of the moon was brilliant enough to show how mean and ugly Big Moe was, with his hairy paunch fed by all the food he extorted from the weaker POWs with his personal bodyguard and “army.” Clenching his fists, Whittle eyed his antagonist and the two stared at each other, neither giving ground.

“But I want to do the part!” cried the boy Jake in the shadows.

Big Mo turned his head, shouting, “Shut up! Or I’ll give you a beating you’ll never forget!”

Whittle’s anger really flared now, but somehow he controlled it. “You’ll not touch that boy, Moe! He’s done nothing. I only want him for an hour practice. What harm is that? It’s not yet dawn, and nobody can sleep anyway.”

“Yeah, listen to him!” a man called out. “Let the boy go with him!”

There was a murmur all around, seemingly of assent.

Moe glanced quickly this way and that, then back at Whittle.

Whittle, seeing his enemy’s indecision, decided to press his advantage. “You’ll get an extra ration on Christmas if you let him go! I give you my word.”

Big Moe’s mouth flew open, showing all the gaps and his big, wagging tongue. “Is that all I get from you? And I gotta wait till Christmas fur it! Ha! You gotta do better than that!”

Whittle, looking more assured than he felt, for he was wondering how he was going to come up with an extra ration, replied, “That’s plenty, since it is two more rations than most men in this camp will be getting!”

Starved men all around began to roar, “Yes! He’s speaking the truth! We won’t even receive one ration, much less two!”

Outvoted in the camp, Big Moe rubbed his face, considered the proposal, then nodded. The boy Jake was instantly standing by Whittle, and they went away peaceably to get the other performers.

Each time Whittle called the cast to practice, Big Moe stopped Whittle just to remind him, face to face, of the deal. “Remember, Whittle, two full rations! If not, I’ll see to it you don’t leave this camp alive. You get me?”

Whittle gravely nodded, knowing that Big Moe could hold true to his boast since no man could keep awake night after night to defend himself against Big Moe’s gang of assassins, which was trained to creep up in the dark and cut the throat of anyone Big Moe considered an enemy.

Even with the deal witnessed by hundreds, Big Moe wasn’t keen about waiting so long as December 25. In August he pressed Whittle for some “earnest money,” a ration in advance, one ration a week until the performance.

“But you’re going to starve us!” Whittle cried, enraged.

Big Moe laughed in Whittle’s face. “Either that, or you can’t have my drummer boy for that girlish part! Take it or leave it!”

What could he do? Whittle wondered. He nodded.

The next time the two met the extortion was even greater. “One ration a day for the boy! Well, do I have a taker or not? Eh?”

Whittle stared at the red Georgia clay at his feet, which was the color and consistency of blood wherever streams of urine flowed through it. His tattered sandals, which he had made from his ruined boots, were held on with twine. Slowly, he shifted back and forth on his feet as he considered this latest outrage of Big Moe’s.

“All right, Moe, you have a taker.” What else could he do? Whittle thought, miserable to the core. Already his men were giving up food to keep Jake in the cast, food that meant the difference between life and a slow, agonizing death by starvation. How long could they do on like this? They would be too weak to stand if Big Moe kept taking their food.

“That’s just what I like, a reasonable man!” laughed Big Moe. He gave Jake a slap that sent him falling to the ground. “Now take him for your practice! But see he get’s back here in good time to black my boots before dark, or I’ll—“

Whittle stared at the beautiful, polished boots Big Moe was wearing even then. They were as good as a commanding general’s. Where had he gotten them? Then he remembered, he had heard of a captain who had been captured, but he was in the northern end of the camp and was sick from the first, maybe from tainted water, and he was said to have brought in a pair of good boots. Could these be the man’s? But how did Big Moe come by them?

Big Moe noticed Whittle’s gaze and flexed one boot. “How’d ya like it? Not bad leather, ain’t they? Not even the camp commander—may he roast in hell!--has any the likes of these!”

Whittle couldn’t believe what he was seeing, for he realized what Big Moe had done. A strange fury possessed him, after being made the victim of Big Moe’s extortion since July. He couldn’t have done it for himself, but at the thought of the sick captain being set upon by the likes of Big Moe and his scummy cohorts he couldn’t restrain himself any longer.

Whittle’s big hands moved so fast Big Moe was caught completely by surprise. Throttled, his eyes bulged out, and he began flailing about, trying to catch Whittle, who held himself beyond Big Moe’s reach even as he pressed Big Moe’s breath out of him.

Someone tripped Whittle, and both men went down, kicking and hitting each other. Together, they rolled in the mud and urine that ran in streams through the camp, fed by the tens of thousands who had nowhere else to relieve themselves.

Finally, men dragged Big Moe clear of Whittle, who was just as exhausted and beaten up as Big Moe. It was considered by all a “draw,” and Whittle was left alone as he gathered his strength and crept back to his part of the camp. Since the fight was between the two men alone, the code of honor that prevailed even in this prison hell kept others from joining in.

Whittle lay in his cardboard and stick shelter and berated himself for hours afterwards. “Now what possessed me to do so stupid a thing as fight Big Moe?” he cried to himself. “At least I had his cooperation before this happened. Now what will we do without little Jake to play Emily’s part? He is the only one with the proper voice and smallness of frame for it. No one else will be convincing.”

He lay there for hours, and then something happened. He heard something within his own spirit.

Go, and ask his forgiveness!

Whittle groaned. “But Lord--! He—“

“Go, or I cannot forgive you a greater wrong!”

“But Lord, he’ll kill me if he can!”


Whittle, when he stopped arguing with the Almighty, went to Big Moe’s headquarters. Everyone was surprised to see him.

“He ain’t in!” an armpit scratching, evil-smelling rat-like fellow barked, after eyeing Whittle up and down. “You got your nerve comin’ back here!”

Surrounded by Big Moe’s cutthroats, Whittle could not help but agree. But he had determined to obey the Almighty, no matter what happened.

“Tell Big Moe I’m sorry!”

An earthquake seemed to shake the “headquarters” as soon as Whittle’s words sank in. Tearing aside the ragged curtain “door,” Big Moe emerged, a rag twisted around his head, covered one knuckle-bruised and blackened eye.

He held a bottle in one hand, and the other was on the shoulder of man helping him. “What did you say?” Big Moe roared.

“I came to tell you I was wrong, and I am sorry!”

Big Moe shook his head, and the rag flew off. He looked stupefied. “You’re plumb crazy! You’ve lost your wits! Is it the swamp fever got ya? “

Whittle shook his head. “We will pay your demands. I was wrong to attack you.”

Big Moe, without a word, turned and went back in his shelter. Then he lunged out, took another look at Whittle, finished off the bottle, threw it, and came close to Whittle.

“You’re a dead man, at one word from me, you know,” Big Moe said.

“Yes, I know,” replied Whittle. “But I came to tell you was wrong, and I am sorry.”

Big Moe’s eyes showed he couldn’t bear to look at Whittle—it was almost a pleading look.

Whittle had a sudden inspiration. “We need someone to play an important figure—would you be willing?”

Big Moe was ovewhelmed. Waves of wildly conflicting emotion swept across his face.

“What’d’ya mean?”

“I have a part for you? Are you available?”

A storm of mockery and scorn swept the whole end of that area.

Whittle, however, held his ground. Big Moe, on the other hand, was infuriated as he turned round on the laughing and jeering men, who noticing his rage quickly fell quiet.

Hoisting his sagging pants, Big Moe stood straighter. “I don’t see why not! I’m a better man than any here, and everybody knows that!”

Just to prove it beyond doubt, he glared at the whole crowd of on-lookers with his one good eye and they fell back.

Whittle smiled. “We’re honored to have you on board, sir. But the practice is daily from now on. We’ve got to get every move and line right by the premiere performance. Be on time, and we’ll be happy to use you.”

“But what’s the part?” Big Moe demanded.

Whittle thought hard. He hadn’t been satisfied with the lead character, but with Big Moe--?

“You’re the town banker in the play, Trask by name! And wear your fine boots too!”

Big Moe shifted in his fine, stolen boots, but his face showed immense pride of being the play’s town banker.

Everyone on the cast as dumbfounded to find the camp’s foremost crook joining to take a key part, but they soon settled down, with Big Moe performing with such vigor and assurance that carried the part so well he was soon drawing crowds of admirers.

Amazed, Whittle could not help but ponder the phenomenon in his shelter afterwards. All he had done was to obey the Almighty, and look what had been produced! Big Moe was a changed man! He had become a champion in support of the production!

What’s more, he stopped demanding extra rations from the cast, and they gained strength and the play progressed mightily, until Whittle was sure it would be a success.

December 25 could not come soon enough. Somehow, with Big Moe’s network of thieves and thugs enlisted on behalf of the play, went to work at his command, and a rude stage was erected out of boards they had borrowed or stolen from all over the camp.

Having observed the production come together, the camp’s director grew more and more interested, and he sent word he would accept Daniel Whittle’s invitation and attend the noontide premiere (for there were two performances, one at noon, the other in the late afternoon, for the camp held too many POWs and the cleared area around the stage was far too small for all to attend one performance.

Somehow enough cardboard was obtained from the commissary for signs to be made announcing the performances and times. Free Admission was proclaimed, along with an extra ration for all in the camp. This extra ration had caused Whittle many a sleepless hour.

“I can’t tell them that!” he had cried out to the Almighty. “Where am I to get it? They will come expecting, and when I cannot deliver it, what then? There will be a riot! You know how hungry the men are! Dozens die every day from starvation!”

It did no good to argue with the Almighty. The Lord had promised the extra ration, and it was merely his servant’s duty to proclaim it by faith.

Meanwhile, the transport of food failed to arrive for several weeks running, as the trains were not running from Atlanta, due to the passing of too many armies, north and south, cutting the lines that ran toward Sumter County and the prison camp.

In desperate straits, the camp languished. There was no food. What food there was came in by way of crooked deals between gang leaders and guards willing to take the risk of the commander finding out. There wasn’t enough to feed but a few even by blackmarketry, and the cruelty of some eating while most starved was enough to start a riot—but there was no riot, simply because the men were too sick and weak. Hundreds died. They couldn’t be dragged out and buried fast enough.

In November it looked like where would be no performance of the play Whittle and his cast had sacrificed so much for.

Whittle, praying in his shelter, thought he too would perish. Then he heard a cry far off, and another, and soon many more cries join in, until the whole camp erupted in a vast, awful cry of doomed men crying out food.

Staggering out to see, he saw phantom-like creatures pressing in a dark mass toward the main gate and the kitchens.

He hurried, and saw no reason for the men’s stampede. Was there food? They had heard a rumor and were mistaken! He thought.

Before he turned back, he looked again, and he caught sight of a little cloud in the distance. It was such a little cloud. Could it be?

He watched and a second little cloud stream up above the woods on the horizon. Then his ears caught the wail of a far-off steam engine.

A train! Yes! They were saved! Saved! The South was in collapse, but a train had got through somehow!

Like madmen the prisoners fell on the rations like savage animals, mixing the food in the dirt, and devouring it all, mud and food, with abandon. Whittle, unable to join the madness, waited for his ration, but got only half when it was given him, as a man reached and grabbed half away. Whittle was shocked, for never had he seen the men act like crazed animals before. Sorry and sick in his heart, he went away. Unable to control the mob led by a certain ringleader, the commandment gave orders, and his orderlies shot into the heaving mass of men, forcing them back so that the kitchens wouldn’t be overrun and ransacked. Hearing the shots, the mass pandemonium of fleeing men, and the cries of the wounded, all Whittle could do was grieve and pray. As soon as the noise died down, he went back to tend to the wounded as best he could. As he turned one big man over, the one who might have been the ringleader, he could not believe his eyes.

“Big Moe,” he cried. “It’s you!”

His face white as ash, Big Moe had a hand over his belly, which was ruptured with

a bullet.

He seemed to recognize Whittle, and Whittle took the man’s big head in his hands, cradling him in his arms.

“I can’t play the part anymore for ya, Whittle,” Big Moe said weakly. “Get someone good for the part, will ya? Have him do it good! Promise me that!”

Whittle couldn’t see, his eyes were blinded. “Sure, sure. I’ll do that. But it won’t be as good as you can do it! You know that!”

A look that mingled pleasure and pain came over Big Moe’s darkening eyes. Then a moment passed, with Big Moe breathing hard, forcing his remaining blood out all over the ground. His hands suddenly clutched Whittle’s arms so hard Whittle felt the man’s nails dig into his flesh.

“Whittle! I know I’ll die in hell for my sins. I’ve killed too many men to get where I am! Help me!”

Whittle’s hand went out instinctively, smoothing back the gangster’s hair from his face. “No, Big Moe, you don’t have to go there. Christ died for your sins, all your sins! You’re not too bad for Him!Just believe on Him, and He’ll forgive you everything! He’ll make you His son, forever—“

“Yes—I’ll do that! I’ll believe it!” cried the dying man.

But Whittle felt impressed it wasn’t complete. He couldn’t let Big Moe go just yet.

“Say you forgive them who shot you!”

Big Moe stiffened with his remaining strength.

“You’ve got to forgive them, Moe! If you forgive, you will be forgiven! Do it! “

Whittle, even as he said those words, felt Big Moe’s resistance, for everyone in camp know how much he hated the camp commander for executing some of his men he caught raiding the camp kitchens. They were just wretched, starving men trying to snatch a few morsels of flour or jonnycake from the bottoms of empty barrells, but that was no less than a capital offense in the eyes of the commander.

Praying with all his might, Whittle waited as he felt the life ebbing out of Big Moe with every passing second.

Big Moe’s eyes glazed over and turned up in their sockets. He jerked so hard Whittle could not hold him. Then he fell limp in Whittle’s arms, his last breath expiring in his mouth with a whispered word that, to Whittle, seemed to be “Yes!” .

The performance of “Christmas in Bedford Falls,” with a visibly nervous stand-in serving in Big Moe’s part, succeeded beyond Whittle’s wildest dreams. The packed clearing was so full of heads they could not be counted. It was like a sea of faces spreading out in every direction. Even if men could not see, they wanted to be present to at least hear the spoken words. To help the visibility, the roof was torn down, and the stage was exposed to full view from every side. The commander was also present as he had promised, and a special viewing platform was erected for him and his armed guard.

Whittle, strangely, felt that the performance was really for Big Moe, who was somehow present in spirit. Had Big Moe, before his dying gasp, truly forgiven Andersonville’s brutal camp commander? Was his spirit now in peace? It seemed so to Whittle. The entire cast felt the same. Big Moe had been a star performer from the start, practicing every word of every line until he knew his part perfectly to the very letter. No one knew his lines better or had practiced his role so much. They knew that they could not but do anything less but their utmost to please Big Moe’s spirit with the greatest performance of their lives.

When the premiere concluded, there fell a dead silence for several long moments. Then applause started and soon swept the camp with a thunderous roar. Men, standing on their feet, waved their tattered hats, threw them in the air, and it seemed like a riot in the making, but the camp commander was just as enthusiastic as the POWs on his private stand.

The afternoon performance went on just as well.

Just as the play concluded, they all heard the hooting of a train in the distance.

Whittle, who was sweating not from the heat but his own recollection that his promise of extra rations had to be made good, nearly collapsed where he stood a few feet from the stage. A train? Was it bringing food or just more prisoners?

He did not have faith enough to press toward the kitchen with the mass of rejoicing men. “We’re gittin’ the extra ration!” the masses cried. “Daniel Webster Whittle said so, didn’t he?”

The cheering men hoisted the struggling Whittle to their bone-protruding shoulders and he was carried to what he thought would surely prove his Golgotha, when the train pulled in at the camp’s station and it was made known that it carried no food but only hundreds more of hungry prisoners.

That dread and glorious day remained etched forever in Whittle’s memory, years and years after he was a free man, released from the hell of Andersonville by the Northern victory over Robert E. Lee’s forces outside Richmond, Virginia. He had waited, his heart nearly failing him, when word swept to him through the crowd that the miracle God had promised him had come true—there was food, food not only for the coming days, but enough to give them all an extra “Christmas” ration complete with cranberries, and pastry and some turkey trimmings.

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