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Chapter 8:

  • Preparing the way
  • -- Dave -- pepper, matches, and Fishhooks -- exchange of clothing -- passing the guard-lines -- frightened horse -- halted -- passed -- in the Woods-hidden in the swamp -- pursued -- a night journey in the cane-brake -- manna.

We resolved to select a dark and rainy night to put into execution our long cherished plan, and we waited anxiously for such a night. The morning of the 1st of June, which was the anniversary of my twenty-ninth birthday, brought with it deep and long forgotten memories of other days.

The next day I was attracted by the movements of the old negro Dave, who was employed in the menial services of the prison. He was evidently well acquainted with our position, and knew all about the state of affairs. As he passed near me, he gave me a significant grin, hung his head in assumed diffidence, and began shoveling among the rubbish with all his might, saying to me as he labored, just loud enough for my ear, but looking all the while at his work:

You Yankees has jis made about a tousand [104] of the drefful rebels bite the dust up in Tennessee. I golly, I'se glad!

“Why, Dave, aren't you a rebel, yourself?”

“No, sah, massa, I'se-”

Just here, a straggling rebel official sauntered in sight, and our conversation was interrupted. If any Federal prisoners were discovered holding private consultations with the slaves, there was a death penalty just so adjusted in the martial laws of the Confederacy, as to meet the case. I let the day pass without further effort to see Dave.

The next day, however, finding a favorable opportunity, I asked Dave if he could furnish me three fish-hooks.

“God bless you, massa, yes!” --his eyes snapping fire as he responded.

“Can you get me a tin full of salt, and a paper of pepper?”

“Yes, massa!”

“Can you get me a box of matches?”

“Yes, massa; but how's I gwine to get 'em past the guards?”

“Try, Dave, won't you?”

“Bless your soul, massa, yes!”

I gave him the money, and when his chores were don~, he passed out, apparently one of the most stupid darkies I ever saw. Fortunately [105] our conversation was not overheard, and I soon was in possession of the desired articles.

During the day, I visited a Tennesseean-a political prisoner-and proposed to exchange clothes with him, to which he at once assented, suspecting my object. He promised to be true, and reveal nothing. We agreed upon an hour when he should visit my quarters, at which time we were to exchange our clothing. I then informed Collins what I had done, and he made a similar arrangement with another Tennesseean.

Time passed wearily on, and brought the night of the 18th of June,1 which was dark and rainy, and promised fairly for our proposed adventure. In due time our United States uniform was exchanged, and we were clad in rebel rags. Our hearts beat high with hope, and we were resolved to escape or perish in the attempt.

About half past 8 o'clock, we slowly [106] crawled out of the prison-Collins a little in the rear.

This, with the exception of crossing the guard-lines, we apprehended would be the most dangerous part of our undertaking, and our movements were consequently slow and cautious. We continued to advance, keeping within whispering distance of each other, until we reached a little clump of pines near the fence, which point we had previously selected as a rendezvous. Here we paused to make further arrangements. We felt certain, now, that if we were discovered, we would be shot. Life for us was only in pressing warily forward. After a minute's consultation, in the lowest whispers, it was agreed that I should take the advance, and that should I be discovered, and shot, he should return to his quarters; but if I succeeded in passing the guard-lines, and reaching our second rendezvous — a thicket of fallen bushes between the guard-lines and picketfence — I was then to announce my success by a single clap of the hands, which would be a signal for him to follow.

I accordingly lay down on my face, and crept quietly outward through the lines. The intense darkness prevented my seeing a guard, who chanced to be stationed close to my path. I [107] came within six feet of him, and could distinguish that he was reposing carelessly against a tree, playing with the rammer of his gun, the noise of which served to keep me from running against him. It was the most thrilling moment of my life! But I soon got beyond the sound of the clicking ramrod of an enemy whose business it was to shoot just such adventurers as myself, and I began to breathe a little more freely as I neared our second rendezvous. In a few minutes I was safe outside the lines, and snugly hidden beneath the dark foliage of the tangled bushes. Just as I was about giving the signal to Collins, I discovered that I had frightened an artillery horse so much, that he broke loose from his hitching-rack, and in another moment it seemed as if all rebeldom were out in pursuit of him. Now I should be discovered! To run or lie still would be death. An unseen Deliverer gave me presence of mind. I resolved to turn rebel for the time being, and assist in catching the horse. My life depended on the action of that moment. I ordered all the rebels astir, assuming as best I could the arrogant Southern tone of authority, to assist me in securing the animal, and had the gratification of seeing him caught and led away, wondering whether that would be the last of the [108] “catching” to be done that night! Again I started for our place of rendezvous; but being somewhat excited, and the darkness and rain of the night adding to my bewilderment, I ran against an artillery guard, who instantly exclaimed:

Halt, dar!

My unseen Protector again aided me, and I once more assumed the rebel tone and manner. I replied, with as much offended dignity as my beating heart would allow:

Halt, whar?

“Who are you, sah?”

“Have you been here so long, sir, and don't know me yet? What's this mean, sir? Don't you understand your business, sir?”

“0, yes, sah, I know you, now; you ‘long to that thar battallin over thar. Go on, sah!”

Soon after this, I succeeded in reaching our appointed place of meeting, but believing that the confusion of the guards in capturing the frightened horse had prevented Collins from attempting to follow, I went down to the fence alone. Five minutes later, I heard my comrade giving the signal at the outer rendezvous, to which I instantly responded, and in a very few minutes we were both outside the picket-fence, on the dismal banks of the Ocmulgee river. [109]

We traveled fifteen miles before sunrise, and, just at daylight, crossed the river on a railroad bridge, leaving it between us and our enemies. It was a glorious summer morning. The birds, all beautiful and free, were chirping their matin praises. The fields and forests were fragrant with the blessed baptism of dews and glittered in rare brilliance before the rising sun. All nature was clad in robes of royalty, and voiced to sweet anthems of rejoicing. But we were weary wanderers, homeless and hated, fallen among thieves and robbers in the midst of our native land. As the daylight grew stronger, we resolved to secrete ourselves in the thicket among the croaking frogs, and lie low in the dense undergrowth among the reptiles of the cane-brake. We were destitute of provisions. In our haversacks were the matches, salt, pepper and fish-hooks. We kindled a small fire, and burnt our papers. We did this regretfully, for we had some valuable notes and memoranda among them, but we chose to suffer their positive loss, rather than risk the danger of a recapture with them still in our possession. It was a sad sacrifice, in a solitary sanctuary, on a strange altar. Yet our safety demanded it, and it was done.

Our situation was now both desolate and [110] dangerous. We were in the midst of a vast cane-brake, the extent and surroundings of which were altogether unknown to us. The tall, straight cane-growths, like steady fingers, pointed upward to a land of liberty on high, and we knew a Present Guide thither, but we were without chart or compass in this lower wilderness.

About three o'clock in the afternoon, we ventured to the road, keeping a vigilant lookout in every direction, dreading the sight of white men, and ardently hoping to see the face of some lowly slave, in order to arrange with our ever-faithful friends and now brothers in common peril and oppression, for something to eat. For a long time we lay silent and watchful beneath the broad leaves of the swamp palm, close by the road-side; but instead of discovering a sympathizing negro to whom we might appeal for food and friendship, what was our bitter disappointment at discovering six armed men on horseback, in pursuit of us! They were making diligent search. We could see them dismount and examine all probable lurking-places to the right and left of the road as they passed along. As they came nearer, we heard their savage curses, and the threatened tortures that awaited us if re-captured. They [111] circled the thicket, and penetrated at every possible angle all about us; but we were so completely concealed that nothing but personal contact would reveal our hiding-place. At one time, our pursuers were within a few feet of us. They must have known we were in that brake, for they lingered within hearing until nightfall when they abandoned the search. How thankfully beat our hearts as the sound of their horses' hoofs died away in the rearward distance!

There was an advantage to us in what we at first so dreaded — the proximity of these men. We were thereby enabled to overhear their plans of pursuit. They agreed to set watches at certain points on the road, the river, and railroad leading to Darien. We were quite confident we had been betrayed by some cowardly prisoner, and suspected that fellow named Clinton, from Mississippi.

We learned from our pursuers themselves, as they were searching for us, that this traitor of traitors gave the authorities of the prison all the information they desired, for he had played eaves-dropper more than once, rebel and prisoner as he was! He had actually mapped our proposed route, although our scheme was arranged between Collins and myself in whispers. [112] But we were silently thankful for the information we received, and when we ascertained the plan of pursuit, we fixed our course so as to elude their pickets.

With a thanksgiving and a prayer, we resolved to continue our journey immediately with the beginning of the night. The night was calm and clear. All the sounds that broke the stillness were the hoarse croakings of the frogs, and the distant barking of watch-dogs on the plantations. Looking up to God for guidance, he gave us a glimpse of the North Star, the fugitive's light of hope. We started in a south-east direction, through the cane-brake, traveling part of the time through dirty, stagnant water two feet deep, and sometimes almost to our arms; but it was a venture for life, and we urged our way patiently onward, until we came to water so deep that we were obliged to stop, and wait for the morning. We hailed the daydawn with delight, hungry and weary as we were, for we had not tasted a mouthful of food since we left the prison. As soon as the grayish light appeared, we discovered that we were on the bank of a swail, beyond which, on a little elevation of land, was one of the richest blackberry fields I ever saw. It was like manna in the wilderness. With these delicious berries we [113] appeased our hunger, and were strengthened for new hardships. The forenoon was one of peculiar beauty to us. We found our Comforting Friend in that sacred retreat, present to cheer our souls and feed our bodies. We rested a few hours, and talked of the goodness of the Lord. Occasionally we would see a strange, unknown reptile glide among the dense groundfoliage, or hear the song of some strange wildbird. We again started on our way, trying to pass the time pleasantly by remarking the new varieties of vegetation that everywhere met the eye — the wild-flowers, the singular leaves, the swamp-mosses, and the thousand beautiful creations of an Omnipotent Hand, far in the solitudes of Georgia.

1 A coincidence here is worthy of notice. On the 18th of June, seven United States soldiers were hung by the rebels at Atlanta, Georgia. They were a part of the celebrated Chattanooga Railroad scouts, sent out on a military excursion by General Mitchell, but who were captured and treated as spies. One of the survivors of the party, Lieut. Wm. Pittenger, gives a full and graphic account their captivity and imprisonment in a book which every reader of this work should peruse.

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