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Chapter 11:

  • Nearing the coast
  • -- dangerous Predicament -- suspicious company -- a fugitive conscript -- Clay-eating officials -- the squire -- arrested -- mess no. 44, alias Mr. Meeser -- acquitted -- placed under guard -- in chains again -- a forced March -- before the court -- a Union speech in Dixie -- better fare -- Southern Superstition -- a slave at prayer.

We were now within thirty-five miles of the coast, and here the river took a direct turn eastward, by which we knew that we were on the direct road to Darien. Two miles further on, we suddenly came upon some houses. Men and women were passing almost within hailing distance; but caution forbade us revealing ourselves, and so we attempted to regain the swampy thicket. On our way thither, we passed a field in which were a number of geese; and so strong was the temptation to ascertain whether goose was as palatable as frog, that we halted, and concealing ourselves, wearily awaited the fall of night, intending to make a foray by starlight. But by four o'clock a heavy thunderstorm came up; and dreading to be again wet, we made our way to an old waste-house near by where, shortly, much to our surprise, in came [144] two men, one rather old, and the other young. They inquired where we were from. Collins, whose fictitious name was Compton, told them that we lived in Pulaski county, Georgia; that we had been driven by the Yankees from Darien, and were now on our way home. We were in a hurry to get there before the conscripts left for the seat of war, in order that we might go with our own boys.

This they thought was all true; and when the rain ceased, we kept up the deception by walking along the road with them. They soon after struck off into a by-road, and when we had gone a little further on, and thought ourselves safe, we turned our footsteps back towards Darien. Just as we turned, we were hailed by a man all clothed in rags, whose appearance indicated that he might have been hiding in the swamp for months. He quickly joined us, and entered into conversation. He opposed the war violently; and judging from this that he was merely acting a part, I determined to be “secesh.”

“I don't understand,” said he, “this tarnal war!”

“Why you're not a Yankee, are you?” I asked.

“Oh, no!” he replied; “but I don't understand it.” [145]

“Why,” resumed I, “don't you know that the Yankees are coming down here to free our negroes?”

“Darn the tarnal niggers!” was the rejoinder; “I ain't got any.”

“But they will confiscate our land.”

“Well, I haven't got no land, so they can't hurt me. Another thing, they say they're fighting for the old flag we all loved.”

Rallying myself, I answered:

They're all abolitionists; and if you and I don't fight, these negroes will be freed among us.

“Well, now, gentlemen,” said our new companion, “if you'll hear me a minute, without getting mad, I'll tell you all about my case. I'm a conscript, and I've got to go soldiering for eleven dollars a month. If I'd get a jean like that of yours” --pointing to an old cotton coat that I wore-“I'd have to pay eleven dollars a yard for it. These shoes I've got on cost ten dollars; corn-meal is two dollars and fifty cents per bushel, and salt one dollar per pound. Now, how in the d-1 can a man soldier under them circumstances?”

I felt myself completely beaten; but still fearing a catch somewhere, I resolved to try the fellow again. [146]

“Why, you're a regular-built Yankee!” I exclaimed, “and ought to be taken up, and if I had my way, you would be.”

At this he changed the subject, and we told him the Pulaski county story. He then invited us to his house to get something to eat, to which, of course, we had to consent. While there enjoying our meal, which consisted of cornbread and sour milk, and watching him closely all the time, in marched fifteen conscripts. They immediately seized the master of the house, and put him under a heavy guard. Here was a new dilemma, and I winked at my comrade to answer all questions, as I was fearful that if both of us undertook the task; some fatal mistake might occur. He did so, and succeeded remarkably well, for he was shrewd and quick at perception. I stood carelessly by the fire, drying the only stocking I had, and playing the idiot to what I thought perfection. The intruders were dressed savagely, their heads being covered with rudely-made caps of coon-skin, the tail of the animal hanging down their backs. Several of them were eating the clay which has so often been noticed by travellers in the South.

These miserable creatures despatched one of their number on a jenny, who shortly after [147] returned, bringing with him the “squire,” a long, lanky, knock-kneed man, with hollow eyes and lantern jaws. He had a law-book tucked under his arm, to give weight, I suppose, to his appearance. This dignitary (?) stepped to me, and began questioning me with much official haughtiness, in fact so offensively, that I became enraged at last, and throwing off my assumed character of an idiot, exclaimed:

Who are you?

“I'm the squiah, sir, the squiah!” he replied, in his half negro dialect, and in exceedingly pompous tones.

“Well,” said I, “the people who made a squire of you must have been very short of material. But, sir squire, what is your business here?”

“To hold a trial over you; that thar's my bis'nis here.”

I looked the ignoramus sternly in the face, as I rejoined:

Well, sir, if you undertake to ‘hold a trial’ over Pulaski county citizens, we'll make you smoke for it.

My determined manner nonplussed him considerably, and turning to a companion, who seemed to be a conscripting officer, he said: [148]

“I don't want nuthin‘ to do with these yer tarnal fellers, fur they know ‘emselves, I golly!”

The conscripting officer, however, was not so easily turned aside, for failing to induce the “squire to hold a trial on us,” he sent a message to the deputy sheriff, and that high functionary came promptly to the rescue of the “Confederacy,” and arrested us. The squire having thus shifted this responsibility, regained his courage, and said to us, fiercely:

Now, then, you're arrested, and you've got ter tell us who you are, and whar from.

“Ah! we're prisoners now, and you may find out all you want to know if you can,” was our reply.

We were forthwith searched, the result of which was the finding of a slip of paper in one of my pockets with “Mess no. 44” written on it. Not one of our captors could read; and when I asked for a written copy of the charges against us, they were completely dumbfounded. The “squire,” with a kind of glorification in his tones, said:

A bill, you tarnal fool! I can't write, I golly!

My comrade was asked if he could read and write, and on his saying yes, the card was handed to him to decipher. The crowd clustered [149] around, and when he assisted them in spelling out the word upon it, one cute fellow exclaimed:

Meeser! Meeser! that's it!

“Yes, that's it,” bawled another, who had thrown himself on a bed; “Mr. Meeser, I golly! John Meeser, what lives up in Pulaski county, and keeps a grocery, and sells good whiskey, I golly!”

Here was our salvation; and starting forward, I harangued my wondering auditors with all the eloquence at my command, appealing, and threatening, and reasoning by turns. The result was that we were acquitted, the “squire” himself announcing it in the following laconic style:

You're clar, I golly!

The night setting in with a heavy storm of rain, again we were all compelled to remain in the house together. We, ourselves, pretended to sleep and heard the rebels several times remark:

How sound these men sleep! None but innocent men could sleep that way.

Shortly after midnight, we made an attempt to escape, but, opening the wrong door, we found ourselves in another room, which was tenanted by some of the conscripts. In an instant [150] all were awake, and we were once more seized. Several of them accused us of being devilish Yankees, and urged hanging as the best course to pursue. Others of them still believed us to be what we had represented ourselves. This division of opinion, resulted in the deputy sheriff ordering us to be taken from the house under a guard of six men with loaded muskets. He followed us out, telling us as we walked along, that we must go into close confinement. We could not realize what he meant, but we soon learned, for within ten minutes we were chained together with a huge chain. One end was twined round my neck, and secured with a large padlock, while the other end was placed in like manner about Collins' neck, There, in the midst of ruthless foes, a thousand miles away from home and its endearments, we stood wet, ragged, and forlorn; chained, yes, chained together, like felons, like oxen, like wild beasts. Had it not been for the comforting spirit of God, I am certain that I should have sunk at this juncture with despair; for in fancy I could see my wife and my little ones in their peaceful cottage, fondly asking when the absent loved one would return. “Ah!” thought I, “when, indeed, shall I be joined to you once more, darlings? Shall it be on this earth, or [151] shall it be in that better land where man's inhumanity to man makes no one mourn?”

In the morning, our merciless captors, forming on either side of us, and also in our rear, forced us to march forward. My wounded foot and hand pained me very much, and it was with the utmost difficulty that I could walk. The disparity, also, in the height of my comrade and myself — I being much taller than he-caused me to give him a severe jerk at every step. So fatigued and dispirited did we at last become, that we threw ourselves down, and refused to go any further. At this our captors threatened to shoot us. We were not to be intimidated thus, however, and the ruffians were at last obliged to obtain a rickety old wagon, in which we were carried some distance. After traveling fortyfive or fifty miles, we arrived at the town of Jackson, Georgia, where the people had already heard of our approach. On reaching the place, we were allowed to seat ourselves on a Captain Smith's porch, until a court could be convened for our trial. The jury was composed almost entirely of old men, and while they were preparing for their assumed duties, our guards were off trying to hunt up some whiskey. But as the latter article was worth eight dollars a pint, their efforts were not likely to meet with [152] much success. This was fortunate for us, as, if they should obtain enough of the vile compound to intoxicate themselves, they would most likely kill us on their return.

The court soon being prepared to proceed, I was the first arraigned. We had resolved to tell the truth concerning ourselves, no matter whether we should die for it or not, and so I addressed the court as follows:

May it please the court, I was born in Rockbridge county, Virginia, but early in life removed with my father to Ohio, and settled in Shelby county, where he raised his family of six sons and three daughters. Of this family, I am the youngest member, except one. Early in life I commenced a public career, which I followed until I heard of the bombardment of Fort Sumpter-until I heard that a league of men, banded together for the express purpose of destroying the best government on God's earth,--had dragged our glorious old banner down into the dust, and trampled it beneath their feet, and finally fired it from a cannon's mouth, in order that no vestige of it might remain. Then I remembered that my grandsire had fought under that holy banner at Bunker Hill; that he was present on the field, when Molly Pitcher, stripping the uniform from the [153] stiffening limbs of her dying husband, assumed his command, and drove the enemy back. I also remembered that, in 1812, my father, leaving at home all his loved ones, took the field in defence of the Stars and Stripes. I have heard my mother say-God bless her! she is now in heaven — that her husband and six brothers were in the army at the same time. Now, gentlemen, do not think I will waive any part of the facts in the case. The son of pious parents, I was always taught to speak nothing save the truth; but, on the day we were arrested by these gentlemen, if I dare call them such, I gave my first denial of the positive truth. We both endeavored to deceive you. And why? Because we knew that our lives were not safe, if you should learn who we really were.

(Here a voice said, “No, by golly, they're not safe, now!” )

“Gentlemen, be that as it may,” continued I,

I will speak my last words with courage, and they shall be truthful words. When this war broke out, I was engaged at my profession in Cincinnati, Ohio; but I felt, and I avowed it at Heaven's altar, that I could be nothing else than a United States soldier. I accordingly volunteered [154] to join my loyal countrymen already in the field.

On March 4th, we left Paducah, Kentucky, and on the 13th, we landed on Pittsburg Hill. I contended with all my heart and might against Beauregard's skirmishers for several days; but I was finally overpowered by numbers, captured, and taken to Corinth. From there I was taken to Columbus, Mississippi, from there to Montgomery, Alabama, and from thence to Macon, Georgia. On the night of June 18th, in company with my comrade, I broke from the guard-house at the latter place, ran your guardlines, and escaped. Since then we have been fed and assisted by your negroes, until now we are in your power.

In conclusion, gentlemen, I would say, shoot me, hang me, cut my throat, kill me in any way you please. But, know you, that in so doing, you kill a United States soldier, who glories in these chains!

I shook my chains as I finished.

In an instant there was an uproar, some demanding that our chains should be removed, and others swearing that they should not. The matter was settled by the sheriff, however, who, on receiving our word that we would give him no trouble, freed us from the disgusting bonds. [155]

This change of our fortune was as sudden as it was unexpected. We enjoyed supper with Captain Smith, having finished which, we found the deputy sheriff ready, with a team of splendid horses, to convey us to his own residence, some two miles from town. We were not long in ascertaining that the sheriff was a Western Virginia man, and that his sympathies were with the United States government. He informed us that Captain Smith was under bonds for ten thousand dollars for his good behavior. From the Captain we got the story of the men who followed us in the sweet-potato patch on the same day we came to the old church, of which I have before spoken.

In the course of their pursuit they had stopped at the Captain's door, and inquired of him if two men, answering our descriptions, had passed that way lately. Thinking at the moment of the old church, and wishing to test their bravery, he informed them that he believed they would find us there. He took care to add, however, that the building was haunted, and that from out of the graves which surrounded it, they would see men rising without heads. One and another at this exclaimed against going on an errand fraught with such danger [156] from spirits, and we were thereby saved from capture, at least at that time.

After hinting to us the sentiments of Captain Smith and himself, the sheriff invited us to his house. It was constructed of rough pine logs, but scrupulously clean and neat in all its arrangements. We also saw his negroes' quarters, and they were nearly as good as his own house. As we passed along on our way to inspect a field of sugar-cane, we were amused to see the slaves peeping at us from behind the comers of their cabins.

Our friend next furnished us with water, soap, towels, and a razor, and going into the sugar-house, we cleaned ourselves. This expression may seem rather strong to delicate ears, but it is the only term which even faintly describes our task. We at once commenced hostilities, scraping rebel mud, wood-ticks, and body-guards from our skins. The contest lasted for over two hours and a half, we proving entirely victorious.

When it was dark, we heard the same old song that we had heard before, when the negroes were coming from their work. As I sauntered down a lane near by, words of prayer fell upon my ears, and a little investigation discovered to me a female slave down on her knees in her [157] lowly hut, asking God to bless and preserve her husband, who was to be parted from her and sold to a new master. What Christian meekness, resignation, and faith in God's power, did this poor creature manifest in her words of petition! and the lines sprang into my mind:

Christian men have bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.

Her prayer comforted her, and rising from her knees, she began to sing “the song of David.”

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