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Chapter 18:

  • The slave's Ruse
  • -- the Richmond Enquirer -- President's Proclamation -- a negro prayer -- a “Big Bug” -- a Casibianca -- death of Mr. Eckles -- thoughts and plans of escape -- Lieutenant Pittenger.

The next day after this occurrence, as I was walking in the yard, a negro, who worked in the prison, slyly pulled me as I was passing him, and exclaimed in an under-tone:

All us darkies gwine to be free, yah! yah!

“What?” asked I, taking care to avoid being seen by the guards.

“Why, all us nigs gwine to be free, yah! yah! gin us yer coat, massa!”

I fully understood this coat business, as the reader must be aware from an explanation previously given, but, as I had no coat myself, I went to Captain McCormick, my messmate, and got his. It very fortunately had a long rip in the right sleeve.

“Here, nigger,” cried I, in loud tones, “can't you get this coat mended?”

“Mended!” exclaimed, the intelligent fellow, in assumed tones of wrath, intended for the [239] guards. “I wish dar wus no Yankees! dere more bodder den dar wuff! good deal!”

“Go get it mended for him, you black skunk!” exclaimed one of the guard, “and make him pay well for't.”

“Dat's jes what dis yere nigger'll do, I golly!”

The coat was taken roughly away by the negro, and returned the next morning, with the rip mended, and a copy of the Richmond Enquirer, containing the President's Emancipation Proclamation, artfully concealed in the lining! The paragraph was carefully marked all around, and its perusal gave me the utmost delight. I dared not tell even my most intimate friends how I got this paper, for there were spies among us to report us.

I felt restive under the curb that kept my tongue still, but the thought rose to comfort me, that, though they bound me in the chains of a slave, the day would come when, with the poet, I could sing:

Oh, Liberty, thou Goddess heavenly bright,
Profuse of bliss, and pregnant with delight,
Eternal pleasures in thy presence reign,
And smiling Plenty leads thy wanton train.
Eased of her load, Subjection grows more light,
And Poverty looks cheerful in thy sight. [240]
Thou mak'st the gloomy face of Nature gay,
Giv'st beauty to the sun, and pleasure to the day.
Wrenched the red scourge from proud oppressors' hands,
And broke, curs'd slavery, thy iron bands.
E'en now, een now, on yonder western shores,
Weeps pale Despair, and writhing Anguish roars.
E'en now, in Afric's groves, with hideous yell,
Fierce slavery stalks, and slips the dogs of Hell!
From vale to vale the gathering cries rebound,
And sable nations tremble at the sound.
Who right the injured, and reward the brave,
Stretch your strong arms, for ye have power to save!
Throned in the vaulted heart, his dread resort,
Inexorable Conscience holds his court.
With still, small voice, the plots of guilt alarms,
Bares his masked brow, his lifted hand disarms;
But wrapped in night, with terrors all his own,
He speaks in thunders when the deed is done;
Hear him, ye Senates, hear this truth sublime,--
He who allows oppression shares the crime.

That night our prayer-meeting — which was no longer secret — was one of the happiest we ever enjoyed. I found that, like myself, all had heard of the proclamation, and we all reverently thanked God for it. Next to me was an old negro who had been taken prisoner in East Tennessee. He had originally been freed by his master, a wealthy Georgian planter. When this son of Africa prayed, he let himself out in [241] all the power and exuberance of his strong but uneducated mind.

“O, good Lord!” cried he, “don't let off de steam, but put on more steam, 0, good Lord! and don't put on de brakes; but run her right up to de fust of January! And den 0, good, blessed Lord, my wife'll be free! Tank God! glory! Amen! God send down de power! Amen, and amen!” As this earnest freedman ceased prayer, I thought of my own white countrymen who were fighting to keep the slave enchained:

And we are free-but is there not
One blot upon our name?
Is our proud record written fair
Upon the scroll of fame?

Our banner floateth by the shore,
Our flag upon the sea;
But when the fettered slave is loosed,
We shall be truly free.

That night I shall never forget, for we took our prayer-meeting up to the second floor. We had gained in strength, and God had shed his blessing on our efforts, so that even the most profane man in our midst, Captain Crawford, was affected. Said he to me one day:

After such demonstrations as I have witnessed in your prayer-meetings, all the devils [242] in hell could not make me believe there was no reality in religion.

As the rebel authorities were now arresting and imprisoning every man who refused to bear arms for the Confederacy, we had additions made to our numbers every morning. On one occasion, among a crowd that were brought in, was a very large man. He was five feet eight inches high, and weighed three hundred and eighty pounds. He was a man of wealth and influence, and after having had innumerable servants to wait upon him, it came rather hard on him to be obliged to get his own place ready to sleep in. I say place, for our quarters were entirely innocent of a bed, and if we took turns sleeping on a blanket, we considered ourselves lucky. In the morning he spent some time in rising, for it needed his utmost efforts to get his vast body to an upright position. His exertions ruffled his temper exceedingly, and as the perspiration poured down his face, he muttered to himself over and over again:

Now, old Henry, you've got yourself in a h-l of a fix, aint you, you d-d old fool!

Notwithstanding, this old man was very gentlemanly in his deportment.

Among a batch that had lately arrived, was a man whom the rebels were endeavoring to force [243] to take the oath of allegiance to the Southern Confederacy. But his wife, who had been confined just after his arrest, fearing that his regard for her condition might induce him to submit to what was demanded, sent her son, who was only eight years old, to tell his father not to take the oath.

This brave little fellow came nearly one hundred miles on his mission, and, when he arrived, the guards refused to admit him. Undaunted, however, by the rebuff, the young hero got close to the picket-fence, and shouted with all his might:

Pa! pa! don't you swear! Oh, pa, don't you swear! We can get along; I got the lot ploughed to put in the wheat!

I wished at the time that this scene could be witnessed by the whole North. I feel convinced that in that case no one would raise a cry of indignation at the arrest of traitors who cry for peace, and who thus aid the South in oppressing the really true Union men in that region.

A gentleman by the name of Shaw, was the object of Confederate malice, and on no rational grounds whatever. Hoping to secure a place of refuge for his wife and helpless children, he had, some ten months previous, sought to leave his native State, Virginia, as he knew that the [244] most terrible battles of the war must take place there. On the road he was met and seized by a band of ruffians, who, without the slightest explanation, tore him from the presence of his family, and hurried him away to jail, for disloyalty to the South. The last he had seen of his wife and four little ones was when they stood weeping and wringing their hands on the roadside, as his ruthless captors carried him from their sight. He had never heard tale nor tidings of them since, and what their fate had been he knew not. His case was only one of a thousand others.

See the dire victim, torn from social life,
The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife.
See! wretch forlorn is dragged by hostile hands
To distant tyrants, sold on distant lands;
Transmitted miseries and successive chains,
The soul-sad heritage, her child obtains.
E'en this last wretched boon their foes deny,
To live together, or together die!
By felon hands, by one relentless stroke,
See the fond links of feeling Nature broke!
The fibres twisting round a parent's heart,
Tom from their grasp, and bleeding as they part!

This unfortunate man gave me instances of where he had seen his neighbors hung, some until not quite dead, and then taken down to [245] take the oath of allegiance. In case they refused, they were instantly strung up again.

We were so much encouraged in holding our prayer-meetings, that we finally were bold enough to request the privilege of having divine service every Sabbath. This was granted, much to our surprise, and we had the most happy times imaginable. Oh, it was glorious for the soul to bask in that heavenly sunlight which God thus shed upon us in our dreary prison.

About this time, I became acquainted with Simeon B. Eckels. He was very sick, and requested me often to pray for him. Our friendship was as cordial as it was short, for his sickness was unto death. The God who sent his angel to free his apostle Peter, took our sick brother by the hand, and led him from out the noisome prison to the mansions above, where care comes not, and where sickness is not known. He died at half past 10 o'clock, P. M., on August 22, 1862. For several days prior to his death, I was constantly by him, and was much gratified with the manifestations he gave of preparation for the future. Brother Eckels gave me the name of the church in Iowa to which he belonged, also the names of his mother and sister, who lived in Ohio. He requested [246] me to visit the latter. His thoughts were centred solely upon heaven and his mother, and in his moments of revival he would often repeat the lines:

My mother, at thy holy name,
Within my bosom is a gush
Of feeling, which no time can tame,
And which, for worlds of fame,
I would not, could not crush.

Brother Eckels's end was indeed one of peace and bright serenity. At his request I preached his funeral sermon the day succeeding his death, from the text, “They that sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.”

At the hour appointed for the funeral of the deceased, a negro drove up with a dirty dray, on which we supposed they intended to throw the corpse, and cart it away like some animal's carcass. At this, the Colonel of his regiment, Colonel Shaw, earnestly requested that we might be allowed to bear the body, and thus prevent the insult offered to the dead. This request had the effect of causing the officers to send for a light wagon, and in this was our sleeping brother and comrade soldier carried to his long home, followed by myself and a companion or two. Gentle be his slumbers beneath the sods of Georgia's soil! [247]

Unfortunately, among some other papers, I lost that on which I had taken the address of Mr. Eckels's mother, and have, therefore, as yet, been unable to fulfill my promise to visit her. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see this dear old lady, and tell her what a glorious death-bed was that of her son. Since my return home, I have frequently heard a sweet song, the words of which picture before me the last hours of Mr. Eckels. How touchingly appropriate to the dying breath of this Christian hero, were the lines:

Soon with angels I'll be marching,
With bright laurels on my brow-
For my country I have fallen,
Who will care for mother now?

Hitherto our spirits had been borne up by the hopes of a speedy exchange; but as day followed day, this fond hope faded, and we began seriously to think of making our escape. A general rise of the prisoners was proposed, which would no doubt have been successful, with perhaps the loss of five or ten of our number. This I did not personally approve of, as I was unable to travel; but still I stated to my fellow captives, that I would put no hindrance in their way if they should decide upon such a course. A sufficient number not being [248] obtained to give this plan any chance of success, it was finally abandoned for some others that promised more success.

I had ascertained the distance to the river, and also, that if we could reach the latter, we could run down it in a skiff. I immediately selected a comrade, broke the intelligence to him, and obtained his consent to make a dash for liberty. We made known our intention to a third one, and he, too, consented to join in the perilous undertaking. The plan of operations was this:

On the first rainy night, we were to go to some Murfreesboroa prisoners, who had blankets, and obtain some of the latter under the pretense of washing them. We then intended to make our way to the fence, and with our knives, cut around the heads of the nails, so that the boards could be easily pulled off Then filling the places we had cut with sand, we intended to hang the blankets over the fence so as to hide our work. At some subsequent time, when the guards drove us up to our room, we were going to the fence under pretense of getting our blankets, and intended to remain there till all was quiet. Then, tearing off several boards, we were to make an effort to gain our freedom. [249]

All worked well until the night of our final attempt, and then, unfortunately, one of our companions was taken ill. This was the first disappointment. The next wet night that came, we were all well, and started; but, just as we were about to accomplish our purpose, General Prentiss, with several others, made a like attempt, unknown however, to us. Of course, an alarm was immediately raised, and the guards were on the qui vive. The General's party, headed by him, dashed back, and hid themselves in the cellar where we used to hold our prayermeetings, while we reached our own room in safety. A Tennesseean tore up a plank from our floor, and succeeded in getting one, Lieutenant Ward, up out of the cellar beneath; but, ere another could be assisted thus, the guards had captured the fugitives, and marched them out into the yard. A short time afterward, they were brought back into the room in which we were, amid the jokes and laughs of the rest of the prisoners at their non-success.

A few hours after daylight, a guard of fifteen or twenty men marched in and took General Prentiss, Captain Gaddus, Major Ward, and several others into custody. Where they took them we did not know; but, a few days subsequently, I heard through Dolph, the black [250] boy, that they were put into a common jail, and chained to the floor. From the description he gave of it, their condition must indeed have been horrible.

Think of that, all you who sympathize with traitors, and equivocate, if you can, or dare, upon such acts as these! You may say you do not believe such things were done. Let me then refer you to a case, sworn to by one of the sufferers, upon his return home, now Lieutenant William Pittenger, as noble a young man as ever breathed, and formerly associate of Rev. Alexander Clark, in the publication of “Clark's School Visitor.” It is from an official report, given before Judge Holt, by order of the Secretary of War:

An order came for the execution of our seven comrades who had been tried. It was at that time entirely unexpected to us, although at first it would not have been. Sentence of death was read to them, and they were immediately tied, without any time for preparation being allowed them. They were told to bid us farewell, and be quick about it. They were then taken out of the prison, and we could see them from a window, seated in a wagon, and escorted by cavalry. In the course of an hour or so, the cavalry returned without them. That evening, [251] Captain Farackers, the provost marshal, called upon us. We asked him how our companions had met their fate. He told us, ‘like brave men.’ The next day, we onversed with the guards who were guarding us, with one in particular, who described the scenes of the execution. He told us of a speech of one of these men, named Wilson, from my regiment, on the scaffold. He told us, also, that two of the heaviest men had broken the ropes by which they were suspended, and fell to the ground. They afterwards revived, and asked for a drink of water; which being given to them, they requested an hour to prepare for death, and pray before they were again hung up. Their request was refused, and, as soon as the ropes could be re-adjusted, they were compelled to re-ascend the scaffold. The guard told me that Mr. Wilson had spoken very calmly; had told them they were all in the wrong; that they would yet see the time when the old Union would be restored, and the flag of our country would wave over all that region.

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