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Thrilling incident.

[from the Richmond Dispatch, April 26, 1896.] capture of the Federal steamer Maple Leaf. A bold dash for Liberty. The plot carried out in a minute. Then the Confederate yell. Narrow escapes from being retaken. A series of adventures. Experiences in the Dismal Swamp.

To the Editor of the Dispatch :
There occurred many incidents during the late war between the North and the South that are worthy of mention, and among which none are more so than the coup de main enacted on the coast in [166] 1863, by a squad of Confederate prisoners. This interesting incident is known to but few outside of those who took a part in this daring feat. It was on the 8th of April, 1863, that Colonel J. U. Green (who, by the way, is a scion of the Old North State, and is now an honored and highly-respected citizen of Covington, West Tennessee), with four or five other soldiers of the ‘Lost Cause,’ was captured near Memphis by the Federal forces, then holding possession of that part of the State. These prisoners were sent on a circuitous route to Norfolk, Virginia, there to remain until an opportunity offered to send them along with other prisoners to Fort Delaware. I here give an extract from the diary of Colonel Green:

Three days after our arrival at Norfolk, all the prisoners marched on board of the good steamer Maple Leaf, bound for Fort Delaware. Her officers were white men; her crew consisted of negroes entirely, about fifty or sixty in number. We were under the charge of a lieutenant and twelve soldiers, armed with muskets. The two sets of prisoners mingled together, and it soon became known among them that the steamer was to be captured. A low, bulky, heavy-set man, with iron-grey hair and beard was pointed out as captain, whose orders were to be obeyed. He was a sailor and had been captured on board, and in command of a Confederate gunboat. He was suffering at the time from a severe wound. He had laid his plans while in prison; had appointed a staff to assist him, and now there was nothing to do but to win our crowd to his purpose, which was an easy job, and by the aid of his staff officers to assign every man to his duty. There were thirteen soldiers, including the lieutenant, and about as many white men, officers of the steamer. We were divided into squads of three, each squad to deal with a guard distinctly pointed out. This took about two-thirds of our number. The remaining third was held together under a captain, to overawe the crew, and to give help wherever needed. The signal of attack was to be the ringing of the great bell of the steamer by our captain. All these arrangements were quietly make while we steamed out of James river into Chesapeake bay. Norfolk, the forts on either side of the channel, and the gunboats were all left to our rear. In front of us and to our right, was Cape Henry, and to our left Cape Charles. About the middle of the afternoon, every squad being as convenient as possible to the guard to be attacked, and all chattering among themselves or with the guards, suddenly the great bell began to rattle as if the steamer were on fire. In a twinkling each squad [167] sprang upon its man and bore him down upon the deck, and wrenched his gun from his hands. There was but one blow struck. The squad with which I acted was to seize a sentinel at the foot of the gangway. Our position was unfavorable for very quick action, and our man proved to be a stalwart, brawny Irishman. He was brave, and put forth all his strength. We could not bring him down, nor get possession of his musket until one of our men, who had finished his job, came running with a musket poised over his shoulder and gave him a blow between the eyes with the butt which settled him effectually.

Only a minute's work.

In one minute's time from the ringing of the bell, the steamer was in our possession. The crew of negroes surrendered without a blow. The old “Confederate yell” rang out that evening on the Chesapeake as it never will again. The steamer did not change her course or stop running until night. The officers and crew, all under the command of our captain, did just what they were ordered to do. The prow of the steamer had been turned gradually to the south, and when night came on we ran her aground in shoal-water, about two hundred yards from land. We had one large skiff in which to go ashore, which was manned by two stalwart negroes. The lieutenant and steamer's officers were taken ashore the first trip of the boat, and held as hostages for the good behavior of the crew while we were landing. We all got ashore safely. Captain Semmes, son of our illustrious admiral, was nominated as commander-in-chief of this “forlorn hope.” He was elected by acclamation. Captain Holmes, of the Louisiana Crescents, was elected second in command. All that we knew of our whereabouts was that we were on the beach of Virginia or North Carolina, south of Cape Henry. A light could be seen in the distance, evidently coming through the window of some human habitation. We sent a man to investigate, and he reported that the house was occupied by a woman and her children. Her husband was in the Confederate army. This information gave us great relief. The woman seemed much alarmed, but when she learned that ninety-four Confederate officers had just escaped all alarm and caution fled from her face. She told us we would be safe if we could reach the Dismal Swamp. “But,” said she, “Currituck sound is between you and the swamp, and there is not a boat nearer than thirty miles. If you can get to the salt-works, thirty miles down the coast, and surprise the men in camp, you can take their boats and [168] cross the sound before the Federal cavalry can overtake you.” She supplied us with a cart and horse to carry two or three day's rations which we had taken from the steamer when we left it. We at once made haste to depart for the salt-works.

Suffered for water.

We suffered much for water on our forced march that night, as we could not get a drop to allay our thirst. We arrived at the saltworks, completely fagged out, a little after sun — up the next morning. We surprised the men at the salt-works while at their breakfast, and seized them and their boats without opposition. After satisfying our thirst and partaking of breakfast we decided to rest that day and cross the sound in the captured boats that night. When night came on we entered our captured boats, pushed off, and hoisted sail, but having contrary winds we toiled all night, making twelve miles across Currituck sound. As we reached the shore after daylight a large schooner was seen bearing down upon us, but we were in shoal water and she could not approach us nearer than one hundred yards. We made a display of our twelve guns, and not knowing but that we were well armed, she sped on her way; the captain, however, leaning over the bulwark, hailed us through his speaking trumpet: “Boat, ahoy! Who is that on board?” One of our men, putting his hands to his mouth, shouted back: “A fishing party.” In a few minutes we were all ashore, lying down on the pine straw, within five miles, as we learned of Currituck Courthouse, N. C. We discovered a house half away, its occupants being only a woman and little children. Our Confederate uniforms were a sufficient introduction. She agreed at once to put us in communication with the “guerrillas,” and told us to remain where we were until she could find us a guide, and also voluntarily proposed, with the help of her neighbors, to cook us breakfast. She left us lying under the pines, some sleeping and others discussing the situation, while she went to find a guide for us and procure assistance in furnishing breakfast for ninety-four hungry men. Presently, the woman was seen dashing through the bushes in our direction, at full speed. She told us that a regiment of Federal cavalry had just passed her front gate on the hunt for us. She pointed out the direction of the Dismal Swamp, assuring us that we would be safe there, and to wait there until she could send us help. In a march of about half a mile we found the swamp and entered its profound solitude. We placed a sentinel on the outskirts [169] of the swamp to watch. After waiting several hours our sentinel appeared among us with a man in citizen's dress, armed with a shot gun and two navy-sixes in his belt. The woman had sent this man to us as a guide. He had been born and reared around the swamp, and was familiar with the grounds.

Resumed the March.

We took up our march in single file, the guide in advance. We were to cross the Pasquotank river half a mile from where we entered a road from the swamp. The guide then left us, taking a few men with him to fish up a boat from the bottom of the river, where it was kept concealed from the Yankees. The breakfast promised by the good woman, though late, soon followed, which we enjoyed as only men who had marched and toiled as we, could enjoy a square meal. We had no difficulty of getting all the rations we wanted after that, although we were dodging about the swamp and on its skirts for several days. Four regiments of cavalry had been sent out from Norfolk for the purpose of our recapture, but, by the aid of the loyal people of the Southern cause, and the utter impossibility of cavalry penetrating the swamp, we succeeded in eluding all efforts at our recapture.

One evening, when near Camden Courthouse, N. C., we lay not far from the road, waiting for rations and the approach of night. We were surprised to see twelve or fifteen carts make their way to us, loaded in part with provisions, but in much larger part by women, both maids and matrons, who had come, they said, to look at a Confederate uniform once more. It had been more than a year since they had seen one. We met and talked with all the freedom of old friends who had met after a long separation. A dance was proposed, and, but for the lack of a fiddle, our company would have taken all the chances of capture for one hour's dance in Dismal Swamp with the Camden girls. Knowing that we would go through their town by night, they stayed and made the night's march with us, insisting that we should ride and they walk, but no man was found so ungallant as to accede to such a proposition. The captain of the guerrillas lived in the neighborhood of Camden, had heard of our escape and landing, and had hurried immediately to our help. He was a handsome young man, of about thirty yeas of age, unmistakably a gentleman, as was easily to be seen by his deportment; a man of considerable culture, a lawyer by profession; had been a member of the State [170] Legislature of North Carolina; knew the swamp and its surroundings, and seemed to be possessed of all knowledge that could be of use to us in our situation. We turned over all authority to him, and began our march around the swamp instead of across it. We crossed five rivers low down near their mouths, where they widened out near the sea. The Chowan was crossed much higher up. The captain had boats of his own sunk in all of these rivers except the Chowan, and they were brought up from the bottom for our accommodation.

In comparative safety.

The western end of the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad was in the hands of the Confederates, and strongly guarded, hence the crossing of the Chowan placed us in comparative safety. There was a large plantation on the western shore of the Chowan where we crossed. The opposite side was dense swamp. When we came near to the river we could see a gunboat lying on the opposite shore, near a farm house. It was the only place where we could cross, or rather where we could command a boat in which to cross. It was necessary to use a little strategy to get the gunboat out of the way, so that we could cross over. Our guide said that he would try his hand on her. He left us and was gone for several hours. He returned a little before night, and in a few minutes the boat got up steam and moved off up the river, and was soon out of sight around the bend. The guide had sent a messenger to report to the captain of the boat that the escaped prisoners were endeavoring to cross above, and the boat went in search of them. As soon as the gunboat had turned the bend we resurrected a boat, and in a short time we landed across, just at dusk. The owner of the plantation was a Tory, so our guide said. We demanded accommodations for the night. The next morning we pressed into service every mule, horse, and cart on the place, and made fast time over an open stretch of twenty-five miles to the railroad, which we reached about sundown. We boarded a train and reached Weldon, N. C., for late supper. The next morning we breakfasted at the Spotswood Hotel, in the city of Richmond. After breakfast, having improved our toilet as best we could under the circumstances, we proceeded in a body to the provost-marshal to report. General Winder, a large bodied, bigsouled old soldier, was filling this position. We announced that we were escaped prisoners—captors of the Maple Leaf. He arose and gave expression to his admiration by shaking hands all around. He [171] wanted to hear all the particulars, and listened to the story as it was briefly related, shaking his fat sides with laughter at any amusing episode of the escape. As soon as the general was satisfied with our story, he ordered the quartermaster into his presence, and ordered him to furnish us with blank pay-rolls, and to immediately pay us off in full of indebtedness. We soon had our pockets full of money, and after spending the remainder of the day in seeing the sights, and adding to our wardrobes, we boarded a train and were soon with our old comrades again.

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J. U. Green (2)
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