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Chapter 9:

  • Seeking the hills
  • -- retreating to the swamps -- pursued by bloodhounds -- suffering from hunger -- a dreary night -- an answered prayer -- singular noise -- lost in the cane-brake -- a dismal journey -- a dream -- a surprise -- Wanderings and Wearyings in the wilderness-a Comforter present -- hope and cheer -- a cotton-field -- a friend in need -- negro music -- a feast in the night -- an intelligent slave -- advice to fugitives.

About two o'clock, we ventured to leave the swamp, and strike out for the low hills, and travel through the pines. It was the 20th of June, and a long day to us. We had scarcely entered the pine forest, when we saw eight men with guns, on the lookout for us, some of whom we had previously seen on the same errand. We instantly retreated to the swamp, yet not before we were discovered. The dogs were instantly put on our track, and in order to break the scent, we again sought the swail, and waded in water to our knees. We passed through the densest portions of the brake, where it stood thick and tall, forming, in places, an almost impenetrable wall of stalks, which we carefully adjusted behind us. After several hours of this cautious traveling and covering [115] our way, we were obliged to lie down among the swamp palm-leaves for rest. We could distinctly hear the baying of the bloodhounds in search of our track, but we felt pretty well assured they would not be able to follow it. The next morning found us wet and weary, and quite chilled by the dampness of our bed. We thought to make our way out to the pine hills, but had hardly concluded to hazard the attempt, when we again heard the hounds nearer than before. We then penetrated yet further into the tangled cane-thicket, for it had become a welcome retreat for us. By patient endurance we again baffled our enemies, only, however, to find ourselves threatened with starvation. We tried to catch fish, but failed. We were even “unlucky” in our attempts to take frogs from the swail with our hooks. Our forlorn situation can better be imagined than described. Cold, wet, hungry, weak from exposure, heartsick with disappointments, and, worse than all, pursued as criminals by those who should have befriended us, we were almost ready to despair, and lie down to die in the midst of the dismal swamp. I felt that indeed strange changes had occurred in my life; for, only a few months before; I was a free man, surrounded by the kindest of friends, happy in my cottage home, or in [116] my pastoral walks among the people whom I loved. But now I was compelled to flee for life, half clad and half starved, to the heart of a watery wilderness! From our covert of shade we watched the sun go down, and felt the quiet night coming on. Oh! dreary evening! sunless, hopeless, comfortless, and dark! thy memory haunts me still! But we lost not our confidence in God. We knelt in the black water, and prayed. And down through the still night-down through the deep darknessdown through the dense cane-brake-down to our prostrate souls afar in the solitude, came the Blessed Comforter, and we took courage. We thought of the old Jews, compelled to wander about in sheep-skins and goat-skins. We trusted in Elijah's and Elisha's God, and remembered that Daniel had dwelt safely in the den of lions. We were so completely thrown upon God's mercy, that our faith was stronger than ever. We felt that God was nearer in the shadows than in the sunshine — that in bowing in the water of the swamp to pray, we placed our lips nearer to the Infinite Ear than if we worshipped in temples on the mountain.

We spent the entire day, the 21st of June, in this bog. When night came, we tried again [117] to sleep, but were annoyed by a new enemy-a legion strong — the pestiferous musquitoes. During the night, our attention was attracted by a sound like the driving of a stake. We arose and cautiously reconnoitered in the direction from which the noise proceeded, To our surprise, we came upon a small corn-field, containing about two acres, surrounded by a rude fence of pine poles. We trembled at the thought of being so near a human habitation; and after pulling a few stalks of the young corn to eat, we hastened into the thicket, and traveled on, The roots of the corn, cleansed and salted, were eaten with a relish. The sound which had arrested our attention proved to be that produced by an insect of the beetle species, and the painful stillness and solitude of the place, served to make it more impressive than it would otherwise have been. The North Star was our only guide; and shaping our course by its uncertain light, we again resumed our journey. We had not traveled far, however, until we became completely bewildered in the cane-brake. The sluggish water spread on every side, the thick cane and underbush so mingled and commingled, that it was impossible to move in any direction. Again we concluded to tarry for the daylight; and breaking a few cane-stalks, and laying them [118] on the ground near a mossy log, for a bed, we tried to sleep. We were frequently disturbed in the night by prowling animals, but none of them was so terrible to think of as our human pursuers. Judging it best to guard against all surprises from man or beast, we agreed to sleep and stand sentinel alternately until morning. Thus we relieved and rested each other that memorable night.

It was a welcome day-dawn to us. For two hours I had stood guard over Collins, watching the stars mirrored on the smooth waters about our feet, and it was a glorious sunrise to us that chased the shadows and images away, and flooded our gloomy retreat with the light of morning. Again we started onward, taking the sun for our guide. The water grew gradually more and more shallow, and the brushwood thicker. Berries became scarcer, and our sufferings from hunger increased with every step. We were that day wandering weary, footsore, and heart-heavy, where in all probability, human foot had never trod before:

In the dark fens of the dismal swamp,
The hunted Yankees lay;
We saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times the horses' tramp
And the bloodhounds' distant bay. [119]

Where hardly a human foot would pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quickening turf of the green morass,
We crouched in the thick and tangled grass,
Like wild beasts in their lair.

On we pressed, amid the wild voices of the dark cane forest. Our progress was slow. Byand-by, as we came upon a mossy log, we tarried and tried to rest our aching heads. We soon fell asleep, being overcome by fatigue. I dreamed of my loved ones at home — of watchful eyes and praying voices in our behalf. I saw the old familiar hill-slope before my cottage door, the orchard, the fields, and, better than all, the friends of other days, and myself among them-all happy at the old homestead in free Ohio. Some hovering angel must have come and held the picture before my eyes, for I was in raptures of delight! Suddenly I was aroused from my slumbers by the tread of some animal, I knew not what. As I stirred, it hastened into the dark foliage and was gone. I awakened my comrade and told him it was morning. He was surprised to think he had slept so long, and both of us were greatly refreshed. Again we prayed and pressed onward for home and friends, and for a sight of the Stars and Stripes. We had decided on keeping [120] steadily on in a southeasterly course until we reached some point on the sea-coast then in our possession. The sun beamed hotly over our heads. We traveled as fast as possible all day, hoping that we might find some negronone else in that region were human beingsand through the aid of slaves get something to eat, for we were actually starving. We captured a frog that day, and divided the precious morsel between us, with thanksgiving. At night we lay down, but hunger and faintness prohibited repose. We longed for morning, We gazed upward to the twinkling stars, praying them to speed faster through the firmament, and let the sun arise. At length the blushing mom appeared. I hailed it as the dawn of an eventful day, for now we must seek and obtain food, or perish in the swamp. The idea of falling into the hands of our enemies chilled our very souls. We thought to die alone, and “let the dead bury the dead” in the wilderness, rather than suffer ourselves to be recaptured and tortured to death by inches, to gratify the jeering, jabbering multitudes. But the day was come when something more must be ventured for life's sake. At last dawn came, and again we fell upon our knees and asked for wisdom and direction in the hour of need. [121] Rising comforted and strengthened, we changed our course, and pressed forward, expecting to emerge from the cane-brake and find a plantation where there were slaves. The undergrowth was so dense that we could with difficulty make about one mile per hour. The day was fast passing away, and so was our strength. At about three o'clock in the afternoon, we sat down, almost in despair, and held a council, when we decided that nothing but the hand of the Lord could deliver us. Again we bowed ourselves before Him, and rose refreshed both in mind and body. Our steps were elastic-our hearts gladdened, and we hurried onward, under the conscious protection of God.

Suddenly, I heard the barking of a dog not far distant. We paused and listened. It was not a bloodhound. Collins, being a little deaf from the effects of terrific artillery-firing at Shiloh, did not, at first, catch the sound. Now we knew that help was near. We quickened our pace, and in a few minutes heard the voices of some negro men. A few steps further, and we came in sight of a cotton-field, which we approached by walking in the water of a small brook that flowed in that direction. With great caution, we neared the field, in which there [122] were twenty-five negroes at work ploughing cotton. Most of the men looked old and toil-worn. While we were reconnoitering our ground, I observed an old, gray-haired man nearing the fence with his furrow, and when he paused a moment to scrape his plough, before returning across the field, I rapped on a rail, which instantly drew his attention. When I caught his eye, I beheld an intellect and a sympathy languaged there which gave me hope. I approached the old man with trembling step and faltering voice, I know, for there was danger of communicating with some excitable and treacherous slave-although such are rare cases-yet I ventured to speak to my wondering auditor. I approached that cotton-field, half famished as I was, with many of my Virginia prejudices against the negroes, for I had been taught to regard them as unreliable and stupid. But I felt that death was in the swamp, and life might be in the cotton-field.

“Well, uncle,” said I, “I am traveling through your country, and I am very ragged, as you see. I don't wish to call on white folks in this condition, and I am very hungry. Could you get me something to eat?”

“Oh, yes, massa! God bless you! all you [123] want; but go back! go back!” he continued, waving his hand, as if to hurry me back to our hiding-place; “go back, massa they's after you wid de houns and de horses! Do you see dat ole cabin up dar, in dat field? To-night, just at ‘leven o'clock, come to dat cabin, massa, and I'll gin you all de supper you want. Now, go back! go back, massa”

Uncle, you won't bring anybody with you will you?”

“Why, God bless you, massa, I knows you! I knows you!”

“Now, uncle, what do you know about me?”

“Why, you's one of dem Yankees dat broke away from Macon prison, massa. I knows you! God bless you!”

“Well, uncle, don't tell that to anybody, will you?”

“Tinks I tell anybody, massa, when all I's got in dis worl‘ depends on ye? No, no, massa! But go back! go back, till ‘leven o'clock! mine, now, massa!” and he started after his plough, for by this time the other hands were approaching. I went back, and reported the prospects to my comrade. We concealed ourselves in the thick brush to await the appointed hour. Just at dusk, the slaves unhitched their mules, [124] finished up their rows, and started for their cabins, singing:

We'll soon be done wagging with the crosses,
We'll soon be done wagging with the crosses,
We'll soon be done wagging with the crosses,
And wing, and wing, and wing with the angels,
And den wing with the angels,
In the New Jerusalem!

It was weird, eccentric music, but really the most thrilling I had ever heard, as it rose through the still evening air in rich, mellow accord from the voices of the whole company of slaves returning to their humble homes for supper and rest. I thought, how little the people in the North knew about these crosses! and I silently but fervently prayed for the day to hasten when all these weary ones might find the liberty for which they sang and suffered.

The hours passed slowly away, but at length the appointed hour of eleven o'clock drew nigh, We left our retreat, and advanced with the utmost caution, until we came within thirty yards of the cabin, when we lay down in a brier-path to watch for whatever movements might occur. For a few minutes we were kept in suspense, not feeling fully satisfied whether friend or foe might advance to meet us. Soon, however, the faithful old negro came to the [125] designated trysting-place. He was evidently alone. He walked round and round the cabin, looking and waiting for us, and on seeing us not, seemed greatly disappointed. When we had assured ourselves that no one was with him, and that he was true, we arose from our concealment, and walked to the cabin. He was rejoiced to see our confidence in him, and was as thankful to give, as we were to receive, the rich repast he had prepared for us. Our supper consisted of corn-bread, smoked bacon, and boiled cauliflowers. He also brought us a bottle of sweetened water. What a feast! Never did I partake of food with such a relish. We received it as directly from the hand of Him who “heareth the young ravens when they cry.” Being assured by our old friend that we were perfectly safe, we tarried after supper several hours, conversing on the state of our country, and receiving advice as to the manner of proceeding on our journey. As the venerable man talked to us, telling us how to escape to our homes and friends, sharing his sympathies and his means with us poor destitute wanderers, my old prejudices of caste were entirely obliterated. Beneath that dark brow was the mind of a man, and within that slave's [126] bosom beat a brother's heart. I could have embraced him as my father.

“Now, massa,” said he, as we were about to separate until all true friends shall meet in heaven, “now do jis as I tells you, and you'll git away. You keep dis pine-ridge straight on through massa's plantation for five mile. Dis ridge goes clean to de coast. It's ‘bout three hundred mile to de coast by de Ocmulgee river. The Ocmulgee flows into de Altamaha, and Darien is at de mouth of de Altamaha, and you'll find lots of de Yankees dar.”

The old man understood the times. His knowledge of the war, with all its recent and important movements, was thorough and accurate, although he was careful and somewhat reticent, even in his communications to us. In order to test his professed knowledge of us, and to ascertain all we could relative to our pursuers, we plied him with various questions.

“Well, uncle,” said we, “I suppose you know we are running from the conscript?”

“No, sah, I knows you is the Yankees what broke out oa jail at Macon, dat's what I knows.”

“You're right, uncle. Now what do you know about this war?”

“I doesn't know much about it, sah; only I knows dat dey say, if de Yankees whips, de [127] darkies all be free, but if dese har rebels whips, den we be slaves.”

“Which do you prefer should gain the day?”

“Why, God bless you, massa! does you tink I's a fool? Course, I wants you to whip.”

“You say they are hunting us; how many have they after us?”

“I doesn't know jis zacly; but I knows dat tree men come to massa day ‘fore yesterday for to git a bloodhound to hunt Yankees with what runned away from Macon prison.”

I confess that the thought of being pursued by bloodhounds was horrifying in the extreme; and notwithstanding we had already seen two large packs at different times upon our track, the possible death by these fierce monsters in this wilderness made my blood run cold.

Our further conversation gave us a full and satisfactory knowledge of our route, and was delineated by our sable friend, as we had afterward reason to know, with perfect geographical accuracy. We asked him that in case we should be pursued by the bloodhounds, what means we should employ to bewilder them. This was no new subject to him. He, in c6mmon with his fellow-bondmen, had seen too many instances in which these brutes had been employed in capturing fugitives, not to know [128] their nature, as well as the plans adopted to elude them. He told us when the dogs followed us in the cane-brake, in order to prevent them from keeping the trail, we should travel as much as possible in the water; but if we should be closely pursued, to leave the canebrake, and take to the Ocmulgee river. He assured us that the dogs were fearful of the alligators with which that river abounded, and that the slaves were taught that alligators would destroy only negroes and dogs. He didn't believe it himself, although his master thought he did. He added:

If dem houns gits close on to you, why you jis git a long pole, and hop about twenty feet, if you kin. You do dis four or five times, and whenever you light, why jis put some pepper in de holes what your heels make, and when de houns come, dey lose dar scent, and den dey goes a snufflin and a snufflin roun ‘, and bymeby dey snuffles up dat ’ ar pepper into dar nostrils, and den dey'll go chee! chee! chee! and dat'll be de last dem dogs can do dat day.

This piece of information, and the manner in which it was conveyed, accompanied as it was by violent gyrations of the body, and an exact imitation of dog-sneezing, was very amusing; [129] and though surrounded by forbidding circumstances, we indulged in an audible smile.

From this man we first learned of a complete organization among the negroes, for the purpose of aiding fugitives in making their escape. It was similar to an institution which I had often heard of as existing in the Northern States, under the name of “Underground Railroad.” The officers of this Southern Underground Railroad, on which we were glad to take passage, were the slaves of the different plantations, who were thoroughly acquainted with their duties, and were very suspicious lest they should be imposed upon. When we inquired how these men should know us, he told us that he would arrange that matter, so that we need have no fears, but to submit ourselves to their guidance, and all would be well.

We traveled that night through the plantation belonging to the master of this black man. We reached the woods just a little before the dawn of day, and here we lay down until a faint light streamed in from “the windows of morning,” when we resumed our journey. All was lone and silent. The wood through which we went, with its alluring depths — the verdant moss beneath our eager feet-each blossomladen, fragrant bough-and the bearded grasses [130] that shook in the wind,--all gave me their secret sigh. All the sweet land around — the distant hill — the distant shore, said, “Redeem me from my chains!”

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