9 - ESCAPE
Between midnight and one o'clock we made an attempt at deliverance, but there were only five or six of us who reached the Flint River. There were perhaps a dozen of others who got out, but unfortunately, there were two weak and miserable creatures became engaged in a quarrel in trying to get through the tunnel, while directly under the stockade. Immediately the alarm was given - "corporal of the guard, the yanks are getting away, they're coming out through a hole" I soon heard shooting and the braying of bloodhounds. Weak as I was, I never ran so fast in my life as I did then in a dash for the river. I thought that if I could reach the water, thereby breaking the scent of the bloodhounds, my chances for escape would be worth straining every muscle for.
While the poor fellows were being recaptured by the guards, those in the rear, the rest of us were straining every nerve to reach the river, but I found that I was alone when that was reached. Without taking a moment for thought, I immediately turned down the stream, and in that way hoping to reach our fleet in some way.
The river was bordered by dense timber; pine and tamarack and occasionally a live-oak, also other trees which I had never seen before. There was an immense amount of berries and grapes. I hugged the bank of the river on the side of my probable pursuers, where the water was too deep to wading, I swam. I had about a half of a ration when I started and that sufficed for my first nights food.
My first nights traveling amounted to about ten miles. At daylight I discovered a hollow tree which lived close to the water and projected over the stream. I decided here was to be my place of concealment for the day so I crawled underneath it. Being fairly fatigued by the trying ordeal I was soon in a deep sleep, how long I know not. I was suddenly awakened by this tramp of horses over my head and the baying of a hound at a further distance. Instantly my heart was beating and thumping against my breast until it seemed to me that they would surely hear it if they stopped for a moment. As nearly as I could judge, by the words exchanged, and the tread of the horses hooves, they were four Cavalry men. I never was in such terror in battle as I was while this took place.
As soon as all the sounds died away I crawled back under the tree of my salvation in such a position as to be hidden from view from the opposite side of the river. I thought it was likely they would return that way, and it was so. They couldn't have gone very far down the river, judging by the lapse of time till their return. But I was not so fearful now that they would see me, or that the dogs would scent me, as I was considerably underground, beneath the roots of the tree, in a cavity washed out by high water.
Sleep was out of the question for me now, the rest of the day after what had taken place. As soon as the shadows of night were upon the river, I was again upon my way. I took a piece of tamarack with me to slash the water, to avoid the alligators, which I knew must be in this region. I traveled the entire night, when daylight came on I saw a ravine which offered a good hiding place. I chose a dense thicket, near a tree, which I calculated to use in case of blood hounds coming upon me. I was starving of hunger, but too tired to do any foraging, so I laid down in a the thicket and slept soundly until about two o'clock.
I soon got enough catalpa grapes and twigs of spice wood to satisfy my hunger. There was not a sound to indicate that there was any civilization or habitation of people of any kind in the vicinity. So I explored the little knoll and found a nice lot of chinquapin nuts which were similar to our hazel nuts only much larger. They were not ripe but tasted mighty good to me anyway. The following night nothing happened to tame me in my further escape. I hadn't the least idea of the distance traveled, but I was very weary when daylight came again. That day I found plenty to eat; fruits, and nuts, and also a couple of birds nests. Eggs! what a treat to a prisoner of Andersonville. I was naturally adverse to robbing birds nests, but the circumstances overcame my scruples.
The fourth night was my last night to travel. After the experience of the following morning, I concluded there was no more danger of pursuers than there was of alligators. I discontinued travel sometime before daylight when I found a place to rest and to sleep. When I awoke and looked around at my surroundings, the first thing to attract my particular attention was a big lazy alligator laying on a dead log near the shore. His mouth was wide open, his upper jaw thrown back on its perfectly working hinge. His mouth was filled with thousands of flies and other insects, unsuspecting the awful fate that awaited them. When he thought he had a good catch, down came his jaw with a swift clap, imprisoning the myriad's of flies and insects. It seemed to me that the force of his mouth shutting would crush a mans thigh in an instant. This one seemed to me to be about ten or twelve feet in length. When I had fully surveyed the scene there were six of them near me. But some of them were little fellows not more than four or five feet in length. After getting over the shock of this discovery, I had some real amusement in throwing pine knots at the lazy fellows, and it was laughable to see the way they rolled into the water when hit with a good thud.
I now felt sure that the mouth of the river was not far distant, so after resting awhile, I continued on my way toward the ocean without fear of pursuers, and with strong hope of getting help on the coast. My course was almost entirely along the river bank. There were many alligators in the river the rest of the way. I was very much surprised at the quickness of them in catching the great frogs of that region. It appeared to me that some of them would weigh a couple of pounds. In all this distance there wasn't a human habitation to be seen nor a domesticated animal, in fact buzzards were the largest animal life, besides the alligators, which I could see on my course.
About three o'clock of the fifth day after leaving Andersonville, I was almost overjoyed to see that at last I was at the mouth of the river. And soon I looked out upon the great blue ocean, but later was nearly heartbroken to see the flag just visible above the horizon, and close beside an island, which I knew was there by seeing the very tips of the treetops. The sun was setting which gave me greater advantage in seeing the small parts of these objects. I studied hard for a means of reaching the flag, or boat, but could find nothing that would serve to make a safe raft to go that far. So then I set about to make some kind of a place for shelter in which to sleep. Finding some wreckage after an exploration of the shore for quite a distance, I was all so desperate to get something to signal the boat with - a white cloth to hoist on a cypress pole, of which there were plenty around me, of from fifteen to twenty five feet in length, or something to make a fire with. But I really hadn't had the strength necessary to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, and the right kind of wood for that purpose was not handy there. I was, as well can be imagined, in deep despair. I had endured the privations and the anxiety of the lonely escape down the river, and being sustained by the hope of being rescued by one of our boats, or of a friendly nation, which I expected would be near the mouth of the river.
My stay here lasted two days during which time I fed on berries of which there were of abundance, and clams which I relished and did me a great deal of good. At the end of two days I felt considerably rested, but during that time it was impossible for me to attract attention of the naval station of which I could just see just the flag. Before starting on the return up the river, which I concluded was the best thing for me to do, I found a piece of leather upon a piece of wreckage near the shore. This was soon converted into a pair of sandals, and oh! what a relief to my bruised and scratched feet, which had been bare for many weary miles of my flight. In making the sandals, I had to use strips of bark fiber to tie them together with.
My objective point in the return was Sherman's army. I commenced the long tramp early in the morning and followed the river's course, but a short distance from the first, later leaving the stream for a mile or so. The second day, following a creek leading from the river perhaps a mile and a half, when I discovered a deserted plantation. Upon it was a Negro log shanty of about sixteen by twenty feet in dimensions and containing a loft. The general appearance of the place indicated it had long been abandoned. I climbed up into the loft and concluded it would be a good place to secrete myself for awhile. But first proceeded to scare away the swifts, or lizards, of which there were a great many in this solitary house. In making a quiet investigation of the place, I found an abundance of figs - so what a feast it was for me. But this was the only growing thing I found that was fit for food. There was wild and tame hemp growing very rank, some being fully ten feet high. There was a very sour fruit growing on vines which was perhaps what is known as the kumquat. I had known that sourness was a cure for scurvy so I made a determined effort to eat as much as possible of this fruit in an effort to relieve myself of that distressing disease.
After resting and feeding at this isolated place for two days, I proceeded on my way, but first providing myself with a supply of figs and sour fruit. This was accomplished by tying the shirt wrist bands tightly around my wrists and filling the sleeves with the fruit. Being close to the creek I suffered none for want of water.
Shortly after leaving this place I met the first human being since leaving the prison ten days before, and thank God he was a Negro - a big awkward man of perhaps fifty years of age. Upon seeing me he threw up his hands, staring as though he had seen a ghost. With a terrified expression upon his face, he stammered at last " what, good lord, what is you? is you a ghost?", "Don't be afraid, I'll not do you any harm, I am a Lincoln man, and was in Andersonville prison but got away, and I want you to help me if you can" I said with all the power of entreaty that I could command. "Good lord you a Lincoln man! indeed I would do anything I can to help a Lincoln man!" - his eyes still stirring as though he had really seen such a thing as a ghost. Then he said "I really thought I had seen a ghost, you're so thin, and your hair is so long, and your clothes are so torn". "Yes, I guess I would of been a real ghost if I had not got away from that terrible place when I did" I said seriously. "But I want to get to Sherman, and then I'll be allright", my pulse quickening at the very thought of it. "So if you can help me a little, you know how very thankful I'll be" I added. "Come to my cabin with me and we'll help you get to the Union men again" he said with his voice full of kindness. "It's only about a mile to our cabin, and there you'll be safe till you get rested and have plenty to eat".
On the way to his cabin he said " I was a slave but I ain't now no more - so long as they don't catch me. That was way up in Virginia, where I was a slave, but my wife and me must be powerful quiet about that. But I know that no Lincoln man is going to tell on us". He said that with a tone of confidence mingled with fear. I said to assure him - "no sir we have been giving our lives to save the Union and to free you colored people." "Lord yes, we know that is true and we'll do anything we can to save a Lincoln man", he said convincingly.
Their cabin was situated amidst a dense woods. There was no sign of a stable, but there was a small hog-house and chicken-coop. The only agricultural implements I saw was a hoe. They neither owned nor rented the premises, they just used them. There were two acres of land in the plantation of these humble people which was under cultivation. This was all done with the hoe. Corn, sweet potatoes, possum and coon made their regular diet which was evidently sufficient to make good health as the two of them would weigh four hundred pounds. The cooking was all done by a fireplace which occupied the center of the log cabin.
One can imagine the first meal I had eaten in a house since February and this was September. My, how did I enjoy that supper. Though I had to eat alone for the reason which there was not enough food on hand for all of us. They insisted that I should eat all that I could. The good natured Negroes persisted in urging me to eat more saying "Lord bless you honey, you're so thin and weak and eat all you can eat to make you strong again - we're fat and strong and don't need it like you." Generous, goodheartedness beamed on her shining fat face as she thus urged me on. They almost forced me to sleep in their own bed, but that I couldn't think of doing, and it was only after insisting on my condition, with vermin, that they considered to allow me to do otherwise. So then they made a bed on the husk mattress in the corner of the cabin. Soon I was in a deep sleep. While I was so, he was away to tell his Negro friends, further on of my presence, and to prepare for my reception later. He also secured a substantial stock of food for me, beside this he got a cotton sack to mend my pants with. So the following day when I woke up I found my pants had a patch on the seat larger than the original seat. At that time cotton thread cost fifty cents a spool in Confederate money. So my good friends secured thread by raveling the cotton sack they did the mending with.
The autumn sun had been shining for two hours when I awoke, what a glorious rest it was. They assured me there was no danger of any of the whites in the vicinity knowing of my presence. The nearest settlement was nearly four miles distance and there my host did considerable work. I shall never forget his feelings as he told his wife about our meeting - "I thought he was a devil for sure" he said in deep emotion. No wonder, my hair unkempt and matted, hung to my shoulders. My normal weight before the war, and before we were taken prisoner, was a hundred and fifty pounds, now it was only sixty five pounds. So you can imagine what my appearance was together with the tattered and dirty clothes.
I stayed with these kind people two days, then I felt well rested and fed. He urged me to eat all the sour fruit I could so as to cure the scurvy as quickly as possible, and it did me a great deal of good in that way. When I left Andersonville my mouth caused me a great deal of trouble by bleeding while eating.
At the end of the second day of my stay all was in readiness for my going on as soon as darkness came upon us. We avoided the good road and followed the woods in the fields, but had to be very careful to avoid getting into the swamp. We also had to be extremely cautious to keep out of the way of the guards who patrol the highways of the country by a system of beats, for the purpose principally of stopping runaway Negroes. There were also parties of white and Negro boys out possum hunting, and of course we couldn't encounter them safely.
Before daylight we arrived at my next stopping place which was a Negro cabin situated a half mile from the plantation houses of the other slaves. The trustee slaves were allowed the privilege of separating themselves the rest of the slaves in this way in their living. Also the free Negroes, who married a slave, occupied such places. Some of them were tradesmen, carpenters, shoemakers, tobacco makers, etcetera. One of these fellows I met was a tobacco maker who had been a slave in Richmond tobacco factory. After the death of his owner, the son took all the slaves upon a plantation. Joshua knew little of farming so he worked at tobacco making on the plantation.
This process of making consisted of boring holes in the sweet gum trees and packing tobacco very tightly in the holes, where it remained for from six months to three years to cure. While when we arrived in my second place of refuse they were all prepared for me. There was nothing they could get or do for me, they thought, which was too good for me.
The slaves were not now harassed by awful slave drivers as they were before the war. Mostly old and feeble men were left at home to take care of things on the plantations. They all treated me with the utmost kindness and deference and their anxiety for my safety seemed to be as real as my own. When I came again I felt thoroughly rested and refreshed, but to go back a little - my first protector insisted upon me riding upon his back to rest my sore feet. Though I strongly protested against this, he did carry me for perhaps a half mile. This is to show just how anxious they were in their desire for my safety and well being.
At this time they were busy cutting the tops and stripping the leaves of the corn stocks for fodder. Some cotton was being picked. After the Emancipation Proclamation the brutal slave drivers had nearly all left the country, not risking their lives with the Negroes after that, so in many instances the trustee Negroes were overseers of the plantations.
The second night we started out having the North Star as our guide, which was in fact always my guide to be seen. Only one guide accompanied me about ten miles to a cabin where they had a warm supper ready for us of possum and wholecake. After a brief rest my new host accompanied me eight miles further that night.
At daylight we reached my next pre-arranged stopping place. This place was near to the railroad and so we had to add to our caution. Here I was treated with the same anxious and generous care as before. The next night of our journey was precarious. We reach the railroad which was very closely patrolled. It seemed to me that the patrol of each man extended not over two or three hundred yards, and so one can readily understand what caution and vigilance was necessary for one to cross the track without being detected, unless in a very dark night, and even then, the danger of being caught in the act was great.
"Now I do not want you to risk yourself in this dangerous job, my good friend" I said to the brave Negro who was risking his very life for me. "I'm going to help you, masser, to a place where you'll be safe. My skin which be shot plum full of holes if they caught me helping a Lincoln man, but I'm willing to risk my life for a Lincoln man any how", returned the brave Negro. We could plainly hear the two guards talking together as they met, and we listened closely as we lay concealed in the pussy willows close beside the railroad tracks. When the footsteps died away we noiselessly crept over the track and slid into another bunch of willows on the other side. When this was accomplished we sighed a great sigh of relief and sped on through the darkness. Again my Negro guide said, after reaching a safe distance from the railroad, "yes masser, my life wouldn't be worth shucks, why they'd just fill me plum full of shot if they caught us. But you risked your life for we poor Negroes a good many times, and we sure do the same for you". But there was not the least doubt in my mind of the courage and fidelity of these Negroes.
We traveled about twenty miles that night. My courageous friend left me in the care of another Negro family before daylight. Here I was again treated with the utmost kindness and respect and secreted until the shades of evening came upon us. They provided a place for me to rest and sleep where I would be un-disturbed by anything during the entire day. I was awakened in time to have supper by the time it was dark enough to travel again. Every guide knew which roads were guarded and how best to avoid them, but even with this knowledge we often found it necessary to wait as long as an hour before getting a chance to pass them. We were always supplied with generous midnight lunches by the mammies.
The following two nights I was guided as before. We calculated we traveled about twenty miles each night, and without any particular trouble, until early morning of the last night, when I insisted upon my guide retiring while proceeding alone. I was within a few miles of Brush creek, and beyond, were Sherman's troops. I could plainly here the noises of the army as neared the creek. The faithful guide remonstrated with me against going on alone. But I insisted that I had no fear of reaching Sherman's men before daylight, and perhaps I should have preceded in safety had I departed from the road. But I calculated there would not be any patrols so near to our army.
Before long after my guide did that to me, I was tramping along the lonely road, amidst the forest, when my heart almost stopped beating with terror. The unmistakable bay of bloodhounds sounded in my rear, perhaps about a half mile. I followed my first impulse which was to run with all my might toward the creek which was about two miles further on. The Negroes instructed me how to conquer the blood hounds if they did came upon me while I was in the water. They said there was usually three hounds together- one old one and two young ones. The young one's in training. They said to get astride the old one while I grabbed each of the young ones by the neck, and dunked them under the water for a few moments, and this treatment would soon finish them.
The Negroes feared, and hated, these dogs with intensity. I ran as I never did before or since - every moment the bay of those dogs coming nearer to me. How I wished for a box of Scotch snuff which was used effectively by the Negroes in stopping the hounds. You refugee, dropping a pinch of it now and then in his tracks. When the hound snuffed it, his service as a tracer was at an end.
I strained every nerve and muscle to reach the creek thinking that if that could be reached, my chances for escape would be much greater, however, I was prepared to climb a tree if they should overtake me before I reached the creek. When I had gone about half the distance I realized that my race was useless as for the dogs were gaining in the run very rapidly. So I left the road and came to a gum tree which I climbed as fast as I could. When I reached a limb, about ten feet from the ground, the hounds were at the foot of the tree barking furiously.