From the New York Times, 3/22/1891
DAYS AND NIGHTS OF DOUBT
OUTSIDE OF LIBBY PRISON, BUT NOT OUT OF DANGER.
A HAVEN OF REFUGE IN A HOSPITABLE NEGRO CABIN - FOOD AND SLEEP THAT RENEWED LIFE - BLOCKING THE ROAD TO FREEDOM.
Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
Although Capt. Martin and myself were not aware of our proximity to other escaping prisoners, we subsequently learned that quite a number who had come through the tunnel the night before lay concealed along the Chickahominy this day The misfortune of my companion and myself - it could hardly be called a mistake - was in getting into the swamp when the ice was so thin. Had it not been for this it would have been an excellent hiding place. As there was little danger of pursuit through the swamp, we decided to keep on by daylight till we had crossed the river and reached the eastern border of the morass. Indeed, motion became unnecessary, for it was freezing, and the wind was so bitterly cold that when we were not breaking our way through the ice our rags froze on us till they became as stiff as sheet-iron.
As we had had nothing to eat the day before, we devoured the wet corn bread that had gone to pieces in our pockets. We began thinking that we would save a little of the unpalatable stuff for another occasion, but we were so famished that we broke the resolution and devoured the last crumb without perceptibly appeasing the terrible hunger.
After reaching the eastern limit of the swamp we could see a house near the edge of a clearing and about a hundred yards away, but we dreaded to go to it, for we knew that by this time our escape had been discovered, and that all the available force in and about Richmond was out searching for us. There was nothing left to us but to keep moving in order to avoid freezing to death. We cheered each other in whispers, each trying in a manly fashion, I think, to keep his sufferings and his fears from the other.
As the day wore on the fatigue of that constant walking back and forth along a space of about a hundred feet became almost unsupportable, and the desire to sleep was well-nigh irresistible. Had I been alone I know I should have given up, for there are times when the tortures of life rob death of all its terrors; but as I reeled back and forth, like a drunken man, my companion, who was my senior by five year, although he wa not yet twenty-six, tried to cheer me by picturing the good times we should have after we had reached the protecting folds of the old flag.
There is a limit to suffering, a point beyond which the tortured nerves refuse to convey sensation to the wearied brain to take cognizance of it. Of the greater part of that day I have only a dim recollection, like the memory of a feverish dream. When it was dark again we resumed our journey, but now the sky was overcast, with threatening snow, and our friend the North Star could not be seen. We blundered on for about two hours, without meeting a road or a fence, and not at all certain that we were moving in the right direction, when suddenly a light came to view far in front, so far, indeed, that it seemed to be miles and miles away, for the distance of a light at night, like the direction of sound at any time, is very deceptive.
Our sufferings made us desperate. Had we been fresh, warm, and well fed we would have avoided the light as the sailor avoids the looming of the surf in front, but we chose to look at it as a beacon that might afford us a harbor of refuge, so we made straight for it. At length we came to a fence, and, leaving me standing outside and not fifty feet from the sconce of the light, Martin climbed over to “scout,” as he said. I could see that the light came through a window consisting of four panes of glass only, and I drew comfort from this fact, for it promised to be a negro cabin.
It may not be amiss to say, right here, that no escaping Union soldier was ever betrayed by a colored man. These people, even in the forests of South Carolina, as I subsequently discovered, had a pretty clear notion that victory for the Yankees meant freedom for them, and so they never withheld their help, and they often gave it when it meant privation, if not actual danger to themselves.
In a few minutes, Martin came back to where I was impatiently waiting, and he whispered:
“Jump over, old fellow; I think it’s all right.”
“What have you discovered?” I asked, as I made my way to his side.
“There are two old darkies in there, a man and a woman. They’ve got a good fire, and they appear to be cooking. There is no danger from them. We can trust them,” and he took my arm and led me on.
In response to our knock, and after much drawing of bolts, the door was opened, and a black man, shading his eyes from the light of the fire, peered into the darkness and asked nervously:
“White man; friends!” was the reply, and we pushed in and at once closed the door behind us.
“Lor’ a massy!” cried out the old woman, “yeh’s ‘scaped Yanks!”
“Yes, Aunty, you’ve guessed it first time,” said my companion. “We are escaping Yankees, and, if you can give us help, we hope soon to be escaped.”
The old people did not see Martin’s grammatical point, but they did see two ragged, shivering, starving men before them, and that was enough.
While giving utterance to many pious exclamations, the old woman showed that the unexpected appearance of Yankees had not deprived her of presence of mind. Calling on her husband to “bah dat ar do-ah good an’ tight,” she quickly fastened an old coat over the window and secured it at the edges, so as to keep in every ray of light. This done, she placed before the fire the two chairs she and the old man had been occupying, and said:
“Lor bress yehs, Mausses, yeh bofe looks az if yeh was mos’ nigh friz to def. Sit down, an’ w’ils yehs gettin’ good’n whm, I’ll scrimmige roun’ an’ see if so be I kin git suffin to eat.”
We dropped heavily into the chairs, and the steam that at once began to rise showed the condition of our rags. The old woman drew her husband to the back part of the cabin, and after whispering, and fumbling in a box at the head of the bed for some time, she came back and said:
“Phil an’ me’s powahful bad off foh clothes, but he’s a good scrimmiger, an’ he’s picked up some tings har an dar, dat yeh mout put on till yer own clothes is good an’ dry - an - an mebbe I may be able to mend ‘em up a bit, foh dey does looks if dey needed it monste’s bad.”
“Yaas, come back har, gemmen, an’ shuck dem wet tings,” joined in the old man, “don’t feel ‘shamed, for Nance, she will busy herself a gittin some ting to eat.”
Now that the strain was over for the time being and I felt sure of a temporary refuge, I found myself to weak to rise. The old man helped me out of the barrel chair and to the bed, and seeing how weak I was, he undressed me, rubbed me down with a dry cloth, and then helped me into a rough flannel shirt and a pair of well-patched gray trousers, the faded yellow stripes down the outside of the legs telling that they had once belonged to a Confederate cavalryman; but I had no objection to the uniform in this humane shape. An army blanket was then wrapped about my shoulders, and I was again placed in the chair before the fire. Martin received a pair of drawers and a long cloak that gave him the appearance of a particularly gaunt woman, with a particularly soft beard. The worn boots and stockings were placed before the fire, and the other articles hung up to dry on a rope near the bed.
Young though I was, I had already discovered from experience that demands the payment of her obligations in the order of their importance. Martin and myself were ravenously hungry, but while our greedy eyes were devouring the pones and pork that the old woman was preparing, the fire and the figures began fading out; the low voices of the man and woman sank into the soothing drone of bees; the wind whistled down the wide clay chimney, like a seductive lullaby; the glow of the fire came with healing to our thin and half-frozen blood - and we were asleep. With great effort the old people succeeded in arousing us, and even after I had opened my eyes it was some minutes before I could stir my weary brain into action and recall where I was.
“We ‘ain’t got much, Mausses,” explained the old woman as she pointed to a little bottle that had been set between my friend and myself, “but sich as it is, yehs welcome. An’ do drink dat ar yarb tea wid de sogum sweetnin; tain’t like de coffee we uster git afo’ah de wah, but me an’ Phil allows dat on cold nights it’s mighty warmin’ an soothin’ like.”
Bless her generous heart! There was no need of apology to us. We had been too long hungry to be fastidious. The golden pones of well-sifted cornmeal; the pork, fried crisp and with plenty of rich gravy, and the “yarb tea,” sweetened with “sogum,” made up such a bill of luxuries as had never appeased appetite before. We did not eat the food, we devoured it like hungry wolves, with our eyes bulging out and the sweat standing in beads on our foreheads. We sopped the pones in the gravy, and swallowed them with the meat, and washed all down with cup after cup of that “yarb tea” - the most delicious beverage that had ever passed my lips, and never equalled since, though I have sipped champagne at the banquet board in many lands and drank Mocha in the shadow of the hills where it grew.
It was a sense of shame rather than a feeling of satisfaction that caused us finally to desist - otherwise we might have eaten to our own destruction. The half the cabin near the fireplace was covered by smoke-stained boards that made a little loft, and here, while we were sleeping and the old woman was cooking, her husband had fitted us up a bed. Pointing to a ladder consisting of four or five steps, the man said:
“Dais a kinder shake-down up dah, whar yehs ken sleep, but look out foh yer heads, ez de clapboards comes down mighty low, an; dey ain’t very fast nohow; an’ my ‘vice is to lie down under dem blankets an’ sleep right straight on twill yehs has hed yar sleep right straight on twill yehs has hed yar sleep plum out; then yeh’ll be able to git ober the groun’ bettah.”
A very Solomon in wisdom and an Æsculpius in knowledge of the laws of health and the needs of exhausted nature was that old man Phil. Promptly acting on his advice, we crept up to the loft, wrapped ourselves in the blankets he had placed for us, and were soon fast asleep and wholly indifferent to the snow and sleet beating on the clapboards a few feet overhead. Places may be more luxurious and brownstone houses more desireable, but I am very sure that if to-day I could command the gold of Midas I could not duplicate to myself the entire satisfaction of the supper in that humble cabin, and no man ever enjoyed on downy couch the refreshing and entirely satisfactory sleep that came to us in the old negro’s soot-stained loft.
We awoke after a continuous sleep f sixteen hours, and we might have prolonged it till we had rounded out the twenty-four had we not been disturbed by the stamping of horses, the clatter of bridle chains, and the sound of white men’s voices just outside the cabin door.
“Rebs!” whispered Martin, as he grasped my arm.
“One of our men has just come through the swamp, and by the broken ice he tracked the men over. There were two of them, and they must have come in this direction,” said one of the men.
“Dat may be, Mauss,” replied the old black man, “but I recokon dey kep’ plum on; I knows none ob ‘em kem whar me or Nance could see ‘em.”
We could hear the old woman walking out of the cabin and her shrewd speech to the troopers, who were evidently out hunting for the escaped prisoners.
“Now dat yeh mentions it, Mauss,” she said, with admirable coolness, “pe-ahs to me, I ken rekemembah I wuz woke up long arter me an’ Phil had gone to bed, an’ I heard suffin’ like me a-talkin’ an’ a-talkin’. Den I didn’t heah’ noffin’. An’ I reckined ‘twas de wind, an’ went to sleep agin.”
“Who do you people belong to?” asked the white man.
“To Mauss Tom Harrison,” replied phil.
“Where does he live?”
“Don know, Sah; specks he’s in de wah. Bud me an’ Nance bein’ kinder ole, we’s lef’ back har to scrimmage foh oursefs.”
The horsemen spoke among themselves in low tones for a few minutes, then we could hear them moving away. I looked out through a chink between the logs and saw four gray-coated troopers riding toward what I subsequently learned was the east, the direction which we must take.
“Gosh a massy!” exclaimed the old man, as he followed his wife into the cabin after the soldiers had gone out of hearing. “I ain’t been so skeert since de fightin’, yeah ago las’ Summah!”
Martin called down to learn who the soldiers were searching for, and the sound of his voice seemed o add to the old man’s nervousness.
“Dey’s sojers a sarchin’ for yehs!” he called up. “Foh de Lor’s sake, gemmen, stay whar yeh is twill it comes dark again.”
“How long will that be?”
“Not more’n two houahs. But I’l chuck yer up yer tings ez Nance an’ me ez been a tryin’ to fix up a bit, an’ yeh ken git ‘em on so’s to be ready, an’ if yeh heahs moah white men a-talkin’ out dah, don’t say noffin, but lay low.”
We promised to follow out this advice, which was entirely in accordance with our own ideas of propriety, and we at once began to dress in our clothes which the old man pitched up. They were not the wet rags we had taken off the night before. They had been dried, cleaned, and sewed up, from the stockings to the dilapidated felt hats, even our boots had been cobbled and greased by the old man, who had been, so he assured us, “de bes’ shoemakah foh hans along de Jeems befoh de wah.”
We could not go down till our friend gave the order, but we had no difficulty in talking with him while the old woman busied herself getting supper. We thanked him again and again for what he and his wife had done for us, and we spoke of our inability to compensate him at this time, as we did not have a cent of money of any kind. In their generous, homely way the old people assured us they were only too glad to be of use, and Nance told us she had been praying for our safe deliverance ever since we came to the cabin.
As soon as it was dark and the window was again covered we descended to partake of another banquet of the same materials, including the wonderful “yarb tea.” we had just finished our meal when we were startled by a long, shrill whistle some distance away, evidently a signal. Before we could express alarm the old man opened the door and answered with another whistle, and immediately after a middle-aged colored man, slightly lame, and with a kindly face, came in. Phil introduced him by saying:
“Dish yar’s Jack Mason. I tole him ‘bout you gemmen to-ay, an’ he’s ‘greed to guide yeh down east of Coal Harbah, an’ see dat yehs a-headin’ rright foh yeh friens.”
We shook hands with Jack Mason and announced ourselves ready to start at once. The old woman, as we were about to leave, gave us each some corn bread and meat to last us on the way. The language was all too poor in words such as we felt were needed to express our thanks, and our friends seemed to realize this as we said “Farewell!”
It was an unusually dark night with a cold rain beating into our faces from the east, but our long rest and the two thoroughly satisfying meals we had had restored our strength so much that we felt we could now keep straight on to our own lines without trotting. Realizing the necessity for silence, we did not speak to our guide nor to each other, but kept close after him as he trudged on, sometimes along a beaten road, but oftener across fields and through woods, where the trees seemed to be unusually thick.
We kept steadily and hopefully on, and, although we had no means of telling the ime nor the distance traveled, Martin and myself were agreed that we had been walking for eight hours and must have come more than twenty miles, when our guide came to a halt in the midst of what seemed to be a jungle and said:
“It’ll be sun up in jes ‘bout an houah. Here’s a cabin ez no one ain’t lib’d in since foah de wah, but it’s got a roof an’ a fiah place, an’ it’ll do to hid in till anudder night. Den keep on east, an’ if so be yeh hez, yeh mout meet up wid some ob yehr folks de nex’ mawnin’.”
He led us, as we could tell by feeling about us, into a log hut, pressed into my hands a box of matches, said “Good-bye,” and was gone.
We felt much encouraged, and congratulated ourselves on having passed through the greatest danger. Another day or two and we would be within the lines of our own pickets or in communication with some of the gunboats along the James or the York River, depending on the direction we were forced to take. As soon as it was daylight we took a survey of the situation, and discovered that we were on the banks of a creek that flowed northward. To the east there were fields and a house in sight, but as there was no sign of life about, we concluded that the place was deserted.
We ate the bread and meat the old woman had so thoughtfully prepared for us, and after carefully discussing the situation we decided to push on, keeping in the woods as much as possible and away from the beaten roads. This plan worked very well till about noon, when, emerging from a piece of woods, we saw not more than a quarter of a mile away a number of infantry, men, undoubtedly Confederates, though many had blue army overcoats, marching eastward. We hurried back to the woods, and, after waiting for an hour or more, we started out again, bearing off toward the northeast. It was becoming dusk, and we were in another stretch of woods, when we were startled at coming face to face with a black woman. Without waiting for us to announce ourselves she cried out:
"Is yehs Yankees from Libby?”
We acknowledged that we were.
“Waal,” she continued, “sam White was down de Williamsburg road dis mawnin’, an’ he sez de Yankees is a comin’ from dar wid de guns. Speck dey’ll be swarmin’ right smart ‘bout hyar to-morrer.”
This woman was a servant in a family with Southern sympathies that lived near by, so that she could only help us with advice. She told us the country was full of scouting parties out searching for the prisoners who had escaped from Richmond, and she was strongly of the opinion that we should “keep in de woods and lie low” as much as possible.
By this time the clouds had cleared away and our friend, the North Star, was visible, an omen that gave us much comfort. We already knew that the prison authorities received the Richmond papers soon after they were published, and this knowledge led us to believe - and rightly, too, as the result showed - that our troops in the lower part of the peninsula would at once be advanced to render succor to the escaping prisoners.
We kept on till about 3 o’clock the following morning, now and then seeing a light to the right or left, but carefully avoiding it. We had been traveling almost continuously for almost thirty hour, during which time we had only one meal, and that was brought with us from the cabin where we had been so hospitably received. Our boots were worn out, and our feet were swollen and sore, but the hope of speedy relief nerved us on. A fire directly in our front attracted our attention. The stacked arms flashed in the light and we could see men in long overcoats passing back and forth. We concluded that it was a reserve picket post of our friends, but this cheering feeling did not destroy our own prudence nor abate the caution we had so far maintained. Poor Martin’s feet were in a sad state. One of them was bare, the rotten boot being left behind in the mud, so that as he walked he left a bloody track behind him.
On a nearer approach we discovered that the men had built their fire among the broken braches of a tree that had been uprooted by the wind, leaving a shield of earth about the roots, in the shadow of which we advance. Leaving Martin in the shadow, I crept along the trunk to try and learn from the talk whether the men in the blue overcoats were friends or foes.
As I crawled carefully along a stick broke under me with a report that sounded to my ears like the explosion of a mine. Instantly the men seized their pieces, and one man cocked his rifle and springing to my side of the tree shouted:
“Who are you?”
“Don’t fire,” I replied as I rose to my feet; “I’m a friend.”
“You are one of those escaped Yanks, ain’t you?” said the man.
I acknowledged that I was, and then asked what command this was.
“A detachment of the Twenty-first Virginia out hunting you fellows,” was the reply.
And so, after all our efforts to be free, we were prisoners again.