- Historic Sites
A Confederate Odyssey
All this Florida boy wanted to do was rejoin his regiment. Instead they drafted him into the Confederate secret service.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
When I got up into the street, a little way from the dock, I began to make search for the family whose name I recalled, but I did not ask any grown people—only children playing about, as I chanced to pass them. After being sent various ways and in various directions, I met some little fellows playing football, and one said, “I can show you where Mr. P. lives.” I thanked him and we went directly to the house. We were then about two blocks away. I carefully took the number but passed on until the boy was out of sight, when I went back to the house and rang the bell.
A nice-looking old lady came to the door and asked what I wanted. She saw that I was completely equipped as a Federal soldier, and seemed to be frightened. I said to her, “Madam, I wish to see your daughter, Miss Emma.”
To this she answered, “My daughter receives no company, sir. ”
I was getting very much frightened then because I knew that the escape of two prisoners would certainly be reported within two hours after the time they got out, so I asked the old lady to kindly let me in and call her daughter, as I wished to deliver a message to her and would do so in her presence.
She opened the door and asked me to enter, and I did so and sat down. She called her daughter, who was a girl of fourteen, very handsome and ladylike in appearance. I said to them that I would like very much to entrust to them a secret if they would bear with me, and that I had come to them through the kindness of Mr. Nims, who was in the hospital department of the prison on the island. The mother said, “I don’t know what you are going to say, but I want you to know that I am a Union woman and would not say or do anything against our cause.”
I said, “You sent an autograph album into the prison a short time ago and, fortunately for me, I was asked to sign my name in it. Now if you will get it and give me pen and paper, I will duplicate what I wrote in it.”
The girl ran quickly and brought back a little desk and put it on my lap. I wrote on it, “Charles C. Hemming, Company A, Third Florida Regiment, Army of Tennessee, captured at Missionary Ridge November 26, 1863.” This was September 28, 1864. The girl went out and brought back the album, and after running through it and comparing the writing I had given her with the name in the album as written by me, she said to her mother, “Mother, he is all right.”
The old lady, with her dear sweet face, looked at me but said nothing. Turning to her daughter, she said, “Emma, call your father. ” The girl was gone perhaps thirty minutes while I waited in the sitting room with great anxiety. I did not know whether the father was to return with a file of soldiers or with some kind word for me.
The door opened after a little while, and a tall, gray-haired man entered with the girl. Turning, he locked the door. I wondered what that was for. Then he came up to me with outstretched palm and said, “My son, you belong to my people, but if it were known that you are here, they would hang me at once.”
I said to him, “I thank you very much for your sympathy, but please open the door and let me go and take my chances.”
He answered, “I will not. I am going to assist you to get away. Did not two of you escape?” I replied, “Yes, sir. ” And he said, “The town is already posted with the reward for you.”
I appealed to him again, “Please let me go. I would not injure you for anything in the world.” He said, “No. Come into the other room,” and there he put up a ladder and sent me into the attic and told me to take off the uniform and all the equipment of the Federal soldier and drop it down on the floor below, that Emma might cut it up and burn it in the stove at once. I did as he directed, and soon everything was in ashes. A little later he returned with a plain outfit of a farmer boy, and I was soon in disguise with thirty-six dollars in my pocket.
He said, “Go to where the hacks start for Eau Claire. The steamers run from there to St. Paul, and you buy a ticket at La Crosse, when you get there, for Milwaukee and then across the lake to Grand Haven and from Grand Haven to Sarnia. When you get to Sarnia, cross the river and you will be in Canada, and safe.”
I went to the dock, as instructed, at three o’clock, and I got on the hack and was off.
We got to Eau Claire about eight o’clock. It was then very dark. When I went into the little hotel I saw it crowded, mostly with a foreign element, and soon heard them tell of the escape of two prisoners from Rock Island that day. During the night, I sat upright in the bed, dozing only occasionally. In the morning the steamer was at the landing and I boarded it with my ticket for La Crosse. After we got started up the river, I was assigned to a room with a great, jolly man who said he was in business in Montana. At dinner they took the sense of the passengers by a rising vote to see how they stood in the contest between McClellan and Lincoln. When they called for the vote, the Montana man voted for McClellan and I thought it would not be bad policy for me to vote the same way; but all the other passengers, and there were some sixty-five or seventy on the steamer, voted for Lincoln.