- Historic Sites
Escape From Charleston
Trapped by the outbreak of the Civil War, a young schoolteacher fled the rebel city—and ran into hair-raising adventures
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
The next day, Sunday, after church where as often before I listened to an earnest prayer for the success of the Confederate cause, I went down to the Battery to see as much as possible of the closing scene in the historic defense of Sumter. Already the steamer Isabel was at the Fort, waiting to convey the national forces to the steamship [Baltic] outside of the harbor. As report after report of the fifty guns fired in salute of the flag came across the water, it seemed to me the funeral knell of a mighty host. Then at last the flag, which was not to gladden my eyes for weary months, was lowered. Not until four long, bloody years had come and gone would its starry folds again float over the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Well for us, who gazed with tear-dimmed sight, that what those four years held in store was hidden from our knowledge, else we could never have lived through that April day. The Isabel soon bore out of our view the last link that bound us to our country. The homesickness of that hour only those who have passed through a similar experience can understand.
Not even yet, however, did we have any real anxiety about the future. It would, at the worst, be only a shortlived rebellion; affairs would be adjusted on the old basis very speedily. Nor were we more sanguine than others. At this very time, the first volunteers called for by Près. Lincoln were for three months only. So on the succeeding Wednesday after the taking of Fort Sumter, father, mother and the two children started for the home in Connecticut, father expecting to purchase new goods and to return in June. I was left with power of attorney and general oversight of the business. Afterwards by letter, I learned that they arrived in Baltimore on that eventful April igth just after the Sixth Massachusetts had been assaulted in its streets. They with great difficulty reached Philadelphia by steamer through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
The intense excitement incident to Sumter had hardly begun to subside when the news came that Virginia had passed the ordinance of secession. This added fuel to the fire already kindled, and the last vestige of foreboding and doubt as to ultimate success was thrown to the winds. With grand old Virginia, the mother of so many Presidents and great men, in their ranks, they were but a step from Washington itself. Surely victory was theirs.
The school boys were not slow in emulating their elders in outward demonstration. Hurrahing for each seceding state was an important pastime, while a standing geography lesson of this period was the bounding of the Confederate States of America.
Hostility toward everything pertaining to the North was shown in very many ways. Calling at a friend’s home, one evening, while at the piano turning the leaves of a music book with which I was very familiar, I found, to my surprise, that “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been carefully cut out. Businessmen were heard to say calmly and earnestly that if they could have their way not another southern cent should go north of Mason and Dixon’s line. To this extent had political animosity overcome the “high sense of honor” every Southerner boasted of possessing.
But while they were thus on the mountain top of hope and enthusiasm concerning their new venture, their material prospects were not so flattering. For a month after the evacuation of Fort Sumter, provisions were very high, butter $1.25 per pound, flour $12 per barrel. They were not daunted by this, however, for I heard one say: “We may be starved into submission but death rather than dishonor.” This stress of the provision market was but temporary and after this time food of all kinds was plenty and moderately cheap during my stay.
Of much more importance was the great decrease in trade. By the middle of May no northern shipping was found in port and only a few English vessels succeeded in running the blockade which was then firmly established. There was no way of supplying deficiencies in stock except as one merchant bought of another. The small dealers were the first to feel the depression, and one by one were compelled to close out their business, their wares being readily disposed of to their neighbors.
One of the greatest difficulties, and one which grew more and more serious, was the scarcity of change. All silver gradually disappeared from circulation, and to find a substitute at once was the problem. Nearly all the stores used “checks” of various denominations, for which when the holder could procure the requisite additional change, fi.oo would be given. This expedient served fairly well until July when the Bank of the State of South Carolina issued regular scrip.
These were busy anxious weeks to me. In the first place, I was young, only past my majority. Then almost immediately after father’s departure, all mail communication was greatly interrupted and finally stopped. I soon found that the only safe way was to send my correspondence by Adams Express. It was a tedious process getting a letter started. It must be in a United States envelope, be taken to the post office and five cents postage paid there to the Confederate States, their stamp being added, and then Adams Express would transport it for twenty-five cents silver.
There were, too, long delays. One interval of six weeks was especially trying. Besides the ordinary uneasiness anyone would have, I feared for father’s personal safety, since stories were all about how Southerners, and I thought perhaps he might be considered one because of his twentyfive years’ residence at the South, were persecuted, even imprisoned and maltreated. That I credited such reports at all will be better understood when I say no newspapers from further north than Richmond were obtainable in the city.