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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
Determining to reduce as much as possible of the remaining stock into money, as before I sold at retail until 2 P.M. out of the front door and then at wholesale out of the back door. I succeeded beyond my expectations and by August 3oth I was ready to go. There was of course considerable old-style goods, the accumulation of years, which not even the low state of the general market could induce buyers to take; there were also numbers of uncollected bills and the furniture and fixtures of the store. I put most of the proceeds of the sales into a fourth bill of exchange on Liverpool, payable to father’s order. All current expenses were settled except the payment of a quarter’s rent on the store, which the landlord refused to receive, demanding the entire amount which would become due under the lease having yet more than two years to run.
August 3oth was Saturday and as I have said I could have left the city that night, but I had no thought of imminent danger, as there were still three weeks before the expiration of the forty days. I did not wish to travel Sunday and so decided to remain until the following Monday. I opened the store on Monday as usual, deeming it better to occasion no comments upon my movements by unusual proceedings. Glancing over the morning paper, at breakfast, my eye fell upon an advertisement in a conspicuous place of a particular style of gaiter of which father had made a specialty, stating also the fact of purchase from our store. It was a small circumstance and yet I was uneasy. I could not get away until afternoon, so I must appear unconcerned and go about as hitherto.
During the forenoon three gentlemen entered the store, all friends of father and one of them very fond of me in the old days, when as a boy I had often gone to his store, always receiving much attention and many a pat on the head, besides more substantial favors in the shape of candy and toys. Asking to see me alone, I led the way to a room at the back of the store. I can recall to this day the nervous excitement of the moment, as leaning against the outer door, half open, I stood, swaying slightly to and fro, awaiting their pleasure.
“We have come to ascertain if the rumor, that you are about to leave the city, is true?” said one.
“Such is my intention, gentlemen,” I answered.
Then smiling kindly upon me, they spoke of my childhood among them and their strong regard for me. In glowing terms they depicted the future of South Carolina in her new position of power, and of the unequalled opportunities there would be for a young man of my attainments in that future. They condoled with me because of my father’s absence at such a critical period and adroitly brought out the fact that, by the Sequestration Act, also passed by the Confederate Congress at its recent secret session, and of which there had then been no public announcement, his property was confiscated; but if I would take the oath of allegiance to the Confederate States, I should at once enter into possession of the whole estate.
It is said that we sometimes live years in a few moments. In those few moments I passed forever the limit of boyhood. Amazed, stunned, by the propositions as they one by one came out, I did not try to interrupt. I listened attentively, respectfully to the very end of all they had to say. When they began I loved the old flag with boyish enthusiasm; I had been every day for months incensed at the insults offered it. I loved my father and had been devoted to his interests. But now, swear allegiance to the would be destroyer of my country, become a robber of my own father! My whole moral nature rose in arms at once and it was with a man’s determination I answered: “Gentlemen, no; I am by birth a citizen of the United States, I’ll swear allegiance to none other.”
They made no attempt whatever to persuade me into a different mind but throwing aside all of the conciliatory manner they had thus far used, they at once began to threaten me. For old friendship’s sake they had endeavored to save me, but as I scorned all their good offices for me, I must now look out for myself. They informed me that they were members of a Committee, whose duty it was to attend to cases of this kind, and they were now compelled to put the matter into the hands of the proper officers before whom I should be shortly summoned. And further that there was not the slightest use in my trying to escape until everything was satisfactorily arranged, as there were deputies to watch all the lines of exit from the state and I would be arrested at the first station. Then they abandoned me to my fate.
What should I do, whither should I turn, whom would I dare trust? These were the questions which rushed through my mind. Might I not involve those whom I felt sure would be true to me if I should go to them? It was to avert any such disaster that I sought the homes of two of my most tried friends, after nightfall. They agreed with me that it would be worse than folly to run away; nor could I hide nor give away what funds I had without prejudicing my cause.
It was a troubled night I passed and the morning of my twenty-second birthday dawned with neither very bright nor joyous prospects for my future. I early sought the counsel of two able lawyers. They smiled at my simplicity in supposing I could go quietly with what property I could carry and assured me that it was great clemency that one, who would not take the oath, should be permitted to step beyond the borders in the clothing he wore; but they would do the best they could for me. After listening to my statement they appointed another hearing after dinner.