- 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
I, taking my dinner as usual, sauntered leisurely up Meeting Street eating chinquapins, I remember. I passed through the dark depot by a door but little frequented and entered the car, fully an hour before schedule time, where I found my bag and ticket. This you will understand was long before the days of gate-keepers and porters. The backs to the seats were very high, being the nearest approach to the modern sleeping car, and in the dim light of the car shed I was somewhat secure from observation. Yet it was an hour of much trepidation and several scares, especially when, near its end, the District Attorney himself passed through the car glancing scrutinizingly about. I could easily have touched him and how I escaped his notice I do not know unless his eyes were holden. Oh! the relief when we were really started and I could breathe more freely! Thus, as a fugitive, I fled from the city in which more than half of my life had been spent.
At Branchville where we stopped for supper, while walking upon the platform, I found I was observed more closely than was pleasant, so I quickly resumed my old place in the car. When the train from Columbia arrived crowded with passengers, among whom were many Confederate officers and soldiers, our car was filled and one officer sat with me. He was very talkative and finding I had been in Charleston during the Sumter bombardment had many questions as to how “we” won the day. He had been in the Bull Run battle and was going home to Chattanooga as a recruiting officer. I did not consider it necessary to tell the whole truth about myself, though during all the difficulties of this journey I never told what was not true. So to him I was a teacher, wearied and a little out of health, seeking recreation among the mountains of northern Tennessee.
At Augusta, midnight though it was, I procured my ticket to Nashville with fear and trembling, lest tidings of my departure from Charleston had preceded me. I was glad to be again under the sheltering presence of my officer with whom 1 traveled free from suspicion to Atlanta. Then for a little relaxation I walked upon the platform, and again I was watched and even followed. But just then came my good protector and linking his arm in mine we continued our walk, my shadower at once disappearing.
It may seem strange that to reach Connecticut I was all this time really going further away. But it must not be forgotten that two great armies confronted each other in Virginia, effectually closing all the eastern thoroughfares leading into the North.
All that afternoon we were passing through places soon to be famous in our national history. Grand old Kenesaw was in view for hours. Altoona Pass, Resaca, Chickamauga, Lookout, indeed, the whole route was to be one great battle-field and many a brave defender of his country’s honor was to lie down in his last sleep on those mountains and in those valleys. Then, I thought only of the wonderful beauty of the scene and that my face was at last turned northward. So it was with a lighter heart that I shook hands, at Chattanooga in parting, with my unknown friend. I have often wondered if he survived the perils of the war and have wished I could thank him for the real service he rendered me.
At Chattanooga all the cars for Nashville were locked and in vain I tried one after another. While I was thinking what I should do next, there came, with their officer, a large number of recruits not yet uniformed, for whom a car was unlocked. I boldly marched in and was locked in with them. They were jovial, young fellows, entering the service as if it were but a festive excursion. Poor mistaken boys! Most of them I fear had a most terrible awakening from their gay dreams. They had liquor with them and drank often to their future fame and glory, so their company was not at all desirable, but I was getting on towards the Northland and could well bear such disagreeable incidents.
Nashville I found to be the frontier city of the Confederacy; the one railroad leading north being strictly guarded, only such as procured passes from the “Committee of Safety” being allowed passage. I confidently went to the Committee for a pass, citing the recent proclamation allowing forty days in which to leave the country. But no; they must know more about me, where I came from, why I was leaving the South. Had I no friends in the city who could assure them that I was a proper person to be permitted to proceed? What credentials had I to show? As a last resort I produced the published account of my case, which I had cut from the Courier as a bit of personal history. After carefully perusing it, they handed it back saying: “By this it is not clear that you were regularly dismissed. Telegraph to the Mayor of Charleston to vouch for you and we will then give you a pass.”
Utterly disheartened I turned away, and not knowing what else to do, entered the first telegraph office I found and sent a telegram, not to the Mayor, but to my lawyers, telling them of my whereabouts. I also sent a message to father, saying I had succeeded in getting thus far but feared I could get no further. For a few moments, I regarded myself as lost and there seemed nothing to do but return to Charleston and meet my fate like a man.