- 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
Just then my eye caught the sign “John Hugh Smith, Attorney at Law.” “Lawyers have served me well before, why not this one” was the instantaneous thought and under an impulse I could not control I stepped in. There sat before an open fire-place in which a fire was burning, it was a cool morning, a man well in the prime of life, of a rather sad countenance but with a very kindly courtesy in his face as he rose to greet me. After we were seated, without waiting to be questioned as to my business, I plunged at once into my story. He only listened to a few sentences when rising quickly, he shut the door, carefully turning the key also, and drawing his chair close to mine, he whispered: “I’m a Union man, but I dare not say so here out loud. Tell me all about yourself.”
When I had finished he said “If only you had come to me at first I think I could have gotten you a pass and as it is I’ll try.” But though he pleaded well for me the committee was inexorable.
“He has telegraphed to Charleston, it will only be a few more hours to wait.” “Well,” said my friend, “you evidently cannot get north by rail. Moreover all the ferries across the Cumberland, here, are taken off or put under the same restriction as the railroad. The skiffs too have been gathered up and all the bridges are guarded. Your only course is to go eastward by stage to some small place and work your way through on a new line.”
An examination of various routes led us to decide upon the midnight stage to Lebanon as the most practicable. Until that time I must be concealed lest a telegram from Charleston cause my re-arrest. So Mr. Smith took me up into the Capitol, which occupies the highest eminence in the city. In the library, as is often the case, there was a gallery and here in an alcove, where were books seldom used, I spent the remaining hours of one of the longest days of my life. Not even the grand outlook interested me.
After dark I crept cautiously down to the City Hotel, where in the morning, for prudential reasons, I had registered only the first two thirds of my name. Once in my room I burned everything which could possibly reveal my identity, saving only, for father’s inspection, a single scrap of paper containing the list of the property given up at Charleston, which I thought I could readily dispose of in case of accident.
At the appointed time John Hugh Smith came for me and saw me safely stowed away in the lumbering old stage. A hearty grasp of his hand and I was friendless and alone once more. A grand man he was! Altogether worthy of the fionor which afterwards came to him, being the first Mayor of Nashville appointed by the military authorities in reconstruction times.
I never had positive information that any attempt was made by the Charleston officials for my apprehension; but friends at home noticed in several papers just about this time that an officer from Charleston was in Nashville after a young man whose circumstances were similar to my own, but no name was given.
The stage was an old-fashioned Concord, and on this occasion carried its full complement of passengers, nine, three on a seat. Not a very comfortable place in which to spend the night, and to add to our discomfort, one of the party was quite intoxicated and persisted in talking continuously. For some unaccountable reason he singled me out to torment especially with his questions which pressed closer and closer. The other passengers drew his attention at last and he retired uttering as a final thrust: “Well I believe he’s a Yankee anyway.” We left him overcome in his drunken stupor at the inn where we took breakfast.
Reaching Lebanon about noon the matter of first importance to me was how I was to pursue my further journey. I dared not ask many questions. A map of the roads of the surrounding country was hanging in the public room, but unfortunately very high to conceal a chimney flue, so that only by standing upon the table beneath could I at all study it. Taking advantage of an opportunity when alone I determined to hazard discovery, and had just noted a road leading northward, which seemed a feasible route, when the landlord entered. I was fairly detected; evasion would only rouse more suspicion. Besides something in the man invited confidence, so I began to tell him my perplexities. He stopped me and said: “Follow me.”
He led me through a long, long hall into one of the most remote sleeping-rooms, where he not only locked the door but put the key in his pocket. This was rather alarming, considering I knew not whether he were friend or foe.
“Now,” said he, coming up close to me, “let me hear what you have to tell.” He was an interested, attentive listener to my narrative.
“I’m a secessionist through and through,” said he, “but I’m glad to help a young man home to his father. Now the road you thought of taking leads directly between two Confederate camps. This is what I will do. Tomorrow is Sunday when fewer people are abroad and I will send my black boy Jim with my horse and buggy (everybody knows my horse and my Jim) to Red Sulphur Springs with you. This will get you across the Cumberland by the only ferry on the whole river that I know of which isn’t taken off or guarded. But this one is owned by a friend of mine.” Red Sulphur Springs, now Red Boiling Springs, was then a resort for invalids and so would be just the place for me, a wearied teacher, to recuperate, the character I still preserved.
Again I had found a friend, for true to his promise he placed me in charge of his boy Jim with explicit directions as to the journey. I shall always keep a warm place in my heart for mine host of Lebanon, Tennessee, and his “boy Jim.”