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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
It was a time of nostalgia for twenty-one-year-old William Merrick Bristoll as he approached Charleston, South Carolina, aboard a steamer in late February of 1861. The sights were so familiar—the sand islands, the harbor forts, Castle Pinckney, and then the city itself, its wharves bristling with masts, the Battery promenade and park, and behind all the houses and churches he knew so well. By birth and inclination Bristoll was a Northerner, but his father’s shoe business was centered in Charleston; and three months after Bristoll was born in “good old Connecticut,” he was taken to Charleston and lived there for the next twelve years. The subsequent nine years he spent coming and going between North and South, graduating from Yale in 1860 and then taking a teaching position in Delaware. At his father’s urging he quit the school post to return to Charleston. It was, indeed, as Bristoll wrote more than a quarter of a century later, “that memorable year 1861.” South Carolina had seceded and joined the fledgling Confederate States of America. To his great annoyance Bristoll found that upon disembarking he had to pass through customs because Charleston was now a foreign port. The Palmetto flag flew everywhere—except at Fort Sumter, out in the harbor, which had become the focus of secessionist attention. Despite rumors of war Bristoll obtained a job in the Charleston school system and in walks about the city sometimes encountered Federal officers from Fort Sumter or General P. G. T. Beauregard and his staff. But “to do much work was simply impossible. The very air was full of feverish excitement.” And then, nearly two months after his return, in the “gray dawn” of April 12, Bristoll awakened to the sound of distant cannon. The bombardment meant not only the start of the Civil War but also, to Bristoll, the beginning of an anxious five months in Charleston and then a harrowing series of adventures as he sought to escape imprisonment. We are indebted to a distant relative, Mrs. Myrtle M. Hauenstein of Groveland, Massachusetts, for permission to print Bnstoll’s account of those exciting incidents, never before published. His story picks up on that fate/id morning of April 12, 1861.
But it was not fearful, anxious faces I saw as I hurried down to the Battery for an outlook seaward. It was a pellmell rush; running until out of breath, slackening speed for a second, then on again, catching hold of carts or wagons going in that direction, until panting and hardly yet knowing why it is we are here, we look out across the harbor. Boom, boom go the cannon. Now the puff of white smoke comes from Fort Johnson. There goes one from Castle Pinckney. The Floating Battery, too, has taken position, while Steven’s Battery, the first to speak on that momentous morning, still continues to send forth its iron messengers. Fort Moultrie also joins the fray and thus from all sides shot and shell pour down upon that one sole representative of the detested northern oppressor. All the pent up hatred of the past months and years is voiced in the thunder of these cannon, and the people seem almost beside themselves in the exultation of a freedom they deem already won.
But Fort Sumter is silent; no answering puff of smoke rises from those dark walls. Surely it is not to be a one-sided contest; though they are few, those men are brave, I think as I anxiously wait. Not until seven does [Major Robert] Anderson and his loyal band turn the guns, which were expected to be needed only against a foreign foe, towards his defiant, rebellious brothers. The great Civil War is begun! But these men, women and children, who surge through the streets, smile and rejoice as they greet each other; to them the beginning is the end, and victory is within their grasp.
All day the cannonade continues. The city gives itself a gala-day. A few stores are opened in the early morning but their proprietors soon follow their neighbors into the streets. Every available place of looking toward Sumter is thronged; there is a ceaseless tread of feet up and down the stairways of all the church spires. At the bulletin board, men struggle for a chance to read its reports. They were wrought up to such a pitch of exaltation that when toward noon the news, false as it proved, spread through the city, that there was great loss of life in Fort Moultrie, that it was, indeed, “a slaughter pen,” grief was almost swallowed up in “the glory of a death in defense of home and country.” At dusk Sumter no longer replied to its assailants, but the flag still waved triumphantly over its devoted defenders. All through the night the heavens were aglow with the grandest pyrotechnic display I have ever witnessed, and with the return of daylight there was no cessation in the roar of artillery. Sumter again entered the lists, but with less vigor than the day before. …
Crowds move restlessly to and fro waiting for the “latest from the front.” After dinner of this day I wandered up into the spire of Circular Church and stood looking, with a glass, at Sumter. A dense column of smoke rose from it, the burning of the barracks we had heard. As I watched, suddenly the flag tottered and fell. With bated breath I gazed. Had those brave fellows at last yielded to the inevitable and taken it down in token of surrender? Thank God, no, there it is again! I could have shouted in my joy had I dared. …
But the end was not far distant. Before night hostilities ceased, terms of evacuation having been agreed upon between the two commanders, terms whereby not a shadow of dishonor could rest either on the national ensign or the noble men who fought for it.
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.
I found, too, ere long that 220 King Street was beginning to be regarded with suspicion because its proprietor was at the North. Expressions of distrust became more loud and frequent, especially at my boarding place where were also a number about my own age who had espoused the cause of South Carolina with all the fire and vehemence of youth. An incident of a dinner table conversation will serve as an example of the state of feeling. An aged lady, most gentle and refined, a devout Christian, as well, offered to one of those young men, her nephew, a fine horse for immediate service, with the injunction that, before his return, he should “win for it a necklace of Yankee scalps.” At length I concluded to endure this kind of daily outrage no longer and so occupied one of the rooms over the store, taking my meals at a restaurant.
The responsibility with regard to the business also weighed heavily upon me. It soon became apparent that there would be no purchasing of goods by father and so rapidly did affairs politically progress, he was unable to return South. Thus I was left to dispose of the property as quietly and quickly as possible. As I said before, trade was dull and sales slow, yet before August I was able to remit to father two bills of exchange on Liverpool, besides paying all outstanding bills in Charleston. All these things wore upon me physically and early in July I resigned my position in the schools.
In the meantime battles had been waged in Virginia and Missouri. Many households were in mourning throughout the land, and Charleston, too, had her dead. The body of Gen. Bee, who was killed at Bull Run, was brought back to his native place and laid to rest with many tears.
Though the papers counted everything thus far as a grand success and were sure the end was near, there was, nevertheless, need of more men, and Gov. Pickens called for four thousand volunteers. Charleston’s law relating to military duty was peculiar. All male white citizens between certain ages must belong to one of the uniformed militia companies or to one of the fire companies, a volunteer not paid department at that time. If any refused to serve in one or other of these, he was assigned to what were called the “Beats,” who though not uniformed were drilled once a week by commissioned officers. Teachers, in common with most of the professions, had been exempt, but in the new exigencies, all, without regard to employment, between sixteen and sixty, were ordered to be registered in one of these divisions. So finding I must serve in some capacity, by the help of a friend I entered the Hope Engine Company as the least objectionable of the three. Though it was understood that the fire companies were to be armed soon, they would only have patrol duty in the city, while all others were to be ordered to the Islands for guard duty. All stores were closed at 2 P.M. except Saturdays that the militia might drill every afternoon.
As our store was closed thus early I began selling at wholesale to other dealers, the goods being delivered, to avoid any unnecessary attraction of passers-by, at the back door which opened upon a short alley leading to Market Street. In this way I reduced the stock to about $7,000. Thus matters stood August 6th when I sent my last letter to father containing a third bill of exchange. Martial law was then proclaimed and all letters under whatever pretext were strictly forbidden. From this time I was completely isolated. Oh, the utter loneliness of heart when there was not one to whom I dared speak unreservedly! I lived a hermit in the midst of a populous city. True, the friends of my boyhood, though heart and soul for the Confederacy, still greeted me cordially and no doubt shielded me from much suspicion by boldly assuming that I was one of them. How much they themselves surmised of my real feelings I never knew. God bless them for their kindness in those dark days.
As I had expected, the fire companies, the Hope with the rest, were furnished arms and drill commenced. To evade this as long as possible and also to get a brief respite from the perplexities surrounding me, I availed myself of an opportunity to make the round trip to Fernandina, Florida, by the inland passage, the only water communication then open between the two points. By this route a small steamer could pass through these inlets, many of them narrow and shallow, and usually be out of sight of the blockading fleet and at least out of reach of it. It would have been a delightful journey under pleasanter circumstances, and even as it was I found much to interest me. …
This expedition, of nearly two weeks, did much for me physically and no doubt prepared me to sustain the excessive fatigue and anxiety of the next few weeks. But during my absence had been issued the proclamation of Jefferson Davis relating to the Alien Act, passed by the Confederate Congress at its recent secret session. This warned all aliens to leave the country within forty days, of which ten days had already gone when I reached Charleston.
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.
I have always believed in special providences. As I have told to friends the story of these weeks of my life, again and again has it been remarked how numerous and wonderfully clear were the instances of God’s interventions in my behalf. At this very juncture there was a marked one. Two officers of the law had each a writ for my arrest; one, the Deputy Marshal of the Confederate States, summoning me to answer the charges of the Committee, the other a State Sheriff to issue upon me a writ of garnishee on complaint of the landlord for non-payment of rent, above referred to. Of these two, awaiting my exit at the front entrance of the store, I had not the least intimation when in going to dinner, I that day went out at the back door, something I rarely did. On my return I walked boldly in at the front, and almost immediately out again in the same way, to keep my appointment with my lawyers, the two officers in meantime carefully guarding the back door. Thus twice did I slip through their fingers, greatly to my advantage as the result proved. For while talking with me, my lawyer glancing out of his window said: “There are two officers without doubt waiting for you. Now this is what you had better do. Let the Confederate States Marshal arrest you here, because the District Court is now in session and your case can be decided at once; while if the other officer places you under arrest, the State Court does not sit until January.”
This was accordingly done; the Marshal served his summons but granted personal liberty on my verbal parole, not to leave the city until my case was settled. Walking home from the lawyers, while passing through City Hall Square, someone touched me and said “I arrest you.” “But I’m under the arrest of the Confederate States Marshal,” I said.
Of this he would not be assured until taking me to the sheriff’s office in the Court-House near by, one of my lawyers came and certified to it. He reluctantly relinquished his claim upon me, and I was once more free on my former parole. Thus ended my birthday experiences.
I was called to appear at Court the succeeding Thursday, September 5th, where was given the sworn statement prepared for me by my lawyers. By this I gave up to the Confederate States the stock remaining in the store, the furniture and fixtures, the lease of the store, the books of account, the last bill of exchange on Liverpool I had purchased, the bills uncollected, and the money on hand except about $600 which I reserved as my own salary for the months of service since father’s departure. The document closed with these words: “And this respondent having answered all and singular the matters and things in said Information suggested, prays to be hence dismissed, with the costs and charges in this behalf sustained.”
Judge Magrath, who had resigned his office as United States Judge even before the passage of the ordinance of secession by South Carolina and had quickly accepted a similar position under the Confederate States, dismissed the case from Court, adding, however, that I should report to the District Attorney and when he was satisfied I could g°-
This case being the first under the Sequestration Act, the proceedings were published entire in the Charleston Courier of the next day and quite widely copied throughout the South.
For nearly a week of those precious remaining days of the original forty, I hovered around the office of the District Attorney, William Porcher Miles. From day to day I was put off, now because he was too busy to attend to me, now this and now that reason given for delay, his manner and speech getting more and more discourteous and even abusive. The last day I went to him he said: “Young man, your father had the reputation of doing a much larger business than you have shown and we believe you have been sending money north.”
If he had not been very angry he would not probably have thus clearly indicated the danger in which I stood. It was no longer the property only they desired but myself to make an example of me.
As I ascertained afterwards the Attorney had been to the bank where the bills of exchange had been bought and demanded to see their books. But they resolutely refused to betray business confidence, strong secessionists though they were. It was only this which saved me from the full working of this law, whose proceedings Judge Petigru, one of South Carolina’s noblest citizens, characterized as “no better than those which made the English Star Chamber and Spanish Inquisition odious to every lover of liberty.” A; I walked away from the Attorney’s office that morning I determined to make one effort to escape from the net closing about me. My parole was to stay until my case was settled, and was it not settled since I had given up everything? To remain longer would be suicidal.
I could take nothing with me, so putting together a few books I especially valued I carried them to a friend for safe-keeping. Among these was one containing the pictures and autographs of my classmates at Yale, and this through all the vicissitudes of a long bombardment and many removals, this dear friend kept and sent to me at the close of the war.
I bade no farewells, thinking it better that my friends should know nothing of my movements. One only knew of my departure. He it was who carried my hand-bag and a ticket to Augusta, Georgia (I considered it would be wiser to buy for a short distance only), into a car agreed upon and left them in a seat for me.
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.
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.”
It was Sunday evening when we reached the Springs and I was very cordially welcomed by the proprietor of the Sanitarium. A few drovers from Kentucky, on their way home, were the only other guests at this time. Rising early the next morning I was at once taken in hand by the zealous landlord, fully questioned as to my physical condition and conducted to the springs, where I managed to swallow a little of the nauseous drink. I was reassuringly told I should soon like it and in any case I must not fail to take at least a quart each morning before breakfast. I listened obediently to his directions with a mental reservation, however, to regain my health in other climes and with less distasteful remedies.
After breakfast, going upon the porch, I found the drovers exhibiting some new money, the engraving of which they thought very fine. I had with me a new issue of the Bank of South Carolina, a $10 bill, which I took out and showed also. It passed from hand to hand, each remarking upon its beauty, and when the landlord would have returned it to me, I said: “You may keep that on account.”
Distrust of me was thus allayed and my movements could be perfectly free from espionage. So shortly after, I took a walk and kept on walking, indeed, I never returned. Whether my prolonged absence created anything more than a passing remark I never learned. Probably not, as there were events much more important than the fate of an unknown man occurring every day.
I kept to lonely, unfrequented ways, sometimes in the woods, at one place fording a small stream by wading. I saw few houses and did not like to excite any inquiry by asking for anything to eat, so I had no dinner. I had only the sun to guide me and but a vague idea of where I was. At last late in the afternoon, hearing some boys singing in a cornfield I determined to seek definite information. Coming up to them I asked what state I was in.
“Old Kentucky, Sir, a Union state, hurrah!”
Hunger, weariness were for the moment forgotten, and I could have kissed the ground with more of joy than did Columbus at San Salvador. I was no longer an alien in an enemy’s country, but a child at home, though far from kindred.
More hopefully I went on, and coming to a house I ventured to ask for something to eat. They had nothing cooked they said, but kindly proposed to prepare a meal for me. This I declined since I was anxious to put as great a distance as possible between me and the Confederate States.
At nightfall I again sought rest and refreshment, this time with success, for I entered the home of a Union man, the Sheriff of Monroe Co. I was well cared for and in the morning, Tuesday, he took me to a little town called Glasgow from which I was able to go with the mail-carrier to Cave City. Here after my long detour to the eastward from Nashville, I again reached the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, beyond passports and danger, too, I supposed.
The one train northward was due about noon, but this day, no train came at that time. One o’clock, still no train! Two o’clock, and at last came the welcome whistle in the distance. We all rushed to the platform. The sounds surely came from the wrong direction! What did it mean? Yes, from the north not the south came the thundering train. And there was a Confederate flag flying on the locomotive; and not only one locomotive but on several, and cars of all descriptions, filled with live stock and boxes and barrels, an indiscriminate mass, came sweeping down upon us.
Amazement held us spellbound, and before we took in the situation we were made prisoners by the guerrillas. They had been north as far as Muldraugh’s Hill and had burned the long trestle which spanned the deep valley south of it. Then taking possession of the rolling stock of the road, the tobacco stored in the warehouses and, indeed, everything they could lay their hands upon in their rapid flight, they were out of reach before any opposing force could be gathered. Elated with their success, they thought they were now far enough south to take a little well earned rest, which they at once proceeded to do by helping themselves freely to the liquors in the bar-room. For instead of a simple station here the Railroad combined with it a large hotel kept for the accommodation of visitors to Mammoth Cave nine miles distant.
I do not know what they did with the other prisoners, but me they put in a room with a soldier to guard me. I had some of the feelings, I imagine, a caged lion has and like him I paced restlessly up and down, back and forth. The monotony of my regular tread, together with his potation, I discovered ere long, had a very soporific tendency upon my custodian. There were two doors to the room in which I was, one by which I came in, and another appearing to lead towards the back of the house. So when I concluded that Morpheus held my captor firmly in his grasp, I cautiously turned the knob to this latter door, then resumed my walk as steadily as before. When I reached the door a second time I gave it a slight push and could see that the next room had a door at its further end also. At my third approach I opened it fully and finding I had not roused my sleeper, the fourth time I walked out instead of back.
How many rooms with doors at the end I went through that afternoon, I will not trust my memory to tell; to me they seemed interminable! But there was a last one and it was not far to some woods, into whose friendly cover I hastened. How I walked, almost ran at first! I began to have all the fears of a hunted creature, and perhaps in a faint measure to comprehend the terrible agony of a runaway slave; to whom the north star, forever beckoning onward, yet as surely receded when the land of promise seemed just within his grasp.
I put several miles between me and my whilom captors, going first westerly and then towards the north to reach the railroad again. It was dusk when I began to look for a place in which to spend the night. There were four or five houses in sight, which one should I try? One a little more apart attracted me most, and that I might take a nearer view I passed by at its rear, when, oh joy! there on a post of the fence was a tiny stars and stripes.
No longer timid I went around to the front of the house and asked permission to tarry over night. A suspicious look came over the face of the woman, and glancing nervously about she said: “No, we don’t keep strangers,” and was turning away.
“But,” I boldly replied, “you are Union people and—”
Not waiting for me to say more, she demanded how I knew that. “By the little flag on the fence,” I told her.
Instantly calling one of the children, she sent him to take it down, scolding him well for having put it there. Blessed little flag! God’s messenger of love to me that weary day.
Then at length she invited me in, apologizing meanwhile for her lack of courtesy, since now they did not know whom to trust. Kentucky was then divided against itself, not out of the Union, because more than half of her citizens were loyal though held in fear by the strong minority. Moreover the bitterness of the conflict was carried into the very homes, two neighbors often being on different sides.
During the night I was awakened by the arrival of a large party of the “Home Guard,” the country being now in arms to prevent another such a guerrilla raid as had just taken place. They offered large inducements if I would only join them and were not well pleased with my refusal to do so.
In the morning, this was Thursday, my host, being unable to go with me himself, took me to a friend’s near by, who would conduct me to another safe harbor further east, thus again making a detour to get above the burned trestle. An underground railroad I was upon now, avoiding all towns, and passing directly from one true Union man to another. Everywhere among this people was I treated with the utmost kindness, and was given the best they in their poverty had to offer. Not unfrequently did they refuse pay for their hospitality and only as I slipped a gold piece into the hand of the wife, when leaving, could I render any compensation.
My guide for this day unfortunately obtained some apple-brandy where we stopped for dinner, and when we had gone but a few miles fell from his horse completely overcome. Opportunely a man, who proved to be a friend of my helpless companion, came from the opposite direction at that moment and together we carried him back where we had dined. I set out again with the new-comer for a traveling comrade, reaching the contemplated resting place after dark.
Here I found myself in the midst of a very gay party, a “meet” of the neighboring families. One of course had brought his violin and dancing was the feature of the entertainment. There was much hilarity and the men were rough. They ascertained that I was unarmed and commented freely upon the danger I thus ran in these troublous times. They not only carried pistols but many of them bowie knives as well.
The evening’s experience was not conducive to peaceful slumber. Sleep was long in coming and it seemed to me I had only dozed when I was thoroughly wakened by a hand passing over my face. All the horrible stories of dark deeds in lonely places I had ever heard rushed through my mind. I remained perfectly still, since I knew not what else to do, and after a moment the hand was withdrawn. I tried to convince myself that it was only the involuntary motion of my bed-fellow in his deep sleep, but though there was no occasion for further alarm I was very thankful to see daylight through the chinks between the logs.
Pressing on in a northeasterly direction, the next day we had much difficulty in crossing the Green River, which was very high, our horses almost swimming in the deepest part. I passed the night at the home of an old man, who claimed to be a lineal descendant of Daniel Boone. He had many traditions of his family to relate during the evening and I was much interested in him and his wife.
It was now considered safe to try once more the usual modes of travel so the next morning, Saturday, my aged friend himself took me a few miles to the turnpike, a regular stage route to Lebanon. I was able to meet the stage as it passed and reached Lebanon at noon just in time to take the train for Lebanon Junction, a short branch railroad connecting these two places.
Lebanon Junction was on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad above Muldraugh’s Hill, so once more I had reached an open door to the North. Best of all there was here a strong force of United States soldiers.
When we stopped at the station every available place was quickly taken by soldiers going up to Louisville on a furlough, the guerrilla raid having called out the militia upon such short notice they were not suitably prepared. I remember two sat in the seat with me, so crowded were we.
How I did exult in being again beneath the stars and stripes and surrounded by the boys in blue! But alas for human hopes! A jaunty zouave, with musket, passed through and seeing me evidently a stranger, he reached over my seatmates, and tapping me on the shoulder said: “Follow me.”
The commotion caused by my getting out attracted the attention of the car full of soldiers and as I followed, I heard on every side the loud whisper: “A spy!” “A spy!”
Not the possibility of such an adventure had occurred to me. But it all flashed upon me then, and what had I with which to prove my innocence? To have escaped through all the trying ordeal of the past few weeks and at last to be taken as a spy by my friends !
It was a very despairing young man, who was ushered into the presence of the commanding officer, Col. Johnson of Louisville. His headquarters was a room in the second story of the depot and there were congregated soldiers, citizens and many others, seeking favor or redress. He was a man of judicial mind, quick to understand men and to determine whether an affirmative or negative answer should be given to the request before him. The cases were thus dispatched with a decision and celerity really remarkable.
When my turn came, he looked keenly, even sharply, at me as the Zouave reported the situation, and then demanded my papers.
“I have none, Sir.”
“Who can vouch for you?”
“I do not know anyone here, Sir.”
“What is your business then in this part of the country at this time?”
As briefly as possible I gave him the principal facts in my story.
“Well, young man, it may all be as you say, but these are perilous times, and I must consider your case further. You may sit down there.”
I sat down too hopeless to even ponder upon my own fate, while the next man was called. It was by a window I sat and can you imagine how my heart sank as I saw the train move away and I felt that I was left behind! At length I was roused from my torpor by the severe, incisive tones of the Colonel, as he soundly berated the individual before him, evidently known to him in other days. I caught the words:
“I know you, and I don’t trust any of your plausible stories. You need not come here asking for passes or any other favors. But that young man over there, I believe his story from his face and I shall give him a pass.”
Joy never kills any one, else the sudden transition from the depths of woe in which I had just been to such altogether unlooked-for happiness would surely have overpowered me. In due time the pass was made out and I held the precious bit of paper in my own hands. As I reached the outer world, again a free man, I was surprised to find my story had preceded me. The northward bound train instead of having gone as I supposed, had only passed out of my sight and having returned, the soldiers greeted me with loud congratulations. They dubbed me “South Carolina” and made so much of me my fame became rather oppressive. I had gone in with the accusation of spy hanging over me and came out to find myself quite a hero.
At last I was the third time en route for Louisville. When we were only about a dozen miles from Louisville we had to wait on a side track for the down train, which came so heavily laden with soldiers and supplies for the front it was necessary to take our engine to help in the transportation. On this train was Gen. Rousseau going down to take command in person. As he was the first Union general I had seen I scanned him very closely.
But the locomotive promised to be sent to us did not come. It was suppertime and the hungry boys began to look about for eatables. In the baggage car they found some fresh eggs and in an adjoining field some green corn; these they appropriated as being necessities of war. Night passed and still we lingered on the side track. Then some began to straggle off towards Louisville, proposing to walk rather than wait any longer. I set out, too, alone, not enjoying the rather rough, though hearty fellowship of my companions. I passed a party, who were endeavoring to loosen a handcar and presently I heard them coming up behind. All the walkers rushed to get on, but were forcibly pushed away. I, too, tried with the rest and recognizing me they cried: “
Oh! there’s ‘South Carolina,’ let’s pull him on.”
Hardly slackening speed, two of them reached down and fairly lifted me on. Very soon a whistle was heard in the rear and we had to get out of the way quickly. It was our long delayed train, and for once we were all glad to change cars.
We entered Louisville about noon where I only tarried long enough for a bath and dinner, Sunday though it was, taking the noon steamer for Cincinnati. I could not feel quite safe until I had crossed the Ohio and breathed again the free air of my fathers. I had been twelve days in coming from Charleston, nine days in getting from Nashville to Cincinnati.
The next day I flew eastward towards old Connecticut. The home-getting, who could describe?
It was not wonderful that for three weeks after reaching home, I was utterly prostrated. The much walking and extreme mental strain had been too severe a tax upon even my young and robust frame.
Did father recover any more of his property? Yes. When the Confederate States attempted to cash the bill on Liverpool, I had given up at Court, the Bankers refused to pay it without father’s endorsement and the bill remained in the hands of the Receiver. When Sherman’s army threatened Charleston, this officer burned the bill with much other like property. But after the war closed, father obtained an order from Gen. Sickles, at that time in command at Charleston, by which the bank was made to give a duplicate of the bill to him and this was collected. Gold being then at a high premium, it brought nearly a quarter more than its original value and thus some indemnity was secured for its loss during the four years.
It is twenty-five years and more now since those days of peril when I was brought through dangers seen, and how many unseen, I know not, guided and kept by God’s own hand. And while I render grateful thanks for my own preservation, unspeakably more do I rejoice that the same Hand wrought also a great deliverance for us as a people, and through ways we dreamed not of, brought us out into a large place.
Today there is no North, no South in the family circle, all are sheltered in the one homeland and protected by the dear old stars and stripes.