Narrative Of An Escape From A Rebel Prison Camp

PrintPrintEmailEmailOn April 20, 1864, the Union outpost at Plymouth, on the North Carolina coast, was captured by the Confederates. One of several thousand prisoners was a twenty-one-year-old officer named Morris C. Foote, who made a break for freedom after seven months in captivity. After the Civil War was over, he wrote an account of his adventures for his family and friends. A copy of this rare and exciting document has come down to Theodore Chase of Boston, and it is through his courtesy that it now appears, slightly edited, in AMERICAN HERITAGE.

Camp Sorghum, where Lieutenant Foote was held prisoner, was a tentless field on the west side of the Congaree River near Columbia, South Carolina. Like most Civil War prisoners, on both sides, the Camp Sorghum captives were poorly housed and fed, and spent many of their waking hours trying to devise some means of escape. Lieutenant Foote was no exception. He could see that it would not be too difficult to get away from the camp, since there was no stockade surrounding it and the only Confederate soldiers on duty were home guards, imperfectly trained men who were either too young, too old, or too sickly to do duty as combat troops. But the real problem would be to cross scores of miles of Southern territory after the escape itself. Foote’s plan—and he had only a roughly traced map to guide him—was to make his way down the Congaree and Santee rivers to the sea coast, where he hoped to be picked up by a Federal gunboat.

 

On the twenty-ninth day of November I succeeded in escaping from the camp in the following manner. It was the custom to parole a number of officers each day for the purpose of allowing them to go out in the woods, which were four or five hundred yards from one side of the camp, to cut wood for cooking and brush, which we used to sleep on.

Officers in camp, not paroled, were allowed certain hours in the day to cross the “dead line” and receive wood from the paroled officers on the guard line where the sentinels were posted. The dead line was a line marked by stakes about fifteen or twenty feet inside the guard line, and anyone putting his foot on this line, ordinarily, was fired on at once by the sentinels. On this day I worked for a while, receiving wood from paroled officers and carrying it into camp, until I saw a relief of the guard posting new sentinels. As the man near me was relieved and a new one posted, I stood on the guard line with my back to the woods and a stick of wood on my shoulder, as if I had just come in from the outside.

I then remarked to my comrade, Captain Coates of the 85th N.Y. Vols, who had arranged to escape with me, “I am tired of carrying wood now and am going around to the guard tent to give up my parole.” He said, “Let us go out and cut one more load first.” After some little discussion, during which the old sentinel had gone away with the relief, I said, “I won’t cut any more wood but will go out with you and get some pine brush for our bed.” He agreed to this, so we called to an officer in camp, with whom we had made previous arrangement, who brought us a blanket apiece, holding them apparently carelessly in his arms. Inside of those blankets was some cornbread, a small piece of bacon, our pipes, tobacco and matches, and what was left of an old overcoat of mine. We threw them carelessly over our shoulders and walked slowly out towards the woods.

All of our conversation had taken place close to the sentinel and was for his benefit. Fortunately for us he was a mere boy, too young, careless and ignorant to be trusted with the duty of guarding active Yankee officers who were always looking for a chance to escape. We evidently made him believe we were paroled as he said nothing to us.

It was shortly after midday that we escaped, and about four o’clock in the afternoon we crossed a clearing near a plantation, where we must have been seen, as not very long after that, while sitting under a tree resting, we heard a peculiar, bell-like musical sound in the distance, which we at first took to be bells of the city of Columbia; but after listening a while it seemed to grow nearer and it dawned upon us that it was the hounds, and that they were on our trail.

These dogs, I think, were a cross between the fox hound and large deer hound, their scent was keen and when once on a trail they were rarely thrown off. Most of the officers who had escaped were run down and recaptured with them, and many told exciting stories of their efforts to throw the dogs off, how useless it was, and how they had to climb trees to keep from being bitten by them until their pursuers came up. All these stories came, of course, to our minds, and, as can be well understood, we did not feel very comfortable. However, we did not intend to be recaptured if we could help it before we had a chance to try our river route, so we jumped to our feet and started.

We were in pretty fair condition for running, as we had not been at all overfed, and we had a powerful incentive to keep going. Fortunately for us we were in a swampy tract, heavily timbered, and we went through all the pools we could in our course, plunging into the thickets and marshes in good style.

It was very late in the day when we first heard the dogs. It was cloudy and being the last of November darkness was coming on early. Still the infernal music kept growing nearer and nearer until at last we could hear the shouts of the men and blowing of horns, I suppose to keep the dogs and the party together.