- Historic Sites
Narrative Of An Escape From A Rebel Prison Camp
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
An old woman visited us several times, bringing food and talking to us. She was an ignorant field Negro, but she talked about the difference between freedom and slavery with much sense and feeling. She told us she had heard from one of the servants up at “de big house” that “Massa Lincum was delected,” and that a call had been made in the North for more soldiers and that her “Old Massa felt mighty blue” and the black people all rejoiced, as they now knew that the war would soon be over and “Massa Lincum” would come down with his soldiers and free them all. This was the first news we had of President Lincoln’s reelection. When it was dark our old woman came with a little boy and we started out.
After walking about a mile we came to some woods, and a little further on reached the river bank, which at this place was quite steep and high. It was now very dark and the old woman lighted a pitch pine torch, which she held up, and pointing down the bank, said, “Dars de batto.” We peered through the darkness down to the black flood below and discovered the bateau to be a little light skiff, square at the ends; the woman told us they had stolen it from a millpond that day and dragged it about a mile overland to this place; she then gave us a pot of boiled beans and an ash-cake. We shook her hands and scrambled down the bank to embark.
It was a queer, weird-looking scene, that starting: the old Negro woman standing up on the bank, holding the flaring torch over her head, lighting the gloom under the trees and reflecting in the black-looking river below; the little black child standing with white staring eyes; and we, two ragged, gaunt-looking men seated in our frail craft with paddles in our hands, about to embark on an unknown flood. With a “Goodbye and God bless you, Auntie” and “God bless you, Massa; come back soon and free us,” we shoved off and started down the river in the darkness.
We were one step nearer freedom, but our situation was by no means pleasant. The punt or skiff was so small it would hardly hold us; the water came within an inch or two of the top, and we had to sit very still to keep from capsizing. It was so dark we could scarcely see our hands before our faces: the river seemed to be crooked, the current very rapid, and we went rushing along in the gloom we knew not where. Every few minutes we would strike a snag, or some driftwood, whirl around, take in water, and almost capsize; so we went sometimes stern first, sometimes broadside on; and to add to our misery the skiff leaked so, we had to bail frequently with our caps.
After about an hour of this kind of thing we ran into some snags and drift; our coffin (as we called it, for it was not much larger than one) caught under a branch, tipped, half filled with water, nearly capsized and then stuck fast. We worked loose carefully, bailed out, talked the matter over and concluded not to proceed any further that night as the danger was too great: if we capsized we would lose the boat, provisions, our blankets, matches and tobacco; and my companion not being able to swim would probably drown.
A thunderstorm was coming up, and frequent vivid flashes of lightning made the outlook more ghastly. So we paddled carefully until we reached shore, found a low place where we could land, pulled up our craft, filled and lit our pipes, and seated ourselves under a tree to wait for daylight, or the weather to clear; but it soon commenced to rain in torrents, so we turned over our “batto,” crawled under it, and made ourselves as comfortable as possible until morning.
Soon after daylight the rain ceased; then we surveyed the situation, found the banks of the river were wild and quite heavily wooded, so concluded to try a little navigation by day time. We embarked and paddled cautiously along, keeping a good lookout on both sides of the river. When we came to a cleared space, before attempting to pass it we would go ashore and make some sort of a reconnaissance and muster up courage to proceed.
Sometime in the afternoon we turned a bend in the river and saw a white man riding along the bank with several dogs following him. He saw us at once and stopped. When we were nearly opposite he hailed us with “What luck you had?”—I think he saw the ends of our black oak sticks over the side of the boat and took us at first for duck hunters. I answered “pretty good so far.”
We paddled hard all the while and gradually sheered toward the opposite shore, then I think he noticed our ragged forage caps and suspected us. His next question was “Whar’d you come from?” I answered, “from up above a little ways.” By this time we were some distance off. He hailed again but we did not catch his words, so we paddled away around a bend and left him on the bank staring at us.
We put in some good work on the paddles after that. We were badly frightened but concluded our only chance was to stick to the river, as it left no trail for the hounds. Just before sunset we came to some Negroes at work carrying corn across the river in a scow; after ascertaining that there was no white man with them, we landed, got two or three of them together among the trees and had a talk.