- Historic Sites
Narrative Of An Escape From A Rebel Prison Camp
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
We found the Santee to be a broad quiet-looking stream, the shores seemed quite open and cultivated in places, and there was too much of an appearance of civilization for travelers who had to sneak along like thieves in the dark, scarcely daring to speak above a whisper. We paddled a few hours in the early morning, running past a ferry; then coming to a place where the woods were thick on the banks, we hauled our canoe well up out of sight, and concealed ourselves for the day. The clouds soon cleared away, the sun shone out brightly and our hopes were ever high; we had a good boat, some food, and a broad highway to freedom before us.
At night we started and paddled along in silence, mile after mile, making good progress on our course. When dawn approached we found a good place to hide in a canebrake and stopped for the day as usual. The banks of the river now seemed to be getting wilder, there were fewer signs of cultivation, and we felt safer. At dark we embarked again and made good headway without interruption until about the middle of the night.
It was cold and we were swinging our paddles in fine style, when we suddenly discovered a singular object looming up ahead of us; in the midst of the night the appearance was distorted and exaggerated and seemed like a barrel in front of us. We soon discovered, however, that it was a bridge. We knew we had one to pass but had not expected to reach it before the next night at least. On the rough tracing of a map that I had, this bridge was down as the crossing of a railroad, the “Northeastern” or “Atlantic Coast Line,” running north from Charleston, and it was well down towards the mouth of the river.
We were glad to think we had made so much distance on our course, but at the same time were much concerned about running the bridge which we expected to find guarded. In fact we could already see a large fire on the bank at one end of the bridge, and distinguish armed men moving about it; so we ran in to shore, on the opposite side, and held a council of war, which ended in our deciding to run the bridge, if possible, at once; for although there was a moon, the night was not very clear, as the sky was overcast, with drifting clouds.
Hugging the shore as closely as possible, we let our canoe drift slowly downstream. My comrade lay prone in the bow, with his head raised just enough to peer over, and I crouched in the stern; so by pulling on the snags and bushes that overhung the stream, and an occasional quiet dip of the paddle we proceeded till we were close to the bridge. We could now see the guards distinctly on the opposite bank and hear them talk; we stopped a few minutes until the moon was obscured by a large cloud and then drifted ahead. Just as we were close to the bridge, my comrade, by a motion of his hand, drew my attention to a sentinel standing on the center of it; at that moment the moon shone out brightly and we could see him as plain as day, standing with his gun leaning on one arm, the other resting on the rail.
He was looking directly up the stream and appeared nearer our end of the bridge than the other, and it seemed strange that he had not discovered us as we were coming down, but I suppose it was because the sky had been cloudy and we had kept so near the bank; but now if he turned his head our way he could not help seeing us. I thought our luck had left us, my heart thumped against my ribs—we hardly breathed—but we kept on floating down, watching with our heads turned towards him; till, in a few minutes, though it seemed a great many, we glided under the bridge. We checked the boat for an instant, and then floated out on the lower side. Looking back over our shoulders we watched him, but now his back was to us and in a few minutes we turned a little angle of the bank and left him out of sight.
We took off our ragged caps simultaneously and waved them around our heads in a silent cheer. We were decidedly elated now; we had passed a dangerous obstacle and were many a mile nearer freedom than we had thought a few hours before. We kept the paddles going at a lively rate the rest of that night, and as dawn approached, pulled up to the shore, selected a lonely-looking thicket and stopped for the day. It was now the ninth of December, we had been putting ourselves on a very short allowance of food all along, and this day we ate our last mouthful of cornbread and scraped the last raw peanut from the bottoms of our pockets.
A dark we started out again as usual. This night I witnessed one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld, and we also had some exciting experiences. It was nearly midnight, I think, when we came to a long reach in the river where it ran very straight, so far that it seemed almost to narrow in the distance. On one side was a green canebrake, the canes growing very thick and tall close to the water’s edge. On the other side was a cypress swamp, the large trees growing actually in the water, and covered with the beautiful silver grey Spanish moss that hung in great festoons in an almost unbroken mass as far as the eye could see. The sky was cloudless, the full moon shone with a light almost as bright as day, and the effect of its light on the bright green leaves of the canes, the broad calm mirror-like stream, and the long hangings of the moss, looking like frosted silver, made a scene too beautiful to describe.
It was all so weird and lovely in the peculiar light of the moon that combined with the singular circumstances under which we were there, traveling in the dead of night through a strange land, it hardly seemed to be real but rather some singular dream. We took in our paddles, lit our pipes, and let the canoe float, while we silently admired the fairy-like scene.