Narrative Of An Escape From A Rebel Prison Camp

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Sometime that morning a Negro came along up the river in a canoe; our lookout called him in, and he gave us some valuable information. We learned that we were not very far from the mouth of the river, but that we would have to be careful about navigating there, as it was all cut up by bayous and canals through the low swampy lands and rice plantations; these however were all deserted, as the Negroes had run off to our gunboats, and small expeditions sent up the river short distances by the gunboats, from time to time, had kept the whites from staying there.

We learned further that there was a Confederate picket post only two or three miles below us; that they were stationed on the bank of the river and kept a good watch on it; but if we passed that safely, we need have little more fear, as the river was then free to its mouth.

This man was a mulatto, told us he was a free Negro and seemed very intelligent; he had no food but said he would try and bring us some. In the afternoon he came down the river again and brought us a few potatoes, saying he could not carry away more without exciting suspicion; he seemed timid, but gave us a great deal of information about the country, in which he seemed well posted; wished us success; bade us a hearty good-bye and left us.

A dark we took to our canoes and in a short time saw the fire of the picket post; the river banks here were low, clear of trees and only covered with swamp grass, reeds and wild rice; the night was not very dark, and running this picket was a dangerous undertaking. We kept as close as possible to the opposite bank, crouched low in our canoes and glided along as silently as possible. For a few minutes, when just opposite the post, it seemed strange that we were not discovered; their fire cast a light clear across the river, and we could see the soldiers very distinctly moving about, and hear them talk. After a while we gradually left them behind and passed on into the mist and darkness clear of the danger.

After a while the river seemed to divide into innumerable channels; it grew very dark and after blundering along a few hours more, we found we were wandering around in the bayous and had completely lost the main channel apparently. To add to our discomfort, there came up a hard cold rain that soon soaked and chilled us through; it poured so we had to bail out our boats. Towards morning, thoroughly tired and chilled, we landed on what seemed to be the dyke of a rice plantation, as we could see buildings not very far away. We pulled our canoes over the bank into a narrow irrigating canal, and worked along until we came to the buildings, which we found, as we expected, deserted. We entered the best one among several there, found a lot of straw and some wood, built a good fire in the fire place, lit our pipes and stretched ourselves out on the straw before the fire to rest and dry our soaked rags; the fatigues of the night told on us and we soon dropped off asleep.

About midday we turned out, feeling refreshed but a little stiff and aching. We devoured our last morsel of food, which was but a mouthful of potato each, and started out in our canoes to find the mouth of the river, as we were satisfied we could never find it at night; and we thought it would be safe enough to travel in the daytime among those deserted plantations. We turned and twisted in a dozen different channels and after much hard paddling, just as the sun was setting, we came out into the main channel and saw the wide mouth of the river a few miles ahead, opening into the ocean beyond.

The wind was pretty fresh from the sea and the waves were too high for our canoes; so, as it was growing dark, we landed. In doing so, one canoe was swamped and we all got quite wet. We went into a thicket of small pines, built a fire, and bivouacked for the night.

The next morning, December 12, we turned out at daybreak and found it very cold; our clothing, where it had been wet the night before, was frozen, our canoes were half full of ice and water and there was quite a heavy sea running. After some consultation we concluded to leave our boats and make our way down to the beach by land, as we knew if the gunboat was in Winyah Bay we could easily signal it, and if it was out at sea we could not go out to it in our canoes that day, at least, as the sea was too rough. So we traveled along cautiously in the scrub oaks, pines and bushes, crossing swamps and bayous, and some time after mid-day, we came out on the beach near the entrance to Winyah Bay.

We looked over it carefully but saw no gunboat; in a short time, though, we discovered it out over the bar several miles at sea. This was a disappointment, as we had fully expected to find it in the bay. But still there it was, and fluttering among the rigging we could catch occasional glimpses of something that showed various colors in the sunlight, and we knew it was “the flag.”

I suppose few, unless they may have been in somewhat similar positions, can appreciate what our feelings were as we looked at that small gunboat with that little piece of colored bunting over it. It meant a great deal to us, and I think we understood, better than ever before, how much it represented. The deck of that vessel, under that flag, was our country; we had been for many weary months prisoners in a land full of rebels and traitors, where that flag was hated and unseen; we had been exposed to the elements; had suffered from hunger and cold, insufficient clothing and shelter, vermin and dirt; had been abused and insulted; but under that flag, our troubles would be over.