On 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.
By this time it was quite dark and we struck a large well traveled road. We ran down it a little way and came to quite a good sized stream crossing it. We jumped into this and followed its course, which took us at once into a swampy thicket, a tangled mass of vines and brambles. It was very dark in there and the mud and water deep, but we plunged on until we were too exhausted to stand, and then realized that our pursuers had evidently kept on the road and passed us, as the noise grew fainter and finally ceased.
About midnight, I think, we succeeded in getting out on the dry land. The moon came out now light and clear through the large trees and we stood for a while looking at each other. Our clothes, bad enough before, now hung in rags and tatters; our hands and faces were scratched and bleeding; we were covered with mud from head to foot, and smarting and aching from the cuts and bruises we had not felt when plunging through the swamp. After resting a while we struck out in a southeasterly direction, guided by the stars, as we knew this course would eventually take us to the Congaree River.
We struck a narrow wood road and followed it until it led us into a kind of clearing with a large ditch or canal running to it, a low queer-looking log hut, and a lot of large barrels lying around. We sat down to rest and pretty soon saw a light approaching, gliding through the woods. Then we heard voices and discovered it was a small boat coming slowly along the canal. We at once hid ourselves behind a large tree. Much to our consternation the boat stopped near the hut. The men went in and after a few minutes one of them came out towards our place of concealment. He seemed to be busy among the barrels, and at one time came fairly up to the big tree behind which we were lying, so near we could have touched him with our sticks.
We wandered on through the woods until daylight and soon after heard the sound of chopping. Walking up to it cautiously we discovered a Negro cutting wood. When we had made sure he was alone we went up to him. He eyed us curiously and when we asked him if he knew who or what we were, he said, “Well, Massa, I spects you’s Yankees.” We said yes, that we had escaped from the prison at Columbia and wanted to get a canoe to go down the Congaree River. He said we were not far from the river and after some conversation showed us a safe place to hide in the woods during the day, telling us that he would come in the evening and give us what assistance he could.
We lay down in the bushes behind some logs, one watching while the other slept. This was our first experience trusting so entirely to a Negro, and we did not know but he might betray us. The day passed, however, and sure enough, at twilight our black friend came along. He had some sweet potatoes for us but said he could get no canoe. We were so near Columbia we were in danger, and it would not be safe to attempt to steal any canoe near there. He said, though, that we could safely trust the Negroes wherever we found them, that none of them would ever betray a Yankee, as they knew we were their friends. He then took us to the main road that ran parallel with the river, and told us there was a large plantation a few miles further on, where we could find plenty of Negroes to assist us, and they could doubtless get a canoe for us.
When it was quite dark we bade our friend goodbye and started down the road. In two or three hours’ time we came to a creek, with a bridge across it, and on the the other side we saw a bright fire. We concluded it was a camp of some kind with a guard, as we could see men moving about. So we left the road and went into the woods on the side we knew the river was. About daybreak we came to the edge of a large plantation. We lay here in the woods all day watching the Negroes at work in the fields.
At dark we ventured out and went up to the Negro cabins. We were soon surrounded by a wondering crowd of two or three dozen men, women and children. We confided in them fully, told them who and what we were said we wanted some kind of a boat and provisions to enable us to go down the river and escape to a free land. After some consultation, they decided that it was too late to attempt anything that night. Boats of any kind were scarce and they would have to hunt one up. It would be better for us to hide until the next night and when they would try to have some kind of a boat ready and would start us off, as we were then near the river.
It was not thought safe for us to stay in their cabins, so we were put in an old corn barn where we made a comfortable bed among the bundles of cornstalks and had a good rest and sleep which we were much in need of. We remained concealed in the barn all the next day, keeping a lookout through the chinks. We watched the overseer of the plantation, heard him swear at the Negroes, and once he rode so near the old barn that we were afraid he would discover us.
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.
We told them our story, as we had to the others, and asked where we were. They said we were not very far from the big bridge, where the Charleston and Columbia R.R. crossed the river, near its junction with the Wateree; and that it would be dangerous to attempt to run under it as it was closely guarded and a watch kept for officers that were said to have escaped from the Columbia prison camp. This was not very encouraging information. After a council of war in which the Negroes took a prominent part, we decided, on their advice, to abandon our boat, leave the Congaree River, strike out on foot, flank the railroad bridge, and strike the Santee River, if possible, below where it is formed by the junction of the Congaree and Wateree; trusting to luck, and our faithful allies the Negroes, for a canoe on that stream.
One old coal-black darkey, named Ishmael, said he would guide us to the railway track that night and show us the course to strike the Santee below. So we remained concealed in the woods until it was quite dark; then Ishmael came for us. We shouldered our little packs, bid good-bye to “Old Auntie’s skiff,” and the Congaree, and started off again.
As we tramped along that night, we kept up a conversation in low tones, for our guide asked us many questions. He wanted to know how soon it would be “befo’ de big army would come and free ’em all.”
About midnight we reached the railroad where it crossed a large wagon road near the bridge; here we halted and our guide gave us what information he could about the country. He said the wagon road ran nearly parallel with the general direction of the river and advised us to keep it for a number of miles in order to be sure of striking the Santee a good distance below the bridge, when we left it. Hearing the rumble of an approaching train, we separated, and started down the road feeling much encouraged at the prospects before us.
The night was clear and pleasant and we traveled along briskly without any trouble, until the approach of dawn warned us that it was time to find a hiding place for the day. Some distance from the road we selected a little thicket in a hollow, and alternately napping and watching, we remained until darkness again made it safe to travel in a land where every white man’s hand was against us.
We concluded to keep the road again all night in order to strike the river well below the junction of the two streams, where we knew it would be larger and safer, and more easy to navigate. We passed several houses where dogs barked at us a good deal, and we had to jump in the bushes several times to avoid passing wagons and people. We met an old darkey whom we stopped and questioned. He seemed frightened and stupid, so we did not get any information from him. At daylight we left the road again, taking the direction of the river, and concealed ourselves for the day. At night we started out to find the river and before long came to a plantation. My comrade’s boots were all worn out and his feet were so sore by this time he could hardly walk; so we crawled into an old barn that stood detached from other buildings, in a field, and stayed there the rest of the night, but it was so cold we could not sleep much.
Early in the morning we ventured out to find some Negroes; we struck a peanut patch and dug up some, eating them raw, and filling our pockets, as we were entirely out of food. After a while we saw a Negro at work in a field; we crawled up to the fence, called him to us and going in some bushes had a talk. He seemed frightened at first, and puzzled. We asked him if we looked like Yankees. “Well,” said he, “I kinder spected you was at first by your clothes, but dey done tell us Yankees is queer looking folks wid horns and de like ob dat.”
We then told him we were Yankee Officers, that we had escaped from Columbia and wanted to reach our own free country. He gave us a piece of cornbread that he had for his own dinner, told us we were near the river, pointed out a piece of woods where we would be safe for the day, and said he would get some of the other hands to help him get a boat for us, if possible, that night. Then he pointed out a large tree, told us to be under it at dark, and he would meet us there.
We kept in the swamp through the day, and at dark went to the rendezvous, and after waiting there an hour or two we heard a great shouting, hallooing, and barking of dogs, and saw a party with torches approaching our hiding place. We were frightened at first and started to run, thinking we might have been betrayed; then concluded to remain and take the chances, as the party was so near it would have been useless to attempt to get away. When they were quite near the whole party stopped and one man came forward: he proved to be our friend of the morning and we were soon surrounded by a party of about a dozen Negro men and boys, all curious and anxious to see the Yankees. We then discovered that all the noise, lights, and dogs, were a ruse on the part of our friends, to prevent any suspicion of their real object; they having ostensibly started out on a coon or possum hunt.
They took us to a little bayou, leading into the river; a portion of them went off and soon returned coming down the bayou in a fine dugout canoe. They gave us a good sized cornpone, and with many a hearty handshake, “God bless you,” wishes for our success and speedy return “wid de big army to free us” we parted from our good friends and started down the broad Santee on our way to the ocean. Before long it grew very dark and a cold rain set in; we were soon wet through, and after a while concluded to stop. We found a good place to land where the bank seemed wild and well wooded, fastened our canoe and sat under a tree until daylight.
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.
But after a while we were aroused to a very realizing sense of our situation by a new danger that we had no previous intimation of; this was an earthwork mounting two guns that we came to, on making a bend in the stream. We discovered it, fortunately, before the sentinel on the parapet (whom we could plainly see in the moonlight) discovered us; but the moonlight that disclosed the danger to us increased the danger of our being seen. How to pass this obstacle was now the problem, and as was our usual custom when in doubt, we paddled ashore for a smoke and a council.
On reaching the bank (opposite, of course, the one where the earthwork was) the problem was soon solved; the cypress swamp I have mentioned still continued here, and the immense festoons of the moss reaching very nearly, if not quite, to the water, from the trees and limbs projecting in the stream, made an almost close drapery or curtain; and between this and the low swampy bank of the river we found sufficient water for our narrow craft to float in safety. So protected in this strange manner, we worked cautiously and silently down the stream, crouching low in the canoe when the moss was thin, and peering through the curtain at the sentinel who passed away in the moonlight keeping a good lookout but little dreaming of the two pairs of eyes that were keeping a brighter watch than he.
So we passed this danger, and went once more on our way rejoicing; for we were satisfied this battery was placed there to keep boats from coming up the river from our gunboats, and it could not be very far from the river’s mouth.
But our adventures were not over this night; it was destined to be a still more eventful one. We commenced looking now for the place where the river branched, for we knew from our map and previous information, that not far from its mouth it divided, and two streams were formed called the north and south Santee; the north or main branch was the one we wanted to take to bring us into, or near Winyah Bay, where we expected to find the gunboat; so we kept close to the north bank.
The stream was now getting wider and the night grew foggy as it wore on towards morning; after a while we came to a stream, or branch, which I thought was merely a bayou from its size and general appearance; my comrade thought however it was the north fork so after a little discussion we paddled down it, but soon, discovering it was a bayou, we returned to the main stream.
We now paddled vigorously to make up for lost time, and dropping our usual whispered tones we indulged in conversation, feeling comparatively safe in doing so now, as we thought we had passed the last obstacle and felt that we must be somewhere near the mouth of the river. At the first faint indications of dawn we concluded to stop, as we were tired, so went over to the south bank of the stream to find a hiding place for the day; thinking, if we had passed the forks, the island between the two would be the safest place. When we reached the bank we found a thick canebrake, and turning the bow of our canoe upstream, we worked slowly along close to the shore to find a good landing-place.
We went quietly along in that way for a few minutes, when suddenly I heard low, almost whispered voices, that seemed to come from the air, or the thicket near; it appeared hardly possible for people to be near enough for me to hear such low tones without seeing anyone; and then how did any human beings but ourselves happen to be at that particular place in the wild lonely swamps of the Santee at that hour of the night, and if there, why were they conversing in whispers? To make it more mysterious, there was something about the voices that seemed in a way familiar; they did not sound like the voices of Southern men or Negroes, but rather like our own Northern people. The whole thing was strange and rather uncanny. I leaned over and whispered to my comrade; and when he told me that he heard nothing, I thought that possibly the continued mental strain we had been subjected to for many days, might have affected my mind in some manner, and what I heard, or thought I heard, was my imagination.
We had stopped the boat when I spoke to my comrade; then we moved on and turned a slight angle in the bank, when just before us, within a few yards, was a canoe with four persons sitting in it. They were motionless, and we stopped at once; neither party spoke or moved; it was too dark to distinguish more than figures, and for a few seconds it was a peculiar tableau; then came a hail from the strange canoe, “Boat ahoy, who are you?”
The tones seemed to have a familiar ring. I connected them with the whispered voices; that “Boat ahoy” was no Southern soldier’s hail, and I felt that the people before us were no enemies. I answered, “Friends. Who are you?” The reply came “That’s Foote. I know his voice.”
Our canoes were side by side in an instant, and we found we had met in this singular manner four of our officers who had escaped from prison about the same time we had, and had taken nearly the same route. The officer who had hailed us and recognized my voice was Major McDonald of the 106th N.Y. Vols. This meeting, it is needless to state, was a very happy one.
We now had a good strong party, and we knew we must be near the mouth of the river and all felt encouraged. We drew our canoes well up out of sight, detailed one of our number as sentinel to keep watch at the river and then went well back in the dense canebrake for the day.
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.
We had now been over twenty-four hours without any food at all, and we could get no water even, that was not too salt to drink. We knew there was a rebel picket or patrol sent down the bay at intervals from Georgetown to watch the gunboat, and we must look out for it, or we would be recaptured in sight of our goal. We were afraid to show ourselves much, but we waved some of our ragged garments and tried to attract attention from the vessel, but did not succeed.
At dark we sat down, smoked our last handful of tobacco, and held a council of war. Our situation was getting rather desperate, there were no Negroes about there to help us, and we knew we could not hold out very much longer without food. So we selected a little ridge, or bank, near the beach, with a clump of bushes close to it; collected a good sized pile of drift wood and started a fire at the foot of the bank.
Our plan was, in case we heard or saw any party approaching, for two of our number to remain by the fire while the rest of us were to conceal ourselves among the bushes above. We thought the patrol, if it came down and saw us, would not consist of more than two or three men, and if they came up to our fire, while they were engaged in conversation with the two there, the other four, at a given signal, were to spring down the bank on them with our oak cudgels, surprise and disable or capture them. We concluded they would have haversacks with some food and with that we could hold out until we could communicate in some manner with the gunboat.
After our fire was burning brightly we waved brands in the air, and in a short time saw blue lights burning on the vessel; this looked rather encouraging. Not long after that, we heard the sound of oars and through the darkness made out a boat approaching, but it seemed to be coming from up the bay, the direction of Georgetown. We knew there had not been time for a boat to come from the vessel, and so we were alarmed, fearing it might be a rebel picket boat.
It came on slowly, until we could make out dark forms in it; and as it came into the light thrown out by our fire, I caught the gleam of something in the bow that looked like a small brass boat howitzer. This made me think it was a ship’s launch as I knew they often carried such guns.
Now the boat stopped and a hail came from it: “Who are you?” After a few instants’ hesitation, Major McDonald, who was the senior Officer of our party, answered, “We are Yankee Officers, escaped prisoners of war.” Back came “All Right. Put out that fire.” This sounded like a sensible order, and the voice sounded like that of a Northern man. We kicked out the fire in a few seconds, then the voice from the boat said, “One of you come out here.”
The Major said to us “I think they are our own people. I will chance it and go out. If I say ‘All right,’ the rest of you come out; if not, scatter.”
So he started out, having to wade in the surf up to his waist, and in an instant sang out “All right, boys, come on,” and come on we did with a rush through the surf, and the next moment were fairly hugging a young naval officer, uniformed in the good old blue, and surrounded by about a dozen stalwart well-armed United States sailors.
They gave away with a will, and soon pulled us well away from the shore. We asked the officer to let us give one good cheer for our escape. He hesitated at first but some of the sailors said “Let ’em, Lieutenant, there ain’t enough rebels around here to recapture ’em now, sir.” So we lifted up our voices for the benefit of any rebels that might be in that vicinity, in a good old Northern cheer.
The launch and crew, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas, belonged to the U.S. Gunboat Nipsic, under the command of Lieutenant Commander Henry; she lay outside the bar, blockading the entrance to the Santee River and Winyah Bay. It seems the launch was sent inside the bay every night to a sort of picket station at the deserted light-house which was on North Island, that formed the outer shore of the bay, about a mile across from the beach where we were. They saw our fire, and the blue light signals from the ship gave them directions to investigate it.
They took us over to the light-house and there the sailors, who seemed almost as much delighted as we, started a roaring fire, made up a quantity of good U.S. coffee, gave us all the pork and hardbread they had for their next morning’s breakfast, and insisted on our eating it all, which we did without much urging. Then, with our empty stomachs filled, and a blessed sensation of ease and safety, we stretched out before the fire and put in the first full night’s sleep we had had since first escaping.
In the morning we were taken out to the ship, and the old flag was over us once more.
There is not much else to relate; we were treated with the greatest kindness and generosity by all the officers of the vessel, and for several days did nothing but eat and sleep.
The Nipsic was relieved in about a week, and we steamed to HiIton Head; from there in due course of time we were taken North in a transport steamer, and most of us were home by New Year’s day.
Foote’s Civil War adventures were not yet over. In March, 1865, he returned to active duty, and less than a month had passed before he was breveted captain for gallantry in the break-through of the Confederate defenses at Petersburg, Virginia, and in the Battle of Little Sailor’s Creek a few days later. After the war ended, Foote joined the Regular Army. During the next forty years, he served in various Indian campaigns, fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, and was a member of the international expeditionary force sent to quell the Chinese Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Foote, who retired a brigadier general, died in 1905.