Narrative Of An Escape From A Rebel Prison Camp

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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.