A Slave’s Audacious Bid For Freedom

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Mobile, Alabama, August 1864

One hot summer day in war-time Mobile, a city garrisoned by 10,000 Confederate troops, 17-year-old Wallace Turnage was driving his owner’s carriage along Dauphin Street in the crowded business district when a worn harness broke, flipping the vehicle on its side. Thrown to the ground, Turnage narrowly avoided the crushing wheels of a passing streetcar. The stunned teenager shook himself off, then set off for the house of his owner, the rich merchant Collier Minge. Turnage was no stranger to hardship: he had already been sold three times, losing contact with his family. Ugly scars on his torso bore witness to many severe beatings and even torture. Yet his life was about to get even worse before it got better.

Born in Green County near Snow Hill, North Carolina, Turnage, the son of a 15-year-old slave woman named Courtney and an 18-year-old white man, Sylvester Brown Turnage, was thus one of the nearly quarter million slave children of mixed race in the 1850s, many the products of forced sexual unions. In the spring of 1860, Turnage’s indebted owner had sold the 13-year-old for $950 to Hector Davis, a slave trader in Richmond, Virginia, leaving the boy to survive as best he could, orphaned in a dangerous and tyrannical world. One of Richmond’s richest dealers in human property, Davis owned a three-story slave jail and auction house. By one estimate, slave traders in Richmond during the late 1850s netted $4 million per year (approximately $70 million in 2008 dollars). Davis often sold nearly $15,000 worth of slaves per week.

For the next several months, Turnage prepared his fellows in the “dressing room” for the auction floor. One day he himself was told to climb up on the block and sold to an Alabama planter, James Chalmers, for $1,000. Three days later he found himself on a large cotton plantation near Pickensville, Alabama, close to the Mississippi line.

It was mid-1860, a pivotal election year during which the American union was dissolving under slavery’s westward expansion. Now a field slave, the young man had to adapt to another alien environment, falling prey to fear, violence, and loneliness. After several whippings, he ran away for the first of five times.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Turnage wrote an extraordinary narrative, only recently discovered, of his path to freedom. In beautiful, if untutored and unedited prose, Turnage described a runaway’s horrific struggle for survival. His fight with the slave system was one desperate collision after another, amidst the double savagery of slavery and war. Each of the first four times that he broke for liberty, he crossed the Mississippi line and headed north along the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, yearning, as he wrote, “to get home,” which for him must have vaguely meant North Carolina. Each escape had been prompted by a violent encounter with an overseer. On one occasion, when the overseer approached him with a cowhide whip ready, Turnage stood his ground, “spoke very saucy,” and fought long and hard, his foe nearly biting off his ear. For this resistance he was pushed facedown on the ground, his hands tied to a tree, and given 95 lashes.

During one bid for freedom, he traveled some 80 miles across the war-ravaged country, hiding among fencerows and gullies. Taken in by other slaves, betrayed by one couple, chased and mauled by bloodhounds, he struggled to outlast winter cold, starvation, and Confederate patrols. One sadistic slave-catcher, who held him in a cabin until his owner arrived, pistol-whipped and stabbed him, then pitched him into a burning fireplace in a drunken rage. Locked in neck chains and, at times, wrist chains attached to other fugitives, Turnage learned the logic of terror but also somehow summoned the strength never to surrender to his own dehumanization.

For all the miseries and dislocation of war, Turnage remained far too valuable for Chalmers to let escape. But after the fourth runaway in early 1863, the cotton planter sold him at the slave jail in Mobile, where he fetched the robust price of $2,000. Turnage labored in Mobile as a jack-of-all-trades house slave for the Minge family over the next 15 months until that August day in 1864 when the carriage flipped.

When Turnage arrived at the Minge house with news of the ruined carriage, his mistress excoriated him. He “got angry and spoke very short with her,” and then fled “down into the city of Mobile,” where for a week he “wandered from one house to another where I had friends.” Hiding in haylofts and sheds, Turnage was discovered one day in a stable by a “rebel policeman” who pressed a cocked pistol to his breast. Dragged by the neck to the “whipping house,” Turnage was soon confronted by his master, who ordered him stripped, strung up by his wrists on the wall, subjected to 30 savage lashes with a device “three leathers thick,” and then told to walk home. On the way back, he took a different turn and simply walked out of Mobile, striding at dusk through a huge Confederate encampment, undoubtedly mistaken for a black camp hand.

For the next three weeks, Turnage traversed the snake- and alligator-infested swamps of the Foul River estuary, moving 25 laborious miles along the western shore of Mobile Bay, where on August 5, Adm. David Farragut’s fleet won the largest naval battle of the Civil War. Turnage remembered seeing warships in the distance and hearing guns. In fear and desperate hunger, he crossed the Dog and Deer rivers, then somehow swam the fearsome Foul River, where he was “troubled all day with snakes.” Today this extensive, beautiful wetland offers a gentle yet forbidding waterscape; alligators crawl in their wallows, laughing gulls squawk everywhere as delta grass—“broom sage” to Turnage—sways waist-high in the summer breeze.