A Slave’s Audacious Bid For Freedom

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After reaching Cedar Point, the southern tip of the mainland, he could make out the stars and stripes flying above a Union-occupied island fort. He made a “hiding place in the ditch” to protect himself from the swamp water and ducked Confederate patrols, growing “so impatient seeing the free country in view and I still in the slave country.” The sun may have been blinding and his body all but spent, but Turnage’s choices were clear: “It was death to go back and it was death to stay there and freedom was before me; it could only be death to go forward if I was caught and freedom if I escaped.” This timeless expression of the human will to choose freedom at whatever risk manifests itself in most slave narratives.

Turnage was a desperate hero. After praying especially hard one night, he discovered that the tide had swept in an old rowboat, as if “held by an invisible hand.” Grabbing a “piece of board,” he began to row the rickety craft into the waves of Mobile Bay. A “squall” bore down on him, “the water like a hill coming with a white cap on it.” Just as the heavy seas struck his boat, he heard “the crash of oars and behold there was eight Yankees in a boat.” Turnage jumped into the Union craft just as his own vessel capsized. For a few long moments the oarsmen “were struck with silence” as they contemplated the gaunt young man crouched in front of them. Looking back to the shore, he could see two Confederate soldiers glaring after him. As the liberators’ boat bounced on the waves, he inhaled his first breaths of freedom.

The Yankees took him to the sand island fort, wrapped him in a blanket, fed him, and gave him a tent to sleep in for the night—likely the first acts of kindness he had ever experienced from white people. The next day they took him in a skiff to Fort Gaines on Dauphine Island, the long sandbar at the mouth of Mobile Bay. In that fortress, whose cannon-crowned brick walls stand intact to this day, Turnage was interviewed by Gen. Gordon Granger, commander of all Union forces in the Mobile region, who was eager for intelligence about the city, which he hoped soon to capture. Granger offered Turnage the choice of enlisting in a newly raised black regiment as a soldier or becoming a servant to a white officer. Turnage opted for the job of mess cook for one Capt. Junius Turner of a Maryland regiment, whom he accompanied to the end of the war, marching into Mobile with the Union army in April 1865.

Sometime shortly after the war he traveled to North Carolina and retrieved his mother and four half-siblings. He moved to New York City, struggled to make a living as a common laborer, and managed to keep his family together until he died in 1916. He was married three times, losing his first two wives at a young age, and fathered seven children, only three of whom survived infancy under the grueling hardships of the black urban poor.

Sometime in the 1880s, gripped by the dogged desire to be remembered, Turnage put down his narrative, which comes to an abrupt end after his dramatic escape at sea and liberation. But the final paragraph is a stunning, prayerful articulation of natural rights and the meaning of freedom: “I had made my escape with safety after such a long struggle and had obtained that freedom which I desired so long. I now dreaded the gun and handcuffs and pistols no more. Nor the blowing of horns and the running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebels’ authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors, and no one to question my right to speak.” As one of the “many thousands gone” prophesied in the old slave spiritual, Wallace Turnage crafted his own emancipation hymn.