- Historic Sites
The Vice President Flees
Branded a traitor by the government he once served, John C. Breckinridge ran a perilous race for freedom rather than risk capture by the North
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
When Breckinridge reached Carlisle’s Landing on May 31, he discovered that the Indian was no river at all, but a three-hundred-mile arm of the Atlantic separated from the ocean by a slender spit of land, in places no more than a quarter mile wide. Its water was salt, and from now on the fugitives would have to dig in the sand on shore to find the putrid “fresh” water that they needed to survive.
Their first day on the Indian they covered fifty miles, only to battle literally for their lives that night against the mosquitoes. “I cannot give you any adequate idea of these insects,” Breckinridge would write a few weeks later. “They attacked us, not two or three at a time, but in swarms incessantly the whole night long. Both hands were kept going and still they bit us. With his arms tied and his face exposed, I am sure they would kill a man in two nights.” Their only relief was in wrapping themselves in the boat’s sail or in going ashore and burying themselves in the sand.
The rains began again, but the Confederates could rejoice in a minor victory when, on the night of June 2, they approached a Federal guard post at Indian River Inlet. They muffled their oars and stayed in the middle of the river, gliding slowly in the darkness. To their left, on the shore barely one hundred yards away, glimmered the campfire of the guards. It was with intense relief that they passed it unchallenged, unseen, and slid on into the night.
The next morning they went ashore some ten miles below the inlet to find breakfast. All of their provisions were gone now, and they dug in the sand both for water and for turtle eggs, finishing their meal with sour wild limes. Then the fugitives set off again down the river. Spirits rose briefly at the hope of fresh meat when they passed a deer watching them from the bank. For some reason they entrusted the all-important shot to Wilson. “From the manner in which it bounded off, stopping occassionally to look back at us,” Breckinridge reported, “the Col thinks it possible he may have missed the animal.”
Wood and the Secretary had hoped to pass over to the Atlantic side of the sand spit at Jupiter Inlet, but somehow they discovered that it, too, was under Federal guard. As a result, they stopped twenty miles above it at a place where the strip of beach was only a few yards wide, and here they got out and hauled the boat across and into the ocean. Breckinridge and the others suffered quite a start when a steamer passed within a mile of them, but fortunately they went unnoticed. After another day of sailing they tried to head out for the Bahamas on the evening of June 4, but unfavorable winds blew them back on the Florida coast, so that by the next morning they still had not gotten out of sight of land. And then near-disaster struck.
By now the Confederates were somewhat accustomed to dodging the occasional steamers that passed down the coast. This morning, when they saw one coming, it was a matter of routine for them to put in to shore, turn over the boat to make it look like flotsam, and then hide in the chaparral. But when this ship had passed, they returned to the boat too soon. They were seen, and the enemy steamer turned around and made straight for them.
“I thought we were gone,” Breckinridge wrote. He suggested that they all take to the brush in the hope that the Federal ship would leave their boat unmolested, but Wood knew better. The craft would be taken off or destroyed, a move that would be fatal to the fleeing Confederates.
As the steamer lowered a boat full of men armed with cutlasses and pistols, Wood had the Secretary go into the brush, revolvers in his hands, while he, Russell, and O’Toole sailed out to meet the Union sailors. They tried to look as stupid as possible, and said they had come back from getting fresh water inland and were scavenging along the coast looking for wrecks. After some time the Federals finally accepted Wood’s story and rowed off, “much to our relief.”
All that night the head winds continued to blow them back against the coast, and by morning, June 6, they were still sailing along the shore. Soon they hailed a small band of Seminoles camped on the bank, smoked a pipe with them, and were given some “kuntee,” a sort of mush that Breckinridge found “when cooked was a little thicker than a pancake and ten times as tough.” Still, it was the first nourishment they had enjoyed in several days, besides their now constant diet of turtle eggs. Thus fortified, they shoved off again and unwittingly sailed back two hundred years to the age of romance.
That afternoon Breckinridge saw a sail approaching. Immediately their fears told them it was a Federal patrol boat. But then the boat changed course as though to avoid them. Seeing this, Wood suspected that perhaps its occupants were also fugitives, probably Union deserters. And seeing that their boat was much more seaworthy than his, Wood decided to give chase. The Confederates brought in their sail in the light breeze and leaned on the oars. Slowly they overhauled the fleeing boat, and Wood’s pistol shot across her bow ended the chase.