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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
An already eventful day proved more so when, just after passing Cape Florida, they were chased again, this time by a Federal patrol launch. The pursuit lasted for a grueling four hours, and the fugitives only escaped by discarding almost everything in the boat except their food and rum. With lightened load, they slipped over shallow reefs that the heavier launch could not cross. Late afternoon found them on Key Elliot, hungry, exhausted, and tortured by mosquitoes more than ever before.
With an ocean voyage ahead of them, the Confederates gathered more turtle eggs, coconuts, mollusks, and some waterfowl that, when Breckinridge tried them, proved painfully inedible. Then they were off again, but now the twisting waterways played games with them. With only Breckinridge’s small pocket compass as a guide they wandered back and forth, lost, for hours. It was well after nightfall, near midnight, when finally they passed the Carysfort light and, putting up their sail, ventured out into the dark, lonely sea.
They had a good wind behind them and hoped to pass through the numerous reefs without difficulty. Three miles out, however, Colonel Wilson managed to steer them up on a reef that nearly stove in the boat’s hull. After passing it safely, they moved on into a rising rain squall. Soon the seas ran high around them, and everyone on board except Breckinridge and Wood got seasick. It could not have happened at a worse moment. Weakened, exhausted, starving, the fugitives needed every bit of strength now to fight the elements. Lightning flashing across the skies illuminated terrifying landscapes of wave upon crashing wave all around them. The tortured creaking of their little vessel made Wood fear that each succeeding strain might be the last.
Utterly worn out, Russell and O’Toole were lying sick in the bottom of the boat. Wood was forward trying to take soundings, Ferguson was asleep, Breckinridge was just nodding his head in a doze, and “the celebrated Col Wilson was steering,” when, Breckinridge went on: Suddenly I was roused by a wave going over me and half filling the boat, which leaned over until! the gun wale was under the water. At the same moment I observed that Capt Wood was overboard, and looking round I saw Col Wilson as stiff as a stanchion holding on like grim death to the rudder and the sail rope. It was his grip on the latter that was about to sink us. I knew just enough to shout to him to let go the rope which he did, and the strain being taken off, the boat finally righted. Capt Wood fortunately caught a rope as he went and had scrambled on board. Col Wilson expressed his gratification at the general result and explained that he had thought it his duty to hold every thing lest “it might get some advantage of him.”
Wood, thankful to be alive, took more soundings but found that they were helplessly lost in a maze of reefs and anchored for the night. By morning the seas had calmed somewhat, and they set their course out into the Gulf Stream. A fresh wind carried them swiftly into the Caribbean, but it was not long before the breeze turned into a gale, whipping up the water once again and carrying the little boat completely out of control. From then until the next morning there was no letup. “It seemed to me that she must go under,” wrote Breckinridge. Wood, looking worried and grave as he held the rudder, did not speak. “A worse sea I have never seen,” he wrote in his diary, “a longer one, but not so steep, so quick; how our little boat lived thru it, I hardly know.” At one time the craft lay in a trough between two waves at least twenty feet high, so high that the shadow of one blackened the sail. If chance had turned the boat broadside to them, thought Wood, “our open boat would have filled in a moment & gone down like an egg.” Chances were much against them that night, he later confided to Breckinridge. In nineteen years at sea he had not experienced a worse storm or felt so much in peril.
Morning found them across the worst of the Gulf Stream, but dawn brought new danger when they abruptly came upon a Northern merchant ship, the Neptune . Now desperate for food and water to replace that lost in the storm, Breckinridge and Wood decided to bluff. They sailed right up to the merchantman and boldly demanded food and water. The Yankee skipper looked at them suspiciously, but finally lowered a basket of biscuits and a small keg of fresh water. For the rest of his life Breckinridge believed firmly that after all their trials and the rigors of the storm it was only this handout from an enemy that kept them from perishing at sea.
Exhausted, the men took turns lying down, for there was room in the boat for only one to recline at a time. That evening they sighted the Doubleheaded Shot Keys, small islets off the Cuban shore. Their spirits soaring, the Confederates hoped to make the coast before morning. Soon a lighthouse was spotted, but Colonel Wilson would not let them off without a final neardisaster. Approaching the coast after dark, Wilson steered while Breckinridge and Wood slept. “That enterprising officer,” wrote Breckinridge, “ran the boat nearly on the light house and then concluded to wake us up for consultation.” Before they could do anything, the boat struck a reef with considerable force, and had the sea not been calm, they would have capsized, ending their great journey in tragedy on the very brink of success.