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A Slave’s Audacious Bid For Freedom

June 2024
5min read

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.

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.


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