ESCAPE FROM PRISON.
AT THE close of the advance of Gen. David Hunter on Lynchburg, Va., in June 1864, a detail was made of a few men whose term of service was about to expire, who were directed to take the advance of the troops placed in command of the wagon train, which was ordered to be sent back to the Kanawha valley, in advance of the main column. In this detail were Martin V. Sweet, First New York Cavalry; Joseph H. Anderson, First New Jersey Cavalry; Horace Penniman, First Maryland Infantry; and Frank S. Reader, Fifth West Virginia Cavalry, who were captured, and afterward associated in an escape to the union lines. This detail was the advance of the troops that guarded the train, and as well did a great deal of scouting on their own account, securing a number of fine horses, a large quantity of forage, and cleared the immediate section of the marauding bands that hovered in the rear of Hunter's army. When near the head of the Kanawha valley, the advance had considerable fighting with small, bands of the enemy, and we held our own against all comers, and pressed steadily forward, until we came to the river near Lewisburg. Here, while about a mile in advance of the main column, the latter was attacked by a force of the enemy, our little party was cut off from the command, and for two days was hunted and driven by sleepless foes. We endeavored to regain our lines, but were unable to do so, being forced to follow a road into a little town by the name of Liberty. When we attempted to pass out of this place, we found three of its four roads guarded by confederate horsemen, who quietly took our measure, ready for fight or chase. A road was left open, however, leading to the White Sulphur (Greenbrier) Springs, which we followed. As we passed beyond the town, in fording a small stream, a body of cavalry came dashing upon us, and demanded our surrender. Finding that we were outnumbered, and that we must either surrender or escape by a dash into the mountains, we chose the latter, and put spurs to our horses, when they plunged through the waters, and carried us into the depths of the mountains, followed by a storm of bullets. We could not stand and fight, as none of the party had arms fit for use, on account of the want of cartridges, the entire party not having a half dozen all told. In a severe little fight the day before, all our stock was used up, and being cut off we could not replenish. It was a day full of adventures, as we, by feints and threatenings, tried to keep our pursuers at bay. Toward evening we eluded them and spent the night in the great mountains. In the morning we abandoned our horses, and under the leadership of Reader, the little band undertook to make its way to Beverly, by a route he had before passed over. Toward noon, as we were quietly walking along, faint from hunger, we were surprised by a company of cavalry charging squarely upon us, and we were prisoners of war, our capture occurring June 20, 1864.
Our first experience as prisoners was a long tiresome march, hurrying at times through the narrow valleys, and again secreting ourselves amid the hills, until we reached Covington, where we were committed to jail, being lodged together in a small cell. A few days here, and our little squad was put in line of march for Lexington. The burning of the Military Institute there by General Hunter's command, had provoked the wrath of the citizens, and they threatened vengeance on any of the soldiers of Hunter's army who might fall into their hands. We knew this and were somewhat apprehensive over it. Upon our arrival in the town, we were placed in the upper room of a store-house, where we had a full view of the street and surroundings. Toward evening a large and noisy crowd of citizens assembled in front of the building, and a demand went up from the crowd for the Yankees. We inquired as to their purposes, when one of the excited number cried out that they wanted to hang us for burning their houses. We were then notified that it was necessary to search us, and we were deprived of everything we had except the scanty clothes we wore. This ceremony over, our attention was again called to the cry from the street. It became quite stormy, and we had become serious over the matter. Staring death in the face in this manner was new to us. Each of us had many times braved the storm of battle; but it was the first time that we had had the prospect of getting a rope seriously around our necks. Seeing that there was real danger of violence from the citizens, the commander of the post ordered out a strong guard, and by it we were conducted to the jail, and there securely locked in a strong cell. Our new quarters were not a success in the way of comfort. It was a small cell and it was crowded full. We remained in here about twenty-four hours, unable to rest or sleep, when the order came to get in readiness for a march. Our destination was first the city of Lynchburg, thence Andersonville. Upon leaving Lexington, the guards were instructed to watch us closely, and if any prisoner attempted to escape, to shoot him. The march was a hard one in the fearful heat of the sun, without food, until we reached the bank of the Virginia and Ohio canal in the evening, when a little flour was given us, out of which we made a few "flapjacks." The next day we were put aboard a canal boat, and thus carried to Lynchburg.
Upon our arrival in that city on the evening of the 1st of July, we were conducted from the canal to our first regular prison house. This consisted of an old tobacco warehouse, filthy in the extreme, and totally unfit for the habitation of human beings. The amount of room was inadequate to the number of persons incarcerated, and the consequence was that sick, wounded and healthy prisoners were stowed away together, regardless of their condition. The first thing that attracted our attention upon entering the lower room of the building, was a sight revolting and horrible. A number of sick persons lay together, crowded into a corner, where the poor fellows were suffering terribly. There was no friendly hand to relieve them, and no help of any kind, except the miserable comfort afforded by their fellow prisoners. Many of them lay in their own filth, dirty, tagged, haggard, the very pictures of despair. Our entrance but added to their misery. They were already crowded too much, and now, that place had to be made for us, they were crowded still more, until the appealing looks from their poor, weak eyes drove their well comrades to suffer anything rather than add to their discomfort. There was but little rest or sleep, and the suffering was severe on the part of the most robust.
We remained here until the 3d of the month, when most of the well prisoners were removed to another building, a tobacco warehouse, located in the heart of the city, which was a great improvement over the first quarters. There were about 700 prisoners all told, confined in this building, and so far as circumstances would admit, were a jolly set of fellows. One of our first acts, was for a few choice spirits to get together and plan an escape for the evening of July 4th. Our desire was to pass the guards and strike for the Blue Ridge Mountains, and follow that range until we should reach the union lines. When we attempted to pass the guards we found a double line around the prison and we were ordered back, with the threat of close confinement if we were again found out at night. Six attempts were made to get away from this prison, but we were always foiled in some way. It was at this time that our party of four determined that we would never permit ourselves to be taken to the prison pens of Georgia, but would try to escape every time we saw a possible chance. By this we stood and never faltered. We passed nineteen days in Lynchburg prisons, and had little complaint to make, except that which came from most confederate prisons, the want of food. The supply we received here was totally unfit for food and insufficient for our wants, and there were but few that were not affected by it. Violent diarrhoeas, utter prostration and emaciation, and a weakness that was a pitiable sight, were some of the fruits that attested to our treatment. There was but little cruelty beyond that of depriving us of what we needed to support life. Lynchburg was but a fraction in the subtotal of suffering in prison life, and not unlike that of the other prisons in the south.
On the morning of July 19th, we were ordered to get ready for a trip to Georgia. In due time we were marched out and counted off, when 230 persons were taken from our prison and 270 from another, making in all 500 poor creatures bound for what we regarded as a living tomb. At the station we were given each about three-fourths of a pound of wheat bread, as our rations for the day. Soon we were aboard the cars, and after a very tiresome ride, reached Burkesville Junction about 6 o'clock P. M. Here we were taken from the cars and marched to a camping place a few rods distant, there to remain until the arrival of a train from Richmond, which was to take us to Andersonville. The train came up presently, but it was some minutes before we got into it, and we had ample time to examine the cars, and see if they offered any hope for a way of escape. They were baggage cars, with a large door on each side, at each of which two guards were stationed. Our little party of four held a council of war, and briefly discussed the best means of getting out of the cars while on the way. We agreed upon a desperate venture, full of peril, and if unsuccessful, was almost certain death to us. It was, that each of the four should sit near one of the guards and, at a given signal, be ready to leap from the cars with him, and then trust to our skill and strength in overcoming him and making our escape. We had already agreed on a point at which we should leap from the train. It was about 20 miles south of Burkesville Junction, on the Danville road, from which we could reach our lines at Petersburg, Va., by travelling about 120 miles in a direct line, northeast direction. We had a small map from which we had traced our course, and from which all our plans had been made.
Penniman and Reader were selected to ascertain the best way to accomplish our purpose. While doing this, Sweet and Anderson entered one of the cars and found some boards loose on the left side of the car at the rear end. In the confusion and noise then existing, they forced these boards off and made a hole large enough for a man to crawl or jump, through, without much difficulty. Having done this they concluded that this afforded a better and safer means of escape than the guard capturing scheme. In the meantime the other two were arranging for the other plan, and had agreed upon where they should sit and how they were to operate, when their attention was attracted by their names being called in a whisper by their comrades. Immediately they joined each other, when the hole in the car was shown them, the new plan explained and agreed upon, and we gathered around the opening, which the evening shadows obscured from the guards inside and outside.
In front of us were the four guards, sitting with their guns in their hands, and in the dim light permitted in the car, narrowly watching every movement on the part of the prisoners. On the top of each car were four other guards, watching for any that might try to escape, and in the rear car was a company of others to relieve those then on duty. The guards were quite communicative at times, freely talking to us about the country and other subjects that were valuable to us in the escape. They told us the names of the stations as we passed along, and about 9 o'clock we stopped at a station beyond which we intended to make our leap. While leaving here quietly and slowly the guards become quiet and stillness reigned in the car. Outside, however, the clatter of the wheels and the patter of the rain, which was now steadily falling, drowned all the noise we could make. The train was running about ten miles per hour and we were nearing the point fixed for our leap. One of the boys peered into the darkness, when he was startled by the gleam of a bayonet. Hanging down over the side of the car, was the gun of one of the guards, who was seated on top, with the bayonet fixed, and the reflection of the dull light from the inside of the car, on its bright surface, gave us a view of it far from being comfortable. The chances now were, that in getting from the car, we would disturb this guard, who could alarm the rest on the top of the train, and have it stopped in time to follow us. We decided to go ahead and run the risk. Once out of the train and in the woods, we would have a fair chance for escape, which was all that we asked.
We were now about half way between two stations, and the guards were doubled up against the closed doors resting and listening when any undue noise occurred. One of them was facing us but a few feet distant, and had been keeping a sharp eye on us, but was now more intent on getting a good rest. His gun was leaning forward almost within reach of us, and we could at the same time with one hand almost reach a gun on the outside of the car, and with the other almost touch one on the inside of the car. We were hedged about with guns, and when the critical moment came, we looked into each other's faces inquiringly, trying to read the determination of each in this testing hour. There was no weakness on the part of either, but the word was passed, "do or die." Sweet was selected to take the lead and first leave the car. At the proper moment the word was passed to him from his comrades, to jump, and he leaped from the car into the pitchy darkness and rain. Hastily following went Anderson, plunging into the bushes, and next Reader, who fell into the mud, under the edge of the train, the wheels almost grazing his head, while last of all went Penniman, alighting close to the end of a stone abutment. Our escape seemed to be unobserved, as there was no alarm of any kind given, and the train went on its way, leaving, the four alone in the edge of the woods. As soon as the train had passed, we rushed together, and clasped hands, congratulating each other on our success thus far. We found that we had alighted from the car within the distance of about one hundred yards from where the first and last of the squad had reached the ground.
An inventory of our stock of goods, showed us possessed of one jack knife, one clay pipe, one comb, two pounds of smoking tobacco, scraped from the floor of the Lynchburg prison, and we ought to have had one block of matches, which cost us one cent per match, but it was lost in getting out of the car. We began to discuss the best way to proceed, when we were surprised by a light at a house a few yards from us, followed by the voice of some one, evidently looking for us, as he had doubtless heard our voices. We hastily stepped under the cover of the trees, where we would not be seen, and watched the place until all became quiet again, and we were safe from danger in this direction. We had learned from the guards and our little map, that Petersburg, the point aimed at by us, was in a northeast direction from where we had left the train, but how to get started in the right direction, was a problem we could not solve. Not a star was visible, nor could anything else be seen but the faces of the anxious fugitives, as they stood in earnest consultation. But to stay in this place was to invite recapture, and we decided to go in some direction and trust to our usual good fortune for a favorable result. Sweet was unanimously selected leader of this forlorn hope, as he was admirably fitted for such a duty, and he accepted the post of honor. A rough guess was made as to which direction north was, and then we struck off through the woods at a rapid gait, but were soon checked by the thick undergrowth of bushes and briers, into which we plunged, sometimes sprawling at full length as we became entangled in the vines and briers. An hour's experience of this sort of travelling was enough to wear us out, and our progress was very slow. Disheartened, tired and hungry, we sat down on a log, in the midst of a dense forest, not knowing whither we were going. The rain drops were falling from the boughs of the trees, the wind occasionally moaned through their branches, and behind us we could hear the rumbling of the cars we had left about two hours before, a combination of sounds that did not produce harmony to our minds. Presently the clouds parted, and a mellow light diffused itself through the trees, and peeping forth from behind the great clouds, the stars blinked at us, and kept at it so persistently, that our spirits rose. We found an open space in the woods, and when the clouds had passed further away, the dipper met our gladdened eyes, and the pointers bade us see the North star, shedding its sweet light upon us. The countenance of a friend could not have imparted more cheerfulness than did that polar star, which seemed to say to us - " Follow me and you are safe."
With renewed courage we went forward, and after we had walked as we supposed about an hour, emerged from the woods and reached a plantation. The first thing done there was to hunt something to eat, but as there were no blacks in sight, we deemed it unsafe to venture near the house, and entered a patch of potatoes instead. Here we found a small quantity of peas in the pod, of which we ate, finishing our repast on the potatoes we dug fresh from the ground. It was high living, as we had not enjoyed such a fresh, wholesome meal for weeks. We had not been long here when we heard voices at the house and some one calling a dog. As we hurried outside the enclosure, some one gave the dog the word of command, and he came at us on a full run. We ran as quietly as we could, passing around the lower end of the garden and up a ravine, hiding behind some bushes when the dog stopped. Nothing further occurring, we passed quietly on and came to an orchard which we entered. Here we found an abundance of small, green apples, to which we helped ourselves, eating them with great relish, and filling our pockets for the next day. We pursued our journey, and soon were warned by the approach of dawn that great care must be exercised and a place of hiding found for the day. This place we soon found, located among some thick underbrush in the edge of a heavy wood, where we were secure from observation, but could see what was going on in the outside world. We had marched nearly all night, and were only about eight miles from where we started. We could yet hear trains passing on the road we had so unceremoniously left. We must have made a large circuit, as we certainly walked seven hours. This was fixed on our memory as one of the most terrible nights of our entire experience in life, but it was only the beginning of a series of such, now remembered as horrible nightmares. The quiet of our hiding place soon lulled us to sleep, and we slept soundly until broad daylight. We awoke with the sun brightening everything about us and very much refreshed. We had now before us a day of peril and anxiety, to avoid discovery by persons passing. We were greatly alarmed in the forenoon; when two men entered the woods and began chopping timber. They remained within a few rods of us all day and chopped away, unconscious of the prize within their reach. They ate their dinner in the woods, and how aggravating it was to us. Already suffering acutely from hunger, it increased our misery to see these men enjoying their dinner.
Toward dark we ventured out from our hiding place, and walked through a part of the woods to see what prospect there was for a forward movement. It being too early to leave the woods with safety, we lay down under some bushes until after dark, then started for a house near at hand, but seeing no blacks about, we avoided the house and came out on the Petersburg pike, which we followed for some distance. Fearing that we might meet some one on the road, we turned off into the woods and kept under cover of the grand old oaks. The walking was similar to that of the night before. The vines and underbrush were so thick that it was almost impossible for us to keep on our feet, and every now and then we found ourselves plunging headlong into a bunch of briers or clump of bushes, coming out of the scrape pretty well demoralized. We had the advantage of a bright clear night, which enabled us to pick our way when the wood was not too dense, and the walk was thus rendered the less tiresome. Having the North star clearly in sight, we experienced no difficulty in keeping the right course. We had no adventures of any kind during the night, and had an uninterrupted walk of fully six hours, making good time and headway.
When it was almost daylight we camped in a clump of thick bushes where we remained all day, sleeping most of the time, and did not see a person outside of our party. We were hungry enough to eat almost anything, and our thirst was so intense as almost to madden us. We forgot it only when we fell asleep. Instead of camps, battle fields, prisons, short fare and ill treatment, we dreamed of our dear old homes, the happy scenes and sports of boyhood, and the well filled tables of the land of plenty. How we entered the enjoyment of this sweet vision of peace, and reveled in the love and blessings afforded us there, banishing sorrow, healing wounds, relieving hunger, and comforting us in our misery. But when the hour of awaking came, how different the surroundings. The intensity of suffering cannot be forgotten, nor can it be described. Toward evening we ventured from our hiding place, and in a short time took our first meal on the tramp. We saw a house a short distance from us, which we went as close to as we dared, and watched the opportunity to hail a friendly black. In a few minutes we heard one of them coming, singing one of their quaint and weird plantation songs. We never heard the measured singing or chanting of one of these songs of plantation life, without seeming to recognize in it the sadness and misery of a life of slavery, and a sense of pity was felt by each for the unfortunate slaves. Yet with the degradation of the life, and, we would suppose, the blunting of their sympathy, and all feeling for others who might suffer, they entered into our feelings and expressed a sympathy for us, that was full of human kindness. More than this, they helped us whenever they dared to do so, and not once in all our weary efforts to escape, or in our entire army life, did they ever betray us.
When the black came within hailing distance, we called him to us. We stated to him our situation, and found him to be quite intelligent, and ready to do us a service. We informed him we were union prisoners trying to escape, and asked his assistance in giving us something to eat and putting us on the best road to our lines. He cheerfully agreed to aid us and left to see his wife about it. In a short time they both returned, each bearing a plate of corn bread and fried bacon, and some vessels filled with milk. Ah, what a feast was that! A better supper, we thought, we had never sat down to and it was eaten with a relish. Nearly three days of fasting and now we were feasting. Faithful friends were they. We talked freely with them about our future plans, and they gave us some advice that was valuable to us afterward, giving explicit directions how we should proceed on our way, and with many words of cheer, heartily shook hands with us and bade us good by.
We pushed on and as closely as possible followed their directions. We soon came to Nottaway river, and had a great deal of trouble crossing it. We had evidently taken a wrong road, which brought us to a broken-down bridge. By hard work we got across the stream and rested on its pretty banks. Before leaving the little river, we took a good drink, not knowing when we should get another, as water was scarce in that section, except in these running streams. We made but little progress, as we were constantly bewildered, not knowing whether or not we were on the right road, passing over many miles of road and woods, but to very little purpose. We became tired towards morning, and lay down in the midst of a clump of dwarf oak to await daylight, and the assistance of a friendly black. We soon fell asleep, and awoke on the morning of the 22d, feeling refreshed, and encouraged by the fact that we had escaped recapture for sixty hours, and began to feel confident that we would be successful in getting home to our friends. We spent a part of the day in what we called "skirmishing," consisting in cleaning our clothes and persons of the vermin with which we had become covered in prison. These dirty pests, together with the little black gnats and musquitoes that filled the woods, rendered our situation extremely disagreeable. In order to hide ourselves from the eyes of any who might pass through the woods, we had to confine ourselves to a compass of perhaps twenty feet, from daylight until dark, and be annoyed by the vermin and insects. It was a miserable day. We would occasionally be able to get a few minutes' sleep, but it was generally troubled by dreams of the scenes through which we had passed, and we would awake tired and unrefreshed.
We struck out about nine o'clock in the evening and made our way to the edge of the woods we were in, when Sweet started in the direction of some houses to see what chance there was for something to eat. He first encountered a warlike hog, which grunted and snorted at him until he was compelled to hide among the trees, for fear the noise would betray his presence. He again went toward the houses and attracted the attention of a negro boy, who took to his heels very much frightened. By considerable persuasion he was quieted, and we got him to come to us. We asked him about affairs at the houses, but the little fellow was suspicious, and would say nothing until he went and saw his mother, telling her of the presence of strangers, when she came to us inquiring what we wished. We told her who we were and what we wanted, but she was afraid at first to trust us. The slaves had become notorious as aids and guides to escaping unionists, and the confederates were in the habit of dressing themselves in the garb of union soldiers, when they would pretend to be escaping prisoners, in order to find out who among the slaves helped such persons. She was afraid we were of that kind of spies, and was loth to help us, but we soon convinced her that we were union prisoners fleeing from prison. We then asked her for food when she invited us into her house. We sat down in her rude cabin, where she baked us some excellent corn bread, in the red hot wood coals, and fried us the last bacon she had in the house. It was a dish fit for a prince, and there never was a set of belated fellows so fortunate as we were. With this food and plenty of sweet milk, hunger was soon satisfied, and we were ready for a night's tramp. We bade her good bye, started on our journey, accompanied by one of her boys, whom she sent to guide us a few miles. We crossed the Nottoway river and followed the Dinwiddie road, pushing on to a large gate, where our guide left us.
We had been cautioned by our black friends, that if we met confederate soldiers, or citizens, on the road, in small numbers, to say nothing to them but pass right on. They said there were a great many desertions from the confederate army, and that the deserters would not disturb us if we let them alone, but that if interrupted, they would likely give us trouble. It was a fortunate bit of advice, and we had occasion to profit by it this night. We met two armed persons, dressed like confederate soldiers, so far as we could tell who paid not the slightest attention to us, but walked gravely on as if they were alone in the world. We set them down at once as deserters, but what they took us for we never learned. From this on we had a difficult time to keep on the right road after all the good instruction given us. We walked once about two miles out of our way, bringing up near a plantation house, and had to retrace our steps and take a new start. We then followed the highway some distance, and got on the wrong road, which almost led us to recapture. We turned aside into an orchard to get some apples, where we filled our pockets for next day's eating, and decided to go into camp. But upon looking about us we were surprised to see about twenty fine horses grazing in the orchard, and, as the surroundings looked suspicious, we decided to go into the depths of a heavy pine forest on the right of the road. We camped under a thick clump of the great jagged trees, a lonely place, surrounded on all sides by huge pines, which we found secure enough for our purpose.
When daylight appeared, Penniman made a reconnoisance through the woods, to ascertain our whereabouts. He returned in about an hour, with the information that he had been conversing with a slave, who told him we were within a mile of a confederate camp, which was directly behind the orchard that we thought of stopping in, near a place called Blacks and Whites. The horses we had seen belonged to the officers in the camp. This was startling intelligence to us, and we did not need the caution of our black friend to keep very quiet. Occasionally we could hear sounds coming from the camp, the calls of a bugle telling us plainly enough that we had no friends in that quarter. We put in the time until evening eating the green apples we had picked, and in low conversation, with occasional naps of sleep, which were necessarily shortened by the persistent attacks of the gnats and musquitoes.
When his day's work was finished, and night came, the black joined us and guided us to a plantation about two miles distant. Upon nearing the house, he bade us lie down close to a large spring of water and await his return, when he would bring us our supper. It was a delightful place, where we quenched our thirst and rested beneath some stately trees. We remained here perhaps an hour, when another black approached, and announced himself as our guide for the next few miles. He had us secrete ourselves in some bushes near by, where we waited until he went and got our supper. In a short time he and his wife made their appearance, with an excellent repast both in quality and quantity. Supper over, and we were ready to resume our journey. The good old woman, black and ignorant as she was, did us all the service she could, and as we parted, wrung our hands and bade us a hearty God speed.
Her husband took the lead and told us to follow him closely. He went on a swinging, rapid walk, through the woods and bushes, over stumps and logs, leading us into several falls and plunges into the bushes, but all the while making a bee line for the point he wished to reach. Finally he stopped at a cross roads, leaving the camp at Blacks and Whites in our rear. Here he left us, directing us to some cabins to the left, where we would get another guide. He had proved himself a true friend, and we parted from him with regret. Upon reaching the cabins of the slaves to which directed, we knocked at the door of one of them, and were admitted with a cordial welcome. One sprightly young fellow volunteered to guide us to a point some nine miles distant, thus establishing him to return in time to get some sleep. Several of the blacks were awakened, who gathered about us, all shaking hands as we extended ours to them, gratified to meet some of the union soldiers. They were full of sympathy for us, and offered anything they had that would add to our comfort. Our guide led us a lively race for about eight miles, following a path through the woods. He was constantly on the alert, and was apprehensive of the presence near us of some of the enemy, and it required all our skill and urging to keep him with us.
We had gone perhaps about eight miles, when we had an adventure that threatened to be serious, but proved to be laughable. A foraging train of the confederates was in camp on the side of the road a short distance ahead of us, but of course we knew nothing of it until we reached it. When nearly to it we were halted by two armed men, evidently on guard duty, who saw only the black and Anderson, who were in advance, the rest of us several yards behind them. When they saw the rest of our squad coming up in single file and in good order, they broke into the woods on a full run, not waiting long enough even to fire an alarm. We heard one of them in a few minutes call to the other, and we went silently on our way. It was an astonishing occurrence to us. They must have thought that a whole company was advancing, and that the best thing for them to do was to get out of the way. It was sight to see our poor guide. He was badly demoralized and scared, but we quieted him down, though we were nearly as badly frightened as he was. We stepped aside into the woods and continued our walk, cautiously looking in every direction. In a few minutes we were right in the midst of a train of foraging wagons, and had no time to recover ourselves or retrace our steps. Several teams were standing together, and in most of the wagons the teamsters were, stretched out asleep, but, standing at the end of one of the wagons, was one fellow that wasn't asleep. He was wide awake, and was trying to get something out of the wagon. He being occupied gave us our chance, and we quietly stepped behind some trees and awaited the fellow's good pleasure. He went to the other end of the train presently, and we moved off out of sight. We supposed that the fellows who took to the woods belonged to this train, and were either on guard duty or just coming into camp. We heard no more of then, but suppose they stopped somewhere long enough to tell of what a mighty host of Yankees had driven them into the woods.
We struck off to the right of the train, and advanced about a mile, when we stopped for consultation. Our guide begged to be relieved from further duty, and as we did not want to subject the poor fellow to further danger, we dismissed him. As a reward for his services, Reader gave him his vest, the one remaining relic of civilized life in the party, which he carried off in triumph. We went to a safe distance from the train and settled down for the next day, the 25th. It was an uneventful one, nothing occurring that gave us any concern. We found that we had camped in the midst of a berry patch, where there was any quantity of huckleberries and some blackberries. Of these we ate freely and heartily. Toward evening the rain began to pour down in a steady stream, drenching us thoroughly, and we were finally driven from our shelter, passing through the woods, bringing up at a tobacco drying house in the clearing. Here we were sheltered from the rain, but were in full view of some houses that were about half a mile distant, across some fields. We saw some of the folks in the houses, but none came near us, so we were not disturbed. After dark we went into the open place to look for something to eat. It was Reader's turn to go to a house and he advanced for that purpose, when he suddenly came close to a woman, who evidently lived in one of the houses. Not being anxious to form her acquaintance, he asked some questions of her and retired to the woods. As no further notice was taken of him, it is probable the woman did not suspect who he was.
We left this neighborhood, and passing through another wood, we came to a large plantation, upon which there was a fine residence and other evidences of thrift. Anderson went toward the house to hunt something to eat, and attracted the attention of a black and brought him to us. We questioned him all about our location, our proximity to Dinwiddie Court House, and the nearest road to it, and then asked him to get us something to eat. He very intelligently gave us all the information we needed, but on the all absorbing question of eatables, he was compelled to deny us. He said that there were four confederate officers at the house who were to be waited upon, and it would be impossible for him to get us anything without discovery. He offered to do all in his power for us, and took us into a stable, where there were four fine horses, owned by the officers, saddled and bridled ready for use, which we might take, and he would not inform on us. It was a great temptation, but we could not consider it for a moment, as by doing this, we would have to pass through Dinwiddie Court House, the only available road being through there, where a regiment of confederate cavalry was stationed. These facts we learned from the black, who advised us to try it on foot a while longer, and gave us clear directions for avoiding the troops at Dinwiddie, and making our way to Petersburg. He put us on the way to the road, and left us then to our own resources. We got on the road at the scene of the previous night's adventures, but the wagon train bad left, not leaving a sign that it had ever been there, except the torn down fences, the rains having obliterated all marks of the wagons and horses. The rain was pouring down, the roads became so slippery that we could scarcely walk, and it was so dark that we could not see where we were going, or see each other, and we kept together by the sound of our voices. We went a mile, perhaps, through this intense darkness, when finding it almost impossible to go further, we took shelter under a tree, huddling close together, and waiting patiently for the cessation of the rain. The air was cool and our suffering became very severe. The rain drops fell from the branches and leaves, chilling us through, every drop seeming to penetrate the flesh, and soon we were shaking with the chills that seized upon us. We became almost unable to move, and were benumbed and sore, and when we attempted to walk, found it a painful effort. But we couldn't stay there, as we struck off through the woods, and presently found that we were lost in the great woods. We retraced our steps as best we could, and by groping and feeling our way back, arrived at the road, which we then closely followed.
The rain having partially ceased after walking some distance, we were soon able to reach open ground, and had not gone far when we saw lights to our left proceeding from houses. To these we made our way and found them to be some negro cabins, at the door of one of which we knocked, and entreated the inmates to permit us to enter and warm ourselves. They opened the door, and told us to be seated near the fire, when they heaped on wood, and soon had a blazing fire, in front of which we sat and warmed our chilled bodies. There was not a morsel to eat in the house, so they could not accommodate us in this way. A black from another plantation was visiting at this place, and told us that if we would go with him, he would give us something to eat, and a good fire to warm and rest by. We accepted his invitation and started with him. He took us about three miles through the woods, bringing up in front of a long row of cabins. He led us into a workshop, closed the door, and told us to keep very quiet while he made preparations for us in his cabin. In a few minutes after leaving us he returned and took us with him, giving us a place before a blazing fire. He then went to work and cooked us an excellent meal of corn bread and bacon. By the time we had finished, day was breaking, and he told us we would be safer now in the woods, and went with us to find a secure hiding place.
We passed through an orchard, picking up some of the apples, and found a safe place not far from the cabins. He told us that he would return to us in the evening, and guide us a few miles that night, and then we were left to ourselves. The day was clear and bright, and the sun soon warmed us and dried our clothing. While nothing occurred of a startling nature, the day was one of much anxiety to us. Confederate cavalry in squads passed us frequently, and as we lay within a few rods of the road, we had a good view of them. Several times we were very much frightened by the near approach of the horsemen, some of whom seemed as if they must know we were hidden there, by the manner in which they rode towards us, in some cases being within a few feet of us. But the bushes hid us from them. A wagon train also passed, and there was enough going on, in connection with the vigorous attacks of musquitos and gnats, to keep us awake and vigilant.
As soon as it was dark enough, our friend came to us with a good supper, and he then said he was ready to guide us a short distance and led us a few miles, leaving us at a plank road which led to Dinwiddie, giving us directions for the night.
We had not gone far when a turn in the road found us in the midst of another wagon train. We could see that the wagons were loaded with provisions, but we were too much alarmed by the unexpected turn affairs had taken, to think of foraging on our own account. Every person about the train was asleep, and we were not observed. We retraced our steps, and made a circuit through the woods around the train, until we had safely passed all danger. We pushed forward rapidly, and by the time this little adventure had been forgotten, we encountered another wagon camp, in which all the teamsters were not asleep. The train was a large one, heavily loaded with hay and produce. Before we realized our position, we were among the wagons, and, worse than all, in the presence of one of the teamsters, who was busy working about a team. He barely spoke to us, and being intent on his own business, paid no further attention to us. We hurried along until we were at a safe distance. This thing of running into these wagon trains had become monotonous, and we determined to keep in the woods, though we would thus make slower time. We observed this caution for a while, but presently ventured out on the road again.
We had not gone far when we were startled by the sound of horses approaching us. We stepped back into the woods out of sight and watched the approach of the new danger. A squad of cavalry cantered along the road, passing us almost near enough to strike us with their sabres. We barely had time enough to get out of their way. Fortunately they did not see us, or our adventures as escaping prisoners would have come to an end. They went on their way, and left us in some embarrassment as to what course next to take. From the description given us by our black friend, we felt satisfied we were close to Dinwiddie, and that the utmost caution must be observed. Turning down over the hill to our left, we came to Stony Creek, which passes near the town, and lay down on its banks for a short time. We had not lain there long, when we were aroused by a terrific noise, coming apparently from across the stream. We were on our feet in an instant, and though the clatter was kept up for some time, we could not discover what it was. It was sufficient to impel us to move forward, and we walked along the creek it short distance until we heard voices. We got under cover and soon ascertained that we were near the bridge that crossed the creek on the road that we had been traveling, and that it was guarded. At the time we heard the voices a relief was being put on, as near as we could understand, and when this was done, no sound was heard but the murmur of the waters in the creek. Our intention was to cross the bridge, as we did not expect to find it guarded, but we could not do that, so we went into a piece of woods, near at hand, and put up for the day.
We were more exposed during this day than any place we had yet stopped. A few small bushes were all that kept us from the view of passersby. Persons were constantly passing on the road a few rods distant, but none discovered us. Near us on the creek was a mill that kept up a great deal of noise, which was in our favor, drowning whatever noise we made. The day was thus passed, with but very little sleep, and not a morsel to eat. About dark we left our little camp and went to the creek, finding a crossing place near the mill. Once over the creek, we climbed a little bluff and went into the woods, stopping near some houses. Sweet and Penniman went to the houses and secured a black, who came to us, and with whom we had a long talk. We were concerned about getting past Dinwiddie, the most dangerous place on the route until we should get near our lines. He agreed to guide us around the town, and leave us where we could proceed safely without the services of a guide. We followed after him, and felt perfectly safe as long as he kept before us. He was very cautious and careful and would not pass any exposed place without first carefully examining it, and satisfying himself that the way was clear. We passed the guards with but little trouble, and went around the town, keeping to the right, and avoiding the troops that were encamped in the place. Our guide left us at the edge of a wood, after explaining to us what direction we should take. We went into the woods and became lost, traveling for some time in a circle, and finally emerging from the woods at the place we entered. This was decidedly provoking, but we enjoyed a hearty laugh over it, and started in again. This time we came out all right. We then followed the edge of the woods for some distance, when we entered a pine forest, where the trees were so close together, that we could scarcely crowd through a part of it. We were walking along busily engaged in laying plans for future operations, when a shrill cry broke upon the stillness of the night, and caused the hair to rise on our heads. It sounded like the cry of a child in distress, but we understood fully what it was, though we had never heard it before. Any of the readers of this who have had occasion to be much in a Virginia forest, remote from thick settlements, will not need to be told that it was the cry or scream of what is usually known as the wild cat or lynx. It followed us a short distance for an hour or more, emitting its piercing cries, and was a cause of terror to us, though no attempt was made to attack us. The next night we were followed by it or another one, until almost daylight, and then this annoyance ceased.
Late in the night, as we were pushing rapidly forward, Sweet suddenly disappeared in our front. We couldn't imagine what had become of him, when one of us called out: "Hello, Sweet; where are you?" "All right," was the response, "come on." Anderson was next, and after sliding a few feet on an inclined rock, went over the edge of it, the others of the party following fast and hard, all alighting in the mud, and barely missing a large number of rocks that were to our left. It gave us an opportunity for a hearty laugh, and we concluded to hunt a camp, as the night seemed to be full of mishaps and scares. We walked up a small hill, coming to an open space, where there were a few houses. To these we went and tried to get something to eat, but it was a failure. Daylight was near at hand and it behooved us to hunt a hiding place. This we found without any trouble, and lay down hungry and tired.
We experienced nothing unusual in this day's solitude, except that we were very hungry, and had nothing with which to satisfy it. The air was hot and close, and with the attacks of the gnats and musquitos, sleep was out of the question. Toward dark we moved eastward to the edge of the woods, hoping to find something that would alleviate the suffering we were undergoing from hunger. We saw some cabins at a distance, to which it was agreed we would send one of the party to seek for food. It was Reader's turn to forage, and he went within a short distance of the cabins, when seeing some one coming from that direction, he stopped and took refuge behind a tree. He supposed it to be a black, but, was very much astonished to see instead a man with a blanket thrown across his shoulder and a haversack strapped to his side, and apparently fully equipped. There was not enough light to tell certainly whether he was armed, but he had all the appearance of an armed soldier ready for the march. He noticed Reader, and having passed him a few feet, stopped and said:. "Who are you?" There Reader stood, not knowing what to do or say. Capture seemed inevitable, and he thought, with sinking of heart, of his three comrades safely hidden in the woods behind him. It was the worst scrape of the whole trip, and it looked as if all his hardships and suffering to keep away from Andersonville, were to go for naught. Two ways were open before him, submit to recapture, or run and risk being shot. He chose the latter. All this occurred in a few moments, and before the new-comer had time to say or do anything further, Reader deliberately turned from him and walked away, until he had got some distance from him, when he turned off into the woods on a run to where he had left his comrades. Singularly enough, no attempt was made to follow him, but he was permitted to depart in peace. It was the most puzzling event that had occurred to us. We could not come to any satisfactory reason for the fellow's conduct, except that he was a deserter from the confederate army, and was himself anxious to avoid discovery. A large force was but a short distance from us, and it is possible that he was deserting from them. We at once changed our quarters, going to a thick part of the woods, where we remained for awhile. Hearing nothing further that was suspicious, Reader was sent to try what he could do at the same cabins, this time following a safer course. When he reached the cabins he saw a negro woman sitting in a door, with her back to him.
Desiring not to alarm anyone, as the plantation house was but a few rods distant, he stepped up to the woman, laid his hand on her shoulder and spoke to her. To his surprise and consternation, she jumped to her feet and ran across the room, screaming at the top of her voice. Her cries could be heard at all the houses in the immediate neighborhood, and the alarm would certainly bring some one to the place. He hurried at once to the rear of the cabin and hid against the side of an outside chimney. The mud between the logs of the building having fallen out in many places, he could see all that was going on in the house. The inmates were badly frightened and greatly excited, and scarcely knew what they were doing. The woman calmed down sufficiently to order a boy to take a big dog and go out and see what had scared her. They went on their errand, but fortunately were not zealous enough in their search to hunt very closely for the fugitive. Presently one of the men of the family, a burly black, came into the house, and learning the state of affairs, went on the search of Reader, whom he found in a few minutes. The latter gave an account of the scare he had been the innocent cause of, which amused the old darky greatly. Reader told him what he was after, that we were escaping union prisoners and desired food. He promised to bring it to us in a few minutes, and showed a place where he would meet the party. Reader then returned to his comrades and related to them his second adventure. The black came to us in a short time with some fried apples, swimming in grease, a dose that would have sickened an ordinary stomach. This was the best that he could do, as he said they had not a pound of meal for their family. It was a grievous disappointment to us, but there was no remedying it now. He gave us directions how to reach the road that led to the Weldon railroad, and cautioned us as to the presence of confederate soldiers almost everywhere. We pursued our journey, and got along very well for a while, when the rain began to pour down in torrents, and we became again lost in another of those Virginia forests. The rain ceased in a short time, but we were deep in the woods, not having the remotest idea of what course we should take, not being able to see the stars, or anything else that would indicate the points of the compass. We at last reached a fence, beyond which we saw a house, which we approached and found to be empty. Being apparently some distance from any other house, we concluded to put up in it for the day. It was a new house, the best place we found on our trip in which to rest, and being free from the little pests that annoyed us in the woods, we were able to rest and sleep.
At dusk we went to the edge of the woods near a house, in which lived a family of poor whites. We rested within a few rods of this house until it was quite dark, when Anderson went to it, called the man of the house to one side, and learned from him all about the location of the confederate forces in that vicinity. Anderson led the man to believe that he was a confederate, and thus received from him a good deal of valuable information. We learned that in order to get to our destination, we had to pass three camps of cavalry, one stationed at Reams' station, one at Stony Creek, and the other camp between the two places, the extreme right wing of Lee's army, and from that time on, we were not at any time half a mile from armed men. Almost from the hour we jumped from the train we were really so situated, but not in so great a degree as now, when we were never out of sound of the call of the bugles. A moment's exposure in daylight and we were as sure of recapture as that we lived. Having received this valuable information, Anderson returned to us, and we pursued our tramp on the Boydton plank road. We had not gone far when we got into difficulty with the enemy's pickets and barely escaped capture. We avoided them by striking off into the woods and keeping as quiet as possible.
Of all our experiences in the woods this was the worst. It was a swamp of the most treacherous kind, in which we sank as we stepped along, making the walking exceedingly tiresome and slow. We walked along in this as we supposed about two miles, when we were brought to a stand still, by a little stream that impeded our progress. We followed its course for some distance, when we stopped at some logs, which we hoped would afford a crossing place. Penniman got off by himself, hunting an open place in the woods, where he could see the stars, so as to shape our course, and called to the rest of the party to come to him. The words had scarcely left his lips, when the stillness of the air was broken by - "Who goes there?" coming from the opposite side of the little stream. We found ourselves face to face, almost, with the confederate pickets, and the question was how to escape from them. We at once hurried back further into the woods from the stream, thoroughly arousing the pickets, the click of whose guns sounded ominous. We sat down at the foot of a large tree, and became as quiet as we could, awaiting developments from the other side. We lay thus for perhaps an hour, during which time the guards were relieved, and our case was evidently overlooked. There was no further attempt made to find us, and they doubtless thought we were wandering negroes.
As soon as the relief took their place we were ready to proceed. Just then the artillery opened up north of us, at Petersburg, indicating the direction we were to go. We were not long in getting out of that place. We picked our way carefully and cautiously, until we had got out of reach of the guards, and soon were out of the woods, on the road on which the pickets were stationed. We kept our eyes and ears open for them, and were fortunate to avoid them at this time. Taking our course from the North star, we struck directly east, aiming to get across the Weldon railroad before morning. We soon reached Stony Creek, when, looking behind us, we saw a light, which we supposed came from a house. It was at once proposed to return to the house, and see if we couldn't get something to eat. We had about concluded to do so, when the call from a bugle was sounded, and we saw at once that the light came from a camp of soldiers. We were but a short distance from one of the camps we so greatly feared. We did not stay long here, but waded the creek and hurried into the woods. When we had gone a short distance, we could see plainly the camp fires and the troops in motion, and soon were in the midst of camps and guards, and it required all our ingenuity and care to avoid them. The forces were nearly all in motion, and though we were often almost in their grasp, we succeeded in dodging them. It was not a pleasant thing to stumble within a few yards of 3 squad of armed men, standing in some cases around a camp fire, but this became so common to us in our experience that night, that we almost expected it.
Soon we heard a train coming up the railroad, and we went into a more open space to watch it, when we saw to our left a camp fire, probably not over fifty yards distant, behind a little knoll, and a number of soldiers stretched about the fire. We crawled on our hands and knees near to an empty log house a few rods in front of us, to ascertain our whereabouts. What a sight met our view! All around us were the enemy in camp, the guards stationed everywhere, and we were in their hands once again, if they but closed in on our hiding place. They seemed to be getting ready in some of the camps to go on a march. At a distance we saw the lights of one camp of cavalry, where the bugles were sounding and the troops in motion, but we did not care to investigate the surroundings, and cudgeled our brains how to get out of the bad scrape we were in. Before us was the Weldon railroad, which we had to cross to reach our lines, and we tremblingly moved toward it. Now crawling along, again on our hands and knees, and again for a few yards on our feet, we moved to the important place. When we had gone a short distance we heard a train coming, and we lay down in the corn into which we had now found our way, which was sufficiently high to screen us from view. We were but a few yards from the track, and as the train came thundering along, we were close enough to see the soldiers on it. The train was going in the direction of Petersburg, and was full inside and on the top, with armed soldiers. When the train got past we drew a long breath, relieved that this danger was over. We then went close to the railroad track and took a view of the surroundings. The road was strongly guarded, but a few minutes' absence of the guards would enable us to cross the track in safety. Watching our opportunity, when none of them seemed to have an eye on where we were, we passed hastily over the road and hurried into the woods beyond. The critical point was behind us, and we sat down in the forest and rejoiced in our safety.
This day, the 29th, was an exciting one. Our high spirits of the night before were considerably dampened. It was the most dangerous day that we had experienced, and it seemed scarcely possible that we could get out of it as well as we did. We lay all day within less than one mile of one of the camps of cavalry. Their bugle calls could be heard distinctly, and hundreds of the men were in sight all the time. A party of them came within less than twenty feet of us, and could have nearly stirred us out with their guns, but fortunately did not learn of our whereabouts. We put in an uneasy day and could get no more sleep, and even our hunger was forgotten in the great danger that beset us. We struck out through the woods when darkness fell upon us, and when we reached a clearing, we saw a horse a short distance off, to which Penniman went for something to eat. When he reached it he found the place surrounded by guards, and would have been captured had it not been for a black, who pulled him back to a secure place, as the guard approached. Inside the house several officers were enjoying the hospitalities, and there was no chance to get anything to eat. He returned to us in a few minutes and related his adventure with unstinted praise for his rescuer.
We crossed through another wood stopping near a house. Here Sweet made up his mind to have a drink of water and something to eat, at the risk of his life. He went to the house and entered it, and as he entered at one door a confederate soldier went out of another one, and started to the woods on a run. Sweet got a drink, but did not deem it prudent to stay long enough to get anything to eat. The confederate pickets were too near for comfort, and we got out of that place just as soon as our weary limbs could carry us. We got on to the Prince George Court House road, and found an old tobacco case, with an engraving of General Meade on it. This satisfied us that the Yankees had been there. A little further along, on a high point of land, we saw a body of horsemen, but of which army we could not tell. We debated the question for some minutes whether we should make ourselves known to them, but finally concluded not to do so, satisfied to endure still greater fatigue rather than run the risk of recapture. We then left the road, crossed down through a field to our left, and came out on the Petersburg pike, which we followed, and soon came to a house, where we waked up the inmates, requesting them to tell us how far it was to our pickets. We represented ourselves as confederates, and of course they thought we meant the pickets of that army, and they told us that it was two and one-half miles, at the crossing of Mill creek by the pike we were on. We received from them all the information we wished, as to the number of the confederate forces near, the distance we were from them, and our lest and shortest course to all the principal points. We bade them good night, thanking them for their information, and went into the orchard, where we filled our pockets with green apples for use in camp next day. We then went into the woods near to the picket lines and camped, hidden securely among the bushes, almost within gunshot of our lines.
We had a good sleep, but were awakened early by one of the most tremendous noises we had ever heard. As we learned afterwards, it was caused by blowing up the fort in front of Petersburg. Soon a terrific cannonading was begun, and we became deeply interested in it. There we lay and listened, eating the green apples we had secured, and spent some time in trying to clean ourselves of the vermin, and in resisting the attacks of the gnats and musquitos. We had eaten no food for several days, and our hunger was intense. We had a quantity of salt which we used on our green apples, thus avoiding any ill effects from such food, but there was no sustenance in it. We had become very weak, and our nerves were almost shattered by the intense strain to which we had been subjected for some weeks, so much so that the firing of the guns about us kept us in constant dread. But strange to say, in all this suffering and weakness, we did not lose our hope and cheerfulness of spirit, nor did we ever for a single moment think of giving up our struggle for freedom. While listening to the cannonading at Petersburg, we were startled by the report of a field piece not far in our front, then another and still others, until we made ready to vacate our hiding place, feeling sure that mischief was in store for us. Presently we could hear the rapid firing of carbines, all the time moving to where we were secreted, and we hurried from the place. We went to the edge of the woods, and followed it, keeping to the right and under cover of the trees. The wood was circling to our left, and we had not followed it far when we could see that the firing was now near the spot we had left. We walked thus perhaps two or three miles, the firing on our left, until we came to a point where we could see the contending forces, perhaps a mile distant in a direct line, and had a full view of the scene of action. A fight was in progress and it was a brisk one, but we could not make out then which of the lines was our own army, but we could see that one of the armies had been driven into the wood where we were hidden in the morning, and from which we were driven. We learned after our arrival in our lines that the forces occupying our hiding place were confederate cavalry, which had been forced there by a force of union cavalry. The former were those that we had seen in motion during our secret night marches, and the bugle calls found an explanation.
As we could go no further without discovery, we lay down in a piece of woods to our right, and watched the progress of the battle as best we could. While thus engaged, a company of cavalry galloped past us in the direction of the confederate forces. We were within a hundred yards of the road, but as the troops were covered with dust, we could not distinguish their uniforms, to tell to which army they belonged. One of us went into the field to see if we could make them out, but was not able to do so. In the hope that they would return, Penniman went down to the road and hid in some bushes, where he could have a full view of them and not be seen himself. It was an anxious waiting for us. If they were union cavalry we were saved, but if they were of the enemy, then our chances of escape were very few. Soon we heard the clatter of the horses' feet on the return. Near and nearer they came, and all eyes were strained to get a view of them. Oh what intensity of emotion was crowded into that minute of waiting! Penniman, at his outlook, was eagerly scanning the road, and his eyes never left the troopers from the moment they came in sight until they filed past him. He waited patiently to see something about them that would show to what army they belonged.
The company came up to where he lay and went rapidly by him, when out of the grime and dust, the blue of some of the uniforms showed itself, and the truth flashed on him that they were union soldiers. Jumping to his feet he waved his hat and called out at the top of his voice: "Come on, boys; thank God we're safe." Instantly scores of carbines were raised and covered us, when we called to the troops, "Don't fire; we are union soldiers," and every carbine fell and we rushed to them, safe beneath the authority of the stars and stripes.