By Capt. Mahlon S. Ludwig, 53rd PVI Co. “A”, Meadville PA.
It was now the latter part of October and the weather was growing cold and sleety. Having nothing to protect us from the elements, we asked, and were granted, permission to go outside and gather pine boughs and brush for the purpose of making hovels into which we could crawl for shelter from the rain, wind and sleet. We were, of course, obliged to give our parole of honor to return.
Not a day passed during all this time without plans of escape being talked over. I was one of a party of six who built our hovel near the dead-line. One morning we dropped back to the extreme left of the lines and entered into a conversation with a guard. One of our boys had a very fine watch, which we offered to give the guard if he would permit the six of us to pass out of camp at his post, and this he agreed to do. He told us at what hour he would go on duty, and we were to keep tab so as to be sure where his post was located. Fortunately it was in the rear of our hovel. At the appointed hour we formed into line, single file, on our hands and knees, with the owner of the watch in advance. When within a few feet of the post we discovered that there were three men there, instead of one. Lucky for us the night was very dark and the three shots fired at us passed over our heads. There was nothing to do but beat a hasty retreat, congratulating ourselves that we were still alive and no bullet holes in us. The next morning the guard told us that the officer of the guard had just reached his post with the relief when we came in sight, and there was nothing for them to do but fire at us. This, to us, seemed a very plausible explanation.
One afternoon as Lieut. Young Was sitting in front of his hovel he was shot dead by one of the guards. The real cause for the deed was never known, but we were given to understand that it was an accidental discharge. Col. Huey, of the 8th PA Cavalry, was the senior “Yank” in camp. He was approached daily with new plans of escape. Many and varied were the schemes advanced, but it seemed impossible to agree upon any definite plan. One was to overpower the guards, take their guns, make a dash for the Savannah River, cross it, and then get to General Sherman’s army. This plan, after being discussed, was abandoned, owing to the large number of weak and almost helpless men who could cover only a few miles a day, and it was 80 miles to the river. Theses poor fellows would, no doubt, be recaptured by bloodhounds and possibly killed. We therefore agreed that the sacrifice of human life would be too great. Our little party of six determined not to remain in a Rebel prison much longer. We were surprised one evening to see a fair-sized regiment of boys and old men marching into camp. From their appearance we judged they would range anywhere from 15 to 80 years. It proved that these men and boys were to act as guards, and those then on duty would go to the front. Now was our chance, and I said to my companions: “In the morning, when these old men and boys go on duty, we will say that we are on parole, and are going for the remainder of our wood and water.” Next morning an old fellow was placed on guard near us. I told the boys to “come on” and we stepped right across the dead-line.
The old man raised his gun and said: “Halt dar: who goes dar?” I replied that we were on parole, and were going with the others to get the rest of our wood and water. This seemed to satisfy the old chap, and we passed on in the direction taken by those who were really on parole. About 300 yards from camp we reached an old abandoned plantation road which had been washed out by the recent rains to such an extent that we were completely sheltered from view of the guards who were out with the parole party. As we were rapidly making our way along this road we came upon the blackest nigger I ever saw and he seemed as much surprised as we did. We formed a circle around him, made him hold up both hands and solemnly swear that he would not tell of having seen us. If he did we could come back and kill him. By this time the poor fellow was almost white. He raised his eyes toward heaven, and his voice trembled as he said, “Bless de Lawd in heaven, dis niggah neber tell on youse good people: I know who yo’ is, and de day of salvation am suah come.”
The day previous to our escape we bought from the rebel sutler corn meal at $1 a pint: some sorghum at 50 cents a cup, wheat flour at 20 cents a pound, and a $5 chicken. I, being cook for our party, had put the chicken on to cook. Just before crossing the dead-line I went to one of the boys, who had been badly wounded at Chickamauga, and said to him: “If we don’t return by the time that chicken is done it is yours.” I presume he had a feast on chicken.
Continuing our way after meeting with the negro, we reached a swamp, and could hear bloodhounds baying in the direction of Camp Oglethorpe. We deemed it wise to climb trees, as none of us had weapons – not even pocket knives. If the dogs were in pursuit of us, they must have got the wrong scent, as they did not come our way. It was about 11 am and we remained in the trees till dusk, when we came down and moved ahead. We had not gone far when we came upon five strapping negroes. As there were six of us we stopped. They proved very friendly, and we at once asked them if they could direct us to the Augusta turnpike. One of them said: “Do you see that light out yonder? Well, the overseer is there, with a brace of pistols and bloodhounds to guard us niggers and, incidentally, to catch runaway Yankees.” We lost all desire to travel in that direction. They told us to follow and they would show us a better way. This was on a road which was being graded between Columbia and Augusta, GA. They kept there word and took us to the turnpike. It was a bright, moonlight night and we walked rapidly for several hours, hearing nothing but the occasional bark of a dog. It was our intention to put as many miles as possible between us and Columbia that night. Suddenly we were startled at seeing a man jump out from a fence corner. He proved to be another friendly negro. He cam right up to us, saying: “Boys, don’t go any farther: you are right on the outskirts of Pittsfield Court House. I know you must be prisoners from Columbia, and you might be caught.” He told us he was on his way to see his sweetheart, but he could postpone his visits until the next night. I asked him if he lived in Pittsfield, and he replied: “Yes: I’se de cook at de hotel.” One of the boys remarked that it was fortunate for us, as we hadn’t had a bite to eat all day. He then took us back in the woods where we would be safe, and he started for his hotel for some “grub”. We waited, hours, it seemed, and began to feel suspicious at his long absence. However, he finally returned, bringing with him two large loaves of cornbread, some raw pork and sweet potatoes, which provided us quite a feast. While eating we asked him questions about the country in the direction of Augusta. He strongly advised us not to attempt and reach Augusta, and told us he knew a Union white man by the name of Boozier, who lived about three miles from Pittsfield, and that he would take us to him. We learned later that this man was Ex-Senator Boozier. Having finished our meal, our guide led us along a path on the outskirts of Pittsfield. Asking us to stand still, he went ahead, and after quite a time returned, accompanied by an old black woman. He told her who we were, and asked her to take us to a place of safety and give us breakfast in the morning, and if possible obtain an interview for us with Senator Boozier. This she agreed to do, and she then led us into a thicket, where we could build a fire without fear of detection. It was now midnight, and we had traveled about 20 miles since dusk.
We at once lay down on the ground by the fire we had built, and it did not take the foot-weary men long before sleep came, from which we did not waken till after sunrise. A small stream nearby furnished us with a cold drink and a good wash. This over, black men, women and children came, each carrying some article of food. Old mammy was leading the procession, and with her was a young white girl. Mammy said that Mr. Boozier did not think it safe to come. He did not know who we were, only having the word of the black man that we were escaped prisoners. We might be Southern men. We begged her to say that we were all right. At dinner time we had more food and word that Mr. Boozier would meet us at dusk. As night was coming on we were provided with more food, and later Mr. Boozier came. He was nervous, saying that it would not be safe for him to be found talking with escaped Union men on his plantation. He advised against taking the road to Augusta, and suggested we try and reach Knoxville, Tenn., a longer route but safer. This way was a sort of underground railroad, the negroes along part of the road would guide us. He sent a negro out 15 miles and he turned us over to another black man. Before leaving he offered us some Confederate money and gave us a compass which proved of a great help. A romantic feature of our stay here resulted in a love affair between a young Lieutenant of our party and the young white girl. After the war he returned and married her, and they now live in Pennsylvania.
Under the guidance of old Ned, after a most cordial parting with Mr. Boozier and a lingering farewell between the lovers, we started. We walked until almost morning, when Ned turned us over to another negro who hid us in a barn for the day, and provided us with food. That night our new guide took charge of us. This night’s trip was varied by being taken to an old tobacco barn where a large party of negroes were having a dance. Our appearance broke up the entertainment, and quite a number followed us. One old darkey asked us to turn in and spend the next day at his cabin, but we went on, and after a tramp of 20 or more miles another colored man took charge of us.
We were now in a section where provisions were scarce. Our coffeee was made of parched corn and salt pork or bacon and corn bread constituted our bill of fare. After a days rest in the hay of a barn, our new guide appeared with several other black fellows, who brought a sheep’s carcass. Fresh mutton went good with our cornpone. It was getting near dawn next morning, after a long tramp, when our guide asked us if we knew where we were. Of course we did not. He told us we were on the plantation, in South Carolina, belonging to Preston S. Brooks, the Congressman who assaulted Charles Sumner in the United States Senate Chamber, and which created a great sensation at the time. In proof of this one of the house servants brought us the cane. It was in two pieces, of heavy gutta-percha make, with a large gold head, on which there was an inscriptiono the effect that it was a gift to him from the ladies of the district. We partook of the Congressman’s hospitality, without his knowledge, until evening, when we resumed our journey.
We traveled some 20 miles, when our guide said he must leave us, and could not turn us over to anyone else: we must now look out for ourselves. We went into camp in the woods and slept until well after daylight. From our hiding place we found we were near a town, which proved to be Pickensville, S.C. Late in the afternoon a couple of colored boys passed along the road, driving a hay wagon. We stopped them. We had a talk with them, and we finally bargained to have them come back and guide us thru the town. We were alarmed just after dark by having heard loud voices in the road – white men in dispute. We thot of trouble for us, but luckily they went on. Later we heard our boys’ whistle. We joined them and were told to pull our hats down over our eyes, walk carelessly in single file and hum a negro tune in unison with them. We went along in good style, passing on the eway a building with sentries pacing up and down, but they paid no attention to us, ignorant of the fact that the supposed negroes were escaping Union officers. We reached a railroad depot just as a train arrived and a good many passengers alighted, we passing right thru the crowd without being noticed. We slouched along humming dixie. The street lamps were in evidence too. The boys led us safely thru the town to the cabin of an old negro who fed us on cornpone, cooked pork and parched-corn coffee. And it was a feast. This old man guided us some 10 miles, and left us to our own resources. We tramped northward by the compass until coming light warned us to to take to the tall timber. We rested all day in the woods, and starting out again at dusk, resolving to trust to luck.