Friday, May 9, 2014

Reminiscences From The Sands of Time, Part 3

     When we last left George and his comrades they had just escaped from a train taking them to Florence Prison in Florence, S.C.  They rolled under the train station platform when the guard wasn't looking and waited anxiously for a chance to escape.

"Reminiscences From the Sands of Time" by George H. Hill, 13th Mass. Company B.

[Part 3]

      I have stood in the battle front when shot and shell were flying around me and men were falling dead on all sides; have been in that most trying place to a soldier's courage, "the reserve;" have stood on picket, knowing the liability of being pounced upon and shot or strangled, have advanced with the skirmish line in the face of a blazing line of battle and charged in solid column the breastworks of a hidden foe; but never did I experience the feeling of abject helplessness, of mortal terror, of absolute fright, as when that last car passed the platform and left us, subject to discovery by some small boy or girl as they played hide-and-seek around that depot.  The fright which the presence of five live yankees would have given that little village meant death to all of us, and we knew it; we dared not speak, we hardly dared to breathe, and when a large sized hog (hogs run wild in that southern village) came rooting at our heads, we dared not drive it off, lest its sudden exit would attract attention to our hiding place.

     Slowly the twilight gave way to night, the lounging crowd dispersed, and we gained courage to crawl together and plan "what next."  Gradually we worked our way to the end of the building, and then, first Rice, followed in turn by Klingingsmith, Trounsell, and Crossett, passed out into the bright moonlight, across the road, through a gateway, and then by a path over a hill to a clump of trees just outside the settlement, where it was agreed all would wait for me, whom it had been decided was to act as captain of our little squad.  The anxiety of superintending the timing of each start, and watching the progress across the village, had so worked upon me that when my time to go arrived I trembled in every nerve and muscle, and as I started across the road my heart stopped beating.  It seemed to me that every bush concealed a foe, and every rustling leaf was shouting "halt."  At last I reached the grove, and after a long breath of relief, we all together rushed like frightened sheep across a plain, over a fence, and into a large field of growing corn.  Here hunger got the best of our frightened rush, and finding the corn just in the milk, we threw ourselves upon the ground and ate and ate, until the crowing of the cocks and the reddening of the horizon warned us of the coming of the day, and the necessity of finding a safer hiding place.

     We had now regained our senses and were able intelligently to study our surroundings.  A swampy grove, about half a mile away, seemed to offer security and we hurried on and before sunrise were safely sheltered by its dense tanglewood, and all lay down to much needed sleep.  Secure in our hiding place, we minded not the dampness or rough underbrush on which we lay, but slept refreshingly until almost night again.  We were roused at last by un-quenching thirst, and the realization that no food at all was even worse than Andersonville rations - Digging a hole in the damp ground, we waited until it filled with water from the swampy surface, and, laying on our stomachs, drank our fill, each in turn waiting for a new supply, and ate the tender leaves of growing shrubs around us.  We could hear the bells ringing in the village we had left, and concluded it was curfew bed-time, and shortly thereafter we left our friendly cover, and, searching the heavens, found our "pillar of fire," the north star, whose bright light showed to us the direction we must take to reach the promised land of safety. Before starting out, we had perfected a plan of action which consisted of an Indian file movement across the country, regardless of roads or paths - North, North, was all we knew.

     The details of our tramp for the first week of our journey, which began each day at dark and ended at dawn, is uneventful; we avoided all habitations, living on raw corn and sweet potatoes, and hiding during the day in dense woods or dismal swamps.  Growing somewhat bolder as we became accustomed to our surroundings, we decided to test the loyalty of the negro, and so drew lots to see what one would risk a visit to some cabin and endeavor to find out where we were and what direction to take to reach our lines, and, not less important, get something to eat. The lot fell to Klingingsmith, and after pledging that in case of betrayal he would insist that he was alone (thus giving us a chance to get away) he left us just as the lights were showing through the windows of what we knew were negro cabins, and with anxious hearts we waited his return.  Minutes were hours, for it seemed to us he would never come back, and we had about decided to move off when we heard a low whistle (the signal agreed upon), and he soon appeared, accompanied by four negro slaves, two men and two girls, loaded down with food such as we had not seen since we left our homes, - ham, cold chicken, cold lamb, hominy, bread, cake, and cheese, and a large pitcher of milk.  Great Scott!  How we ate, while these angels with black skins rolled their white eyes and showed their whiter teeth, in ecstacy of joy that they could do something for "Lincoln's" soldiers.

     When we had eaten all we could hold we gathered up the fragments and stored them as best we could among our clothes, hardly daring to believe we would ever get more, shook hands with our faithful servants, and left them waving their hats and aprons in silent encouragement as we disappeared over the hill in the direction pointed out by them as sure to bring us to the "Yankee lines."

     After this we never hesitated to make our wants known to man or woman with a black skin, and never was our confidence betrayed.  If the negro has no other claim upon the people of this country in his struggle for right and justice, if, in his ignorance, he sometimes falls short of your idea of what he should be, remember his loyalty and faithful service in the war of the rebellion, but most of all, his big-hearted goodness to all union prisoners within his reach.  My own experience, in this respect, is precisely that of every soldier who had occasion to ask help of the negro slave, or to put himself into his hands for safety. LET US NOT FORGET IT!

     From the information we got from the negroes we now more systematically traveled, using the turnpike roads, which were generally deserted after dark except by an occasional horseman, upon whose approach the one in the lead would quickly dodge outside the road, which signal was noted by each follower in turn, and so the rider rode peacefully along, little thinking he had passed live yankees on his way.

     One dark night, Billie Crossett and myself were walking together in the rear (leaving a distance between us and our file leader too long for sight) when directly in our front came quietly walking along a large white horse and on his back a man.  Instinctively we threw ourselves out of the road and flat upon our faces, but not before both horse and rider (who proved to be a negro, evidently returning from a visit to a neighboring plantation) had caught a glimpse of us.  The horse rose upon his haunches and snorted with fright, and his rider, in the well-known accent of his race, and evidently in equal terror, in a voice low at first but increasing in violence at every word, urged on his trembling steed with, "Go long - go long- go long dar- go long, you damn fool," and like a streak of lightning away went horse and rider, leaving us nearly as frightened, but unable to repress a laugh as we imagined Sambo relating to his family or friends at home that he had seen a "spook."  It was a lesson to us, however, to be more cautious, and thereafter we kept proper distance while on the road.

     One day, while waiting in a thick woods for night to come, we were seen by two white boys, who started off on the run.  Fortunately, we also saw them, and knew we must move quick and get away from that locality.  We struck off towards lower ground and were soon up to our knees in a wooded swamp through which we struggled two miles or more.  We were none too quick, for, from the howling of dogs, we knew the dreaded blood-hounds were on our track, and afterwards learned that the boys we saw were sons of a well-known slave hunter who kept a kennel of these savage brutes. These hounds cannot scent through swamps, and we were saved from this danger. But, oh, how we suffered!  No shoes, remember, and at each step roots and stumps raking the skin from off our feet.  At last we reached the end of swampy land and came out into solid ground again and lay down completely fagged.

     Poor Billie Crossett, the baby of our party, scarcely nineteen years old, was a complete wreck.  His feet were raw, he could not stand.  We stayed with him one night and two days, hoping he would be able to go on, and then offered to find a safer hiding place and wait again; but heroically he claimed remembrance of the agreement we had made the night of our escape, that "in case either one should become disabled, or a hindrance, the others should leave him and push on to freedom," and insisted we should do so.  We worked him along, as near as we dared, to a large plantation, and left him, with instructions to remain in hiding until the next night, giving us a chance to get a good distance away in case our plan failed, and then to get into communication with our friends, the negroes, whose cabins appeared well separated from the mansion house of the estate.  It was like leaving one's heart behind, but we did it, and walked the saddest night's walk I ever knew.  We shall meet Billie again before I finish.  By the advice of “an old darkey” who knew the country well we had decided to change our course more to the West, thus reaching, if possible, the territory of Western North Carolina, where we knew roving bands of our troops often penetrated; or, better yet, that hot-bed of union sentiment, East Tennessee.  We crossed a railroad which runs between Charlotte and Concord, N.C., camping one day so near the latter place that we plainly heard the rebel bugle call for "reveille" and "retreat," as we lay concealed, and at last found ourselves stopped by a rushing river, whose swift current made it impossible for us to ford or swim. Again our negro proved his worth.  We learned that some two miles below a ferry was run by a black man, and we were assured that he was loyal.  We reached this ferry about midnight, too late to cross, and secreted ourselves in a thick woods on the river bank.

     Next morning-again by lot-one of our number cautiously approached the grist mill which was operated by the man who owned the ferry, and managed to interview the negro, whose advice was that we wait until night again, when he would put us across and find a trusty guide to pilot us on our way.  Delighted at such prospect, I returned to my comrades and found them busy skinning a small pig which they had captured during my absence.  Fresh meat was a rarity, and we were hungry, so building a small fire of dry sticks, which we thought would cause but little smoke (by the way, we were furnished with some matches by the negro girls we first met), we were soon eating broiled or roasted pork in fancied security.

     No festive board, laden with Delmonico's choicest viands, ever gave half the satisfaction that this half-cooked baby pig, eaten without salt or savor, did to those four half-starved mortals in their hiding place near the banks of the Pee Dee river. But it was a costly meat:  the smoke of our little fire was observed from the higher ground on the opposite side of the river by a posse of men who were in search of a slave who had run away after a severe flogging.  Thinking they had discovered his hiding place, they crossed the river, and, closing quietly around him, as they supposed, were surprised to find, instead, four union soldiers, whose first intimation of their approach was the words, "Surrender, or we fire!"  We were captured again, and our dreams of home were shattered.

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