ONE INSTANCE OF A SUCCESSFUL ESCAPE--THE ADVENTURES OF SERGEANT WALTER
HARTSOUGH, OF COMPANY K, SIXTEENTH ILLINOIS CAVALRY--HE GETS AWAY FROM
THE REBELS AT THOMASVILLE, AND AFTER A TOILSOME AND DANGEROUS JOURNEY
OF SEVERAL HUNDRED MILES, REACHES OUR LINES IN FLORIDA.
While I was at Savannah I got hold of a primary geography in possession
of one of the prisoners, and securing a fragment of a lead pencil from
one comrade, and a sheet of note paper from another, I made a copy of the
South Carolina and Georgia sea coast, for the use of Andrews and myself
in attempting to escape. The reader remembers the ill success of all our
efforts in that direction. When we were at Blackshear we still had the
map, and intended to make another effort, "as soon as the sign got
right." One day while we were waiting for this, Walter Hartsough, a
Sergeant of Company g, of our battalion, came to me and said:
"Mc., I wish you'd lend me your map a little while. I want to make a
I handed it over to him, and never saw him more, as almost immediately
after we were taken out "on parole" and sent to Florence. I heard from
other comrades of the battalion that he had succeeded in getting past the
guard line and into the Woods, which was the last they ever heard of him.
Whether starved to death in some swamp, whether torn to pieces by dogs,
or killed by the rifles of his pursuers, they knew not. The reader can
judge of my astonishment as well as pleasure, at receiving among the
dozens of letters which came to me every day while this account was
appearing in the BLADE, one signed "Walter Hartsough, late of Co. K,
Sixteenth Illinois Cavalry." It was like one returned from the grave,
and the next mail took a letter to him, inquiring eagerly of his
adventures after we separated. I take pleasure in presenting the reader
with his reply, which was only intended as a private communication to
myself. The first part of the letter I omit, as it contains only gossip
about our old comrades, which, however interesting to myself, would
hardly be so to the general reader.
GENOA, WAYNE COUNTY, IA.,
May 27, 1879.
Dear Comrade Mc.:
I have been living in this town for ten years, running a general store,
under the firm name of Hartsough & Martin, and have been more successful
than I anticipated.
I made my escape from Thomasville, Ga., Dec. 7, 1864, by running the
guards, in company with Frank Hommat, of Company M, and a man by the name
of Clipson, of the Twenty-First Illinois Infantry. I had heard the
officers in charge of us say that they intended to march us across to the
other road, and take us back to Andersonville. We concluded we would
take a heavy risk on our lives rather than return there. By stinting
ourselves we had got a little meal ahead, which we thought we would bake
up for the journey, but our appetites got the better of us, and we ate it
all up before starting. We were camped in the woods then, with no
Stockade--only a line of guards around us. We thought that by a little
strategy and boldness we could pass these. We determined to try.
Clipson was to go to the right, Hommat in the center, and myself to the
left. We all slipped through, without a shot. Our rendezvous was to be
the center of a small swamp, through which flowed a small stream that
supplied the prisoners with water. Hommat and I got together soon after
passing the guard lines, and we began signaling for Clipson. We laid
down by a large log that lay across the stream, and submerged our limbs
and part of our bodies in the water, the better to screen ourselves from
observation. Pretty soon a Johnny came along with a bunch of turnip
tops, that he was taking up to the camp to trade to the prisoners. As he
passed over the log I could have caught him by the leg, which I intended
to do if he saw us, but he passed along, heedless of those concealed
under his very feet, which saved him a ducking at least, for we were
resolved to drown him if he discovered us. Waiting here a little longer
we left our lurking place and made a circuit of the edge of the swamp,
still signaling for Clipson. But we could find nothing of him, and at
last had to give him up.
We were now between Thomasville and the camp, and as Thomasville was the
end of the railroad, the woods were full of Rebels waiting
transportation, and we approached the road carefully, supposing that it
was guarded to keep their own men from going to town. We crawled up to
the road, but seeing no one, started across it. At that moment a guard
about thirty yards to our left, who evidently supposed that we were
Rebels, sang out:
"Whar ye gwine to thar boys?"
"Jest a-gwine out here a little ways."
Frank whispered me to run, but I said, "No; wait till he halts us, and
then run." He walked up to where we had crossed his beat--looked after
us a few minutes, and then, to our great relief, walked back to his post.
After much trouble we succeeded in getting through all the troops, and
started fairly on our way. We tried to shape our course toward Florida.
The country was very swampy, the night rainy and dark, no stars were out
to guide us, and we made such poor progress that when daylight came we
were only eight miles from our starting place, and close to a road
leading from Thomasville to Monticello. Finding a large turnip patch,
we filled our pockets, and then hunted a place to lie concealed in during
the day. We selected a thicket in the center of a large pasture. We
crawled into this and laid down. Some negros passed close to us, going
to their work in an adjoining field. They had a bucket of victuals with
them for dinner, which they hung on the fence in such a way that we could
have easily stolen it without detection. The temptation to hungry men
was very great, but we concluded that it was best and safest to let it
As the negros returned from work in the evening they separated, one old
man passing on the opposite side of the thicket from the rest. We halted
him and told him that we were Rebs, who had taken a French leave of
Thomasville; that we were tired of guarding Yanks, and were going home;
and further, that we were hungry, and wanted something to eat. He told
us that he was the boss on the plantation. His master lived in
Thomasville. He, himself, did not have much to eat, but he would show us
where to stay, and when the folks went to bed he would bring us some
food. Passing up close to the negro quarters we got over the fence and
lay down behind it, to wait for our supper.
We had been there but a short time when a young negro came out, and
passing close by us, went into a fence corner a few panels distant and,
kneeling down, began praying aloud, and very, earnestly, and stranger
still, the burden of his supplication was for the success of our armies.
I thought it the best prayer I ever listened to. Finishing his devotions
he returned to the house, and shortly after the old man came with a good
supper of corn bread, molasses and milk. He said that he had no meat,
and that he had done the best he could for us. After we had eaten, he
said that as the young people had gone to bed, we had better come into
his cabin and rest awhile, which we did.
Hommat had a full suit of Rebel clothes, and I had stolen sacks enough at
Andersonville, when they were issuing rations, to make me a shirt and
pantaloons, which a sailor fabricated for me. I wore these over what was
left of my blue clothes. The old negro lady treated us very coolly. In
a few minutes a young negro came in, whom the old gentleman introduced as
his son, and whom I immediately recognized as our friend of the prayerful
proclivities. He said that he had been a body servant to his young
master, who was an officer in the Rebel army.
"Golly!" says he, "if you 'uns had stood a little longer at Stone River,
our men would have run."
I turned to him sharply with the question of what he meant by calling us
"You 'uns," and asked him if he believed we were Yankees. He surveyed us
carefully for a few seconds, and then said:
"Yes; I bleav you is Yankees."
He paused a second, and added:
"Yes, I know you is."
I asked him how he knew it, and he said that we neither looked nor talked
like their men. I then acknowledged that we were Yankee prisoners,
trying to make our escape to our lines. This announcement put new life
into the old lady, and, after satisfying herself that we were really
Yankees, she got up from her seat, shook hands with us, and declared we
must have a better supper than we had had. She set immediately about
preparing it for us. Taking up a plank in the floor, she pulled out a
nice flitch of bacon, from which she cut as much as we could eat, and
gave us some to carry with us. She got up a real substantial supper,
to which we did full justice, in spite of the meal we had already eaten.
They gave us a quantity of victuals to take with us, and instructed us as
well as possible as to our road. They warned us to keep away from the
young negros, but trust the old ones implicitly. Thanking them over and
over for their exceeding kindness, we bade them good-by, and started
again on our journey. Our supplies lasted two days, during which time we
made good progress, keeping away from the roads, and flanking the towns,
which were few and insignificant. We occasionally came across negros,
of whom we cautiously inquired as to the route and towns, and by the
assistance of our map and the stars, got along very well indeed, until we
came to the Suwanee River. We had intended to cross this at Columbus or
Alligator. When within six miles of the river we stopped at some negro
huts to get some food. The lady who owned the negros was a widow, who
was born and raised in Massachusetts. Her husband had died before the
war began. An old negro woman told her mistress that we were at the
quarters, and she sent for us to come to the house. She was a very
nice-looking lady, about thirty-five years of age, and treated us with
great kindness. Hommat being barefooted, she pulled off her own shoes
and stockings and gave them to him, saying that she would go to Town the
next day and get herself another pair. She told us not to try to cross
the river near Columbus, as their troops had been deserting in great
numbers, and the river was closely picketed to catch the runaways. She
gave us directions how to go so as to cross the river about fifty miles
below Columbus. We struck the river again the next night, and I wanted
to swim it, but Hommat was afraid of alligators, and I could not induce
him to venture into the water.
We traveled down the river until we came to Moseley's Ferry, where we
stole an old boat about a third full of water, and paddled across. There
was quite a little town at that place, but we walked right down the main
street without meeting any one. Six miles from the river we saw an old
negro woman roasting sweet potatos in the back yard of a house. We were
very hungry, and thought we would risk something to get food. Hommat
went around near her, and asked her for something to eat. She told him
to go and ask the white folks. This was the answer she made to every
question. He wound up by asking her how far it was to Mossley's Ferry,
saying that he wanted to go there, and get something to eat. She at last
ran into the house, and we ran away as fast as we could. We had gone but
a short distance when we heard a horn, and soon-the-cursed hounds began
bellowing. We did our best running, but the hounds circled around the
house a few times and then took our trail. For a little while it seemed
all up with us, as the sound of the baying came closer and closer. But
our inquiry about the distance to Moseley's Ferry seems to have saved us.
They soon called the hounds in, and started them on the track we had
come, instead of that upon which we were going. The baying shortly died
away in the distance. We did not waste any time congratulating ourselves
over our marvelous escape, but paced on as fast as we could for about
eight miles farther. On the way we passed over the battle ground of
Oolustee, or Ocean Pond.
Coming near to Lake City we fell in with some negros who had been brought
from Maryland. We stopped over one day with them, to rest, and two of
them concluded to go with us. We were furnished with a lot of cooked
provisions, and starting one night made forty-two miles before morning.
We kept the negros in advance. I told Hommat that it was a poor command
that could not afford an advance guard. After traveling two nights with
the negros, we came near Baldwin. Here I was very much afraid of
recapture, and I did not want the negros with us, if we were, lest we
should be shot for slave-stealing. About daylight of the second morning
we gave them the slip.
We had to skirt Baldwin closely, to head the St. Mary's River, or cross
it where that was easiest. After crossing the river we came to a very
large swamp, in the edge of which we lay all day. Before nightfall we
started to go through it, as there was no fear of detection in these
swamps. We got through before it was very dark, and as we emerged from
it we discovered a dense cloud of smoke to our right and quite close.
We decided this was a camp, and while we were talking the band began to
play. This made us think that probably our forces had come out from
Fernandina, and taken the place. I proposed to Hommat that we go forward
and reconnoiter. He refused, and leaving him alone, I started forward.
I had gone but a short distance when a soldier came out from the camp
with a bucket. He began singing, and the song he sang convinced me that
he was a Rebel. Rejoining Hommat, we held a consultation and decided to
stay where we were until it became darker, before trying to get out.
It was the night of the 22d of December, and very cold for that country.
The camp guard had small fires built, which we could see quite plainly.
After starting we saw that the pickets also had fires, and that we were
between the two lines. This discovery saved us from capture, and keeping
about an equal distance between the two, we undertook to work our way
We first crossed a line of breastworks, then in succession the Fernandina
Railroad, the Jacksonville Railroad, and pike, moving all the time nearly
parallel with the picket line. Here we had to halt. Hommat was
suffering greatly with his feet. The shoes that had been given him by
the widow lady were worn out, and his feet were much torn and cut by the
terribly rough road we had traveled through swamps, etc. We sat down on
a log, and I, pulling off the remains of my army shirt, tore it into
pieces, and Hommat wrapped his feet up in them. A part I reserved and
tore into strips, to tie up the rents in our pantaloons. Going through
the swamps and briers had torn them into tatters, from waistband to hem,
leaving our skins bare to be served in the same way.
We started again, moving slowly and bearing towards the picket fires,
which we could see for a distance on our left. After traveling some
little time the lights on our left ended, which puzzled us for a while,
until we came to a fearful big swamp, that explained it all, as this,
considered impassable, protected the right of the camp. We had an awful
time in getting through. In many places we had to lie down and crawl
long distances through the paths made in the brakes by hogs and other
animals. As we at length came out, Hommat turned to me and whispered
that in the morning we would have some Lincoln coffee. He seemed to
think this must certainly end our troubles.
We were now between the Jacksonville Railroad and the St. John's River.
We kept about four miles from the railroad, for fear of running into the
Rebel outposts. We had traveled but a few miles when Hommat said he
could go no farther, as his feet and legs were so swelled and numb that
he could not tell when he set them upon the ground. I had some matches
that a negro had given me, and gathering together a few pine knots we
made a fire--the first that we had lighted on the trip--and laid down
with it between us. We had slept but a few minutes when I awoke and
found Hommat's clothes on fire. Rousing him we put out the flames before
he was badly burned, but the thing had excited him so as to give him new
life, and be proposed to start on again.
By sunrise we were within eight miles of our lines, and concluding that
it would be safe to travel in the daytime, we went ahead, walking along
the railroad. The excitement being over, Hommat began to move very
slowly again. His feet and legs were so swollen that he could scarcely
walk, and it took us a long while to pass over those eight miles.
At last we came in sight of our pickets. They were negros. They halted
us, and Hommat went forward to speak to them. They called for the
Officer of the Guard, who came, passed us inside, and shook hands
cordially with us. His first inquiry was if we knew Charley Marseilles,
whom you remember ran that little bakery at Andersonville.
We were treated very kindly at Jacksonville. General Scammon was in
command of the post, and had only been released but a short time from
prison, so he knew how it was himself. I never expect to enjoy as happy
a moment on earth as I did when I again got under the protection of the
old flag. Hommat went to the hospital a few days, and was then sent
around to New York by sea.
Oh, it was a fearful trip through those Florida swamps. We would very
often have to try a swamp in three or four different places before we
could get through. Some nights we could not travel on account of its
being cloudy and raining. There is not money enough in the United States
to induce me to undertake the trip again under the same circumstances.
Our friend Clipson, that made his escape when we did, got very nearly
through to our lines, but was taken sick, and had to give himself up.
He was taken back to Andersonville and kept until the next Spring, when
he came through all right. There were sixty-one of Company K captured at
Jonesville, and I think there was only seventeen lived through those
You have given the best description of prison life that I have ever seen
written. The only trouble is that it cannot be portrayed so that persons
can realize the suffering and abuse that our soldiers endured in those
prison hells. Your statements are all correct in regard to the treatment
that we received, and all those scenes you have depicted are as vivid in
my mind today as if they had only occurred yesterday. Please let me hear
from you again. Wishing you success in all your undertakings, I remain
Late of K Company, Sixteenth Illinois Volunteer of Infantry.
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