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Chapter 77


Things had gone on in the way described in the previous chapter until
past the middle of February. For more than a week every waking hour was
spent in anxious expectancy of Sherman--listening for the far-off rattle
of his guns--straining our ears to catch the sullen boom of his
artillery--scanning the distant woods to see the Rebels falling back in
hopeless confusion before the pursuit of his dashing advance. Though we
became as impatient as those ancient sentinels who for ten long years
stood upon the Grecian hills to catch the first glimpse of the flames of
burning Troy, Sherman came not. We afterwards learned that two
expeditions were sent down towards us from Cheraw, but they met with
unexpected resistance, and were turned back.

It was now plain to us that the Confederacy was tottering to its fall,
and we were only troubled by occasional misgivings that we might in some
way be caught and crushed under the toppling ruins. It did not seem
possible that with the cruel tenacity with which the Rebels had clung to
us they would be willing to let us go free at last, but would be tempted
in the rage of their final defeat to commit some unparalleled atrocity
upon us.

One day all of us who were able to walk were made to fall in and march
over to the railroad, where we were loaded into boxcars. The sick
--except those who were manifestly dying--were loaded into wagons and
hauled over. The dying were left to their fate, without any companions
or nurses.

The train started off in a northeasterly direction, and as we went
through Florence the skies were crimson with great fires, burning in all
directions. We were told these were cotton and military stores being
destroyed in anticipation of a visit from, a part of Sherman's forces.

When morning came we were still running in the same direction that we
started. In the confusion of loading us upon the cars the previous
evening, I had been allowed to approach too near a Rebel officer's stock
of rations, and the result was his being the loser and myself the gainer
of a canteen filled with fairly good molasses. Andrews and I had some
corn bread, and we, breakfasted sumptuously upon it and the molasses,
which was certainly none-the-less sweet from having been stolen.

Our meal over, we began reconnoitering, as much for employment as
anything else. We were in the front end of a box car. With a saw made
on the back of a case-knife we cut a hole through the boards big enough
to permit us to pass out, and perhaps escape. We found that we were on
the foremost box car of the train--the next vehicle to us being a
passenger coach, in which were the Rebel officers. On the rear platform
of this car was seated one of their servants--a trusty old slave, well
dressed, for a negro, and as respectful as his class usually was. Said I
to him:

"Well, uncle, where are they taking us?"

He replied:

"Well, sah, I couldn't rightly say."

"But you could guess, if you tried, couldn't you?"

"Yes sah."

He gave a quick look around to see if the door behind him was so securely
shut that he could not be overheard by the Rebels inside the car, his
dull, stolid face lighted up as a negro's always does in the excitement
of doing something cunning, and he said in a loud whisper:

"Dey's a-gwine to take you to Wilmington--ef dey kin get you dar!"

"Can get us there!" said I in astonishment. "Is there anything to
prevent them taking us there?"

The dark face filled with inexpressible meaning. I asked:

"It isn't possible that there are any Yankees down there to interfere,
is it?"

The great eyes flamed up with intelligence to tell me that I guessed
aright; again he glanced nervously around to assure himself that no one
was eavesdropping, and then he said in a whisper, just loud enough to be
heard above the noise of the moving train:

"De Yankees took Wilmington yesterday mawning."

The news startled me, but it was true, our troops having driven out the
Rebel troops, and entered Wilmington, on the preceding day--the 22d of
February, 1865, as I learned afterwards. How this negro came to know
more of what was going on than his masters puzzled me much. That he did
know more was beyond question, since if the Rebels in whose charge we
were had known of Wilmington's fall, they would not have gone to the
trouble of loading us upon the cars and hauling us one, hundred miles in
the direction of a City which had come into the hands of our men.

It has been asserted by many writers that the negros had some occult
means of diffusing important news among the mass of their people,
probably by relays of swift runners who traveled at night, going
twenty-five or thirty miles and back before morning. Very astonishing
stories are told of things communicated in this way across the length or
breadth of the Confederacy. It is said that our officers in the
blockading fleet in the Gulf heard from the negros in advance of the
publication in the Rebel papers of the issuance of the Proclamation of
Emancipation, and of several of our most important Victories. The
incident given above prepares me to believe all that has been told of
the perfection to which the negros had brought their "grapevine
telegraph," as it was jocularly termed.

The Rebels believed something of it, too. In spite of their rigorous
patrol, an institution dating long before the war, and the severe
punishments visited upon negros found off their master's premises without
a pass, none of them entertained a doubt that the young negro men were in
the habit of making long, mysterious journeys at night, which had other
motives than love-making or chicken-stealing. Occasionally a young man
would get caught fifty or seventy-five miles from his "quarters," while
on some errand of his own, the nature of which no punishment could make
him divulge. His master would be satisfied that he did not intend
running away, because he was likely going in the wrong direction, but
beyond this nothing could be ascertained. It was a common belief among
overseers, when they saw an active, healthy young "buck" sleepy and
languid about his work, that he had spent the night on one of these

The country we were running through--if such straining, toilsome progress
as our engine was making could be called running--was a rich turpentine
district. We passed by forests where all the trees were marked with long
scores through the bark, and extended up to a hight of twenty feet or
more. Into these, the turpentine and rosin, running down, were caught,
and conveyed by negros to stills near by, where it was prepared for
market. The stills were as rude as the mills we had seen in Eastern
Tennessee and Kentucky, and were as liable to fiery destruction as a
powder-house. Every few miles a wide space of ground, burned clean of
trees and underbrush, and yet marked by a portion of the stones which had
formed the furnace, showed where a turpentine still, managed by careless
and ignorant blacks, had been licked up by the breath of flame. They
never seemed to re-build on these spots--whether from superstition or
other reasons, I know not.

Occasionally we came to great piles of barrels of turpentine, rosin and
tar, some of which had laid there since the blockade had cut off
communication with the outer world. Many of the barrels of rosin had
burst, and their contents melted in the heat of the sun, had run over the
ground like streams of lava, covering it to a depth of many inches.
At the enormous price rosin, tar and turpentine were commanding in the
markets of the world, each of these piles represented a superb fortune.
Any one of them, if lying upon the docks of New York, would have yielded
enough to make every one of us upon the train comfortable for life.
But a few months after the blockade was raised, and they sank to
one-thirtieth of their present value.

These terebinthine stores were the property of the plantation lords of
the lowlands of North Carolina, who correspond to the pinchbeck barons of
the rice districts of South Carolina. As there, the whites and negros we
saw were of the lowest, most squalid type of humanity. The people of the
middle and upland districts of North Carolina are a much superior race to
the same class in South Carolina. They are mostly of Scotch-Irish
descent, with a strong infusion of English-Quaker blood, and resemble
much the best of the Virginians. They make an effort to diffuse
education, and have many of the virtues of a simple, non-progressive,
tolerably industrious middle class. It was here that the strong Union
sentiment of North Carolina numbered most of its adherents. The people
of the lowlands were as different as if belonging to another race. The
enormous mass of ignorance--the three hundred and fifty thousand men and
women who could not read or write--were mostly black and white serfs of
the great landholders, whose plantations lie within one hundred miles of
the Atlantic coast.

As we approached the coast the country became swampier, and our old
acquaintances, the cypress, with their malformed "knees," became more and
more numerous.

About the middle of the afternoon our train suddenly stopped. Looking
out to ascertain the cause, we were electrified to see a Rebel line of
battle stretched across the track, about a half mile ahead of the engine,
and with its rear toward us. It was as real a line as was ever seen on
any field. The double ranks of "Butternuts," with arms gleaming in the
afternoon sun, stretched away out through the open pine woods, farther
than we could see. Close behind the motionless line stood the company
officers, leaning on their drawn swords. Behind these still, were the
regimental officers on their horses. On a slight rise of the ground, a
group of horsemen, to whom other horsemen momentarily dashed up to or
sped away from, showed the station of the General in command. On another
knoll, at a little distance, were several-field pieces, standing "in
battery," the cannoneers at the guns, the postillions dismounted and
holding their horses by the bits, the caisson men standing in readiness
to serve out ammunition. Our men were evidently close at hand in strong
force, and the engagement was likely to open at any instant.

For a minute we were speechless with astonishment. Then came a surge of
excitement. What should we do? What could we do? Obviously nothing.
Eleven hundred, sick, enfeebled prisoners could not even overpower their
guards, let alone make such a diversion in the rear of a line-of-battle
as would assist our folks to gain a victory. But while we debated the
engine whistled sharply--a frightened shriek it sounded to us--and began
pushing our train rapidly backward over the rough and wretched track.
Back, back we went, as fast as rosin and pine knots could force the
engine to move us. The cars swayed continually back and forth,
momentarily threatening to fly the crazy roadway, and roll over the
embankment or into one of the adjacent swamps. We would have hailed such
a catastrophe, as it would have probably killed more of the guards than
of us, and the confusion would have given many of the survivors
opportunity to escape. But no such accident happened, and towards
midnight we reached the bridge across the Great Pedee River, where our
train was stopped by a squad of Rebel cavalrymen, who brought the
intelligence that as Kilpatrick was expected into Florence every hour, it
would not do to take us there.

We were ordered off the cars, and laid down on the banks of the Great
Pedee, our guards and the cavalry forming a line around us, and taking
precautions to defend the bridge against Kilpatrick, should he find out
our whereabouts and come after us.

"Well, Mc," said Andrews, as we adjusted our old overcoat and blanket on
the ground for a bed; "I guess we needn't care whether school keeps or
not. Our fellows have evidently got both ends of the road, and are
coming towards us from each way. There's no road--not even a wagon road
--for the Johnnies to run us off on, and I guess all we've got to do is
to stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. Bad as these hounds
are, I don't believe they will shoot us down rather than let our folks
retake us. At least they won't since old Winder's dead. If he was
alive, he'd order our throats cut--one by one--with the guards' pocket
knives, rather than give us up. I'm only afraid we'll be allowed to
starve before our folks reach us."

I concurred in this view.

John McElroy