The effects of the Union capture of Atlanta are rippling throughout the Confederacy. The Southern economy, already struggling, is deteriorating even further; the transportation infrastructure in Georgia is now shambles; and every able-bodied soldier in Georgia is needed if the Confederacy is to push the Northern invaders back out of Atlanta.
Andersonville Prison, the notorious Confederate prison some 65 miles southwest of Macon that just last month housed more than 32,000 prisoners (far more than for which it is designed), feels the effects. For all of the above reasons, in addition to fears that Union General William T. Sherman may send a cavalry raid to free Union prisoners, Confederate officials are transferring many of the prisoners to other, hopefully safer, prison locations.
Having survived months of imprisonment at the hell-hole that is Andersonville, New Yorker Charles F. Davis (1839-1925), private in the 85th New York Infantry, makes a daring escape while his Confederate captors are transferring him to the military prison at Florence, South Carolina.
Davis, a Seventh Day Baptist, recounts his escape many years after the event:
It is over forty years ago since I made my escape from Andersonville Prison. I will give you a little story as to how I jumped my board bill and came to God’s country after the fall of Atlanta, Ga. The rebels were afraid of Sherman, so they moved nearly all those that were able to walk to Charleston, S.C. Myself, with the boys that were called the “grave diggers” were marched to the station and went on board the cars. They said they were going to exchange us but we soon found out that we were bound for a new pen somewhere, which proved to be Florence, S.C. This was merely done to taunt us. Captain Wise came to us and said, “You dam Yanks, you think you are going to get off, but I will send orders for you to be placed upon the same rations you enjoy here.”
We left Andersonville on the 11th of Sept. 1864, with two days rations, which consisted of two small pieces of corn bread. Our route was first to Macon, Ga., then to Augusta, Ga., reaching Florence, S.C. on the 15th of September. Here they took us off the train and guarded us. I thought it was life or death with me, and I determined I would not go into the prison. I made up my mind to make my escape or leave my dead body as a memento of my last attempt. I was fortunate enough to have a piece of a map of N.C. I had decided to attempt to make Hew Berne, N.C., and I thought by looking over the map that it was bout 350 miles up the coast. I made up my mind that I could find enough raw corn in the fields to live on and not enter a white man’s house, but pursue a northerly course and travel by night. As I concluded my arraignments they began to move us to the stockade, and as we turned a curve in the road the guards were a little too far apart and I darted into the brush. (This was on the old Charleston Turnpike.) I laid down until everything was quiet. I thought it would not do to stay there any longer, so I sprang upon my feet and lo! I beheld three in the same situation as myself. (The three comrades belonged to the 4th Iowa.) We ran across the railroad and way back into the swamp and laid there until it grew dark. Then we traveled around the little town and struck the Wilmington R.R., and there we took our course. We traveled thru a dense thicket or swamp which was thickly covered with long green briars, that grew across the path and open spaces thru which we made our way, tearing our clothes and lacerating our flesh as we hurried on in the darkness.
Day light came and still found us in a big swamp covered with thick reeds. On and on we went, for there seemed no end to swamps and brush. On the night of the 4th day while we were resting, all at once we heard the baying of hounds. Now there was something to be done. On we went as fast as we could. As good luck was on our side, we heard a Negro singing his chant and found him. The Negro said. “Go on massa, God bless you.” We saw by the map that we were near the Great Peedee River. We inquired of him where it was. “Right ober dare” was the answer. He put us on the course to find the ferry, which we reached just at daylight on the 5th. The ferryboat was on the other side of the river, but the rowboat was on the side that we came on. We soon unlocked the boat, all jumped in and pulled under the bank. The hounds had stopped baying, so we were at ease for a while. We pulled the boat down the river, then across into the swamp and left her. Talk about swamps! There was one. We were nearly two days and nights before we came out hungry, and wet. We soon found some corn, so we drew rations for three days. We decided to take turns in being advance guard, about 20 steps ahead of the rest that gave us a chance to dodge if the way was no clear. On and on, there seemed no end to the swamps, and suffering, starving, weak and trembling our courage and hope of seeing the land of the free and the home of the brave alone supported us in these, our last trails.
One night we came to the Cape Fear River. A Negro put us across on the ferry after mid-night. He gave us boiled sweet potatoes and a small ham. We crossed the river about 50 miles above Wilmington, N.C. On we went thru woods and swamps and green briars and cane brush. Sometimes when it was too light to travel in the roads we took to the swamp until it grew darker then we would take the road again or sleep a few moments. We soon found dryer upland after we crossed the Cape Fear River, which ran thru large pine forests.
One afternoon we struck a large rice field and going thru nearly in the center, came out near the farmhouse. As the sun had almost set we were tired and hungry and going round the field to the swamp back of the out buildings we stopped to rest a while. As we started on I saw a southern belle with two small pails going to milk. There were three little cows in the yard, and as she sat down to milk, the boys said “If she ever sets that pail on the bench I will have it.” Sure enough she did. I slipped up out of the swamp and the pail was mine. Did we drink? You bet we did.
Then we got our course again, for it was getting dark. On we went to reach God’s country. We traveled three or four days without any molestation. One night I told the boys that we had lost our course but they would not listen to me. However when we saw the morning start we found that we were going wrong and then changing our course to the northeast we went on and on as fast as our poor limbs would take us. On the next day as the sun was over us we were going thru the woods near a plantation. It was my turn to go in advance. I went a few rods and saw that we were coming out on a public road. The boys halted while I reconnoitered. I crawled thru the brush as quietly as possible until I could see if the way was clear. But no, there were three rebel guards in front of me. I turned around and went back to the other boys and told them. Then we went farther up the road and found the way clear. We ran across the road leaving our tracks in the sand, and when the guard passéd the beat back he must have seen where we had crossed because we had not been over long before we heard the old cow horn blow. We knew what that meant. On we went as fast as we could. We saw by the lay of the land that there must be a stream of water not far off. On we went tearing thru the long, green briars. We could then hear the bloodhounds on our trail. We ran on and on until our strength was nearly exhausted, our clothes nearly all torn off and our feet and legs torn and bleeding. In a short time we came to quite a large stream called Lime Stone Creek. In we went. We kept in the stream nearly all night, sometimes in all over and then it would be shallow. We did not dare to leave it, for fear that the hounds would come on after us again. It was nearly daylight when we left the creek and pursued our course on land once more. We did not go far before we heard a Negro singing. I went up to him and asked him if there were any soldiers around there. He said, “No massa, they’re away ober dah,” pointing the way that we had come. That was their outpost and we had now about 30 miles to go between the two lines. It soon began to rain and it rained all day and part of the evening before it broke away so that we could see the North Star. The next day was bright as could be. As we came out of the pine forest we discovered at a distance a small town. We were afraid that we might be discovered so we went back to the woods and kept out of sight. In a short time we came to a Negro cabin. The old Negro told us that the name of the little town was Trenton, N.C. that the “Lincholn solgers” burnt it and that the Trent River ran thru the place. We asked him if he knew where the “Lincholn solgers” were and he replied, “ober dah”, pointing with his hand. That made us have new courage and strength and on we went to see if we could find the river. We soon found the river but there was no way to cross. We followed down the stream until dark overtook us but not a boat could we find. Hearing a Negro I went where he was. He had a cart and had been to mill. He told us to follow the cart path until we came to the mill; there we could get a boat to cross the river. On we went as fast as we could. (And that wasn’t very fast either.) In the night we could see the picket fire on the opposite side of the river. Then our hearts beat for joy; for we thought we would soon be on the other side. We came to the old mill at last, but the mill was on another stream. We pounded on the old mill door and pretty soon we heard an old Negro say “Ho cum a dah?” We said a friend. He said wait until he struck a light. Then he opened the door and we walked in. He was afraid of us until we told him who we were. “God bless you’nes massa” he said. He then led us to the house. We went in and dined with the old Negro and his wife. I had one big biscuit and a cup of coffee. This was on the 2nd of October of 64. The next morning the old Negro put us across the river with a flag of truce. You can imagine how we felt for we had reached our lines in safety.
We went to the city of New Berne, N.C., where we got a government bath and new clothes, then from there to Roanoke Island, was mustered out of the service of the U. S., and reached home on the 10th of December, 1864.
Now forty years seems but a short time. Note what this town [Independence, NY] was then and what it is today and what it will be forty years from today. The old men and women of forty years ago are nearly all gone over the river. The young men then are the old ones of today.
C.F. Davis, Co. C, 85th, N.Y.S.V.
Davis remains a member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Independence, New York following the war.