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The Runaway Slave 1
I'M older maybe than you think, but I don't know just exactly how ol' I am myself. You see our owners wouldn’t tell us our age. It was the law that every slave man had to work on the road six days a year from the time he was sixteen till he was sixty. So the owners would hold back the ages of the slave boys 'bout two years to save that much time for work on the plantations. Then, too, if your owner wanted to sell you, he'd pretend you were younger than you really was. We was classed right with the brutes, and they did as they pleased with us. I haven't seen my father and mother since I was twelve or thirteen years ol'. They were sold to a speculator way down South. It was no more to separate a nigger and his wife from their child than a cow from her calf.
I used to pray for the time to come when I 'd be free. One morning I was walkin' along ploughin'. It was 'bout 'leven o'clock, I reckon; and I heard a voice say, "You'll be free some day — just as free as the man that owns you."
The voice seemed to come from above, and I turned round and leaned back between my plough handles and looked up. But I didn’t see anything. It was just an ordinary voice, and yet I felt sure it was the voice of the Lord. I knew He would fulfil what He had promised, and I never doubted afterward that I would be free.
But the older I got the more I grieved about my father and mother. I'd shed tears as I was doin' my work. Then ag'in I heard a voice while I was ploughin'. It was in the evening. I'd got to the end of a furrow and was ready to start back when a voice said, "If you would marry some one that you love you wouldn’t grieve this way."
The voice was the same kind, precisely, that I'd heard before. I couldn’t see anything when I looked up except the sky and the elements above. That was long, long ago, and I haven't heard no such voice since. But one thing I noticed — both prophecies come true. Just as the voice spoke so it was. Not long after I got that second message I married, and I did quit grieving. I had something that comforted me and satisfied my mind.
My marster's place was 'bout twenty miles south of Chattanooga over the line in Georgia. We had a good many alarms thar with the different armies marching around the country, and considerable refugeein' was done — sometimes to the near mountains, sometimes off down South. Once my marster had me refugee with his two daughters. The oldest was fifteen and the other twelve. He had me hitch a couple of mules to a canvas-covered farm wagon and take the girls and a tent eight miles to Pigeon Mountain. He said he knew a citizen named Hall who'd gone thar to camp in the mountain gap, and he told me just whar to find him. We was to stay with him over night, and then word would be sent to us what to do next.
The sun was only an hour high when we started, and it was getting dusky by the time we come to whar the man was supposed to be. But he wasn’t thar. We searched around till nine o'clock. Then we struck a man who said: "I know whar Mr. Hall is. He's six miles from hyar. You can't find him to-night."
It was dark, and the girls didn’t care to travel any further. So we stopped right thar, and I started a little fire and made some coffee and fried some meat. We was in the woods and thar wasn’t no house near, but we had a good covered wagon, and after we finished supper the girls went to sleep in the front part of the wagon, and I went to sleep in the back part. It was a wild, lonely place, but I wasn’t feared of nothin' in them days. I'd fight with my fists if I didn’t have anythin' else handy.
Next morning we had breakfast, and 'bout ten o'clock a white boy come on horseback with orders from my marster for us to go back home. So I hooked up and lit out from thar. The mules wanted to get home as much as I did, and we wasn’t long on the road.
Early in the fall of '63 Rosecrans come over the mountain. That was what skeered my marster. He asked my advice — which was it best to do — run or stand?
I said: "You know you can't make nothin' runnin' ahead of two armies. You'd fare better by staying."
But thousands of people went south with their slaves. Often a planter took every soul off his place. Mostly the darkies went by wagon — horse power — but plenty of 'em walked. Their marsters couldn’t get 'em all out. The Yankees come too quick, but that didn’t prevent the Confederate cavalry from slipping back and helping to bring away a lot of the others. Every black man that the Confederates ketched goin' toward the Yankee lines they killed anyhow. They'd leave no life in him, and if they ketched a slave woman they'd treat her the same, Old Hood and Gatewood, who commanded the Southern cavalry, were bad fellers. They were scoutin' around between the two armies, and you'd get news of 'em all the time doin' their devilment.
One quiet morning we heard drums and fifes seven or eight miles away at Bluebird Gap. I knew tereckly it was not Confederate music. Oh, yes sir-ee! I could tell the difference, and I spoke to my old boss about it, and said, "The Yankees are comin'."
He stood thar and listened at it. Then he shook his head and tol' his wife: "He's right. Those ain't our men. Well, thar's nothin' to hender them comin' if they want to."
All that night the Southern cavalry was retreatin' past our place, and some of 'em was goin' pretty peart, too. They thought the Union army was right behind 'em. A few days afterward the battle of Chickamauga was fought. It was twelve miles away, but we could hear it all. We could even hear the men hollerin' when they charged. Rosecrans was beaten. He'd run afoul of the enemy without enough men, and the Confederates let into him so fierce he was glad to retreat back to Chattanooga.
The second day of the battle I decided to go to the Yankees. That wasn’t on account of the way I was treated. No, sir! My folks was good folks to me — I'll say that. But I didn’t want to keep on bein' a slave, and I didn’t want to be refugeed south, which was what I expected, no matter who beat in the battle, unless the Yankees was all driven out of the country.
Our white people tol' us terrible tales 'bout the folks up North. They said the Yankees had a horn right in the middle of their foreheads. But I didn’t believe all I heard, and I was determined I'd run away. Mose Matthews and two other young fellers agreed to go with me. Thar was others who would have liked to escape, but they was afeard to tackle it.
We started that night. I guess it was twixt three and four o'clock. Daybreak was on when we was six or seven miles from home. We didn’t carry a thing but some bowie knives that a party of Southern soldiers had left on the place. Our intention was to go to Chattanooga, though we thought we'd get into the Union lines sooner. Anyway we was certain we could make the trip that day.
We kept to the road until after sunup, when we saw a man named Jack Spears out at the woodpile in front of his house. He knowed some of us, and he hollered, "Hello! boys, whar are you-all goin'?"
"To Chattanooga," Mose said.
"But the Yankees have got Chattanooga," Jack said.
"Yes, that's why we're goin' thar," Mose tol' him.
Mose ought not to have said that. We kept right on, and I tol' the others: "Jack'll give the alarm, and we'll soon be follered. Now you fellers can do what you please, but I'm goin' to take to the woods."
They all went with me. We hadn’t gone far when we heard the sound of horses on the road comin' in our direction — plockity, plockity; plockity, plockity — and tereckly six men on horseback come into sight. One of 'em was Jack Spears on his ol' gray mare, and the rest was Rebel soldiers. We were on a hill at the edge of the woods half a mile from the road, and the men never saw us but galloped on out of sight. We knew they'd stop befo' they reached the Yankee pickets so as not to get halted, and then they'd come back.
So we went on roundabout, and that took us across the battlefield. We didn’t see a living soul thar, but I declare it was something to look at. The dead bodies lay so thick we could have walked on 'em for half a mile. Big trees grew on the battlefield, and some that would measure three and a half feet through had been cut up into frazzles, and the bushes had all been mowed down by the bullets and shells. A cyclone never did do any worse harm than that — no, sir!
We come right into Chattanooga, and the Yankee officers told us we could join the army or go to work as laborers for the government. I accepted the team business for my part. But I hadn’t been at that long when I began to study on goin' back to get my wife, and I kept after the officers to let me go out.
At last they give me a pass. That was 'bout sixteen days after I got to Chattanooga. In the evening I had some pistols and a bowie knife buckled onto me, and I was settin' thar with several other men in front of a tent eatin' and laughin' and talkin'.
"I'm goin' back to whar my wife is," I said, "and if any one bothers me thar'll be a row. If they ketch me they'll kill me, but I'll never be taken alive. They can leave me a greasy spot on the ground befo' I'll let 'em capture me. Long as I can stand up I intend to fight, and if I fall I'll keep on fightin' until I can't move."
Just then my wife walked in. I wouldn’t have taken a thousand dollars for her comin' and savin' me the trouble of makin' that trip.
THE SLAVE WIFE JOINS HER HUSBAND
I'd been married a year. My wife was owned by a man who had a big place near my marster's. She had refugeed once, and they made her do everything — the cooking, washing, milking, and ironing — and she wasn’t able to stand up to it all. They nearly worked her to death, for she wasn’t fiery or anything of that kind and did what she was told to do without complainin'. She fared so rough I didn’t want her to refugee ag'in. So befo' I left I posted her to run away when they began carryin' the slaves south, and she done like I told her.
Pretty soon her marster took nearly all his slaves off on Rebel cavalry horses. My wife got away and went to the house of an old granny lady that was crippled, and stayed over night. An uncle by marriage and another neighbor man was gettin' ready to run away to Chattanooga, and she bundled up and come with them. She carried a little pillow-slip of clothes on her head. I'd only brought away what clothes I had on my back.
I drew a tent from the government, and then I went to work and made it equal to a house. The tent part did for the roof, and I planked up the sides as high as my head, usin' old bo'ds and stuff that belonged to the army. You see pieces of plank that had been used to hold on goods sent by freight was always lyin' around, and thar was plenty of empty boxes; so it wasn’t much trouble to build a pretty good little house. I made the floor out of sugar boxes that I took to pieces, and I used gunny sacks for a carpet. The chimley I built out of brickbats and mud, and I made a good fireplace, and we got pots and skillets so we could do the cooking.
Chattanooga was only a steamboat landing then, and the place was full of ponds, bullfrogs, water moccasins, and everything else. It was just a village, and if you got on top of a hill you could count every house around in ten minutes. The houses were thinned out some during the fightin' that fall. I guess thar mought have been thirty of 'em burned.
The Rebels found us in the town, and they cut us off from the railroad so all our supplies had to be brought by wagon train. I was in one of the wagon trains and driv' back and forth hauling for the commissary. Thar was one spell of nine days when we was cut off entirely from our food supplies. But it would have taken a pretty good twist to get those Yankees out of Chattanooga. They'd have died fightin' befo' they'd 'a' given the town up. The soldiers got mighty mad 'bout thar bein' so little to eat. "Let us have our way," they said, "and we'll whip the Rebels and get some food. We'd soon have sowbelly and hardtack."
They were so near starved that they would pick up any little piece of hardtack they found in the mud of the streets. For a while they lived on parched corn and water, and I tell you such food goes mighty well if you can't get anything else. Probably a soldier could do mo' marchin' and fightin' on that than on richer food. I've heard tell of two fellers who was goin' to be hung, and the judge made a proposal to 'em. "We won't hang you," he said, "but we'll keep you in jail, and feed you on bread and water. You can have corn bread or wheat bread — we'll give you your ruthers."
One chose wheat bread in preference, and he soon played out and died. The other undertook corn bread, and he lived and fattened. That's what he did, and it proved that corn bread is a heap the healthiest bread. He seen his partner left him, and many another man's head was cold befo' hisn. In fact, he lived so long that the judge had to find some other way of gettin' rid of him.
What I was aimin' to say was that we fared pretty hard in Chattanooga for a while, but we didn’t starve to death. That was whar the Rebels was fooled ag'in. We had to do some heavy fightin', but it was they who did the runnin' afterward and not us.
1 We sat on the piazza of a tidy house in one of the negro sections of Chattanooga. My companion was an amiable, leisurely old man, as black as midnight. He recalled with evident relish that most exciting period of his life, and the visit was a mutual pleasure.