Hunted across the wilds of the Carolinas after a daring escape, John Ennis thought of home and friends—and the Confederate patrols on his heels.
When John W. Ennis enlisted in the Union Army on May 13, 1861, the Civil War was nearly a month old. Thoughts of easy victory and battlefield glory no doubt occupied the minds of such early volunteers; the hardships of a soldier’s life, extended periods away from home and bloody battles had not yet been become a reality.
Ennis, a New York City grocery clerk, was mustered in as a private in Company E of the 79th New York Infantry on May 27, two days shy of his 21st birthday. His regiment was assigned to Colonel William T. Sherman’s 3rd Brigade, and would receive its baptism of fire at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21. While trying to dislodge Confederates from Henry House Hill during the afternoon’s fighting, 198 of the 79th’s approximately 750 members were killed, wounded or taken prisoner—one of the highest casualty totals for any Union regiment engaged.
Although Ennis wasn’t injured, he was captured during the Union retreat after stopping to escort a wounded comrade to a field hospital. Ennis was sent along with several hundred other captives to Liggon’s Prison, a converted tobacco warehouse in Richmond, Va. A month later, Ennis and a number of others were transferred to Castle Pinckney in Charleston, S.C. When rumors circulated that Union troops were about to march on Charleston from nearby Port Royal, the captives were moved on January 1, 1862, to Richland District Jail in Columbia.
Ennis and three others soon planned an audacious escape. Here, Ennis describes their adventure in excerpts adapted from his postwar narrative My Experience as a Union Prisoner During the Civil War, found in the Thomas F. Madigan Collection in the Manuscript and Archives Division of the New York Public Library.
About a month passed when some of us became restless and longed for freedom. Finally four of [us]…determined, if possible, to escape. It was a hazardous undertaking, requiring much discretion and determination, but the hope of liberty gave us courage. Hard as our lot had been, we knew that if we were detected, our hardships would be multiplied. There was but one way possible to accomplish our design, and that was to tunnel out under the building. We began by cutting a board from the floor under the stove, making an entrance large enough to permit us to pass under the building. Once under, the board was replaced, when we began removing the earth from under the foundation. This proved a hard task, as we had only a broken spade to work with, and we were compelled to lie flat upon our chests, as the floor was near the ground, making our positions very uncomfortable and awkward.
After two weeks hard work, we effected an opening. Being in the very heart of the enemy’s country made our attempt “extra hazardous,” and if we succeeded in evading the sentinels while leaving the prison, it would be necessary for us to be extremely cautious in our movements outside. It being mid-winter too, and no fruit or vegetables obtainable, we must necessarily suffer from cold and hunger, and considering this prospect and the necessity of sleeping upon the frozen ground, it required nerve to make the effort.
We finally got ready, and just as the town clock struck six on the evening of February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, we bade farewell to our comrades. With…six army crackers in our pockets, we crawled through the tunnel. The outlet brought us to a high board fence, which we scaled, when we found ourselves upon the street near the police station, which we passed unobserved. We then assumed a bold attitude and with a firm step passed through the most public streets, our caps trimmed with Palmetto leaves and our brown overcoats furnishing quite a fair disguise. We took a southerly course until we reached the suburbs, to create an impression, in the event of our being noticed, that we had started for Port Royal.
The knowledge of our escape was kept from the authorities for ten days by our friends in the following manner…. [T]he men were divided into squads of 20 each and occupied rooms numbered 1, 2, 3, &c., with board partitions between each squad, with entrance from the yard to each room. The men were locked in every night and each morning counted before being let into the yard, beginning with No. 1 and so on. We that had escaped had occupied No. 2. While the guard after counting No. 1 was unlocking No. 2 a board was removed and four men passed into No. 2 thus keeping the count full. At length the deception was discovered and the guard learned of our escape. As we walked through Columbia, a number of persons eyed us sharply, but we whistled “Dixie” and scor[n]ed the Yankees severely thus allaying suspicion.
Our destination was Barbersville [Barboursville], Kentucky. It was a long distance, about four hundred miles, but we chose this route, believing it to be a wild, barren, mountainous country, thus affording us greater security and less liability of discovery. In this we were not disappointed for our route lay across the Blue Ridge, Cumberland and Saluda Mountains—wild and barren enough. After we left Columbia we followed a north westerly course till we reached the French Broad river. Following up the river about five miles we discovered a boat, in which we crossed and continued walking along the river till day light, when we took refuge in a piece of woods for the day. While here a rainstorm set in, which continued for three days. As we were poorly prepared to resist the elements, we suffered severely from exposure. Being compelled for safety to travel nights, guided entirely by the North Star, our progress was greatly impeded during the stormy weather.
Our provisions becoming exhausted, our supply of food consisted of hard corn for some time, and for this we had to forage among the neighboring corn cribs at night….In this way we managed to exist, though the meagre fare and exposure began to tax our strength. We finally concluded the Southern Confederacy owed us better fare than it had as yet supplied, and we determined to secure it. Our corn was exhausted and there was nothing in sight, and for the next two days we subsisted upon decayed squash. As we continued our journey we were rejoiced to see in advance a flock of geese, and having some time before armed ourselves with stout clubs, it did not take long to secure two of the feathered tribe. We carried our booty a safe distance and halted, built a fire, plucked the geese, quartered and placed them on sticks over the fire to cook. With the prospect of a good meal, we thought of nothing further, and became quite cheerful in our misery. After an impatient wait, our feast was prepared and we ate heartily, making the first full meal we had eaten in eight months….
The next morning continued cloudy, but we started on by guess, and soon came to a road. Here we met a slave riding a mule. We halted him, pretending to be patrolmen, and demanded where he was going. He replied he was going after a doctor. We asked him which direction was north; he said he did not know; we then asked him where the sun rose; upon this question he gave us our bearings, and added that an old slave and his wife lived a short distance ahead, who could give us all the information we desired. We then allowed him to pass on. It was now agreed that I should interview the old man and if possible procure some provisions. The rest of our party remained within hailing distance, while I proceeded to call on Uncle Joe. I approached the rear door of the cabin, which was open. The old man sat watching a “hoe-cake” baking upon the hearth. I asked him in a sharp tone where his master lived— pretending to wish to see him. He replied in a very significant tone—“Dere is not a white man widin two miles of dis yere place”; I next asked him for something to eat, as I was going to join my regiment and was hungry. He said he was on short allowance and had none to spare and I saw at once that if I were a rebel soldier he would not care to assist me. After further conversation, I determined to make myself known. When he learned for a certainty that I was a Union soldier, he was willing to aid in every possible way. I then arranged to have him bake four corn cakes for us, agreeing to pay him fifty cents. He next told me that he heard [about] us the evening before through some slaves who were ditching on the lowlands. After giving him directions where to take the hoe-cake, I joined my friends and reported my success.
At the appointed time, we saw Uncle Joe approaching, accompanied by his wife, and a third party, who afterward proved to be a runaway slave. As they came toward us, we arose from our hiding place in the Chapparrel Swamp and spoke kindly to them. They made the usual courtesy and advanced with provisions in a basket covered with a clean white towel. There was in addition to the four cakes a large piece of salt bacon, which was most acceptable. After I had paid Uncle Joe, we sat down and partook of a substantial meal….
We remained upon the plantation three days to recuperate, during the day taking refuge in the swamp and at night sleeping in the cotton gin house upon a pile of cotton seed, the runaway slave being our faithful guard. The fact that four Yankees were being harbored upon the plantation soon became known to the two hundred and fifty slaves, and they were all anxious to see us and visited us in squads during the night. It was remarkable that our presence being known to all those negro slaves, not one of them proved false to us. They instinctively believed us their friends. They proposed that one of our number should accompany them to the house of the planter, who, by the way, was an invalid, where they would procure provisions and secure a newspaper, which they knew contained unfavorable reports from the South, but being unable to read they did not understand the particulars. Having full confidence in him, one of our party… volunteered to go. When they arrived at the house they found all secure. They had prepared for each of us a haversack and filled them with provisions. They supplied us with a corn popper, also, furnished us with a Tinder horn and a Flint and Steel, and with the aid of singed cotton we could kindle a fire at any time. Upon the return of our comrade we prepared to take our departure. The runaway slave belonged on the plantation but was averse to work and led sort of a roving life, subsisting upon the resources of the surrounding country. He being acquainted with the mountain district, we concluded to take him along as a guide.
We at length bade our friends farewell amid showers of blessings and good wishes, that arose spontaneously from their simple, honest hearts. Starting off with our Contraband pilot, we made good progress, as we were refreshed and felt like traveling. Two nights passed without interruption, when it occurred to us that traveling in South Carolina with a negro was dangerous, and that if caught in his company, we might be hung for stealing slaves. We finally informed him of the situation, and with mutual regret parted company, believing it unwise to increase our risk….
A few days later, the men reached Spartanburg, S.C. The following day, enjoying a meal of popped corn while hiding in a pine forest thick with underbrush, Ennis detected the sounds of men on horseback.
Not far from where we were was an unused wood road, or lane, upon which there shortly appeared two men, apparently looking for something. They passed within two rods of us, but we were not discovered. Presently two horsemen appeared and halted opposite to where we were concealed; one said, “I am going in here to look”; the other said, “There is nothing in there”; the other said, “I am going in anyway, and if I get sight of the Yankees I will put two bullets into them. I have both barrels loaded.” We began to feel somewhat shaky, but determined to defend ourselves as best we could, and it was our only chance, for to run would be sure death. The man approached to within a few feet of us, when we grasped our clubs and sprang to our feet, intending to disarm him and secure his gun before he had an opportunity to shoot. Our sudden appearance with supposed guns, so surprised and startled him that he wheeled his horse and fled in terror, shouting to his companion to follow, saying, “Here they are, all armed and equipped.” It was now our opportunity to run and we immediately took to our heels. The scene was a most ludicrous one, we fleeing through the bushes in one direction, while our brave pursuers were as gracefully disappearing in the opposite direction.
Although they eluded capture, the men left behind their “camp equipage and commissary stores,” which were confiscated by “other guards” who soon descended on the spot. Ennis and his comrades continued to move, reaching a small barn by nightfall.
The next morning we were astir early and looking through the cracks in the barn, saw the horsemen, thirty in number, all going towards Spartanburg, except one, who came towards the barn. We again secreted ourselves in the hay. He came in, put up his horse, fed it and the cow, but did not ascend to the loft, so we were not disturbed. He returned twice during the day. We began to feel hungry, and about ten o’clock in the forenoon one of our party reconnoitered, and discovered a hen upon her nest, and at the proper time dispatched her. There were four fresh eggs in the nest so we each ate a raw egg. The hen was prepared for roasting at some future period.
The weather changed and the atmosphere became very cold, but gave promise of a good night to travel. At nightfall the moon shone brightly and we came from our hiding place prepared to take our departure, having outgeneraled the home guard. As we were starting, we espied some young pigs, just the right size for roasting, so we replenished our commissary stores with two of the best. We now got under way and traveled briskly for several miles, when we came to a small brook across which lay a round pole. All crossed safely but myself, I making a misstep, fell with my pig into the water. I held on to my prey, however, and with the aid of my comrades got out safely, but thoroughly drenched. We had proceeded but a short distance when my clothes were frozen stiff and I was hardly able to walk. Finally we halted, built a strong fire at which I dried my clothing, while the provisions were being cooked. We ate heartily of roast pig, and not less appetizing for having been confiscated. After supper we continued quite refreshed, and traveled four nights without interruption, nothing of interest occurring save securing an extra supply of food—which was always in order, if opportunity offered.
Several days later, the men approached Mount Mitchell, which Ennis called “the giant of the Blue Ridge.” Fighting the altitude along with exhaustion and gloom, they climbed partway up to obtain a bird’s-eye view of their surroundings, which Ennis said were “romantic, lonely and serene, affording us an opportunity of witnessing nature in its wild and awful grandeur.” Their spirits revived, the group continued on “with renewed energy and confidence,” and in a few more days reached the Catawba River, where they came across a “genuine Gum Tree canoe” and appropriated it for their own use.
Upon awakening, about sunset, we prepared for a trip down the river, and as soon as we considered it safe, launched the canoe, put aboard provisions, and taking a paddle to steer with, pushed off from the shore without a thought of possible danger. The current was swift and strong, the stream flowing through a deep chasm over a rocky bed, with an unusual volume of water from the mountains, caused by the spring freshet. It presented a frightful appearance. Above us, on either side, were tall overhanging trees and jutting rocks. The moon shone brightly, but its rays were partly obstructed by the trees, producing a weird effect. We had not proceeded far when we began to realize our awful peril, but there was now no help for us. We could not turn back or reach [the] shore, in fact, there was no shore, as the rocks were as steep as the palisades along the Hudson. We were swept onward by the resistless flood, as it rushed madly along, roaring, foaming and plunging over the rocks beneath us. There was just one thing in our favor—we had a staunch craft, so we sat down and clung to the sides of the canoe. We continued this dizzy pace for probably two miles, when we reached smoother water and were carried into a whirlpool, and as the canoe swung around, fortunately for us, one end ran hard upon a slanting rock that held it fast. It careened to one side and we lost our provisions, besides getting thoroughly drenched, but we retained our hold upon the boat and thus escaped falling into the river. After considerable difficulty, we reached a safe landing. Here another obstacle appeared. We were in a deep chasm, the rocky cliffs of which were almost perpendicular. After a great effort we succeeded in climbing to the level above, almost exhausted.
After a short rest, we proceeded along the river bank, as we did not dare to delay long on account of our wet clothing. We had walked but a short distance when we came upon a cataract, the volume of which presented a miniature Niagara, and had our boat gone over it, we would, without doubt, have been carried to certain death. There could have been no possible escape, as below the falls the water foamed and boiled like a seething cauldron. When we realized these facts, we congratulated ourselves upon our fortunate escape and endeavored to feel cheerful….
The night’s experience had so severely taxed our strength that we felt that we could not much longer endure the physical strain. We thought of home and friends. Should we ever see them again? We determined…to brace up and make another effort, so we started on, following our guiding star….
As it was about daybreak, we sought a secluded spot in the mountains and, under an overhanging ledge of rocks, secreted ourselves for the day….We bore the discomfort hopefully, cherishing the belief that within a few days we should reach the Union lines, but, alas, we were doomed to suffer another terrible disappointment. Toward evening, one of the men became so cold that he, against the protest of the rest of the party, climbed to the west side of the rocks to get the benefit of the sun’s rays. Indiscreetly exposing himself, he was discovered by a woman who was traversing one of the mountain paths. Our comrade, not feeling sure that he had been seen, failed to notify us. The woman at once informed her husband of the presence of a strange soldier in the neighborhood. The husband, in turn, aroused his neighbors who gathered together and instituted a search. If we had been aware of the discovery we would have attempted to elude them, with a fair chance of success, but being ignorant of that fact, till we were surrounded, our escape was cut off. Our first intimation of the condition of affairs was when we saw six armed men approaching us from the foot of the mountain. Immediately seizing our clubs we vacated our positions and attempted to join our friend. Fancy our surprise at finding him already a prisoner and his captors pointing their guns at us and demanding our surrender under penalty of instant death. We were now surrounded by twelve determined men armed with rifles and shot guns. As the alternative was to surrender or die, we chose the former. This rude crushing of our hopes seemed too terrible to be true, but the fact gradually dawned upon us. Only an hour before we were congratulating ourselves upon our success and contemplating the good time we thought near at hand. But there we stood, after traveling more than three hundred miles, across a mountainous country, in mid-winter, enduring such sufferings and privations, it was indeed discouraging. Again, we were prisoners of war as certainly and securely as on that ever memorable day on the battlefield of Bull Run. To say we were in despair does not fully express it….After the excitement was over, our captors questioned us closely as to who we were and where we had escaped from.
There had been a good deal of stealing done through the country, hogs, chicken, geese, etc., being taken, and they thought perhaps we were the guilty ones. Innocently showing them samples of the corn we had subsisted on, together with our assumed Chinese simplicity, all suspicion was at once removed. We told them a pitiful story and they sympathized with us. We directed [their] attention to the forlorn condition of our shoes, which were so badly worn that our feet were upon the ground. They said they were sorry for us but that they must do their duty. We pleaded with them to release us, but without avail. They then escorted us to the abode of the woman who had caused our grief. She evidently considered herself a heroine and believed she had done a great service for the Confederate cause. I had been taught to be courteous and gallant toward all women, but I certainly did not feel kindly toward this one. She set about preparing supper for us and when the meal was ready, we, for the first time in nearly a year, sat down to a table to take food. I need not add that we did it justice upon this occasion. Our courage at times failed us, but our appetites—never, and if there was anything that caused this woman regret for the part she took in our capture, it must have been our appreciation of her hospitality….
It soon was decided that Ennis and his mates would travel through Asheville, N.C.—a march of 40 miles, in Ennis’ estimation—on their journey back to the jail in Columbia from which they had escaped.
Early the next morning we resumed our march, reaching the outskirts of Ashville [sic] quite early in the forenoon. We were several rods in advance of our escort, and meeting some of the natives, they asked who we were. We promptly told them we were the advance guard of the Union Army about to take possession of the town….When our escort arrived, they were informed of the true state of affairs. Reporting at headquarters, we were turned over to the town authorities, who marched us to the common jail, amid howls and derision of the excited populace. We were confined in an iron cage eight feet high and six feet square, built in the center of a large room, and intended for condemned murderers. The entrance was about two feet square and we were obliged to get upon our knees and crawl inside. We were now entirely broken in spirits. We asked them if that was the treatment they gave defenseless prisoners of war; they replied that it was better than we deserved. Here we remained the entire day, on exhibition, like a cage of wild animals, subject to the cruel insults of those who wished to see us, and there was a constant stream of visitors. The mob so goaded us that we became exasperated and finally told them that if they would furnish us with guns and ammunition we would clean out the town, but fortunately for us they did not accept the proposition, but our bravado had the effect of somewhat shaming them. Toward night the jailer relieved us from our uncomfortable position and assigned us to a large airy room, furnished with a good bed &c. He was loyal to the Union and proved a kind friend. He brought us up supper and remained with us a couple of hours, his conversation doing much to revive our spirits.
Our first night at Ashville was passed in quiet and refreshing slumber. The following morning the jailer came up and invited us to take breakfast at his family table and from this time on, during our stay, we were his guests, in spite of protest from many hot-headed stay-at-homes, cowardly cranks. The properly disciplined Confederate Army officers offered no objection, and it is a noteworthy fact that men, both North and South, who lack courage to face danger upon the battlefield were the loudest in their demands for summary vengeance. We were allowed the privilege of the jail limits, to go out and in at will, and could have easily escaped, but considered ourselves upon our honor. There was at this time a female seminary situated in the town, and in attendance about fifty young ladies, besides the principal and other teachers. When the students learned of the presence of Yankee prisoners, they were anxious to see them, and a delegation presented themselves at the jail, to ask permission to visit us. The privilege was at once granted, and they were ushered into our quarters. They came in on us so suddenly that we were considerably embarrassed. If we had been attacked by rebel soldiers, with fixed bayonets, we could have stood it, but to be thus surprised by two dozen mischievous young ladies was too much for our nerve. We were ready to surrender upon any terms. We were introduced to them by the jailer, but being unaccustomed to female society, we felt ill at ease, especially as we believed they were prompted by mere curiosity, but as they spoke kindly and, at the same time, presented us each with a bouquet of flowers and books, our embarrassment wore off and we felt more comfortable, and had…a very pleasant visit. At their request, we gave them a partial account of our adventures, and they looked upon us as heroes. We learned that some of them had friends North….
It was soon noised about that the Yankee prisoners were to leave town, and had we been Confederate heroes there could not have been greater excitement, nor could we have been more kindly treated. We heard nothing more from the mob whom we threatened to thrash upon our arrival at the jail. We had now many friends, especially among the seminary students, most of whom were certainly charming young ladies, and it was not surprising that my companions should have exhibited sad expressions of countenance as they took final leave of certain favorites….[W]e had many callers, from some of whom we received cakes, pots of jelly and other delicacies. Accompanying one cake was a note reading thus: “Being influenced by feelings of common humanity, we present this cake; Trusting if you find any Sons of the Sunny South situated as yourselves, you will extend a kindly hand.” Signed “The Donors.” But the most acceptable present to me was a pair of long-topped boots, which not alone made my feet more comfortable but concealed my trousers, which, from the knees down, were much tattered….
John Ennis and his fellow escapees soon found themselves back where they began, as captives in Columbia. Only three days later, Confederate authorities sent the four of them, along with some 40 other Union prisoners, north to Richmond, where they reunited with inmates they had not seen in many months. “They of course gathered about us to hear our story,” Ennis remembered, “and we entertained them some time with an account of our adventures.”
Ennis’ parole came through on May 11, 1862; he and about 600 others were transferred by ship to Fort Monroe, Va., and released. Thirteen days later, he received his discharge from the Army. Back in New York City, Ennis married. He relocated to Albany, where he found long-term employment as a “commercial traveler.” The Ennises had one child, a son, born in July 1868.
Ennis’ time as a prisoner of war had a lasting impact on his physical condition. Though he was not quite 22 when he returned to civilian life, his health had so deteriorated that he couldn’t perform “severe manual labor.” For the rest of his days, he suffered from a variety of ailments—including chronic diarrhea, dyspepsia, rheumatism and heart disease. Ennis was granted a federal disability pension in 1887, and died in Albany on April 17, 1914.
Remarkably, he had postwar contact with former captor Colonel William Shiver, the man in charge of Richland District Jail when Ennis escaped. Shiver fell on hard times after the war, and asked his onetime charge for assistance. Ennis by then had “received an appointment in the Civil Department of the Government” (the details of which are unknown), and reacted quickly to Shiver’s “urgent appeal for aid, as his family were in destitute circumstances.” He directed Shiver to send him a letter detailing his condition, which he forwarded with his endorsement to the War Department. “Within forty-eight hours,” Ennis remembered, “Col. Shiver was appointed to a clerkship at Charleston in the Registration Bureau, under Gen. Daniel Sickles, at a yearly salary of twelve hundred dollars.”
Terry A. Johnston Jr. is a developmental editor at Savas Beatie Publications and former editor of North & South magazine.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.