Details of Escape from Confederate Prison

The memoirs of James Jennings, a fellow soldier of Edwin Howes in Co K of the 20th Illinois Infantry, are found in the Illinois Historical Society (IHS) (Special Collection 821) in Springfield, Illinois. A portion (pp. 21-24) has been transcribed at the request of David L. Read who compiled the following document. Copyright laws prohibited copying the entire diary. The transcript is as follows but to set the scene, James Jennings and a man named (Jerome) Dann had escaped from the POW camp they were being held in. Were recaptured and returned to the stockade at Salisbury, North Carolina.

"Sometimes after the break, Dann some way got acquainted with the man who had the job of policing the prison. Part of his duty consisted in keeping the prison clean and free of rubbish. Dann got the position of his assistant. He got an extra ration for this, but he did not divide it with me or try to get me on the force. It was getting into November now and getting quite cold. At this time they were sending prisoners back to Florence (S. Carolina). I knew it would be much warmer there for the winter, so without saying a word to Dann I went back and found some of the boys I had left there, Howes, Clifford, Leach, Cary, and Todd. All of them were alive and doing as well as could have been expected. We lived a very uneventful life for a few weeks, starving a little every day, a little weaker some of them were. I was holding my own very well. Our rations seemed to be shrinking a little all the time. Howes and Clifford seemed to be a little more discouraged and consequently a little worse physically. Sometime in the first part of January, '65, the Rebs loaded all of us that could walk (we had to leave Clifford at Florence) into cars and took us down to Wilmington to exchange. We were unloaded and kept there about four or five days; the officers being unable to come to terms, we were put back on the train and sent to Goldsborough. In a week or ten days the Reb officers came into camp again and said, "We will sure make a go of it this time." We were loaded on cars again and started back for Goldsborough (did he mean Wilmington? (David L. Read). The car ahead of the one we were in was loaded with powder for the Rebel army. Our car got a hot box twice. The conductor stopped the train and put out the fire. You see the gunpowder and fire make a rather elevating combination. As the conductor passed our car after putting out the fire the second time he said, "If the damn thing gets a fire again I'll be damn if I'll stop to put it out and if it blows up we will all go to hell together." I didn't like that; that is if I had to go to hell; I should like to pick my company. I didn't want to go with a lot of Rebs, so I told the boys that I was going to escape from the train that night and work my way back to Wilmington. Ed Howes and John Cary said they would go with me. Leach and Todd refused to go, said we were sure to get plunked. We made our plans and about ten p.m. we pulled into the town of Magnolia, forty-nine miles from Wilmington. There were always some citizens getting off, so when the train stopped I stepped off. The guard said, "Who goes there?" I made no answer but started up town. Howes and Cary followed right after me. That night we walked eight miles. Howes was clear tuckered out. He was afflicted with camp diarrhea. We went to a colored man's house to get something to eat. They had all gone to bed, but when we told them who we were they got up and gave us a good supper of corn pone, bacon, cornmeal, coffee and honey. Then one of the men went out in the woods with us to find a good place to camp. We went out through the barnyard. There was a flock of geese in the yard. Howes asked the darkey if we could have one. The darkey said, "NO, the white folks would miss it and lay it to the colored folks." After the darkey had left for home, Howes wanted me to go back with him to get one. I told him, "No, not for Joe." I told him I wouldn't go back for all the geese in the world. Cary also refused to go. Howes stood around for a while, finally he said, "Boys, I've got to have a goose," so he went back to the place and got one and got back all right. We sat up all night and roasted goose and ate most of it before we went to bed. Our bed always consisted of a pile of leaves or pine cones when we could get them. We saved part of the goose for Howes for the next day, but he didn't want it. He said he didn't think he ever wanted to see another goose. We stayed in this place for about five days, then when our man came out at night with our grub he said they could see the smoke of our fire come over the tops of the trees. He told us there was a camp for Rebel deserters five miles from there. He asked if we would go stay with them. I said, "Sure, we would be glad to go." He started right off and by two a.m. he was back and had five of the Reb deserters with him. We talked a while and they told us what they had and said we were welcome to go and stay with them. We got to their place about daylight. We followed them single file through a swamp with the water knee deep most of the way. We came out on top of a piece of high ground two or three acres, clear ground. Here we had plenty of corn bread, sweet potatoes, fresh pork, bacon, fresh beef, chickens, eggs, cornmeal, coffee and honey. Cary and myself picked right up. I felt as good as I ever did, but Howes kept getting weaker and weaker. We stayed two weeks, then a Union man came into our camp and said Wilmington was taken and we could get there if the gorillas didn't catch us. If they did, they would hang us; we knew that but didn't propose to let them catch us. Howes was unable to walk by this time. Cary and I carried him out. We put him on a blanket, tied the four corners to a rail, put the end of the rail on our shoulders and started. We carried him out of the swamp to the road and put him on a cart. He was taken to the house of the widow Held. She had two sons in the camp. When I left Howes, I told him as soon as we got to Wilmington I would send and ambulance out after him, but the very next morning he was out hanging on the fence by the road. When our troops came marching by they picked him up and carried him along and sent him to a hospital in New Jersey. He got well, came back to Illinois and lived to be nearly eighty years of age. We went on to Wilmington without any trouble, arriving about three p.m. on February, 22."

Great grandson David Read visited the Millington-Newark Cemetery in Kendall County, Illinois where Edwin Howes is buried. While there he discovered the grave of James Jennings, the author of the above manuscript describing their life on the run from Confederate troops and southern patriots.

Last Modified on 2012-11-23 00:15:03-0600 CST by Elmer Dickson