Larger font
Smaller font
  • Results
  • Related
  • Featured
No results found for: "undefined".
  • Weighted Relevancy
  • Content Sequence
  • Relevancy
  • Earliest First
  • Latest First
    Larger font
    Smaller font

    Chapter 5

    Cutting a Hole Through the Ship — Perilous Adventure of a Narragansett Indian — Hole Finished — Eighteen Prisoners Escape — Singular Device to Keep the Number Good — Drowning Man — Night Signals for Relief — Another Hole Cut — Letter from the Escaped Prisoners — U. S. Government Clothe their Prisoners — Prisoners sent to Dartmoor — Cheering News of Peace.

    OUR keepers were in the habit of examining the inside of our prison every evening before we were ordered up to be counted down, to ascertain whether we were cutting through the ship to gain our liberty. We observed that they seldom stopped at a certain place on the lower deck, but passed it with a slight examination. On examining this place, a number of us decided to cut a hole here if we could effect it without detection by the soldier who was stationed but a few inches above where we must come out, and yet have room above water.LELJB 63.1

    Having nothing better than a common table-knife fitted with teeth, after some time we sawed out a heavy three-inch oak plank, which afterward served us successfully for a cover when our keepers were approaching. We now began to demolish a very heavy oak timber, splinter by splinter. Even this had to be done with great caution, that the soldier might not hear us on the outside. While one was at work in his turn, some others were watching, that our keepers might not approach and find the hole uncovered. About forty were engaged in this work. Before the heavy timber was splintered out, one of our number obtained the cook’s iron poker. This was a great help to pry off small splinters around the heavy iron bolts. In this way, after laboring between thirty and forty days, we reached the copper on the ship’s bottom, some two to three feet from the top of our cover, on an angle of about 25° downward. By working the poker through the copper, on the upper side of the hole, we learned to our joy that it came out beneath the stage where the soldier stood. Then on opening the lower side of the hole, the water flowed in some, but not in sufficient quantities to sink the ship for some time, unless by change of wind and weather she became more unsteady in her motion, and rolled the hole under water, in which case we should doubtless have been left to share her fate. The commander had, before this, stated that if by any means the ship caught fire from our lights in the night, he would throw the keys of our hatchways overboard, and leave the ship and us to burn and perish together. Hence we had chosen officers to extinguish every light at 10 P. M.LELJB 63.2

    Sunday afternoon, while I was at work in my turn, enlarging the hole in the copper, a shout of hundreds of voices from the outside so alarmed me for fear that we were discovered, that in my hurry to cover up the hole, the poker slipped from my hands through the hole into the sea. The hole covered, we made our way with the rushing crowd, up the long stairway to the upper deck, to learn the cause of the shouting. The circumstances were these: Another ship like our own, containing American prisoners, was moored about one-eighth of a mile from us. People from the country, in their boats, were visiting the prison ships, as was their custom on Sundays, to see what looking creatures American prisoners were. Soldiers with loaded muskets, about twenty feet apart, on the lower and upper stages outside of the ship, were guarding the prisoners’ escape. One of the countrymen’s boats, rowed by one man, lay fastened to the lower stage, at the foot of the main gangway ladder, where also one of these soldiers was on guard. A tall, athletic Narragansett Indian, who, like the rest of his countrymen, was ready to risk his life for liberty, caught sight of the boat, and watching the English officers who were walking the quarter-deck, as they turned their backs to walk aft he bolted down the gangway ladder, clinched the soldier, musket and all, and crowded him under the thwarts, cleared the boat, grasped the two oars, and with the man (who most likely would have shot him before he could clear himself) under his feet, he shaped his course for the opposite, unguarded shore, about two miles distant!LELJB 64.1

    The soldiers, seeing their comrade, with all his ammunition, snatched from his post and stowed away in such a summary manner, and moving out of their sight like a streak over the water by the giant power of this North-American Indian, were either so stunned with amazement at the scene before them, or it may be with fear of another Indian after them, that they failed to hit him with their shot. Well-manned boats, with sailors and soldiers, were soon dashing after him, firing and hallooing to bring him to; all of which seemed only to animate and nerve him to ply his oars with herculean strength.LELJB 65.1

    When his fellow-prisoners saw him moving away from his pursuers in such a giant-like manner, they shouted, and gave him three cheers. The prisoners on board our ship followed with three more. This was the noise which I had heard while working at the hole. The officers were so exasperated at this that they declared if we did not cease this cheering and noise they would lock us down below. We therefore stifled our voices, that we might be permitted to see the poor Indian make his escape.LELJB 65.2

    Before reaching the shore, his pursuers gained on him so that they shot him in his arm (as we were told), which made it difficult to ply the oar; nevertheless he reached the shore, sprang from the boat and cleared himself from all his pursuers, and was soon out of reach of all their musket balls. Rising to our sight upon an inclined plain, he rushed on, bounding over hedges and ditches like a chased deer, and, without doubt, would have been out of sight of his pursuers in a few hours, and gained his liberty, had not the people in the country rushed upon him from various quarters, and delivered him up to his pursuers, who brought him back, and for some days locked him up in the dungeon. Poor Indian! he deserved a better fate.LELJB 66.1

    The prisoners now understood that the hole was completed, and a great many were preparing to make their escape. The committee men decided that those who had labored to cut the hole should have the privilege of going first. They also selected four judicious and careful men, who could not swim, to take charge of the hole, and help all out that wished to go.LELJB 66.2

    With some difficulty we at length obtained some tarred canvas, with which we made ourselves small bags, just large enough to pack our jacket, shirt, and shoes in; then we fastened a stout string, about ten feet long, to the end, and in the other end made a loop to pass around the neck. With hat and pants on, and bag in one hand, and the other fast hold of our fellow, we took our rank and file for a desperate effort for liberty. At the given signal (10 P. M.), every light was extinguished, and the men bound for liberty were in their stations.LELJB 66.3

    Soldiers, with loaded muskets, as already described, were on guard all around the ship, above and below. Our landing-place, if we reached it, was about half a mile distant, with a continued line of soldiers just above high-water mark. The heads of those who passed out came only a few inches from the soldiers’ feet, i. e., a grating stage between.LELJB 67.1

    A company of good singers stationed themselves at the after port-hole where the soldier stood that was next to the one over the hole. Their interesting sailor and war songs took the attention of the two soldiers some, and a glass of strong drink now and then drew them to the port-hole, while those inside made believe drink. While this was working, the committee were putting the prisoners through, feet foremost, and as their bag string began to draw, they slipped that out also, being thus assured that they were shaping their course for the shore. In the mean time, when the ship’s bell was struck, denoting the lapse of another half hour, the soldier’s loud cry would resound, “All’s well!” The soldier that troubled us the most, would take his station over the hole, and shout, “All’s well!” Then when he stepped forward to hear the sailors’ song, the committee would put a few more through, and he would step back and cry again, “All’s well!” It surely was most cheering to our friends while struggling for liberty in the watery element, to hear behind and before them the peace-and-safety cry, “All’s well!”LELJB 67.2

    Midnight came; the watch was changed, the cheering music had ceased. The stillness that reigned without and within retarded our work. At length it was whispered along the ranks that the few that had passed out during the stillness had caused great uneasiness with the soldiers, and they judged it best for no more to attempt to leave for fear of detection. It was also near daylight, and we might better retire quietly to our hammocks.LELJB 68.1

    Edmond Allen and myself, of New Bedford, covenanted to go, and keep together. We had kept hold of each other during the night, and had advanced near the hole when it was thought best for no more to go. In the morning the cover was off, and E. A. was among the missing.LELJB 68.2

    The committee reported seventeen, and E. A. made eighteen that had passed out during the night.LELJB 68.3

    The prisoners were greatly elated at the last night’s successful movement, and took measures to keep the hole undiscovered for another attempt at 10 P. M.LELJB 68.4

    We were confined between two decks, with no communication after we were counted down at night and locked up. During the day some tools were obtained, and a scuttle was cut through the upper deck, and covered up undiscovered. Word was then circulated among the prisoners to go up from the upper deck as soon as the soldiers ordered the prisoners up to be counted down for the night. But those on the lower deck were to move tardily, so that those on the upper deck might be counted down before the lower deck was cleared. This was done, and eighteen that had just been counted, slipped through the scuttle unperceived by the soldiers, mingled with the crowd up the lower-deck ladder, and were counted over again. At 10 P. M., the lights were again extinguished, and the ranks formed for another attempt to escape.LELJB 68.5

    On taking our station at 10 P. M., it was whispered along our ranks that two men not of our number were waiting at the hole, insisting that they would go first or they would raise a cry and prevent any one from going. They had been drinking, and would not be reasoned with. It was finally settled to let them go. The first was put through very quietly, saying to his drunken companion, “I will hold on to the ship’s rudder-rings until you come.” The second man, not being much of a swimmer, sank like a log, and rose up under the stage, splashing and struggling for life. Said the soldier to his next companion, “Here’s a porpoise.” “Put your bayonet into him,” replied he. “I will,” said the first, “if he comes up again.” We were by this time all listening with almost breathless attention, fearing our chance for liberty was about gone. Up he came again. We heard the rush and then the cry, “Don’t kill me! I’m a prisoner.” “Prisoner? prisoner? where did you come from?” “Out of a hole in the ship.” The soldier cried, “Here’s a prisoner overboard! Prisoners are getting out of the ship!” “Prisoners are getting out of the ship!” was the quick response of all the watchmen. All hands came rushing on the deck. In a few moments our vigilant commander came running from his bed, frantically inquiring, “Where?” and hearing the sound outside, he rushed down the accommodation ladder, crying out, “How many have gone?” One of the prisoners, who felt disposed to quicken our chief captain’s speed, put his face to the grating hole, and cried out, “About forty, I guess.”LELJB 69.1

    In quick succession, the night signals of distress brought well-manned boats to pick them up. “Where shall we pull?” “Here, there, all around.” “Do you find any?” “No, sir, no, sir.”LELJB 70.1

    Orders were now given to land a body of men, and surround Gelingham forest, where they supposed the “forty” must have escaped, explore it in the morning, and take them on board. We were much amused to see what full credit the commander gave to the prisoner’s “guess.”LELJB 70.2

    After making these arrangements, they got the drowning man on deck and demanded of him to state the facts; but he was so far gone with the large draughts of salt water which he had swallowed, somewhat mixed up with his rum, and the dreadful fear of being harpooned with a soldier’s bayonet, that he failed to satisfy them, only that there was a hole in the ship, from which he passed out. One of the boats at length found it, pushed a long iron rod inside, and remained there watching until morning.LELJB 70.3

    When we were permitted to come on deck in the morning, poor Johnson was lying, tied to a stake, floating in the water near the beach. All that we could learn was, that the string of his bag was fast around his left wrist, below which his hand was nearly cut off. Some of his friends knew that he had a sharp knife in the pocket of his pants, which was missing when he was found near the shore. Fastening his bag on his wrist instead of his neck, was doubtless a great hinderance to his getting away from the boats. In attempting to cut this string, we supposed he cut his wrist, and thus bled to death by the time he reached the shore.LELJB 70.4

    We were kept on deck all day, without food, mustered by name, and strictly examined to see if we answered to our original descriptions. When it was clearly ascertained that eighteen living men had escaped the night previous to the discovery of the hole, and the full number of prisoners still reported on board, the British officers were arrested for making a false report, but released again on our president’s declaring how the affair was managed.LELJB 71.1

    The following day the king’s carpenters, from Chatham, were sent on board with their tools and a heavy stick of timber to plug up the hole. While they were busy cutting and pounding in our midst, some of the prisoners picked up a few of their loose tools and began to cut out another hole, equally good, on the opposite side of the ship, and finished it before the carpenters had closed up the other. The soldiers outside ascribed the noise to the king’s carpenters.LELJB 71.2

    That night a number of us stationed ourselves at this hole to watch for an opportunity to escape, and remained there until about four o’clock in the morning. The copper being cut off in a great hurry, ragged and sharp points were left. To prevent these points from mangling our flesh, we fastened a woolen blanket to the lower side to slip out on. Besides the vigilant guard, a boat was pulling around the ship during the night, with one man in the center, sounding the side of the ship, under the lower stage, with a long iron rod. The rod continued to strike on each side of the hole during the night, but failed to find the place they were punching for.LELJB 71.3

    Before daylight one of our number ventured to slip out, just after the boat passed, to ascertain whether the night was light, or dark enough to escape detection by swimming astern of the ship before the boat could get round. After pulling him in, he said the night was clear, and he could see a great distance on the water. We therefore concluded to wait until the following night. By negligence of our committee, the blanket was left with the end floating in the water. This was discovered by the boatmen soon after daylight. “Here’s another hole on this side of the ship!” and in came the iron rod, blasting all our hopes of escape from this quarter. To repair these damages, a portion of food was deducted from our daily allowance, and continued for some time.LELJB 72.1

    Our boasting commander began to be sorely troubled for the safety of himself and family. It seemed almost certain that these audacious, daring Yankees would yet sink their prison-ships or gain their liberty. I was told that he declared he would sooner take charge of six thousand French prisoners than six hundred Yankees.LELJB 72.2

    After all their search for the eighteen who had escaped, a letter came from London, directed to the commander of the Crown Princen prison-ship, informing him of the happy escape of every one of them, and of their safe travel, seventy miles, to the city of London; and that it would be useless for him to trouble himself about them, for they were on the eve of sailing on a foreign voyage. They gave him to understand that they should remember his unkind treatment.LELJB 72.3

    From this, the British government began to talk of sending us all to Dartmoor prison, a dreary waste some fifteen miles inland from old Plymouth harbor, where we should find some trouble in getting outside the massy stone walls and dungeons that were so strongly fortified.LELJB 73.1

    In 1814 the American prisoners continued to pour in from Halifax, the West India Islands, and other parts of the world. Their state was miserable, indeed, for want of proper and decent clothing, especially the soldiers. It was distressing to see them in their tattered rags, many of them having their dirty woolen blanket wrapt around them to shield them from the cold storms. Statements were sent to the United States, which at length aroused the government to take measures to provide their prisoners with suitable clothing.LELJB 73.2

    Mr. Beasley, acting agent for the United States in London, was empowered to attend to this matter for his suffering countrymen. He sent a London Jew with his boxes of ready made or basted clothing, and a stripling of a clerk to deal them out to us according to his judgment; so that some who were not needy got supplied with a whole suit, while others were turned away who were much in want. The prisoners remonstrated with Mr. B. by letter, but he justified his agent, and paid little or no attention to our grievances.LELJB 73.3

    After I had remained a prisoner over a year, the British government condescended to pay us our small pittance of wages, which enabled me to furnish myself with clothing and some extra food as long as it lasted. My father was favored with an opportunity to send to an agent in London to furnish me with means from time to time. The agent sent me twenty dollars, which were most gladly received. Soon after this, the American prisoners were sent off to Dartmoor, and I heard no more from him.LELJB 73.4

    It was in the summer of 1814 that we were sent in large drafts by sea to Plymouth, and from thence to Dartmoor. Soon we numbered, as we were told, six thousand. The double stone walls, about fourteen feet high, broad enough for hundreds of soldiers to walk on guard, formed a half moon, with three separate yards containing seven massy stone buildings, capable of holding from fifteen to eighteen hundred men each. The center one was appropriated to colored prisoners.LELJB 74.1

    These buildings were located on the slope of a hill, fronting the east, affording us a prospect of the rising sun; but it was shut out from our view long before sunset. A large number of similar buildings lay above us on the west, separated by heavy iron palings, and occupied for barracks, store and dwelling-houses for our keepers, and a hospital. On these three sides, one of the most dreary wastes, studded with ledges of rocks and low shrubs, met our view, as far as the eye could reach. Surely, it was rightly named Dartmoor.LELJB 74.2

    The prisons were three story, with a flight of stone steps at each end, open in the center. There was one iron-grated port-hole on each gable end. We were guarded by a barrack of six hundred soldiers, counted out in the morning, and driven in at sunset. It was quite a sight, when the sun shone, to see those who desired to keep themselves decent, seated in groups about the yard, clearing their blankets and beds from vermin. On hearing of a fresh arrival, the prisoners would crowd up to the gates, and make a lane for all to pass through; and as they passed through, some of them would recognize their friends. “Halloo, Sam! Where did you come from?” “Marblehead.” “Any more left?” “No; I was the last one.” And in this way all were recognized. It was often stated that nearly all the Marblehead sailors were prisoners.LELJB 74.3

    During the winter, Agent Beasley’s men appeared again to supply us with clothing, which was done much more to our satisfaction.LELJB 75.1

    Religious meetings were held in the colored prison about every Sunday, and some professed to be converted, and were baptized in a small pool of water in the yard, supplied from a reservoir on the hill, which was generally used by the prisoners in washing their clothes.LELJB 75.2

    December, 1814, brought us the cheering intelligence that a treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain was signed by the plenipotentiaries at Ghent, on the continent of Europe. Those who were never doomed to imprisonment in this dark and most dreary spot can appreciate nothing respecting our feelings. Yet we were held in suspense while a frigate was dispatched across the ocean to obtain President Madison’s signature. In February, 1815, she returned with the treaty ratified. Shoutings of rapturous joy rang through our gloomy dungeons, such as most likely will never be heard there again. What! about to be liberated, go to our native country, and gather around the paternal fireside once more? Yes; this hope was in us, and it seemed sometimes as though we were almost there.LELJB 75.3

    It was supposed that there were about two hundred of us in Dartmoor who came there from the British navy. This was a tacit acknowledgment, on their part, of our impressment. Some of these had served them from twenty to thirty years. As we had not taken up arms against them, we sent up a respectful petition to the British Parliament, asking a mitigation of our sufferings, or an honorable release. This was strongly objected to by the noble lords, on the ground that they had trained us in their naval tactics, and if we were liberated before the close of the war, we would, as a matter of course, enter the United States navy, and teach them how we learned to fight. That, said they, will be putting sticks into their hands, wherewith to break our heads.LELJB 76.1

    Larger font
    Smaller font