Archive for October, 2014

Last Ride on the Underground Railroad

October 16, 2014
Florence Stockage, from the Virginia Historical Society

Florence Stockage, from the Virginia Historical Society

As early as 1786 George Washington complained that one of his runaway slaves had been assisted to freedom by a “society of Quakers, formed for such purposes.” Estimates of the number of fugitive slaves who escaped the South along the Underground Railroad network from 1800 to 1860 range from several hundred to two thousand annually.

Despite Levi Coffin’s claim in his autobiography that he was the “President” of what before the age of steam was just the “Underground Road,” the escaped slave assistance network was a classic example of leaderless resistance. Many individuals, both white and black, under no central command, cooperated house to house and neighborhood by neighborhood to pass fugitives along points of safety.

Over his 40-year career, Levi Coffin and his community of Nantucket Quaker emigres in New Garden, Guilford County, NC, smuggled more than 3,000 runaways “contrabands” along the Kanawah Trail, across the Blue Ridge Mountains and through Virginia and Ohio to the Quaker settlement at Richmond, Indiana.

The advent of war in 1861 slowed but did not stop the network’s activities. It did, however, make one important alteration: white federal soldiers, escapees from prisoners of war camps, could also follow the well-worn trail to freedom. Perhaps the last documented escape took place in late 1864.

Prisoners in the Stockade at Florence SC

Prisoners in the Stockade at Florence SC

With the fall of Atlanta and the approach of Sherman’s forces in September, 1864, Confederate forces evacuated the Andersonville prison camp by rail. Eight thousand federal prisoners spent three days in stock cars without food or water before arriving at Florence, South Carolina, a sleepy railroad crossing on the Pee Dee River 110 miles west of Charleston and 107 miles southwest of Wilmington.

The Florence National Cemetery

The Florence National Cemetery

Their arrival on September 15th was a surprise to the local guard detail, a single Reserve company of men over 45 and boys under 18. Without food, water, shelter or even a stockade ready, the prisoners themselves were set to work alongside slaves to build their own new prison.

William S. Burson, a 31-year-old native of Salinville, Ohio, saw a chance to escape when prisoners began tearing down rail fences and ranging farther and farther from the camp. Gaining a guard’s permission to “gather firewood,” he triggered a “Race to Liberty” that broke the guard line as 400 prisoners stampeded into the woods and swamps along the river.

A swamp around Florence, SC

A swamp around Florence, SC

Burson, a private of Company A of the 32nd Ohio Infantry, had been captured July 22nd in the fighting around Atlanta. With two other 29-year-old escapees, Benjamin F. Porter, of the 10th Ohio Cavalry and John Henson, of the 31st Illinois Infantry, Burson built a raft and crossed to the far side of the Pee Dee with no idea of where to go. They were found hiding in a cornfield by a Negro overseer named Will, who fed them and “told us to stay in the woods till night, when he would come back… and put us on the road that would carry us straight to North Carolina; and said we need not be afraid of the darkies, as they were all friends to us. And so we found them to be.”

POWs living in a "shebang" at Florence

POWs living in a “shebang” at Florence

For a week the trio struggled through central South Carolina, chased by bloodhounds, enduring torrential rain without blankets or shelter and suffering diarrhea from eating raw corn. Stumbling blindly through forest and field in moonless, rainy nights, they were frequently aided by negroes who provided them with matches, sweet potatoes, corn bread, chicken and bacon, and risked severe punishment for trading them civilian clothing for their federal uniform jackets.

A long leaf pine savannah

A long leaf pine savannah

By Sept 28th the group made across the state border to the turpentine forests of the North Carolina Sandhills. It was still raining, and Burson, nursing a broken rib and already weakened by two months at Andersonville, was in the grip of a fever and bronchitis so severe that he could barely whisper.

Collecting Rosin in the turpentine forest

Collecting Rosin in the turpentine forest

Three days later, friendly local negroes guided them to a trustworthy member of the Home Guard, who advised them against trying to join the Union forces at New Bern, NC. Instead he directed them to follow the Plank Road northwest to “a large settlement of Quakers in Randolph County,” where “a secret organization” of Union men, would help them through to Tennessee.

This man, though dressed in rebel garb, was Union at heart, and I found that the Jeff Davis was government was losing more by such soldiers than it was gaining.”

Joseph Newlin 1797-1865

Joseph Newlin 1797-1865

When they reached the Randolph County settlements in they were taken under the wing of 67-year-old Joseph Newlin, a well-known Quaker who had almost certainly partnered with the Coffins to help fugitives along the Underground Road. For at least a week the three prison escapees would stay in the county, hidden among various local supporters.

Randolph County, a 30-mile square in the heart of North Carolina, had been gripped by internal guerilla warfare during the Revolutionary War, and old grudges were revived to fuel revenge taken 80 years later. A correspondent in August 1864 wrote that “we are getting right in to war at home, neaighbour against neaighbour.”

Rural Randolph was teeming with “outliers” (draft dodgers) and “recusant conscripts” (deserters) hiding in the woods, ‘caves’, and hills. Today’s site of the state Zoo, Purgatory Mountain, took on that name during the war due to its surrounding haze of concealed campfire smoke. Outlawed and hunted by sheriff, home guard and regular army, these roving bands of young men were a constant source of civil strife. Civilian government came close to collapse, unable to enforce the law or protect local citizens. Troops from Raleigh were frequently called in to round up deserters, punish local collaborators, and guard the factories and polling places.

A civil war deserter

A civil war deserter

Randolph had also been at the heart of anti-slavery activism. The home of more Friends meetings than any other county in the state, it had been the headquarters of the Manumission Society. Daniel Worth, an anti-slavery missionary, had been tried there in 1859 for distributing “incendiary literature.” Residents of the county had voted against secession in 1861 by a ratio of 57 pro-Union voters to every single Confederate. The editor of the Fayetteville Observer explained the vote by saying that the people of Randolph “are attached to the Union, and they felt that the Union was in danger.”

Despite these sentiments, when North Carolina reacted to Lincoln’s call for troops by seceding, Randolph County’s governing elite enthusiastically responded. In 1861 eight companies of troops were raised by the sons of the wealthy farmers and lawyers. At least some county residents also joined the opposing forces at the same time. Howell Gilliam Trogdon, a native of Franklinsville, joined 8th Missouri Zouave regiment and led the “forlorn hope” attack on the Stockade Redan at Grant’s siege of Vicksburg in 1863. Trogdon became the first North Carolinian to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor- gaining the Union’s highest military award for fighting his southern brethren.

In 1862 the draft forced more county residents to serve the Confederacy, but even then they couldn’t be made to stay. The desertion rate for the 8 Randolph companies was 22.8 percent, as contrasted with 12.2 percent for North Carolina as a whole. In October 1864 alone, Confederate officials reported 150 deserters in the county.

A prime example of a local deserter was a great-grandfather of Randolph County’s best-known modern resident, Richard Petty. William F. Toomes, a 26-year-old blacksmith, initially avoided Confederate service as a vital employee of a Deep River cotton mill. Drafted into the 58th NC Infantry in December 1863, he was sent to the Georgia-Tennessee front. Within two weeks Toomes had deserted his Confederate regiment and joined the U.S. Army, serving with the 10th Tennessee Cavalry through the end of the war.

The war would prove devastating to the county’s political structure, wiping out most of the next generation of the antebellum power brokers. This first became evident in the election of 1864, held just 6 weeks before Burson arrived in the county, when Peace Party candidates had swept the local vote. Referring to the unsuccessful candidate for governor, a correspondent wrote that “every old Bill Holdenite in the county is elected, and old Bill beat Vance in Randolph!”

William Burson, recovering from his illnesses, was housed near Franklinsville with “a strong friend of the Union, and of course a bitter enemy of the so-called Confederacy.” His host grew to trust Burson, and initiated him into the lodge of the “Secret Order” modeled on the Masons, “the mysterious order H.O.A., which organization was doing almost as much injury to the rebel cause as an invading army.” The HOA, or “Red String,” referring to the Biblical cord of Rahab which allowed Joshua to infiltrate the city of Jericho, had been a major issue in the state elections held in August. The “President” of the order told Burson he had been in the southern army in Virginia, but had “turned his steps homeward, and at once opened a station on the Underground Railroad.”

Franklinsville, like the rest of Randolph County, had been split by the war. One of the state’s premier cotton mill villages, and the largest urban community in the county, its first factory had been founded in 1838 by Levi Coffin’s cousin Elisha, who sold stock in the company to Quakers and anti-slavery activists. The town had been named after Jesse Franklin, an obscure governor and congressman venerated by abolitionists for voting to keep slavery out of the Northwest Territory. In 1850 a Wesleyan, or “Abolition Methodist” meeting house had been established there by missionaries from Indiana.

In the 1850s slaveowners took control of the factory in a hostile takeover, and with the advent of war production was almost entirely diverted into weaving and sewing undergarments for the military. The populace remained pro-Union, however. As early as June,1861, pro-government citizens had warned that Franklinsville had “Abolitionist and Lincolnite among us who defy the home guards”.

Franklinville was one of a number of communities, said an irate Confederate in 1863, “that are thoroughly abolitionized… Those people… read the New York Tribune before the war [Horace Greeley’s antislavery newspaper]…. They wanted a Lincoln electoral ticket- & because they could not get it, many of them refused to vote at all. Go into their houses now & you will find the Tribune and other abolition Journals pasted as wallpaper in their rooms.”

The “President” of the HOA around Franklinville was probably Reuben F. Trogdon, a cooper and post-war Republican sheriff of the county. Burson noted that the Trogdon family was “widely known as being very hostile to the cause of Jeff Davis… so closely watched by the rebels that they… did not dare sleep in their houses at nights. I found among them men who had not slept in their houses for two years, and some who had not eaten in their houses for six months. They were compelled to camp out in the woods, in order to hide from the rebel soldiers who would frequently make raids on the Union men, and if caught… they would, in almost every case, murder them outright.”

The Blue Ridge from Wilkes County, NC

The Blue Ridge from Wilkes County, NC

Burson’s HOA contacts helped him map out a route to join the Union army in Tennessee that took them through all of the pro-Union “Quaker Belt” counties of North Carolina: Guilford, Stokes, Yadkin, Wilkes, Watauga, and Ashe, where HOA contacts could guide them along the way.

Ashe County, NC

Ashe County, NC

In Ashe County they lost their way and Henson and Porter were recaptured and sent back to the Confederate prison at Salisbury. Burson managed to escape on foot, only to be intercepted by more Home Guards while trying to cross the New River. He was taken to the town of Boone, where he escaped with the aid of another HOA member. From Blowing Rock, NC, suffering more trials and tribulations, he made it through Cumberland and Unicoi counties, TN, to the Union lines at Bull’s Gap, in Hawkins County.

Election Day

Burson had walked more than 400 miles in 55 days since escaping from Florence. His first act upon reaching Union lines on November 8th was to vote. It was Election Day, and the Underground Railroad had delivered a vote for Abraham Lincoln from the Unionists of Randolph County, NC.

Boys in Blue

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On the Waterfront

October 3, 2014

 Worthville 9011lowres

A hundred and more years ago, Randolph County’s mill villages were intimately attuned to the waters of Deep River. A good strong flow meant regular work as the mill’s water wheel or turbine turned the lineshafts and pulleys that powered the machinery. A drought meant the mill must stop until there was enough water to get it going again- an enforced vacation that was not always welcome. Floods on the other hand could push the wheels too hard, damaging the delicate machinery and again forcing the mill to stop for repairs.

Worthville Cov Br washed away 2879lowres

The river and its mill ponds also provided transportation links in times when roads were primitive and poorly maintained. A powered flatboat regularly ran between the mills at Central Falls and Worthville, carrying raw cotton and finished goods. A passenger boat similarly once ran between Franklinville and Ramseuri. Even in leisure time, mill village residents looked toward the water. Picnics and community gatherings were held in mill-owned parks along the river, and at least in Franklinville and Worthville, organized paddle recreation in boats of various descriptions was common.

Worthville Covered Bridge looking south toward factory

Worthville Covered Bridge looking south toward factory

In a 1976 interview, 88-year –old Randleman resident Mrs. N.B. (Sophronia H.) Pickett told the Randolph Guide that “on Saturdays and Sundays the flatboats were used for recreational purposes, and she was sometimes a passenger on this ferry to Central Falls to attend ball games or other social events… In 1903, while the Worths were operating the Worthville mill, a beautiful park was created… for the pleasure of the residents, Mrs. Picket recalls. ‘The park, now long gone, was a favorite meeting place of the young people and a source of great enjoyment. Gravelled walks were shaded by age-old trees. There were swings, benches and a beautiful boat landing where one could get a canoe for a ride up or down the shady river.’” ii

Worthville Boat House, ca. 1912

Worthville Boat House, ca. 1912

Contemporary accounts note the care the Worths gave to the mill pond. “A new coat of paint has been put on the boats belonging to the park…” said the Worthville correspondent in March 1908.iii “The Worth Manufacturing Company are spending lots of money preparing for a picnic and boat races July 3rd,” he wrote in June 1909.iv Randleman also may have had such a facility, but the only reference is to its destruction. “The floods of last week are perhaps without parallel in all the history of this section…” says the courier in March 1912. “At Randleman… a small boat house and boat were carried off.”v

From several historic photographs of Randolph County boaters, I’ve identified three separate types of simple, flat-bottomed boat designs, well suited to the quiet waters of Piedmont rivers, ponds and lakes. All three can be seen in the following picture of the Worthville covered bridge, probably dating to circa-1900.

Worthville Dory

In the boat to the left a man is rowing a group of four in a skiff, a flat-bottomed boat with a pointed bow and square stern. This is a particularly large skiff, probably at least 16 feet in length. Two women in hats share the stern bench, with the rower in the middle and another man in the bow, facing aft. Given the large size of the boat, it was probably not a local product.

Man in Dory Wville

To their right is a man in a bowler hat rowing what looks something like a canoe, but on close inspection is probably a dory, given how the rower is using oars in an oarlock, not a paddle.. The boat is tapered at both ends, which rise from the lower middle where the oarlocks are positioned. The rower is facing the stern, which appears to be slightly square, while the bow is pointed. This is the case with a dory, a lightweight, shallow-draft boat from 16 to 23 feet long.

The dory is a simple design with high, raked sides, a flat bottom and sharp bows, a hull shape defined by the natural curve of sawn, overlapping planks. Dories are one of the oldest traditional forms of fishing boats used in both coastal waters and in the open sea, known to be both seaworthy and easy to row. This one is a long way from the ocean, but is just as suited to the calm waters of the Worthville mill pond. Other pictures of the Worthville boathouse show multiple dories, which were probably purchased elsewhere by the mill when the park was created. They were most likely professional products.

Scow beached in background

Scow beached in background

Worthville Scow with oars

On the extreme right, pulled up on the shore near the end of the bridge, almost obscured in the shadows and cropped out of two other versions of this picture I have seen, is yet another style of boat. Undoubtedly a local homemade product, it is one of the simplest of all boats, known as a scow. Made of entirely of standard size straight planks, nailed or screwed together, the scow was as easy to build at home as a wooden box.

scow_fig

The most common size was 3 feet wide and 12 to 13 feet long, with a 5-foot flat bottom amidships and the bow and stern tapering (“rising”) to square end pieces only 4 inches high. Most scows were entirely symmetrical, with no clearly defined bow or stern. Scows were utilitarian work boats, designed for hauling the maximum amount of cargo, passengers or fish. Most early ferries were built using the scow design.

Fishing from a scow

Fishing from a scow

Punt or Scow, Cold Spring NY

Punt or Scow, Cold Spring NY

Very similar in design was another type of quiet-water, flat-bottomed boat, the punt. Known today almost entirely from pictures of Cambridge and Oxford students languorously punting along the Cam and Cherwell, punts were originally workboats used for fishing and hunting on shallow ponds and lakes. Instead of being propelled by rowing, punts are normally dragged along by the punter using a 16-foot-long pole pushed against the river bottom.

Punting

Punting

A scow and a punt are visually almost identical, with a punt measuring several feet longer than a scow, and sometimes more narrow. Recreational punting at British universities became popular in the 1870s, but punts were commonly used in the United States for duck hunting on shallow coastal sounds before gasoline engines were cheaply available.

BoatCFranklinville mill pond

The final style of boat used in 19th century Randolph County appears in two photographs in my collection from Franklinville. I believe it to be another skiff, much smaller than the one in the Worthville photo, and home-made product that required more complicated construction techniques than the dory or scow. The first photo shows the boat drawn up on the shore of one of the 3 Franklinville mill ponds. The Upper Mill, the Lower Mill, and the Ironworks all had separate impoundments, but this one is so narrow that it is most likely the Ironworks pond on Bush Creek, also known as “York’s Pond.”

Fville scan0011

This small skiff is very sharply pointed toward the bow, and probably could only safely hold two people. The homemade nature of this boat is evident from the second photograph, which clearly shows the rough-cut lumber. The sides are single 1-inch-thick planks at least 12 inches in width; a passenger seat braces the nose, and rudimentary “knees” or side braces stiffen the vertical plank sides. The bottom deck is made of six planks of varying widths, tied together by a batten running the width of the deck near the bow. The deck was probably built first, with the sides bent and nailed using the shape of the deck as a form or pattern.

Construction of a Bayou Skiff

Construction of a Bayou Skiff

The hydrodynamic V-shape of the Franklinville skiff may have made it easier to row than a scow, and clearly illustrates the evolution of boat-building from the square bow of the scow to the sharp prow of the dory. All of these 19th-century forms have roots in the Anglo-American watercraft traditions.

dugout NC White

There undoubtedly were  examples in Randolph County of native watercraft traditions such as the canoe and kayak, but no photographs of them are known. In eastern North Carolina, some examples of native dug-out canoes have been recovered by archeologists, but so far, nothing like that has been found in Randolph County.

i “C.F. Moon operated a gasoline boat between this place and Ramseur last week for the convenience of the Piedmont Association held at Ramseur. “Franklinville News,” The Courier, 20 Aug. 1908.

ii The Randolph Guide, 21 July 1976, page E-12.

iii The Courier, 26 March 1908.

iv The Courier, 3 June 1909.

v The Courier, 21 March 1912.