Civil War Love Letters: The Journey Home
Last week, we printed the very last letter that Captain James Love wrote to his beloved Molly during his time in the Civil War. But that wasn't the end of the story, in the next several weeks, we'll be providing an epilogue of his and Molly's life, beginning with James's journey home after the war.
On February 16, 1865, after writing his last letter to Molly, James finally escaped from his Confederate captors while camped in a field near Charlotte, North Carolina. He and seven other Union officer prisoners received rations of hard tack and bacon, paid a fee to their North Carolina guards, and then ran. They were fired upon and chased, but moved quickly across a bridge over Long Creek. They next came to a bridge over the Catawba River, where a guard stopped them. James and the other men fabricated a story to get past the guard, and ran for it. The guard fired his gun, and soon a whole picket chased the men, quickly capturing one, and then two more a few hours later. The next morning, some boys out hunting saw the rest of the group. The men learned that the boys’ mothers had helped Union officers before, and they arranged to be hidden in an empty shanty for a day or two until the threatened search was over, and they could get a guide. As James recalled in his reminiscences, they could “never repay their kindness and watchfulness day and night.”
On February 20, after three days of rest, the men started with their guide Manuel, a free black man, at 6 p.m. To avoid guards, they traveled a circuitous route of 20 miles, but gained only 6 miles. They reached the only unguarded bridge across the south fork of the Catawba River at the Pin Hook Factory, a textile mill near present day Belmont, North Carolina. At that point they had to decide whether to go down the river to find General William T. Sherman, or up and across the mountains into Tennessee. They met secretly with several Union men, and learned that 20 escaped prisoners had just been captured nearby, so they decided to go west.
Along their way to Tennessee, the men received directions and rations from white men and women who supported the Union, free blacks, and slaves. During the evening of February 21 the men got lost, but they met a free black man who guided them to the old Charleston Road. They spent February 22 in a deserted cabin with a man that James described as “energetic, well read, a practical miner, [though] Union, a native Southern Abolitionist, energetic and quoting Jefferson.” This man helped the group find Alec, a “brave Negro pilot,” according to James. The men were assured that they were already safe, because they had only 50 miles to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where an underground railroad for prisoners and refugees commenced. After their guide arrived at 8 p.m., they made 20 miles to camp. They passed through Shelby, North Carolina, at 4 a.m. and then crossed the Broad River, with their “brave guide prospecting the way.” After resting during the day in a tent, James and the others moved again after dark. In heavy rain, they waded knee deep for miles and asked for directions at a miserable shanty of two Confederate soldiers. James wrote, “They knew us at a glance…and they bid us God Speed, if we wished to travel such a horrible night.” By 2 a.m., they camped two miles west of Sandy Run, after a night of grueling travel. James wrote, “We were only 6 miles on our way but more fatigued than in travelling 30 miles.” Their guide Alec left them so he could move ahead and prepare to meet them at Broad River, nine miles ahead, at sunset. However, the men had to move around so many plantations that they traveled 25 miles before they reached the bridge over the river. Once they crossed the bridge, Alec gave them a canteen of whiskey, and James wrote, “…never was whiskey more needful or beneficial.” After resting for a few hours, the men started again at midnight, passing Rutherfordton, 10 miles ahead, before morning. Along the way, they found a soldier at home with his wife. She baked some bread and boiled some eggs, for which the men paid, and gave them a piece of bacon. At 4 a.m., Alec returned to conduct the men to the residence of their next guide, Lewis. The men paid Alec and were sorry to part. James recalled that Alec was a slave who hired his time and had accumulated $3,000 in property, the price of his freedom. He also made trips of 100 miles to sell iron and other goods. Alec believed that General William Sherman would free him without cost and he could save his iron and other goods for Yankee gold. According to James, Alec’s advice to other slaves was to stay where they were and wait, so they could continue living in their old homes as free people.
The men started again at 6 p.m. and made six miles to land owned by Jim Hamilton. He gave the men a good dinner and had the men’s shoes soled and mended. They next crossed three flooded creeks with Jim, riding a mule, as their guide. Due to rain, they made only seven miles, all uphill. The next day, they slept in a loft until 11 a.m. During the day the men heard many visitors discussing Sherman and the early end of the war. At night they started again with their guide but turned back after they heard of some troops near Asheville. Their next guide came early and conducted them, before daylight, to an old school house in the mountains. At midnight, they started again to ascend the mountains, reaching the top after a climb of 5 miles in 4 hours. Since the next stage was across the Blue Ridge and Black Mountains, they had to wait several days for the weather to clear, so they would not get lost in fog or snow drifts.
When the sun finally came out on March 5, the group started at 11 a.m., reached the top of the Blue Ridge at 4 p.m., and were down in the valley, on the west side, at sunset. Then they had a very rough march to the foot of the Black Mountains, which they reached at 1 a.m. on March 6. After a rest, they started early to climb the Black Mountains, which had no trail, and were very steep over rocks, stumps, and fallen timber. The group reached the top, 6,000 feet high, at 1 p.m. After a good dinner, they crossed over to the head spring of Caney Creek and passed rapidly down the creek. At daylight, they started again to the Ashville road. After traveling another 3 or 4 miles, and a rapid march over a steep range, James and the rest reached “Egypt” at the foot of Bald Mountain. The next day they reached the summit of Bald Mountain, then descended rapidly and reached the valley for dinner at 3 p.m.
Unfortunately, James did not recount the rest of the trip, but after traveling 350 miles in 28 days, James reached the Union lines and reported at Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 14, 1865. Two days later, he requested a leave of absence. The exact date of his arrival in St. Louis is not known. However, James and Molly got married in St. Louis on May 2, 1865, and later that month he was honorably discharged. After almost four years of military service, including 17 months as a prisoner, and 166 letters, James was home and started his life with his beloved Molly.
—Molly Kodner, Archivist