Every Step by Stealth (John Collins Welch)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Prison-camp escapee, John Collins Welch, faces intense hunger, a torch-wielding mob and a rebel guerrilla band as he takes "every step by stealth"


Submitted: August 02, 2020

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Submitted: August 02, 2020



Every Step by Stealth

Prison-camp escapee, John Collins Welch, faces intense hunger,

a torch-wielding mob, and a rebel guerrilla band as he takes "every step by stealth"


"We knew there was no escaping for any of us," the fleeing Union prisoner wrote in his 1864 journal, "without giving some satisfaction to the insatiate ferocity of the dogs and men." Lieutenant John Collins Welch was accompanied by three other escaping officers near Cokesbury, South Carolina. They had vainly tried to elude a band of a half dozen neighborhood dogs. The other ones they passed along the way had simply emitted a few warning barks, then gone about their business. Not this pack, however. They kept up a running chorus of snarls and yelps.

Welch wasn't too worried about being bitten, since like his fellow escapees, he carried a heavy club. But he knew it wouldn't be long before the dogs alerted their owner. Welch's fears soon materialized. "In a moment," he noted, "a man came out of the house and commenced giving a peculiar yelp that they have for setting the dogs on..." Ten days after the four Union officers had escaped from the confederate prison in Columbia, South Carolina, it seemed their prospects for freedom were doomed.

"Before this, we had agreed if anything of this kind occurred, we would separate by twos," Welch wrote, "preferring that two should be lost than all should be lost." With the dogs at their feet and the owner close behind, they implemented their plan. Welch teamed up with Lieutenant Adrian Appelgate of the Second New Jersey Cavalry. Welch and Appelgate turned left while the other two headed right. When the dogs came to the fork in the trail, they veered toward their right.

Welch knew that fate had dealt him only a momentary win. Once the dogs and their owner cornered the other two, they would likely head his way. Quickly, he and Appelgate attempted to cover their path. "We rubbed our feet with needles of evergreen trees," Welch noted, "to destroy the scent of our feet." In addition, they turned off their path at a right angle and walked for a while. They then doubled back toward the original path. Part way there, they leapt off the trail as far as they could. The dogs, they hoped, would follow the side trail to its end, not discovering the spot where they left to continue their forward journey.

Their scheme apparently worked, since the dogs never approached them again. The next night, they ran across two black children who told them their companions had been captured and taken to the railroad for a trip back to Columbia. Saddened, but not surprised by the news, they were acutely aware they could have just as easily been the losers. Solemnly, Welch and Appelgate resumed their clandestine journey. Hiding during the light of day, sometimes catching a few hours of fitful sleep, they walked only at night. Welch said the coming of darkness brought about a full realization of their plight. They were, he observed, "fugitives seeking the avoidance of daylight...each breath suppressed and every step by stealth."

The chain of events that led to those watchful steps began on April 20th, 1864. Lieutenant John Collins Welch was captured, along with a number of other Union soldiers, at Plymouth, North Carolina. "Plymouth Pilgrims, the newspapers of the South derisively called us," Welch later wrote. Earlier in the war, they would likely have been held at Belle Island in Richmond. But due to the fear of an impending Union raid there, they were transported to Andersonville, Georgia. Welch said he was ushered into "a train of twelve or fourteen boxcars, containing about 1,800 prisoners, packed as closely as men could well stand."

About 1,700 of the enlisted men who arrived were confined at Andersonville, but the Confederate authorities wanted no officers among them. Welch and the others were held for a day outside the facility, and then taken to Macon, Georgia in search of a place of confinement. "In this search, of course," Welch noted, "we were the passive rather than the active agents."

The southern officials decided on an area in Oglethorpe Park and commenced building a stockade to house their captives. Welch and the rest of the hundred were soon joined by about 800 other Union officers who had been housed at the notorious Libby prison in Richmond. By the summer of 1864, the total number of captive officers had expanded to about 1,600. At that time, the rebel officials feared a raid on the Macon facility by Sherman's advancing troops. So in early July, they transported their captives to Charleston and Savannah. Welch was among those in the latter group.

Following a relatively comfortable six weeks in Savannah, Welch was transferred to Charleston. His stay there was in direct contrast to the one in Savannah. He said he and the other officers were thrown into a jail yard with "a most motley assortment of human beings." Among them were Confederate deserters, sick soldiers from various prisons, black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts and the typical inmates of a local jail.

"We were all compacted in a very small space," Welch asserted, "with filth to make it more disgusting than is imaginable." Fortunately, amidst the filth, a few books had been provided in the yard. Welch said he selected a volume of Thomas Jefferson's work and leaned back against a fifteen-foot brick wall to read it, "with the gallows a dozen feet away..."

Later, a city prisoner came into the yard with a pair of shoes to sell. Welch had been captured along with a large group of other Union soldiers. So his captors had not bothered to search each individual for money he might use to try to buy his freedom. Welch gave the man twenty dollars and his old boots. The boot soles were worn out, but the man said he could use the upper leather sections to make more shoes. Already envisioning his potential escape, Welch went barefoot and saved the shoes for later use.

His removal to Columbia was the result of a yellow-fever epidemic in Charleston. When Welch and the others arrived in Columbia in early October, they were ushered into a three-acre open pasture about a mile and a half southwest of the town. A drenching rain greeted them during their first day and night. Two plowed furrows surrounded the pasture and the outer circle designated the line for the guard's beat.  The inner circle, graphically referred to as the dead line, served as the boundary for the prisoner's movements.

Their food included corn meal, rice, flour, salt and a liberal supply of sorghum. The latter item, often a foreign taste to a northern tongue, soon earned the prison the nickname of "Camp Sorghum." But a bright spark of hope gleamed in the midst of the miserable weather and mundane diet. The camp officials often let the prisoners go into the adjoining woods to cut boughs to build their shelters.

This procedure offered Welch the chance for freedom he had been dreaming about. On November 3, 1864, he and nearly a hundred others went out on parole into the adjoining woods. "The sentinels were mostly boys," Welch observed, "with a sprinkling of old men who had little love for the Confederacy and frequently did not hesitate to tell us so." Once in the woodland, he teamed up with three others for the hastily planned escape. "We went deep into the woods," Welch noted, "cutting for ourselves cudgels to serve both as walking sticks and weapons, and awaited the darkness."

When night fell, they set out again. "After having been so long constrained by hostile bayonets," Welch reflected, "the pulse leaped with a new strength and joy." Fully aware they were not yet free; he said he consoled himself with the fact that at least he was no longer a prisoner. Welch had stashed some cornbread, salt and matches in his haversack and had traded his blanket to a fellow prisoner for a small compass. With those items and his new shoes, he was primed for an escape attempt.

Welch knew if they traveled 120-miles to the southeast, they might find Union blockade ships. But he said he was also aware that the path "would be full of packs of bloodhounds that had been previously trained to hunt slaves and were exceedingly convenient to hunt escaping prisoners." The only logical option, he concluded, would be a northwestern passage of nearly 400-miles through South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and into Tennessee.

"There were great mountain ranges to cross," Welch noted, "but here we believed that Union people abounded." In addition to the compass, Welch carried a little map drawn on greased paper. The map disclosed a basic path as far as a little town in northwestern South Carolina, named Walhalla. "The word was passed around among us, 'Get to Walhalla and you are all right,"' Welch wrote. The little settlement was populated primarily by Germans and they were known to be strong Union supporters.

Getting to Walhalla, however, would not be an easy task. On the second day, they were unable to find a thicket or swamp to hide in. Welch and Appelgate cut a number of small boughs and stood them upright against a string tied between two trees. In the afternoon, Welch said a black woman and a white child from a nearby plantation wandered near the makeshift hideaway. He and Appelgate lay flat on the ground trying not to make any noise. Eventually he heard the lady say she was afraid of being out so far from the house, and they returned. "If we would have been seen..." Welch asserted, "our efforts to achieve our liberty would probably have terminated ingloriously."

"For the first few days," Welch reported, "we paid little attention to our food." The excitement of being free had overpowered their feelings of hunger. Eventually, however, he found that "no prospect of dinners ahead, however good, was sufficient for the cravings of the present." Pilfered farm chickens and geese eased those cravings, as did sweet potatoes, corn and pumpkins from the fields.

They had also been told that black residents along the way would be happy to feed them. "Our first venture at what we supposed to be a negro cabin," Welch noted, "was unfortunate." He and Appelgate teamed up with several other Union escapees they had recently encountered. One member of the little group went to the cabin door while the rest hid in the nearby woods. Amidst the loud barking of dogs, a white woman appeared at the door. "You're runaways," she yelled. After swearing he was not, Welch said the man then "clearly demonstrated that he was" by taking off through the forest as fast as possible, with the others at his side.

"Our wisdom and shrewdness daily increased with our time out of prison," Welch wrote. The original four left the others and sought out the negro cabins in the evenings. That way, in case someone did betray them, they would have the night to distance themselves. Despite their increased vigilance, the next problem they would encounter, would be a fateful one - the barking dogs that eventually cornered two of the foursome near Cokesbury, South Carolina.

After Welch and Appelgate covered their trail and eluded the dogs, they continued along the path the little map indicated. Near Anderson, they found a black man who provided them with supper. He was afraid to take them to his cabin, so he led them to an old gin house on the plantation. The building was seldom visited, and used only for storage. "After we had eaten," Welch reported, "it was raining so hard and was so dark, it would have been madness to have left a dry place and a roof to set out to travel..." Their host assured them they could safely hide in the gin house since nobody came there but his black friends and family. "So we buried ourselves in the corn stalks for the twenty-four hours before us," Welch wrote.

About noon the next day, the two fugitives heard children's voices below. They were not too worried, since their host told them the children were afraid to come up to the loft where they hid. "However," Welch recalled, "soon upstairs they were, jumping about." One of the children, in fact, began performing somersaults right beside Welch. The activity knocked aside some of the cornstalks he had covered himself with. When Welch tried to shove them back, he noted, "the eyes of the boy rested on the heaving stalk." Then one of the other children joined in, pushing aside a bundle of stalks, exposing part of Welch's blue coat.

Suddenly, simple child's play had transformed into potential disaster. After a nervous conference, the children decided to face the situation head on. They came running toward Welch, knocking over more of the stalks and exposing his hat. "With this," he reflected, "they broke into their best speed from the house." A white boy in the group bolted into the main house to inform its inhabitants that they had a stranger hiding in the gin house.

As he did, Welch and Appelgate leapt from the rear window of the building and headed for the nearby woods. Afraid to take the road because the locals might search there, they decided instead to head back toward the gin house. "If they were searching for us," Welch calculated, "they would not expect such action."  Fortunately, their bold move paid off. Back at the gin house, they learned that the men of the plantation were away when the little boy ran in to report his discovery. One of the servants had followed him in and claimed that he had been sleeping in the barn and was actually the "stranger" the children had discovered. Luckily, his story was accepted and the matter was dropped. Welch and Appelgate had once more survived a near disaster.

As they approached Walhalla, Welch and Appelgate hunted up a local black man who was known to be very helpful to fugitive Union soldiers. "We aroused Uncle Ed, which was his name," Welch stated, "at two or three in the morning..." Despite the late hour, Welch said they received a "vigorous and heartfelt welcome." Uncle Ed was fearful about cooking so late at night since the fire might arouse suspicion among the locals. Instead, he offered bread and raw fresh beef to his late-night visitors. Welch and Appelgate dug into the meal with vigor. The meat, Welch reported, "I am not aware of having tasted any the worse for being raw."

After their meal, Uncle Ed told them about a white man in town, named Jacob Joost, who would not betray their confidence and might be able to help them. He gave them directions and prayed for their success. Just like Uncle Ed, Joost received them with a hearty welcome. The night before, Joost told them, he had sent three Union soldiers toward freedom with a black guide. He hid Welch and Appelgate in his barn until the guide returned.  After a day and a half, Joost decided the guide must have decided to seek refuge in the north himself. Along with a neighbor, Joost guided Welch & Appelgate for about four miles. He then gave them detailed instructions for reaching Fountain's Mill near the Tugaloo River. Mr. Fountain, he told them, could give directions to Union-occupied territory.

The next day, they arrived near the mill, but could not identify Mr. Fountain. "So for the first time," Welch wrote, "we ventured out of our concealment in the daylight to speak to other than a colored person." He said they assumed the character of discharged Confederate soldiers. When they finally located Mr. Fountain, he told them to hide in a small building filled with corn stalks, and he would help them shortly.

Apparently not everyone in the town was fooled by their Confederate soldier pretense. In the evening, the miller's wife came to them, yelling," For God's sake get out of this, there's a whole crowd coming!" "It was but the work of an instant," Welch noted, "to throw the stalks from us, inquire the way to the woods on the mountain and make for them."

From the distant woods, they watched the little mob. Brandishing pine knot torches, the search party inspected the little building then turned toward the river to the woods. Welch and Appelgate headed in the opposite direction, eventually locating a secure hiding place. They spent the day secreted in a deep ravine they had covered with sticks and brush. As night approached, they left the safety of their little hide-away. Once again, they tried to talk with Mr. Fountain, since they hadn't yet learned the passageway to the Union troops.

"With a caution born of our high hopes and of the dark possibilities," Welch wrote, "we again stole down to the mill..." Mr. Fountain was very nervous, but helped them as much as he could. He said he could not get them across the river, since every boat was under guard. The best he could do was to tell Welch and Appelgate of the last place he knew the Union troops to be. Then he directed them toward a relatively shallow part of the river that they might be able to ford. They thanked him and quickly departed. "His every sign," Welch noted, "was that he wanted us to get away from his place immediately."

"It was Sunday night, November 27," Welch recorded. They had made it to the segment of the river that Fountain had suggested. Despite the coldness of the water, Welch headed straight for the river. "Behind us was a party of blood-thirsty men looking for us," he noted. "On the other side of the river was food, safety from our pursuers...and the hope again that had been burning so brightly in our bosoms. It was not a moment for hesitation..."

Fortunately, Mr. Fountain had been correct. The river at that point was shallow enough to cross. Once across, they headed north, following the Chattahoochee River to its source, and passing through Unicord Gap in the Blue Ridge. Along the way, as before, they ran across black families who fed them and directed them further along the path to potential freedom.

In the Blue Ridge, they met a man whose son had been killed simply for expressing his Union sentiments. "The old man's love for the union, however," Welch wrote, "increased with his afflictions..." He housed and fed Welch and Appelgate, then asked his son-in-law to guide them across the mountains to a valley occupied by many Union sympathizers.  But Welch was acutely aware that not everyone there shared that viewpoint. "The country was full of desperadoes," he noted, "who had deserted the rebel service and who would kill us on sight."

They were introduced to a Mr. Ledford, who routinely made excursions to Union occupied territory. He was considered the best guide and scout in the area. As he prepared for the trip, Welch and Appelgate met a number of other Union sympathizers. "Our presence, of course," Welch observed, "being a secret from all those of rebel proclivities."

"At 10 o'clock Sunday night, December 4," Welch recorded, "the three of us left the home of our guide." Traveling throughout the night down the valley of the Hiawassee, they reached the house of a Union man. There, they stopped for breakfast and a brief rest. The man's son joined them in order to escort them across the mountainous region ahead. "It was a hard day's journey," Welch noted, "Constantly ascending and descending the mountains..."

Over the next few days, they crossed the Appalachian mountain range into Tennessee. Their only crisis during the excursion was the near loss of Welch's notes. Fortunately, he salvaged the papers...which he later used to compile his journal. After tediously descending Tellico Mountain, they looked for a place to stay for the evening. The inhabitants of the first house they approach told them to come in and spend the night. Unfortunately, their hospitality was not echoed by everyone in the area. "Some women, strangers to the people of the house," Welch reported, "passed up the road. This fact had a significance we could not yet foresee."

That significance was manifested about ten o'clock that night.  "I was awakened suddenly by the voices of men and the tramp of horse's feet outside..." Welch stated. He, Appelgate and Ledford all occupied one bed. A crowd of armed men entered the house and the leader told the lady of the house, "We understand there are some federal deserters here." "On the first sound of confusion outside, I was awake in every fiber," Welch noted. Nevertheless, he feigned a deep sleep as the men approached.

After stalling as long as possible, Welch acknowledged the men. As he surveyed them, he noted the great variety of clothing and weapons. This led him to feel they were likely from Tennessee. That observation still didn't help him determine his reaction. They might be renegade rebels, but could also be Union soldiers serving under Major Joe Devine, a Union officer who commanded troops based out of Madisonville. Eventually, one of the men asked Welch who he was. "I could not see that one particle of improvement could be made," Welch wrote, "over stating the truth precisely as it was." After he and his two companions told their story, Appelgate asked the group members who they were. "We are Joe Devine's men," came the reply.

"With this, a smile of joy and great relief broke over Ledford's countenance," Welch noted. He said his guide "began to talk freely of the Union cause, of the service he had been to it...and of the injury he had been to prominent Secessionists..." Welch, on the other hand, neither accepted nor rejected the men's claim to be Devine's troops. "My mind was in a singularly passive state," he wrote, "and the time for action was gone..."

His reluctance would soon pay off. The leader of the group told Welch and the others to dress and join them as they rode toward a camping spot for the night. After about two-and-a-half miles travel, one of the men told Welch that the captain would like to talk to him in the rear of the group. Welch pulled up his horse and waited until the captain advanced. Appelgate was already riding alongside him. "The leader," Welch observed, "was not the one who came into the house." This man, the actual captain of the band, was smaller, with a quiet cultivated manner.

"We have been deceiving you," the captain suddenly disclosed, "we are not Yankees, but are Independent Scouts from Cocke County, Tennessee."  He explained that they worked primarily inside Union lines and usually could not be bothered with prisoners of war. "You have seen hard times in the South," he continued, "and we have concluded to release you." He said they had developed the reputation in the north, of murdering all the Union men they encounter. "But we are going to prove to them it is not so."

Obviously relieved over escaping the rebel band's traditional death sentence, Welch noticed that only he and Appelgate had been summoned to the captain. "But where is our guide?" he inquired. "We cannot release him," the captain solemnly replied, "he told us entirely too much." Ledford's bragging about his exploits in bringing affliction to the Confederates had sealed his fate. Welch and Appelgate pleaded for mercy towards their helpful guide, with no success. Welch said the little rebel guerrilla band "put the spurs to their horses and rode away."

The next morning Welch and Appelgate began to descend the mountainous area toward the Union troops. "Often we would run down the gradually descending roads," Welch wrote, "anxious to annihilate the distance between us and our troops at Madisonville, the genuine Joe Devine's men..." Finally they came upon two mounted Union soldiers. "The victory was ours at last," Welch proclaimed. "Mounted on horses behind these men, we went into town one mile distant."

When they reached the post, they learned Devine had been called away for other duty, replaced by a captain from Wisconsin.  Despite receiving a cordial welcome and a hot supper, Welch and Appelgate found themselves strictly guarded during the night. The next morning, the captain explained his reasoning. He said he thought they might have been spies sent in from the guerrilla band, but had learned that morning the rebels had moved out of the area. "What made him suspect us, and what he could not get over," Welch wrote, "was that we reported having been in the hands of that band of guerrillas and then coming out alive."

With his long ordeal behind him, Welch yearned to reach his family in western New York by Christmas. Unfortunately, railroad passage had been interrupted between east Tennessee and the north. At that time, Confederate General Hood's men occupied several sections of the railroad line. A number of other escaped prisoners shared Welch and Appelgate's desire to get home for the holidays. Together, they traveled one hundred and eighty miles by horse to the nearest railroad boarding point, at Nicholasville, Kentucky.

From Nicholasville, they caught the train northward. In New Jersey, Welch parted with his friend and traveling companion, Appelgate, then continued toward his Angelica, New York home. On the morning of Christmas Eve day, 1864, John Collins Welch completed his arduous journey. "I was, as one raised from the dead, in the midst of relations and friends. Mother - my stepmother," he added, "had an assurance and premonition of my coming." Welch said she had been telling everyone that he would be back before Christmas, "without any particle of information having been received that I was anywhere else than in my southern prison..."

In the midst of his loving homecoming, John Welch reflected on the lives of the slaves who had fed and sheltered him and his companion along the way. He especially remembered "Uncle Ed" providing a hearty welcome and clandestine meal in the middle of the night. "I could not help but think of the liberty, the joys, the civilization we were going towards," Welch observed, "and the slavery, the narrowness, the restraint that was his; and yet he was pouring out the sympathies of a great heart toward us."

The visions of those helpful friends along his path eventually became his dominant memories of the ordeal. Little by little, they overshadowed the recollections of the oppressive conditions and paltry food of the southern prisons. Eventually, they even transcended the images of the perilous journey through unfamiliar territory, where he was compelled to take every step by stealth.


I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you have time, please leave a comment.  Thank you!

© Copyright 2020 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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