“Adventures Of a ‘Merry’ Boy” (from Robert Merry’s Museum, February, 1865; pp. 49-53)
Rejoicings fill the Merry circle just now, because of the safe return of “Eugene,” our Merry boy, who enlisted in the army of the Union at the first call of his country, and who has served her faithfully ever since, encountering danger and enduring suffering and imprisonment, worthy of the reputation of the “boys in blue.”
Many of you used to see him in the office of Merry’s Museum, in years gone by; and when Uncle Robert was absent from the sanctum, I know everything was right so long as Eugene was at his post.
Returning from Boston in the month of April, 1861, I never shall forget the determined earnestness of his look when he told me he had decided to enlist, that he should always regret it if he did not, and could not feel it right to remain at home when his country needed men so much. The first gun at Sumter aroused his nation and his patriotic impulses at the same time, and with a heroic devotion to the cause of liberty and freedom, he hastened to the tented field. Enlisting as a private in the gallant Brooklyn Fourteenth, he was in the thickest of the first Bull Run fight, shared the varied fortunes of this historic regiment till promoted to second lieutenant in the Forty-seventh, and subsequently to first lieutenant in the One Hundred and Thirty-first Regiment N. Y. V.
Participating in the charges and battles before Port Hudson, he volunteered to be one of the storming party of 1,000 called for by General Banks, to take the fort by assault, but was soon after captured while on a foraging expedition, June 27, 1863. Stripped of nearly everything, he was taken to Libby Prison, and confined eleven months, and after that taken to Danville and Macon, and from thence to Charleston, and there placed under fire with 600 other Union officers. While here he formed plans to escape, and we make a few extracts from his diary in reference to his adventures:
Early in the morning of the 4th of October I was awakened by bearing the cry of ‘pack up.’ After rubbing my eyes, I got up from my hard pine-board couch, and looking in the direction from whence the sound proceeded, saw that all was bustle and confusion among the officers in the jail-yard. A few moments later, and they were formed in line and marched off. Those of us confined in the Marine and Roper hospitals now began to look rather anxiously for orders to follow them. I say anxiously, because we were treated better in Charleston than at any other point where we had been confined, and feared that any change would be for the worse. A large number of the people seemed to sympathize with us, and evinced a disposition to do all for us that the military authorities would allow. Some even persisted, as we marched along the streets on entering the city, in distributing bread and other articles of food, after being warned off by the guard until they were arrested and taken away by force. If the people were permitted to show their real feelings, all our prisoners in the South would fair much better than they now do.
At nine o’clock, orders came for all those in the Roper Hospital, and one hundred of us in the Marine, to get ready to leave at ten. Thinking that perhaps the time had now come when an opportunity might be presented for me to make my escape, I put on a Confederate uniform which I had obtained from a rebel deserter while I was confined in the jail. The clock had but just struck the hour when the inmates of the Roper began to go by. We were to follow as soon as they had passed. I took my stand near the door, and when the order was given to move, was one of the first to go out. As the guard near me when we started had noticed my uniform, I walked forward as fast as possible without attracting attention by my haste, and gradually overtook the head of the column, I kept near the line of guards, and when I was quite sure that the guard then near me was uncertain whether I was a Yankee or a Confederate soldier, I began to watch for an opportunity to slip through the line. The column halted. Seeing a party of citizens and rebel soldiers enter a bar-room, I quietly followed them in without being suspected. Lounging carelessly about the room, I at last with joy saw the column again in motion, the last prisoner pass, and then the guard. I began to breathe more freely, and leaving the bar-room walked rapidly in the opposite direction.
My feelings, as I hurried through the streets, can be better imagined than described. For sixteen dreary months I had been a prisoner of war. Now I was free, or so near it that but a few days would elapse before I should be again where the glorious Stars and Stripes float triumphantly in the breeze. Such thoughts rushed through my mind as I hurried along.
While confined in the hospital, a Mrs. T—, who had formerly lived near my own home at the North, accompanied by a Mrs. D—, called several times to see me, each time bringing some little delicacy with them. I knew this lady would befriend me, so I directed my steps toward her house. After some little difficulty I found it, and received a warm welcome, and was congratulated on my escape. But it was not to be my fortune to get away without some trouble and delay. Scarcely had I began to experience a feeling of safety, when the suspicions of the husband of Mrs. D—, who lived in the lower part of the house, were aroused, and I had to seek safety in a rapid retreat into the street and round the corner.
After wandering about the city for an hour or two, and getting very tired and hungry, I went into a house where I saw several colored women engaged in sewing. I gave the old lady some money, and she sent out and got some bread, butter, and eggs, and fixed up a meal for me. Here I made arrangements to stay all night, intending however, to keep them in ignorance as to who I was; but our intentions are often frustrated in a manner we least expect.
About nine o’clock, as I was getting ready to retire, a woman entered, whom I at once recognized as one I had seen every day in front of the prison selling pies and cakes. She was equally quick in recognizing me, but immediately quieted my apprehensions by assuring me that I was among friends, who would do all in their power to assist me. I found shelter there for the next three weeks. The hardest part of my undertaking was yet to be accomplished. The first attempt
to get through to Morris Island was made about two weeks after I got away from the guard. Through Mrs. T—, who came to see me every day, I found out where several other officers who escaped the same day that I did were concealed. We met, laid our plans, procured a boat and pilot, and at the time set were all together at the house of a colored man not far from the wharf where the boat was awaiting us. We had sent two colored men with the oars and thole-pins to the boat, with instructions to return and let us know when everything was ready for starting. Two hours passed, and they did not return. We began to be uneasy, and two of the party went to ascertain the cause. In a few minutes they returned with the information that we were betrayed—our boat destroyed, and the two negroes captured by the police. Thinking it unsafe to remain where we were, we separated. It had now got to be half-past ten o’clock. I hardly knew where to go, but mechanically directed my steps toward the house of Mrs. T—. As I approached, everything appeared dark, not a light burning. Not thinking it safe to ring the bell, I was on the point of seeking some other shelter, when I noticed that the front door was open. I immediately stepped into the hall, pulled off my shoes, groped my way up three flights of stairs, and found myself in an unfinished garret. There was a window without glass in each end. The weather was cold and blustering, and the idea of remaining there all night was anything but pleasant to contemplate. The floor was so covered with the accumulated dust of years, that lying down was not to be thought of, even if it had been warm enough for sleeping. It proved to be one of the most uncomfortable nights I ever passed. At daybreak I was at the head of the garret stairs, eagerly watching for the first appearance of my friend in the hall. In about an hour she appeared. I immediately descended, and after drinking a cup of good hot coffee, my blood gradually regained its usual warmth, though the severe cold which I then caught I think was the cause of the attack of yellow fever with which I was laid up a few days after in the same house. Here I remained all day, and in the evening returned to the house of the colored man where I had been stopping. They were somewhat surprised at seeing me, for they had hoped that we had succeeded in our attempt.
One evening, about three days after this, I again went to the house of Mrs. T—, and remained over-night; they always had a bed prepared for me in case I should get hard pressed for shelter, and no nearer place at hand. The next morning I was very sick. I got up and drank a cup of coffee, but felt so bad that I soon returned to bed, and did not leave it again for eleven days. Part of this time I was so low that I was not expected to live; but thanks to the kind and unremitting attention of Mrs. T—, and a strong constitution, the crisis was safely passed, and I began to rally and gain strength.
While sick I was the recipient of many kindnesses from perfect strangers; one lady, although she sympathized with the South, and knew who I was, forbore to betray me, and even allowed her little girl to bring me some sweet Havana oranges. While I was sick, Mrs. T— had to borrow money to pay my expenses; and now that I was better, the question arose as to how I should make it good. I knew Mrs. T—, although she would not
ask me for it, could not afford to pay it. My only resource was to apply to a gentleman that I had once seen when visiting the prison, I was not certain that I was not putting my head in the lion’s jaws, but I must have money some way. I made the trial, and found a friend who was both able and willing to assist me. I had now recovered my strength so as to be able to go about the city. I again met with the rest of the officers who while I was sick made several ineffectual attempts to get out of the city, and arrangements for another trial. When the time came, through some misunderstanding I was late in completing my arrangements; and the others, thinking they could wait no longer, started off without me. My being delayed proved the most fortunate thing that could have happened for me, for while I was hurrying along the street, in the hope of overtaking the rest of the party, who should I see coming from the opposite direction but those same men in charge of a guard! Had I been ready with the others, I, too, should have been captured.
Stepping quietly around a corner to avoid being seen, I hurried to the house of my colored friends, where I remained impatiently waiting for night to come. As soon as darkness spread her mantle over the city, I ventured out and proceeded to the house of a gentleman who had already tendered me some assistance, and stayed with him all night. With his assistance I get passage on the cars to Savannah. I traveled all day long by the side of a rebel colonel, enjoying his conversation very much.
On arriving at Savannah, I immediately called on a gentleman to whom I had a letter of introduction from my friend in Charleston. He took me to a good private boarding-house, and requested me to call and see him the next day, which I did. I was at this time passing as a citizen, and under an assumed name. When I called on Mr. B—, I told him exactly who I was, for I knew it was necessary for me to make a confidant of some one in order to make the necessary arrangements for getting through the lines. The gentleman, although he ran great risk in doing so, offered to find a man who would take me to Fort Pulaski, and also to furnish me the money to pay expenses, but wanted me to wait a few days for a brother of his who wanted to get out of the Confederacy, so that we could both go together. It was two weeks before he came.
In the mean time, I was compelled to leave my boarding-house for fear of being conscripted. The authorities were seizing every man they could find, and sending them to the front to defend the city of Savannah against the approaching forces of Sherman. Mr. B— invited me to come to his house, and I gladly accepted the invitation. Now the question arose whether we had not better wait a few days and see if Sherman would not approach. We concluded to wait a week. At the end of that time Sherman was nearer, but still some distance off. Another week passed, and his troops were surrounding the city.
How eagerly and impatiently I looked for his entrance! The rebels continued to assert that the city would never be given up, until the night of the 19th of December, when they commenced moving the troops and provisions across the Savannah River into South Carolina. All the next day and night, troops and citizens
with their baggage were passing over on the pontoons.
About one o’clock on the morning of the 21st, some three hundred of Wheeler’s cavalry who had not left, commenced sacking the city. They would go round in parties of eight and ten, breaking open the stores and carrying off everything of value they could lay their hands on. This state of affairs continued for nearly four hours, when the approach of our advance regiment warned the marauders that it was time for them to leave. Imagine my feelings as I saw the blue uniforms of our own gallant boys advancing toward in me. With what eagerness I grasped the hand and welcomed the first one I met!
We add the following notice, which may be of interest to some of our readers:
MARRIED.—On Monday, January 23d, at the residence of Robert Merry, Lieutenant EUGENE H. FALES to MISS HATTIE M. LEE, both of MERRY’S MUSEUM.
May they have a merry life, and a long one!
[NOTE: Unfortunately, it was not to be. Eugene, who bought the Museum in 1867, never fully recovered from the yellow fever he contracted during his escape; he died of “consumption” on July 12, 1868, while on a trip west to regain his health. He and Hattie had no children; she hadn’t remarried when she applied for a change in his pension in 1872.]