Saved by courage, kindness, and a star

On a frigid December night in the North Carolina wilderness, Thomas Wolfe was suffering from exhaustion, starvation, and an injured ankle. He needed all his resolve just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Even worse, when he glanced up at the sky, he realized that the North Star was in the wrong location; he and his friends must find a different path immediately because they were fleeing in the wrong direction.

Thomas wasn’t a stranger to challenges. Born in Mystic in 1830, he went to sea as a 14-year-old. (That’s how he’d learned celestial navigation.) In 1850, he went to the Gold Rush, but despite backbreaking work, he didn’t strike it rich. On his trip home, a sailing connection around Cape Horn fell through, forcing Thomas to cross Nicaragua on foot. That was an ordeal, but it was child’s play compared to this nightmare. The odds of a successful escape from a Confederate prison were incredibly low, yet the stakes couldn’t be higher.

After returning from California, Thomas had resumed his maritime career, married a woman from Masons Island, and lived in a gracious house that still stands near the intersection of West Mystic Avenue and Wolfe Street. During the Civil War, he carried Union supplies between New York and New Orleans; it was on one of these trips that Rebels captured his ship and threw him into North Carolina’s Salisbury Prison.

The prison could adequately hold 600 men, but when the population burgeoned to 10,000, conditions deteriorated catastrophically. Food was scarce, overcrowding forced many to live in holes in the ground, disease ran rampant, and bored guards used prisoners for target practice. Between 15 and 20 formerly robust men died every day.

Whether you stayed or tried to escape, the outcome was almost inevitable: death by disease or execution. Action seemed preferable to inaction, so on a rainy winter night, Thomas and four companions rolled the dice, deceived their guards, and began a 340-mile flight to freedom.

The escapees slept in barns, slave cabins, fields, and ditches. They were always cold (it was risky to start a fire) and hungry. One of them didn’t have a coat. Another wore a ragged Confederate uniform which, ironically, put the group at risk from sharp-shooting Union sympathizers looking for Rebels to pick off. It was unlikely that courage alone would get them to the safety of a Union stronghold in Tennessee.

One asset they did have in astonishing abundance was a network of men and women willing to help. Guides piloted them through unfamiliar territory. Sympathetic locals offered food and shelter. Aid came from slaves, farmers, and mountaineers. Once they were hidden by the wife of a Confederate officer. The men’s appearance sometimes created a buzz; on Christmas Day, while they were resting in a barn, nearly 50 curious visitors stopped by to get a look at genuine Yankees whom they supported in principle but had never seen.

The risks taken by Thomas’s benefactors can’t be overstated. Everyone who gave even the smallest assistance — bread, directions, shelter in a hayloft — stood to lose his house, his freedom, and his life. In mid-January, thanks to these remarkable people, the refugees reached Tennessee aboard an "underground railroad" of goodness.

When Thomas reunited with his wife, he was in pitiful physical condition, but he was young (35 years old) and buoyed by hometown friends and family. He couldn’t know that 10 years in the future, after he’d regained his health and returned to the sea, he’d perish in a fiery explosion aboard a Mallory-line steamship in Galveston harbor.

Dying in the prime of life is beyond tragic, yet in a way Thomas had been blessed. His courage, navigational skill, and the extraordinary kindness of complete strangers had given him another precious decade of life — a decade to watch his children grow, to laugh, to love, to marvel at the stars.

 

 

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