More about Thomas Wolfe’s great escape

I’m fickle. My favorite historical person is always the one I’m currently researching. After my January column about Thomas Wolfe, the Mystic man who escaped from a Confederate prison, I moved on to other subjects, but my affection for Thomas lingered. Readers liked him, too, and wanted to know more, so here are a few additional details to more fully illuminate his life.

When he was a boy, Thomas was sometimes on whaling expeditions when other children were attending school. Still, he sounds like a smart kid. The late Groton town historian, Carol Kimball, recounted how he fulfilled one assignment by writing about “The Isle of France, Indian Ocean as it appeared to me in 1846,” while his classmates turned in essays on more mundane topics.

As an adult, Thomas went briefly to the Gold Rush, engaged in coastal trading, and carried supplies for the Union during the Civil War. In 1863, he was captured off New Orleans by Confederates, who burned his ship and sent him to Salisbury Prison in North Carolina.

Conditions there were barbaric. There were frequent escape attempts and nearly as frequent recaptures and executions. However, when Thomas and four friends heard about the imminent arrival of a new, stricter commandant, they realized if they were going to make a break, now was the time. One December night, they executed a set of risky ruses and fled with little except the clothes on their backs.

Typically on the first day of an escape, prisoners would try to get as far from the prison as possible. They’d run as fast as they could, only to be apprehended by waiting guards who knew just how much ground sick, starving men could cover before collapsing. The guards never needed to search the immediate vicinity of the prison. Knowing this, Thomas and his companions did something daring and different: they spent their first night in a barn within sight of the prison.

For the next 27 days, the men suffered hunger, illness, exposure to the elements, and exhaustion. They were hunted relentlessly. Sometimes, search parties were so close that an ill-timed sneeze or snore (one man was a thunderous snorer) would have been catastrophic. They crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains in January despite warnings to wait for spring. Although at that point they had horses, the ascent was sometimes so treacherous that the animals had to be led.

Counterbalancing the odds against them was the astounding number of unselfish strangers who helped them. Another source of strength was the refugees’ shared fellowship and rapport. Thomas, for example, was an engaging storyteller and apparently didn’t mind being teased. Plagued by icy footing and a sprained ankle, he fell into frigid streams so often that his friends joked that he swam better than he walked.

After 340 miserable miles, the men stumbled into Union-held Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. When they saw the American flag flying at the fort, they bowed their heads and wept.

After recuperating in Mystic, Thomas returned to the sea. He became a pilot for the Mallory Steamship Company, but he died off Galveston in a storm that resulted in one of the worst marine disasters in Texas history. His ship, the City of Waco, was carrying crates of lamp oil, which may have been ignited by a lightning strike. Other ships in the harbor watched the fiery explosion in helpless horror as towering waves prevented rescue attempts. Every crewman and passenger perished. Thomas’s body was found later floating two miles from the wreck. Only 10 years had passed since his great escape.

Whaler, Forty-Niner, Civil War POW, and steamship pilot: Thomas was deeply involved in the 19th century’s major milestones. He’s buried in Elm Grove Cemetery under a handsome obelisk that bears an account of the tragedy and an image of the ill-fated ship. It’s a fitting memorial, but if I could add another symbol to represent Thomas’s entire life, I’d etch a heart for courage.

 

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