Monday, July 29, 2013

A Yankee sergeant's great escape

The resourceful Charles W. Thurston of the 6th New
Hampshire often donned a Confederate uniform and
 "played Rebel" to help his party to freedom after its escape
from Salisbury prison in North Carolina.
Nothing better illustrates the complexities of public opinion during the Civil War than the long journeys escaped Union prisoners often made through enemy territory. Our War tells the story of Capt. Orlando Dimick of the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers, whose primary sources of sustenance during a 250-mile trek through South and North Carolina to Knoxville, Tenn., were slaves he met along the way.

But once Dimick reached western North Carolina, there were few slaves. He and his escape party had to risk asking white people for food and help. They were in luck. Dimick wrote after the war: “No higher type of loyalty existed than was found in western North Carolina and East Tennessee, where the devotion to the flag meant ostracism and persecution of self and kindred, and oftentimes the loss of property and destruction of home, and sometimes the death of dear ones.”

I was reminded of this passage recently as I read about another escape. The source was the memoir of Albert D. Richardson, a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Richardson and another Tribune correspondent, Junius Browne, were captured at Vicksburg on May 3, 1863. They escaped from Salisbury prison 20 months later on Dec. 18, 1864. Like Dimick, they walked more than 250 miles with a party of escapees to Knoxville.

One of their party was Charles W. Thurston, a 25-year-old sergeant of the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers. Thurston was from Stoddard, N.H., and had joined the regiment when it was formed in Keene in late 1861. He had survived wounds at Fredericksburg and the Crater in Petersburg only to be captured on the last day of September 1864 at Poplar Springs Church, Va.

After Thurston joined Richardson and the others on the journey from Salisbury to Knoxville, Richardson found him useful for two reasons. He exhibited skill and grace in dealing with skeptical people and unexpected situations, and he had a Confederate private’s uniform.

Albert D. Richardson
Thurston had worn the uniform during his escape from the prison camp. He knew that Richardson, Browne and others had left Salisbury and decided theirs was a good party to accompany. A rebel officer friendly to the Union cause gave him the countersign and promised to lead him to freedom. Thurston walked out of the prison yard behind two rebel detectives. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and sat among rebel guards until his accomplice gave him a sign. The man led Thurston out the gate and hid him in a barn, where African-Americans provided him with food and sent him on his way.

Thurston joined Richardson’s party the next night. “Now here he was, jovial, sanguine, daring, ready to start for the North Pole itself,” Richardson wrote.

Thurston soon made the first of many daring forays on the escape party’s behalf. The escapees had been without food for two days. At about 9 p.m. Thurston “went forward to reconnoiter.” In the Negro quarters he found a middle-aged man and woman. They were catering to young people partying in their master’s house nearby. When Thurston explained that he had just come from a group of hungry Yankees, the slave couple prepared a huge supper of fresh pork and cornbread and brought it to Richardson and his crew. “In the barn, with the rain pattering on the roof, we devoured supper in an incredibly brief period, and begged the slave to go back with his basket and bring just as much more,” Richardson wrote.

And thus it went on the long journey for the escapees. In Our War I describe it as an Underground Railroad running in reverse – African-Americans helping white escapees to freedom. Whether in eastern North Carolina, where slaves were plentiful, or in the mountains further west, where the escapees had to rely on white Unionists, Thurston proved his mettle. In Richardson’s account of the escape, he wrote that “Charley Thurston was our ‘best foot,’ and we always put him foremost. With his Confederate uniform and his ready invention, he could play Rebel soldier admirably.”

The party reached Knoxville on Jan. 14, 1865, nearly four weeks after the escape. Thurston returned to the 6th New Hampshire and was promoted to first sergeant and later first lieutenant. He mustered out of the army on July 17.

Both Richardson and Thurston died shortly after the war. Richardson was shot and killed by the husband of an actress he was living with in 1869. He was 36. Thurston died Aug, 3, 1871, in Brandon, Ala., at the age of 32.


  1. Fascinating! I happened upon your blog entry while researching Charles for my family tree. He wasn't very closely related to me as he was the husband of sister-in-law of niece of husband of great grand aunt, but it was a treat to find his photo and this story. Where did you find his photo? Would love to use it on my Ancestry tree if possible. Thank you! Dawn

    1. Thanks for the comment. You may use the photo on your Ancestry tree. The more recent post on Henry Pearson recounts another 6th NH story.