1862 | Port Royal, SC

In the Same Boat

Charlotte Forten Grimké hears of an escape by night.

Friday, December 26.

Kept store nearly all day. I like it occasionally. It amuses and interests me. There was one very sensible man in today, whose story interested me much. He had been a carpenter, and had been taken up by his master on the mainland, on “the main,” as they call it, to help build houses to which the families of the rebels might retreat when the Yankees should come. His master sent him back again to this island to bring back a boat and some of the people. He was provided with a pass. On reaching the island, he found that the Union troops had come, so he determined (indeed he had determined before) to remain here with his family, as he knew his master would not dare to come back after them. Some of his fellow servants whom he had left on the “main,” hearing that the Union troops had come, resolved to try to make their escape. They found a boat of the master’s, out of which a piece about six feet square had been cut. In the night, secretly, they went to the boat which had been sunk near the edge of the creek, measured the hole, and went to the woods and, after several nights’ work, made a piece large enough to fit in. With this they mended the boat, by another night’s work, and then sank it in the same position in which they had found it. The next night five of them embarked, and after passing through many perils in the shape of the enemy’s boats, near which they were obliged to pass, and so making very slow progress, for they could travel only at night, and in the daytime ran their boat close up to the shore, out of sight—they at last passed the enemy’s lines and reached one of our gunboats in safety. They were taken on board, and their wants attended to, for their provisions had given out, and they were much exhausted. After being there some time, they were sent to this island, where their families, who had feared they would never see them again, welcomed them rejoicingly. I was much interested in the story of their escape.

From her journals. In 1861 the Union army gained control of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Soon after, in 1862, twenty-five-year-old Philadelphia-born Charlotte Forten volunteered to travel down to St. Helena Island to teach the newly freed black population, who mostly spoke Gullah creole. She stayed for two years before falling ill and moving back north to New England, where in 1878 at the age of forty-one she married a nephew of the abolitionist Grimké sisters.