A Midnight Flight
An account of the leaving of a plantation on the Mississippi River

By Eliza Ripley (1862)

THE only exact date I can remember, and that I never forget, was the 17th of December.

The weather was warm for the season, a thick fog hung over the river, obscuring objects only a few yards distant. As I stood by the window, in the early morning, completing my toilet, the white, misty curtain rolled up like a scroll, revealing a fleet of gunboats. Far as the eye could reach, up and down and around our point, the river was bristling with gayly flagged transports, anchored mid-stream, waiting for the dissipation of the mist to proceed. In a twinkling all was excitement with the hurry and bustle of our immediate departure.

A breakfast eaten “on the fly”as it were, a rushing here and there, and packing of necessaries for our journey, God only knew whither, we did not care where, so we escaped a repetition of scenes that had made us old before our time, and life a constant excitement that was burning us up. William was despatched to the city on a tour of observation. He returned, to report ten thousand men and the most warlike demonstrations that the darky's genius could invent; pickets to be stationed away beyond Arlington, and all of us to be embraced within the lines and made to “toe de mark.” “Mars Jim, and every white man what harbored a Confederate soldier de time of de fight, was to be tuk prisoner.” The more William told, the more he remembered to tell; and, long before he was through with his recital, I was perplexed, bewildered, and almost distracted.

The negro men were summoned from their quarters to help load the wagon. We put in cooking utensils, some dishes and plates, bedding and a small mattress, a few kegs and boxes of necessary provisions, a trunk of clothing, some small bags and bundles―that was all.

The mules safely locked in the stable, the harnesses all ready to slip on, extra straps and ropes thrown into the wagon―too excited to sleep, we threw ourselves on our beds for the last time; too tired to talk, sore at heart; too worn out to weep. There we lay in a fitful and uneasy slumber. In the dead stillness of the night there came a low tap at our chamber door. “Mars Jim!” My husband was on his feet with a bound. “Your niggers is all gone to de Yankees; de pickets is on our place, and dey done told your niggers you would be arrested at daylight.” The speaker was head sugar maker on an adjoining plantation, himself a slave. “Call Dominick and tell him to get my buggy ready while I put on some clothes,” was the only response. I lighted the candle and hurried my husband off―while he whispered directions for me to join him immediately after breakfast at the house of a neighbor, five miles back of us, which he could speedily reach by going through the woods, and to have one of the men drive the wagon, and one drive the ambulance through the longer but better wagon-road.

That was all―and he was gone. I did not lie down again, but wandered around in an aimless sort of way, too distracted to do a useful or sensible thing.

At the first appearance of dawn I aroused William to prepare breakfast, and Charlotte to get the table ready. Before the children were awake, I was down at the stable, having William and Willy hitch up the teams. I saw with half an eye that William was not in sympathy with our plans, and knew intuitively that my husband distrusted him. He who had been my husband's valet in his gay bachelor days and our confidential servant, our very aid and help in all my bright married life, had had his poor woolly head turned by that one trip to town, and asserted his independence at the first shadow of provocation. William failing me, I knew I must seek other help.

Being ready and eager to start, I immediately went down to the quarters, a half-mile distant; there I waited, going from cabin to cabin, and walked to the dwelling-house and back again. Willy stood by the hitched-up teams, and Sabe, near by, held the baby in her arms, while little Henry clung to her skirts. Then back to the quarters. This man “had a misery in his back ―had had it ever since the crevasse;” that man “never druv in his life―didn't I know he was de engineer?” Another man “wouldn't drive old Sall―she was de balkiest mule on de place; you won't get a mile from here 'fore she takes de contraries, and won't budge a step.”

I could have sat down and wept my very heart out. It was long past noon; the harnessed mules had to be fed, and William made out to say: “We had better take a little snack, and give it up; if we stayed home, Mars Jim would come back; the Yankees didn't have nothin' 'gin him.”

At last old Dave said he “warn't no hand wid mules, but he 'lowed he could tackle old Sal till she balked.” There was no time for bargaining for another driver now. I caught at Dave's offer before he knew it, only stopping long enough to bid all the deluded creatures a hasty goodby.

Dave was hurried by my rapid steps back to the stable, and Sabe came out with the tired children. Just as I thought we were fairly off, William announced, “Sence you was gone a Yankee gunboat is cum down, and I see it's anchored 'tween us and Kernel Hickey's.” A peep around the corner of the house confirmed the truth of his statement. Hastily grasping a carpet-bag, lying ready packed in the ambulance, I ascended to my bedroom, took from it two large pockets quilted thick with jewels which I secured about my person, while Charlotte put the breakfast forks and spoons in the bottom of the bag.

When I returned to the teams, everybody was standing about, apparently waiting to see what “Miss 'Lize” would do now. Summoning every effort to command a voice whose quaver must have betrayed my intense emotion, I directed Willy to mount the wagon, a few last baskets and packages were tossed into the ambulance, and Henry's little pony tied behind. I got in, then the little ones and Sabe; Dave shambled into his place in front; the curtain cutting off the driver's seat was carefully rolled up, so I could have an unobstructed view, and Willy was told to lead the way.

So I rode away from Arlington, leaving the sugarhouse crowded to its utmost capacity with the entire crop of sugar and molasses of the previous year for which we had been unable to find a market within “our lines,” leaving cattle grazing in the fields, sheep wandering over the levee, doors and windows flung wide open, furniture in the rooms, clothes too fine for me to wear now hanging in the armoires, china in the closets, pictures on the walls, beds unmade, table spread. It was late in the afternoon of that bright, clear, bracing day, December 18, 1862, that I bade Arlington adieu forever.


Ripley, Eliza “A Midnight Flight,” The Romance of the Civil War, New York: The McMillan Company, 1903

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