It is not unusual to encounter dramatic tales of how slaves finally became free. They were a staple of abolitionist slave narratives before the Civil War. To escape slavery was to become a fugitive from the law, facing the full resources of the state devoted to their capture, and often hunted by experienced and ruthless private slave catchers and their vicious bloodhounds. These stories continued during the war, where the opportunities to gain freedom increased, but often so did the danger.
One such harrowing tale of an escape from slavery during the Civil War came in February 1864, in the testimony of a black Louisiana soldier, Octave Johnson, to the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. This body was created by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton in 1863, and asked to investigate the condition of slaves freed in the territory subject to the Emancipation Proclamation, and their prospects to support and defend themselves. Johnson had a particularly poignant story, related to the commission 150 years ago this month, involving maroonage and braving alligator infested waters to escape slave catchers’ bloodhounds. His testimony read:
I was born in New Orleans; I am 23 years of age; I was raised by Arthur Thiboux of New Orleans; I am by trade a cooper; I was treated pretty well at home; in 1855 master sold my mother, and in 1861 he sold me to S. Contrell of St. James Parish for $2,400; here I worked by task at my trade; one morning the bell was rung for us to go to work so early that I could not see, and I lay still, because I was working by task; for this the overseer was going to have me whipped, and I ran away to the woods, where I remained for a year and a half; I had to steal my food; took turkeys, chickens and pigs; before I left our number had increased to thirty, of whom ten were women; we were four miles in the rear of the plantation house; sometimes we would rope beef cattle and drag them out to our hiding place; we obtained matches from our friends on the plantation; we slept on logs and burned cypress leaves to make a smoke and keep away mosquitoes; Eugene Jardeau, master of hounds, hunted for us for three months; often those at work would betray those in the swamp, for fear of being implicated in their escape; we furnished meat to our fellow-servants in the field, who would return corn meal; one day twenty hounds came after me; I called the party to my assistance and we killed eight of the bloodhounds; then we all jumped into Bayou Faupron; the dogs followed us and the alligators caught six of them; “the alligators preferred dog flesh to personal flesh;” we escaped and came to Camp Parapet, where I was first employed in the Commissary’s office, then as a servant to Col. Hanks; then I joined his regiment.