An Attempt To Escape
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“In a few minutes we were startled by the report of a gun, which was instantly succeeded by a quick and scattering fire of musketry. In the darkness of the night, we could not see the unfortunate victims, but could distinctly hear their shrieks and cries for mercy.” – Captain Dring
It had been for some time in contemplation among a few inmates of the Gun-room to make a desperate attempt to escape, by cutting a hole through the stern or counter of the ship. In order that their operations might proceed with even the least probability of success, it was absolutely necessary that but few of the prisoners should be admitted to the secret. At the same time it was impossible for them to make any progress in their labor unless they first confided their plan to all the other occupants of the Gun-room, which was accordingly done. In this part of the ship each mess was on terms of more or less intimacy with those whose little sleeping enclosures were immediately adjacent to their own, and the members of each mess frequently interchanged good offices with those in their vicinity, and borrowed or lent such little articles as they possessed, like the good housewives of a sociable neighborhood. I never knew any contention in this apartment, during the whole period of my confinement. Each individual in the Gun-room therefore was willing to assist his comrades, as far as he had the power to do so. When the proposed plan for escape was laid before us, although it met the disapprobation of by far the greater number, still we were all perfectly ready to assist those who thought it practicable. We, however, described to them the difficulties and dangers which must unavoidably attend their undertaking; the prospect of detection while making the aperture in the immediate vicinity of such a multitude of idle men, crowded together, a large proportion of whom were always kept awake by their restlessness and sufferings during the night; the little probability that they would be able to travel, undiscovered, on Long Island, even should they succeed in reaching the shore in safety; and above all, the almost absolute impossibility of obtaining food for their subsistence, as an application for that to our keepers would certainly lead to detection. But, notwithstanding all our arguments, a few of them remained determined to make the attempt. Their only reply to our reasoning was, that they must die if they remained, and that nothing worse could befall them if they failed in their undertaking.
“One of the most sanguine among the adventurers was a young man named Lawrence, the mate of a ship from Philadelphia. He was a member of the mess next to my own, and I had formed with him a very intimate acquaintance. He frequently explained his plans to me; and dwelt much on his hopes. But ardently as I desired to obtain my liberty, and great as were the exertions I could have made, had I seen any probability of gaining it, yet it was not my intention to join in this attempt. I nevertheless agreed to assist in the labor of cutting through the planks, and heartily wished, although I had no hope, that the enterprise might prove successful.
“The work was accordingly commenced, and the laborers concealed, by placing a blanket between them and the prisoners without. The counter of the ship was covered with hard oak plank, four inches thick; and through this we undertook to cut an opening sufficiently large for a man to descend; and to do this with no other tools than our jack knives and a single gimlet. All the occupants of the Gun-room assisted in this labor in rotation; some in confidence that the plan was practicable, and the rest for amusement, or for the sake of being employed. Some one of our number was constantly at work, and we thus continued, wearing a hole through the hard planks, from seam to seam, until at length the solid oak was worn away piecemeal, and nothing remained but a thin sheathing on the outside which could be cut away at any time in a few minutes, whenever a suitable opportunity should occur for making the bold attempt to leave the ship.
“It had been previously agreed that those who should descend through the aperture should drop into the water, and there remain until all those among the inmates of the Gun-room who chose to make the attempt could join them; and that the whole band of adventurers should then swim together to the shore, which was about a quarter of a mile from the ship.
“A proper time at length arrived. On a very dark and rainy night, the exterior sheathing was cut away; and at midnight four of our number having disencumbered themselves of their clothes and tied them across their shoulders, were assisted through the opening, and dropped one after another into the water.
“Ill-fated men! Our guards had long been acquainted with the enterprise. But instead of taking any measures to prevent it, they had permitted us to go on with our labor, keeping a vigilant watch for the moment of our projected escape, in order to gratify their bloodthirsty wishes. No other motive than this could have prompted them to the course which they pursued. A boat was in waiting under the ship’s quarter, manned with rowers and a party of the guards. They maintained a profound silence after hearing the prisoners drop from the opening, until having ascertained that no more would probably descend, they pursued the swimmers, whose course they could easily follow by the sparkling of the water,–an effect always produced by the agitation of the waves in a stormy night.
“We were all profoundly silent in the Gun-room, after the departure of our companions, and in anxious suspense as to the issue of the adventure. In a few minutes we were startled by the report of a gun, which was instantly succeeded by a quick and scattering fire of musketry. In the darkness of the night, we could not see the unfortunate victims, but could distinctly hear their shrieks and cries for mercy.
“The noise of the firing had alarmed the prisoners generally, and the report of the attempted escape and its defeat ran like wildfire through the gloomy and crowded dungeons of the hulk, and produced much commotion among the whole body of prisoners. In a few moments, the gratings were raised, and the guards descended, bearing a naked and bleeding man, whom they placed in one of the bunks, and having left a piece of burning candle by his side, they again ascended to the deck, and secured the gratings.
“Information of this circumstance soon reached the Gun-room; and myself, with several others of our number, succeeded in making our way through the crowd to the bunks. The wounded man was my friend, Lawrence. He was severely injured in many places, and one of his arms had been nearly severed from his body by the stroke of a cutlass. This, he said, was done in wanton barbarity, while he was crying for mercy, with his hand on the gunwale of the boat. He was too much exhausted to answer any of our questions; and uttered nothing further, except a single inquiry respecting the fate of Nelson, one of his fellow adventurers. This we could not answer. Indeed, what became of the rest we never knew. They were probably all murdered in the water. This was the first time that I had ever seen a light between decks. The piece of candle had been left by the side of the bunk, in order to produce an additional effect upon the prisoners. Many had been suddenly awakened from their slumbers, and had crowded round the bunk where the sufferer lay. The effect of the partial light upon his bleeding and naked limbs, and upon the pale and haggard countenances, and tattered garments of the wild and crowded groups by whom he was surrounded, was horrid beyond description. We could render the sufferer but little assistance, being only able to furnish him with a few articles of apparel, and to bind a handkerchief around his head. His body was completely covered, and his hair filled with clotted blood; we had not the means of washing the gore from his wounds during the night. We had seen many die, but to view this wretched man expire in that situation, where he had been placed beyond the reach of surgical aid, merely to strike us with terror, was dreadful.
“The gratings were not removed at the usual hour in the morning, but we were all kept below until ten o’clock. This mode of punishment had now become habitual with our keepers, and we were all frequently detained between decks until a late hour in the day, in revenge for the most trifling occasion. This cruelty never failed to produce the torments arising from heat and thirst, with all their attendant miseries.
“The immediate purpose of our tyrants having been answered by leaving Mr. Lawrence below in that situation they promised in the morning that he should have the assistance of a surgeon, but that promise was not fulfilled. The prisoners rendered him every attention in their power, but in vain. Mortification soon commenced; he became delirious and died.
“No inquiry was made by our keepers respecting his situation. They evidently left him thus to suffer, in order that the sight of his agonies might deter the rest of the prisoners from following his example.
“We received not the least reprimand for this transaction. The aperture was again filled up with plank and made perfectly secure, and no similar attempt to escape was made,–at least so long as I remained on board.
“It was always in our power to knock down the guards and throw them overboard, but this would have been of no avail. If we had done so, and had effected our escape to Long Island, it would have been next to impossible for us to have proceeded any further among the number of troops there quartered. Of these there were several regiments, and among them the regiment of Refugees before mentioned, who were vigilant in the highest degree, and would have been delighted at the opportunity of apprehending and returning us to our dungeons.
“There were, however, several instances of individuals making their escape. One in particular, I well recollect,–James Pitcher, one of the crew of the Chance, was placed on the sick list and conveyed to Blackwell’s Island. He effected his escape from thence to Long Island; from whence, after having used the greatest precaution, he contrived to cross the Sound, and arrived safe at home. He is now one of the three survivors of the crew of the Chance.”