ON the first of April Frank received the following letter from his father. It was the more welcome because nearly a month had elapsed since anything had been received, and the whole family had become quite anxious:
"Dear Frank," the letter commenced, "you are no doubt feeling anxious on account of my long silence. You will understand the cause of it when I tell you that since the date of my last letter I have been for a fortnight in the enemy's hands as a prisoner. Fortunately, I have succeeded in effecting my escape. You will naturally be interested to learn the particulars.
"Three weeks since, a lady occupying an estate about five miles distant from our camp waited on our commanding officer and made an urgent request to have a few soldiers detailed as a guard to protect her and her property from molestation and loss. Our colonel was not at first disposed to grant her request, but finally acceded to it, rather reluctantly, declaring that it was all nonsense. I was selected, with five other men, to serve as a guard. Mrs. Roberts--for this was her name--appeared quite satisfied to find her request granted, and drove slowly home under our escort.
"On arriving, we found a mansion in the old Virginia style, low in elevation, broad upon the ground, and with a piazza extending along the front. Surrounding it was a good-sized plantation. At a little distance from the house was a row of negro huts. These were mostly vacant, the former occupants having secured their freedom by taking refuge within our lines.
"As sergeant in command--you must know that I have been promoted--I inquired of Mrs. Roberts what danger she apprehended. Her answers were vague and unsatisfactory. However, she seemed disposed to treat me very civilly, and at nine o'clock invited the whole party into the house to partake of a little refreshment. This invitation was very welcome to soldiers who had not for months partaken of anything better than camp fare. It was all the more acceptable because outside a cold rain was falling, and the mod was deep and miry.
"In the dining-room we found a plentiful meal spread, including hot coffee, hot corn bread, bacon, and other viands. We were not, however, destined to take our supper in peace. As I was drinking my second cup of coffee I thought I heard a noise outside, and remarked it to Mrs. Roberts.
" 'It is only the wind, sergeant,' said she, indifferently.
"It was not long before I became convinced that it was something more serious. I ordered my men to stand to their arms, in spite of the urgent protestations of the old lady, and marched them out upon the lawn, just in time to be confronted by twenty or thirty men on horseback, clad in the rebel uniform.
"Resistance against such odds would have been only productive of useless loss of life, and with my little force I was compelled to surrender myself a prisoner.
"Of course, I no longer doubted that we were the victims of a trick, and had been lured by Mrs. Roberts purposely to be made prisoners. If I had had any doubts on the subject, her conduct would have dissipated them. She received our captors with open arms. They stepped into our places as guests, and the house was thrown open to them. Our arms were taken from us, our hands pinioned, and a scene of festivity ensued. A cask of wine was brought up from the cellar, and the contents freely distributed among the rebels, or gray backs, as we call them here.
"Once, as Mrs. Roberts passed through the little room where we were confined, I said, 'Do you consider this honorable conduct, madam, to lure us here by false representations, and then betray us to our enemies?'
" 'Yes, I do!' said she hotly. 'What business have you to come down here and lay waste our territory? There is no true Southern woman but despises you heartily, and would do as much as I have, and more, too. You've got my son a prisoner in one of your Yankee prisons. When I heard that he was taken, I swore to be revenged, and I have kept my word. I've got ten for one, though he's worth a hundred such as you!'
"So saying, she swept out of the room, with a scornful look of triumph in her eyes. The next day, as I afterward learned, she sent word to our colonel that her house had been unexpectedly attacked by a large party of the rebels, and that we had been taken prisoners. Her complicity was suspected, but was not proved till our return to the camp. Of course, a further guard, which she asked for, to divert suspicion, was refused.
"Meanwhile we were carried some twenty miles across the river, and confined in a building which had formerly been used as a storehouse.
"The place was dark and gloomy. There were some dozen others who shared our captivity. Here we had rather a doleful time. We were supplied with food three times a day; but the supply was scanty, and we had meat but once in two days. We gathered that it was intended to send us to Richmond; but from day to day there was a delay in doing so. We decided that our chance of escape would be much better then than after we reached the rebel capital. We, therefore, formed a plan for defeating the intentions of our captors.
"Though the building assigned to us as a prison consisted of two stories, we were confined in the lower part. This was more favorable to our designs. During the night we busied ourselves in loosening two of the planks of the flooring, so that we could remove them at any time. Then lowering two of our number into the cellar, we succeeded in removing enough of the stone foundation to allow the escape of one man at a time through the aperture. Our arrangements were hastened by the assignment of a particular day on which we were to be transferred from our prison, and conveyed to Richmond. Though we should have been glad to enter the city under some circumstances, we did not feel very desirous of going as prisoners of war.
"On the night selected we waited impatiently till midnight. Then, as silently as possible, we removed the planking, and afterwards the stones of the basement wall, and crept through one by one. All this was effected so noiselessly that we were all out without creating any alarm. We could hear the measured tramp of the sentinel, as he paced up and down in front of the empty prison. We pictured to ourselves his surprise when he discovered, the next morning, that we escaped under his nose without his knowing it!
"I need not dwell upon the next twenty-four hours. The utmost vigilance was required to elude the rebel pickets. At last, after nearly twenty hours, during which we had nothing to eat, we walked into camp, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, to the great joy of our comrades from whom we had been absent a fortnight.
"On receiving information of the manner in which we had been captured, our commanding officer at once despatched me with a detachment of men to arrest Mrs. Roberts and her daughter. Her surprise and dismay at seeing me whom she supposed safe in Richmond were intense. She is still under arrest.
"I suppose our campaign will open as soon as the roads are dried up. The mud in Virginia is much more formidable than at the North, and presents an insuperable, perhaps I should say an unfathomable, obstacle to active operations. I hope General Grant will succeed in taking Vicksburg. The loss of that important stronghold would be a great blow to the rebels.
"You ask me, in your last letter, whether I see much of the contrabands. I have talked with a considerable number. One, a very intelligent fellow, had been very much trusted by his master, and had accompanied him to various parts of the South. I asked him the question: 'Is it true that there are a considerable number of slaves who would prefer to remain in their present condition to becoming free?'
" 'Nebber see any such niggers, massa,' he answered, shaking his head decisively. 'We all want to be free. My old massa treated me kindly, but I'd a left him any minute to be my own man.'
"I hope the time will soon come, when, from Canada to the Gulf, there will not be a single black who is not his own man. We in the army are doing what we can, but we must be backed up by those who stay at home. My own feeling is that slavery has received its death-blow. It may continue to live for some years, but it has fallen from its pomp and pride of place. It is tottering to its fall. What shall be done with the negroes in the transition state will be a problem for statesmen to consider. I don't think we need fear the consequences of doing right, and on this subject there can be no doubt of what is right; The apparent insensibility and brutish ignorance which we find among some of the slaves will wear away under happier influences.
"There is a little fellow of perhaps a dozen years who comes into our camp and runs of errands and does little services for the men. Yesterday morning he came to my tent, and with a grin, said to me, 'De ol' man died last night.'
" 'What, your father?' I inquired in surprise.
" 'Yes, massa,' with another grin: 'Goin' to tote him off dis mornin'.'
"As he only lived a quarter of a mile off, I got permission to go over to the house, or cabin, where Scip's father had lived.
"The outer door was open, and I entered without knocking. A woman was bending over a washtub at the back part of the room. I looked around me for the body, but could see no indication of anything having happened out of the ordinary course.
"I thought it possible that Scip had deceived me, and accordingly spoke to the woman, inquiring if she was Scip's mother.
"She replied in the affirmative.
" 'And where is his father?' I next inquired.
" 'Oh, he's done dead,' she said, continuing her washing.
" 'When did he die?'
" 'Las' night, massa.'
" 'And where is the body?'
" 'Toted off, massa, very first t'ing dis mornin'.'
"In spite of this case of apparent insensibility, the negro's family attachments are quite as warm naturally as our own. They have little reason, indeed, to mourn over the loss of a husband or father, since, in most cases, it is the only portal to the freedom which they covet. The separation of families, too, tends, of course, to weaken family ties. While I write these words I cannot help recalling our own happy home, and longing for an hour, if not more, of your society. I am glad that you find Mr. Morton so agreeable an inmate. You ought to feel quite indebted him for his assistance in your studies. I am glad you have formed a boy's company. It is very desirable that the elements of military science should be understood even by boys, since upon them must soon devolve the defense of their country from any blows that may be directed against her, whether by foes from within or enemies from abroad.
"The coming season will be a busy one with you. When you receive this letter it will be about time for you to begin to plow whatever land is to be planted. As I suggested in my first letter from camp, I should like you to devote some space-perhaps half an acre-to the culture of onions. We find them very useful for promoting health in the army. They are quite high on account of the largely increased demand, so that it will be a good crop for financial reasons."
(Here followed some directions with regard to the spring planting, which we omit, as not likely to interest our readers.) The letter ended thus:
"It is nearly time for me to mail this letter, and it is already much longer than I intended to write. May God keep you all in health and happiness is the fervent wish of
"Your affectionate father, "HENRY FROST."
The intelligence that their father had been a prisoner made quite a sensation among the children. Charlie declared that Mrs. Roberts was a wicked woman, and he was glad she was put in prison--an expression of joy in which the rest fully participated.