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»Blacks as Principal Characters

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Buried Alive
Harper's Weekly, May 7, 1864
 
My name is Daniel Tyler, and my skin is dark, as my mother’s was before me. I have heard that my father had a white face, but I think his heart and life were blacker than my mother’s skin. I was born a slave, and remained a slave until last April, when I found deliverance and shelter under the flag that my master was fighting to dishonor.

I shall never forget the day when freedom came to me. I was working in the fields down in Alabama, my heart full of bitterness and unutterable longings. I had dreamed for two long years of escape from my bondage; the thought sung to me through the dark nights, and filled all the days with a weird sort of nervous expectation. But my dreams had proved nothing more than dreams; the opportunity I yearned for did not come. But that day, working in the fields, suddenly along the dusty road there flashed a long column of loyal cavalry, the old flag flying at its head. How my heart leaped at the sight; how, like revelation, came the thought: "This, Daniel Tyler, is your opportunity!" Need I tell you how I acted upon that thought; how, in one second of time, I leaped out of slavery into freedom, and from a slave became a man?

Well, joining the flashing column, I rode with them for days, coming at last into Baton Rouge, and thence, having joined a regiment of my own people, came to Memphis. Thence four hundred of us came to Fort Pillow. But there are not four hundred of us to-day, for three hundred and odd were murdered in cold blood only a week ago by Forrest’s rough-riders.

It was a day of horrors—that 12th of March. There were seven hundred of us in all in the fort—three hundred whites of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry, and four hundred blacks, as I have said, all under command of brave Major Booth. The fort consisted simply of earth-works, on which we had mounted half a dozen guns. We knew that Forrest had been pillaging the country all about us, and imagined that perhaps he would pay us a visit; but the thought did not alarm us, though we knew, those of us who were black, that we had little to expect at the hands of the rebels. At last, about sunrise on the morning of the 12th, Forrest, with some 6000 men, appeared and at once commenced an attack. We met the assault bravely, and for two hours the fight went on briskly. Then a flag of truce came in from Forrest, asking an unconditional surrender, but Major Bradford—Major Booth having been wounded—declined to surrender unless the enemy would treat those of us who were black as prisoners of war, which, of course, they refused to do, and the fight went on. The enemy, in the next few hours, made several desperate charges, but were each time repulsed. At last, about four o’clock in the afternoon, they sent in another flag. We ceased firing out of respect to the flag; but Forrest’s men had no such notions of honor and good faith. The moment we stopped firing they swarmed all about the fort, and while the flag was yet withdrawing, made a desperate charge from all sides. Up to that time only about thirty of our men had been hurt. But in this charge, the enemy got within the earth-works, and forthwith there ensued a scene which no pen can describe. Seeing that all resistance was useless, most of us threw down our arms, expecting, and many begging for, quarter. But it was in vain. Murder was in every rebel heart; flamed in every rebel eye. Indiscriminate massacre followed instantly upon our surrender. Some of us, seeking shelter, rant to the river and tried to conceal ourselves in the bushes, but for the most part in vain. The savages, pursuing, shot down the fugitives in their tracks. There was Manuel Nichols, as brave a soldier as ever carried a musket. He had been a free negro in Michigan, but volunteered a year ago to fight for the Union. He, with others, had sought a shelter under the bank of the river, but a cold-blooded monster found him, and putting a pistol close to his head, fired, failing however to kill the brave fellow. He was then hacked on the arm, and only a day after died, delirious, in the hospital. Then there was Robert Hall, another colored soldier, who was lying sick in the hospital when the massacre commence. The devils gashed his head horribly with their sabres, and then cut off part of his right hand, which he had lifted in a mute appeal for mercy. Then there was Harrison, of the Thirteenth Tennessee, who was shot four times after surrender, and then robbed of all his effects. Before I was shot, running along the river bank, I counted fifty dead Union soldiers lying in their blood. One had crawled into a hollow log and was killed in it, another had got over the bank in the river, and on to a board that run out into the water, and when I saw him was already stark and stiff. Several had tried to hide in crevices made by the falling bank, and could not be seen without difficulty, but they were singled out and killed. One negro corporal, Jacob Wilson, who was down on the river bank, seeing that no quarter was shown, stepped into the water so that he lay partly under it. A rebel coming along asked him what was the matter: he said he was badly wounded, and the rebel, after taking from his pocket all the money he had, left him. It happened to be near by a flat-boat tied to the bank. When all was quiet Wilson crawled into it, and got three more wounded comrades also into it, and cut loose. The boat floated out into the channel and was found ashore some miles below. There were, alas, few such fortunate escapes.

I was shot near the river just about dark. Running for my life, a burly rebel struck me with his carbine, putting out one eye, and then shot me in two places. I though he would certainly leave me with that, but I was mistaken. With half a dozen others, I was at once picked up and carried to a ditch, into which we were tossed like so many brutes, white and black together. Then they covered us with loose dirt, and left us to die. Oh, how dark and desolate it was! Under me were several dead, and right across my breast lay a white soldier, still alive! How he clutched and strained! How, hurt and weak as I was, with only one hand free, I struggled for air and life, feeling my strength waning every moment! It was a strange thing to lie there buried, and yet be able to think and pray. Maybe, friend, you have known what agony was, but you never had such pains of soul as I had down there in that living grave. I thought I could feel the worms gnawing at my flesh; I am sure I had a taste of what death is, with the added pain of knowing that I was not dead, and yet unable to live in that dark, dismal tomb. So I clutched and strained and struggled on, digging upward as I could with my one puny hand. At last—oh joy!—a faint streak of light looked in; my hand had carved an avenue to the world of life! But would I dare to lift my head? Might not some rebel, standing by, strike me down again on the moment? But I could not die there in that grave; I must escape. Slowly, painfully, I rolled the burden from my breast—he was dead by that time—and then carefully crept out from that living death. It was dark, and no one was near. A moment I stood up on my feet; then?

The next thing I remember I was in the hospital where I am now. They had found me just where I fell, and brought me to a place of safety, where, after a while, consciousness returned. I have been here a week now; and I think I shall get well.

I lie in the cot where poor Robert Hall lay when he was butchered by the rebels. They showed me, yesterday, a letter he had written the day before the massacre to his wife. He had learned to read and write at Memphis, after his enlistment, and used to send a message to his wife and children, who still remained there, every week or so. This was his letter which a surgeon had helped him put together:

"Dear Mammy"—it ran—"I am very sick here in the hospital, but am better than I was, and hope to get well soon. They have been very kind to me; and I find it very sweet to suffer for the dear flag that gives me shelter. You must not worry on my account. Tell Katy she must not forget to say her prayers and to study her lessons carefully now while she has an opportunity. And, mammy, take good care of the baby; I dreamed of her last night, and I think how sad it would be to die and never see her little face again. But then chaplain says it will be right in heaven, and he knows better than we do. And, mammy, don’t forget we are free now; teach both the darlings to be worth of their estate."

That was poor Hall’s letter—it had not been sent, and we have no heart to send it now. He will never see the baby’s face here; but then God may let him see it up yonder!

I hope to recover and getaway from here very soon; I want to be in my place again; for I have something to avenge now, and I can not bear to wait. Poor Hall’s blood is crying to me from the ground; and I want to be able, sometime, to say to Manuel Nichols’s wife, up there in Michigan, that his fall has had its compensation. And may God speed the day when this whole slaveholders’ rebellion—what remains of it—shall be "Buried Alive!"

Harper's Weekly, May 7, 1864

 

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