1864: “I Run Off From Him”

My name is Jim; I have been living on Bull run, with a man by the name of Pierce; they call him Cromwell Pierce. I run off from him nearly two months ago, because he treated me so mean: he half-starved and whipped me. I was whipped three or four times a week, sometimes with a cowhide, and sometimes with a hickory. He put so much work on me, I could not do it; chopping & hauling wood and lumber logs. I am about thirteen years old. I got pretty good meal at dinner, but he only gave us a half-pint for breakfast and supper, with cornbread. I ran away to town; I had a brother “Bob” living in Knoxville, and other boys I knew…

I hired myself to Capt. Smith as a servant, and went to work as a waiter in Quarter Master Winslow’s office as a waiter for the mess. After Capt. Winslow went home, I went to live with Bob, helping him.

Last Friday just after dinner, I saw…Mr Heiskell’s overseer. He caught me on Gay street, he ran after me, and carried me down Cumberland street to Mr. Heiskell’s house… Mr. Heiskell asked me what made me run away; he grabbed me by the back of the ears, and jerked me down on the floor on my face; Mr. Pierce held me & Mr. Heiskell put irons on my legs…

Mr. Pierce held my legs, and Mr. Heiskeel got a straddle of me, and whipped me with the rawhide on my back and legs. Mr. Pierce is a large man, and very strong. Mr. Heiskell rested two or three times, and begun again. I hollowed – “O, Lord” all the time. They whipped me, it seemed to me, half an hour. Then they told me to get up and dress, and said if I did’nt behave myself up there they would come up again and whip me again at night. The irons were left on my legs…

I knew my brother Bob was around the house trying to get me out. About one hour by sun two soldiers came to the house, one staid & the other went away. I saw them through the window. They had sabres. I thought they had come to guard me to keep Bob from getting me. I heard Bob whisling [whistling], and I went to the window and looked through the curtain. Bob told me to hoist the widow, put something under it & swing out of the window…

I fell & Bob caught me and run off with me in his arms. I saw Mr. Pierce sitting at the window, he had double barreled gun in his hands. By the time I could count three I heard a gun fired two or three times, quick, I heard Mr. Pierce call “Jim” “Jim” and the guards hollered “halt; halt!” I had no hat or shoes on. We both hid, and laid flat on the ground. I saw the guard, running around there hunting for us. After lying there until the guards had gone away, we got up and Bob carried me to a friend’s house. 

I had the irons on my legs. I got some supper and staid there until next day. My irons were taken off by a colored man, who carried me to the hospital. I am now employed working in the hospital No. 1.

Jim Heiskell, Excerpts from a statement about his escape from slavery

(Source: The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It; Brooks D. Simpson, Editor, 2013, pages 16-18)
The proposed state flag for Tennessee during the Civil War era.

Slavery and Tennessee

Tennessee seceded and joined the Confederacy in 1861, but the eastern part of the state leaned strongly pro-Union. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free the enslaved within Confederate territory, Tennessee was excepted, and pro-Union slave owners in the state were allowed to keep their slaves…for the time. (The 13th Amendment would end that.)

Andrew Johnson – who would become Lincoln’s vice president in his second term – had established a pro-Union government in Nashville and became a powerful advocate for his state. Under Johnson’s presidency, Tennessee would be the only Confederate state not to experience Reconstruction.

Although I haven’t located a photograph of Jim or Bob, this is an image of William Heiskell of Knoxville. (Find a Grave)

Jim’s Story

William Heiskell lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, and had a plantation outside the city. He was pro-Union and pro-slavery and served as a Treasury Department agent. Clearly, he wasn’t pleased when Jim, a strong thirteen year old boy, decided to run away after abuse. For a while, Jim managed a good job, but Heiskell’s overseer caught the boy and tried to haul him back to slavery.

The incident – fortunately recorded word for word – made national news in the North. The New-York Daily Tribune claimed that the provost marshal in Knoxville had detailed soldiers to help Heiskell keep Jim. That was expressly against 1862 Congressional legislation which said Federal troops could not return fugitives, no matter what allegiance their masters claimed. The Provost quickly denied the charges, claiming that Bob had been threatening the Heiskells and brandishing a pistol.

In the end, Union General Schofield who commander the Army of the Ohio ordered that the two brothers were free and would not be returned to their pro-Union master. The boys would remain under the protection of the United States and the army. He requested Jim to give a statement of the circumstances for the records.

Historical Musings

Jim says that he found employment at a hospital. Many freemen volunteered for jobs at Union medical facilities, often become the unsung, forgotten heroes of the wards. They usually did the least preferable tasks of nursing, but their care, consideration, and dedication saved lives and made the sick and injured more comfortable.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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