Friday, September 19, 2014

Brigadier-General Thomas Kilby Smith, April 26, 1865

Headquarters District Of South Alabama,
Fort Gaines, Ala., April 26, 1865.

I had somewhat of an adventure yesterday, and came near imitating the wise men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl. I have a pretty little sailboat with capacity for four or five people, and the day being fair and the sea smooth, I concluded to go over to Sand Island, distant four or five miles from here, just at the mouth of the bay. With my adjutant and a crew of two sailors, I set sail about nine o'clock in the morning, and with a favoring breeze soon made my point of destination. Anchoring my little ship, I went ashore, made examination of the lighthouse, and after a stroll upon the beach, it being near noon, made preparations to return; but no sooner had I weighed anchor than I discovered the wind was dead ahead and a strong tide was beating out to sea. Nevertheless, I spread my sail, and by tacking to and fro, sought to beat up against wind and tide; in this endeavor we rounded the point of the island, and, to the dismay of my crew, soon discovered we were drifting out to sea; fortunately, we at this time had not got quite into the channel, and by bending on all the spare rope to our anchor cable, were able to touch bottom and ride in safety. It was now three o'clock, and I determined to lie down and get a nap, hoping that in the course of an hour or two, the tide, which was rushing past us at the rate of six miles an hour, would turn, and that, by the help of a breeze, we would be able to turn the point. I slept a couple of hours, pleasantly rocked by the swell of the waves, but woke to find my hopes disappointed. The tide was rushing by more furiously than ever, the wind had died away, and to make matters worse, our anchor was dragging, and we were rapidly going to sea. We had had no food or water since breakfast, and there was nothing to eat or drink on board. We had no compass, and as the lighthouse began to sink below the horizon, and the pine trees grow dim in the rays of the declining sun, the prospect was anything but encouraging. But hope came to us in the shape of a tug, that was towing a large schooner out through the channel. We watched her with anxious eyes, till she had taken the ship to the offing, and then turned to go back to the bay. She passed within some three miles of us, and we made signal with our white handkerchiefs displayed from the top of our little mast, but in vain. She steamed along regardless of our motions and went back to the bay. That hope was gone, and remembering the story of the Irish pilot, who followed the big ship night and day, till he had crossed the ocean, I determined to keep the schooner in sight as long as I could, and to that end spread sail and endeavored to get into her wake. But in vain; the wind would not blow, and the sail flapped limp. We got just headway enough to throw us into the channel and sped along towards the Atlantic Ocean about as fast as a horse could trot. Our situation was not enviable; we were out of the bay, fairly in the gulf, and the heavy rollers of the ocean tossed our frail little bark like an egg shell. We had to sit steady to keep her trimmed, and feared that if the wind we had prayed for an hour before came, we should be capsized, for she was flat-bottomed, and not in ballast. However, I kept a stiff upper lip, and directly, when hope had almost fled, discovered the tug again steaming down, towing a large ship. We now made every effort to throw ourselves across her forefoot, and not caring so much about drifting to sea, as to so change our course that we might get within signal distance, succeeded in making some way towards the approaching vessels, but again the tug cast off and returned as before. Now was really an anxious moment; one handkerchief was displayed at the masthead, the other I made the adjutant wave, standing in the prow. The pilot of the tug saw us, rounded to, and in a few moments I was aboard and my little vessel towed astern. We were picked up ten miles below Sand Island, and fairly out to sea, and, as we have been informed since, in a channel that has hurried more than one little craft to destruction. Not long since two professional pilots were drawn into and carried out to perish. But as we say, “a miss is as good as a mile,” only that the next time I go to sea I shall take some grub and some water and a compass, and “if the court know herself, as she think she do,” I shall hardly venture in a craft not much bigger than a washing tub. One is never out of danger in this world. The other day I was riding the colt, who was fractious, and cavorting around with me, jumped into a well; he succeeded in struggling out before he had reached the bottom, and fell heavily on his side with my right leg under him; of course, people thought my leg was broken, and that the beast would roll over upon me, but he didn't, and the leg was only bruised.

So I have had two more warnings that man is mortal, that as to circumstances and events he is like a thistledown wafted upon the autumn breeze, that a day, an hour, nay, the passing moment, may terminate his earthly existence; that, without note or warning, he may be summoned to the presence of his Maker, to the report of the deeds done in the body.

SOURCE: Walter George Smith, Life and letters of Thomas Kilby Smith, p. 395-7

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