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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Captain Wolfe's Epic Escape from a Confederate Prison

Mystic's Captain Wolfe, the Civil War and the North Star

The North Star--Don't leave home without knowing how to find it.
Lisa Saunders
Embarking from Mystic on an epic voyage? Don’t forget to bring your GPS, but be prepared, a GPS can--and does—die.

Before you set sail or even head out by car, consider learning the basic celestial navigation skill that aided the likes of Mystic’s long-dead seafarer, Captain Thomas E. Wolfe. During the Civil War, Captain Wolfe escaped from a Confederate prison and trekked through rivers and woods under the cover of darkness using the North Star as his guide.

The last time he arrived in Mystic, however, was by steamer—and in a coffin. You can find him among the other “Who’s Who” of 19th century sea captains buried at the Elm Grove Cemetery. Just follow the elm tree-shaped avenues to Captain Wolfe’s grave along the Mystic River. He is buried at the tall obelisk etched with the steamship that brought him to a fiery end in November of 1875. He was 44 when his ship exploded into flames and sank. His body was found two miles away. He literally died with his boots on—a dramatic end to a man who led a dramatic life.

Born January 20, 1830, Wolfe’s life of adventure began at age 14 when he went out to sea as a ship’s boy. A year later, he embarked on a whaling voyage to the Indian Ocean for nearly two years. During the California Gold Rush, Wolfe caught gold fever with two Mystic buddies and sailed around Cape Horn to California in 1850. Probably realizing more died of scurvy than found gold, they started for home. But it took nine grueling months to make it back. Embarking from California by steamer, they were unable to find passage together on another ship when they reached the area where the Panama Canal was later built. Wolfe and one friend trekked 90 miles to the other side of the coast where they found passage on a ship. The other friend died of tropical fever in Chagres.

During the Civil War, Captain Wolfe transported supplies from New York to New Orleans. When his ship was captured by Confederates and burned, Wolfe and his crew were taken to prison where they were starved and ill-treated. Over a year later, on the rainy night of Dec. 18, 1864, Wolfe made a daring escape with four companions from North Carolina’s Salisbury Prison. During their grueling, 340-mile trek through enemy territory that included the Blue Ridge Mountains, the emaciated men faced sleepless nights on frozen ground, barking Confederate dogs, pneumonia, frostbite, hours hidden under damp fodder, and one companion’s snoring that put them at constant risk of discovery. Although Wolfe could barely limp along as a result of his sprained ankle, he provided some comic relief with his stories of past adventures.

One of the escapees, New York Tribune reporter Albert Richardson, wrote in his book, The Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon, and the Escape, about one 12-mile section of road that crossed a frigid stream 29 times with only foot logs, rather than bridges, for pedestrians. “Cold and stiff, we discovered that crossing the smooth, icy logs in the darkness was a hazardous feat. Wolfe was particularly lame, and slipped several times into the icy torrent, but managed to flounder out without much delay.”

It was the food, warmth and guidance offered by slaves and Union sympathizers with secret handshakes, plus Wolfe’s knowledge of celestial navigation, that brought them to safety.  Richardson recalled, “We walked about a mile through the dense woods, when Captain Wolfe, who had been all the time declaring that the North Star was on the wrong side of us, convinced our pilot [guide] that he had mistaken the road, and we retraced our steps to the right thoroughfare.”

Captain Wolfe finally made it back to Mystic on his 35th birthday--Jan. 20, 1865. He eventually recuperated and went back to sea. When his steamer named City of Waco burned and sank 10 years later on November 9, 1875, everyone perished. Wolfe left behind a wife and two sons.

Anyway, the main lesson we can learn from his life is to learn how to locate the North Star (Polaris). No matter what time of night or year, the North Star stays in virtually the same position. Located at the end of the little dipper, it’s near the bowl part of the big dipper.
Frank Reed of Conanicut Island, R.I., a celestial navigation instructor, says that the best backup for a failed GPS is another GPS. However, if all electronics are out but you have the current year’s Nautical Almanac, “then the stars can get you across an ocean just as easily as they did 150 years ago.”


The above story about Captain Wolfe was an excerpt from Mystic Seafarer's Trail by Lisa Saunders. Where to Buy Mystic Seafarer's Trail 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lisa Saunders of Mystic, Connecticut, is an award-winning writer and author of several books,  including Ever True: A Union Private and His Wife and Mystic Seafarer's Trail.
Here books:
  • Shays' Rebellion and the Hanging of Henry Gale
  • Ride a Horse, Not an Elevator!
  • Anything But a Dog!
  • Surviving Loss: The Woodcutter's Tale
  • Ever True: A Union Private and His Wife
  • Mystic Seafarer's Trail

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