Escaping slave saw Maine soldiers standing by ‘the gates of Heaven’

Library of Congress
By Brian Swartz, Of the Weekly Staff
Posted Feb. 12, 2013, at 2:46 p.m.

Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part installment about Samuel Guess, an escaped slave who moved to Bangor sometime near or after the end of the Civil War.

Born into slavery, Sam Guess escaped the lash and found safety with two Maine soldiers startled to see him emerge from the Louisiana darkness. They treated him so well that he decided to move to Bangor after the Civil War ended — and after he had enlisted in the 41st United States Colored Troops.

Guess was born in 1835 on a Kentucky plantation to slave parents named Samson and Eliza; Guess may or may not have been their surname. “I did not know then what it was to be free,” Samuel told a Bangor audience many years later.

“We were like cattle. They kept us in cabins built for the slaves … [and] when day came … overseers … drove us into the fields to pick the cotton and kept us at it all day long,” Guess recalled.

Describing some “of the plantation owners” as “kind to their slaves” and others as “cruel,” he had the “good fortune to be born on a plantation where the owner was a good man. He didn’t allow his slaves [to be] whipped and he kept his overseers down.”

Perhaps sometime in the mid-1850s, Guess became the property of his master’s daughter, “and when she married, she took me with her as part of her belongings,” he told his listeners.

The woman’s husband “was cruel and whipped me for nothing, just nothing at all,” Guess said.

“Then I got my first whipping,” he said. Audience members likely hung on every word he next spoke.

“They tied me up and stripped my clothes off,” Guess vividly remembered that horror. “Then they whipped me with a black lash until the leader cut my back and the blood flew every time that [man’s] arm came down.

“When they finished my back was a mass of blood,” Guess described the physical results, “but I put my coat on and said nothing. I wanted my mistress to see what they had done and get square for it.”

Knowing that “I had been the favorite servant of my mistress for a number of years and she had always treated me kindly,” the naïve Guess believed “when they got ready to whip me” that the woman “would make trouble with the master when she heard of it.”

In terrible pain, with the blood already soaking his shirt, Guess walked away from the whipping and soon encountered his mistress. “My collar was all blood when” she “saw me, but she never said a word,” he told enrapt Bangoreans.

“She didn’t even feel for me as she would have if they had abused one of her pet horses, and I never heard her say a word about the way he lashed me,” Guess said.

He watched his male master bring slave-traders into the cabins or fields. There these peddlers of human flesh would examine slaves and buy certain ones for cash on the spot, just as the master might sell cattle or horses.

“Those of us they decided to buy had to drop our work right there and go handcuffed with the trader,” Guess said. “It was horribly cruel sometimes, to see children separated from their parents without a word of warning nor a minute in which to say goodbye.”

Slaves who protested were whipped on site. Those sold to the traders were often shipped “to the slave-marts in the big cities and held … for public auctions just as Mr. Morse does horses in Bangor today,” Guess said, making a local analogy that his listeners understood.

Before slaves stood on an auction block, the traders “stripped men, women, and children of all conditions and ages … and let the plantation men examine them as they would sound cattle for weak points and good ones,” he remembered. “They took in everything about us from our teeth to our feet, and then the bidding would begin.”

In referring to cattle, Guess evoked imagery of farmers and livestock dealers checking cattle. Bangoreans who visited the farm stalls in East and West Market Squares similarly inspected chickens, geese, and other fowl before buying them.

At his first slave auction, Guess earned a slave-trader “over a thousand” dollars, and “the last time” he sold “for $2,500. I was sold ten times in all for a total of $10,000 in cash.”

Ironically, each sale brought Guess a step closer to freedom. The last man to buy him “lived in Louisiana,” Guess recalled. “With a big team of horses” and a wagon, he hauled salt to the master’s plantation — and while doing so, Guess paid attention to the countryside.

If he decided to run, he would know where he was going.

After New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, Federal soldiers and warships moved upriver. “Then we began to hear about the Yankees coming to set us free,” Guess said. One day his frightened master ordered his slaves to pack “up the whole outfit on the plantation in the big wagons” and head for Mexico.

After traveling many miles with the caravan, Guess and a friend pretended to sleep one night, then stole two horses “and rode off toward Baton Rouge.” At sunrise they abandoned the horses because Southern whites would suspect “that we were escaping.”

Living on only what they found in the forest, the two men traveled for several days. When they started seeing Confederate troops, “we … knew that we were coming to the army lines,” Guess recalled.

“We were just going up over a hill by a cornfield when my mate, who was ahead, passed out [of the cornfield] by the corner of some crossroads without looking ahead of him,” he said. Mounted on horses, Confederate guerrillas spotted Guess’s companion “and shot him dead not a dozen feet ahead of me.”

Burrowing into the cornfield, Guess evaded the guerrillas and then made a perilous journey until dark, when he realized “I was in the middle of a Rebel camp with tents all around.” He placed “a long stick” on his shoulder and “marched slowly along on the edge of the camp as if I was a sentry.”

The starving Guess “traveled and … traveled that night” until “I saw a light.” Creeping toward the campfire, he “saw the blue uniforms and … the caps (kepis) such as the Yankees wore.”

Then a sentry shouted, “Halt, who comes there?”

“A friend,” Guess replied. He reached the outer edge of the firelight, and the sentry “grabbed me by the coat.

“And there was a group of men in blue coats,” said Guess, almost viewing the startled Maine soldiers as divine angels.

Among his saviors were privates Albra G. Hammons and George W. Herrick, both supposedly from Corinth. Decades later Guess told his audience that the men belonged to “the 2nd Maine Infantry,” but that regiment never served in Louisiana. They actually belonged to the 22nd Maine Infantry Regiment, which served in Louisiana from January to July 1863.

The regiment had mustered into Army service in Bangor; Hammons and Herrick “treated me like a long-lost brother” and fed the grateful Guess, who probably heard tales about life in Maine and the Queen City.

“Let me tell you that that night, free at last, I felt as if the gates of Heaven had opened to Sam Guess,” he told his audience.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/12/the-weekly/escaping-slave-saw-maine-soldiers-standing-by-the-gates-of-heaven/ printed on October 1, 2014