A Teenager Guided Union Officers through the Mountains of Western North Carolina
Union Capt. Mark M. Bassett, a member of Company E, 53rd Regiment, Illinois Volunteers, had been captured by the Confederates during the siege of Vicksburg in the summer of 1863. Before the end of July, he was brought to Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. There were twelve hundred Union Officers already held there. With assistance from other imprisoned Union soldiers, Bassett dug an escape tunnel, and 110 men escaped through the tunnel during February 1864. However, Bassett was recaptured. He eventually ended up in a new Confederate Prison Stockade, still under construction in Columbia, South Carolina. Just a short time after arriving there, Bassett and eight other Union officers decided to attempt to break out, before the stockade was completely built. On November 10, 1864, they successfully ran away during the middle of the night and traveled northwest. They had heard that if they could reach the North Carolina Mountains, they would find Union sympathizers who would help them get to the Union Lines in Knoxville.
After many days of traveling, the hungry, cold group was brought to the home of Alexander Zachary in Cashiers Valley. After some deliberation, Zachary allowed his fourteen-year-old son Tommy to join the Yankees and their two other guides who were leading the Union officers over the mountains to Knoxville, Tennessee. The escaped prisoners promised that, after the war, money would be sent back to the Zacharys to pay for Tommy’s education.
It took a total of fifty-two days for the Union officers to reach Knoxville from “Camp Sorghum” in South Carolina. In his book Bushwhackers, the Civil War in North Carolina, The Mountains, William R. Trotter writes:
“By the middle of December 1864 there were already [eighteen inches] of snow on the ground when the weather conditions changed from wretched to appalling. A blizzard raked over the mountains dumping [ten inches] of fresh snow and obliterating any trails. Most of the mountain front remained static, as all movement was paralyzed by the arctic cold, lashing snow, and winds that could reach Hurricane velocities. Thus, ended the year of 1864 in the Western District of North Carolina. Arriving in Knoxville on January 1, 1865 a photograph was taken of the group, later to be titled “Union Refugees in East Tennessee.”
In that picture, T. R. or Tommy Zachary is the last person to the right on the back row. If you visit the Cashiers Historical Society, you can see a copy of that picture.
- R. Zachary tried homesteading in Kansas for a number of years, but returned to Cashiers where he built his home in 1882. After the war, Capt. Bassett, who later became a Judge and then an Illinois state senator, sent a letter to Zachary, and the two men kept in contact with one another throughout the years. In the 1890s, Bassett and some of his war buddies came back to Cashiers and, with T. R. Zachary joining them, they retraced their journey to Knoxville on horseback. In 1910, Judge Bassett wrote an account of his wartime experiences entitled Through the Tunnel at Libby Prison. And, by the way, T. R. Zachary was my great-grandfather.