“An incredible joy filled my heart”: The Capture and Escape of Johannes Sachs

By Drew Hoffman ’15

Born in Mittlesinn, Hessen, Johannes Sachs was a veteran before he left Germany for the United States in 1850. He fought in the extremely chaotic rebellions of 1848 for the liberal idealism of equality and popular sovereignty in Germany. When these rebellions largely all failed, Sachs joined countless others in the 1848 “Revolution” in moving his family to the United States. Upon arrival in the United States he changed his name to John. After their arrival in Baltimore, Sachs found work in Adams County, moving there in 1856. When war broke out in 1861, Sachs moved the family back to Baltimore and enlisted in the 5th Maryland. He survived the bloody Battle of Antietam. He promoted to First Lieutenant a year later.

John Sachs ran out of luck at the Battle of Winchester, when he and his entire command were taken prisoner on July 13th, 1863. He was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond Virginia. Speaking in retrospect, Sachs reported “We had it right good there. The food was indeed poor, but we had at least shelter.” He was eventually taken to a succession of increasingly squalid POW camps, moving from Virginia down to Georgia, and then finally on October 2nd of the same year to Columbia, South Carolina. “The treatment there was barbaric,” complained Sachs. In a letter from one of Sachs fellow escapees, conditions at Columbia, could not have been worse: “we were half starved and almost naked all the time.” Offered no shelter from the elements, worm-ridden water, and flea-infested blankets, John Sachs had had enough. When a prison guard mistakenly left Sachs and a group of men outside the prison lines unattended, they made their escape on November 4th, 1863.
Sachs
By any standards, the prospect of escaping from central South Carolina to the closest Union lines in Tennessee was daunting. However, Sachs realized he had support from African Americans as he journeyed north. He found that he could count on freedmen or slaves that he encountered on the road. African Americans offered him food, protection from Confederate authorities, or advice on routes to take.

Sachs also was aided by white union sympathizes after his escape. These families provided additional aid and shelter at great risk as there were “guerrilla” bands of Confederate militias roaming the countryside looking for sympathizers giving aid to the Union. He managed to convince one, Mr. Stuart, to take him to the Tennessee border. Upon reaching the first Union scout, Sachs walked another eight miles until finally reaching the lines of the Union 6th TN Cavalry. Upon finally reaching his destination, “An incredible joy filled my heart. I was as a young child.”

John Sachs’s ordeal of capture and escape from South Carolina illustrates the complexities of civilian life during the conflict. Even in the heart of the Confederacy, the lives of slaves and loyal white men helped to make his attempt to freedom a success. The fear wrought by Confederate “guerrillas” also reveals much about local political control during in the decentralized government of the South. If anything can be gleamed from the account of John Sachs, it is that the Civil War was not only fought on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg, but also the homes of ordinary citizens, with not bullets, but something as simple as the gift of a loaf of bread.


Photo: Account of John Sachs’ story written in original German by a local reverend.
Courtesy of Special Collections at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

Bibliography:

CWVFM-82: Capt. Johannes (John) Sachs of the 5th Maryland, Co.K, Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Hodge, William E. William E. Hodge to E.P. Sachs, Esq, 12 March, 1886.

Blas, Rev. Jacob. Leutnant Johannes Sachs, 15 June, 1863.

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