During the Civil War, more than 400,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were held at prisoner-of-war camps, with a tragic death toll of 56,000. Among these captives was a Confederate soldier with a remarkable tale of escape from Point Lookout POW camp in Maryland. Thirty-six years later, this soldier embarked on a journey to revisit the site of his imprisonment, hoping to meet and reward those who had shown him kindness and aided in his journey. Accompanied by a newspaper correspondent, his story was recorded and later published.
Simon E. V. Seward was born in Surry County, VA, on May 14, 1844. He hailed from a family with a strong military lineage, his second great-grandfather having served in the Revolutionary War. On August 12, 1862, Seward enlisted in Company E of the 13th Regiment Virginia Cavalry, the Confederate States of America, at Petersburg, VA.
Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee dispatched some troops to threaten Washington and draw away Union forces. Seward was among these men, and while reconnoitering in Montgomery County, Maryland, Union soldiers captured him on June 28, 1863. Initially held at the Old Capitol Prison, the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg necessitated the conversion of Point Lookout, a former military hospital complex, into a POW camp. Seward was transferred there, witnessing the rapid increase in prisoners from 1,700 to 9,000 by the end of 1863.
As conditions worsened with the influx of prisoners, scarcity of food and contaminated water caused illnesses like typhoid and malaria. Before the war ended, some 4,000 prisoners died at Point Lookout. Seward began planning his escape.
For weeks, he studied the guards’ movements until he found the opportune moment to make his move. He crept past a fence unnoticed but drew attention while trying to steal a horse, triggering alarms. Running through a barrage of gunfire, Seward flung himself into the Chesapeake Bay and swam furiously. He eventually came ashore and made his way south, hiding from pursuing soldiers. Along his arduous journey, he encountered compassionate strangers who provided him with dry clothes, food, money, and lodging.
Finally reaching Richmond, Confederate officials granted Seward a furlough, and he reunited with his family. Post-conflict, he went on to become a wealthy businessman. Despite his achievements, Seward never forgot the kindness extended toward him during his escape. His greatest desire was to repay it. In 1898, at the age of 55, Seward embarked on a poignant return to Point Lookout, accompanied by his brother and a newspaper correspondent eager to document this emotional journey.
Seward tried to follow his original escape route but rerouted rivers, and roads made it difficult. As they neared Point Lookout, Seward inquired about an old home where he once sought refuge. Locals directed him to John Hewitt, whose father had lived on the land years earlier.
Seward found Hewitt, and when he asked him if he remembered the war, a flicker of recognition passed through Hewitt’s eyes. Suddenly, both men realized that this was not their first meeting. Years earlier, when Hewitt was a teenager, he and his father helped Seward escape. Both men were stunned, then overcome with emotion. The two embraced and wept as they recounted the events from many years earlier.
Hewitt remembered every detail of the night his mother opened the door to find an emaciated 19-year-old soldier. The family took Seward in, fed him, hid him, then helped him escape as Union soldiers closed in.
Seward pressed a substantial sum of money into Hewitt’s hand. Hewitt protested but eventually acquiesced. The journey back to Point Lookout was cathartic for Seward, who expressed gratitude that the war was over, and the Union was preserved.