Libby Prison - The Escape

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From the Papers read before the Wisconsin MOLLUS, Vol. I, Milwaukee, 1891, pp. 394-409

LIBBY PRISON-THE ESCAPE.
By BVT. BRIG. GEN. HARRISON C. HOBART, U. S. V.

(Read June 3, 1891.)

THE battles of Chickamauga were fought on the 19th and 20th of September, 1863. The 21st Wisconsin, which I then commanded, formed a part of Thomas' memorable line and fought through the battles of Saturday and Sunday. At the close of the second day Thomas' corps still maintained its position and presented an unbroken front to the enemy, but the right of our army having fallen back the tide of battle was turning against

us. To avoid a flank movement our brigade was ordered to leave the breastworks, which they had held against the severest fire of the enemy during the day, and fall back to a second position. Here only a portion of the men, with three regimental standards, were rallied. A rebel battery was instantly placed in position on our right, and rebel cavalry swept between us and the retreating army. Being the ranking officer among those who rallied, I directed the men to cut their way through to our retiring line. I was on the left of this movement to the rear, and, to avoid the approach of horsemen, rapidly passed through a dense cluster of small pines and instantly found myself in the immediate front of a rebel line of infantry. I halted, being dismounted, and an officer advanced and offered me his hand, saying he was glad to see me, and proposed to introduce me to his commander, Gen. Cleburn. I replied that I was not particularly pleased to see him, but, under the circumstances, should not decline his invitation. I met the General, who was mounted and being cheered by his men, and surrendered to him my sword. He inquired where I had been fighting. I said "Right there," pointing to the line of Thomas' corps. He replied : "This line has given us our chief trouble, sir; your soldiers have fought like brave men; come with me and I will see that no one insults or interferes with you."

It was now after sundown and the last guns of the terrible battle of Chickamauga were dying away along the hillsides of Mission Ridge. A large number of prisoners of war were soon gathered and marched to the enemy's rear across the Chickamauga. Here we witnessed the fearful results of the battle. The ground strewed with the dead and wounded, the shattered fragments of transportation, and a general demoralization among the forces, told the fearful price which the enemy had paid for their stubborn advance. More than fifteen hundred Union soldiers, prisoners of war, camped by a large spring to pass the remainder of a cold night, some without blankets or overcoats, and all without provisions. The next day we were marched about thirty miles to Tunnel Hill where we received our first rations from the enemy. On this march the only food we obtained was from a field of green sorghum. Here we were placed in box cars and taken to Atlanta. On arriving at this place we were first marched to an open field outside of the city, near a fountain of water, and surrounded by a guard. Kind-hearted people came out of the city bringing bread with them which they threw to us across the guard line. Immediately a second line was established, distant several rods outside of the first, to prevent them from giving us food. From this place we were marched to the old slave pen, and every man, as he entered the narrow gate, was compelled to give up his overcoat and blanket. I remonstrated with the officers for stripping the soldiers of their necessary clothing, as an act in violation of civilized warfare and inhuman. The men who were executing this infamous duty did not deny these charges, but excused themselves on the ground that they were simply obeying an order of Gen. Bragg from the front. That night I saw seventeen hundred Union soldiers lie down upon the ground without an overcoat or blanket to protect them from the cold earth or shield them from the heavy southern dew.

The next morning we were ordered to take the cars and proceed on our way to Richmond. These men arose from the ground, cold and wet with the night-damp, and under my command organized and formed in column by companies, and marched to the depot through one of the main streets of Atlanta singing in full chorus the “Star Spangled Banner.” Crowds gathered around us as we entered the cars. A guard with muskets accompanied the train. On the last day of September, after traveling more than eight hundred miles from the battlefield of Chickamauga, we arrived at Richmond, and the officers of the Cumberland Army, to the number of about two hundred and fifty, were marched to Libby Prison. This building has a front of about one hundred and forty feet with a depth of one hundred and five. There are nine rooms, each one hundred and two feet long by forty-five feet wide. The height of the ceiling from the floor is about seven feet. The building is also divided into three apartments by brick walls, and there is a basement below. On entering the prison we were severally searched and everything of value taken from us. Some of us saved our money by putting it into the seams of our garments before we arrived at Richmond. The officers of the Army of the Cumberland were assigned to the middle rooms of the second and third stories. The lower and middle room was used as a general kitchen, and the basement immediately below was fitted up with cells for the confinement and punishment of offenders. These rooms received the sobriquet of “Chickamauga.”

The whole number of officers of the army and navy in prison at this time was about twelve hundred-as intelligent and brave men as I met during the war-all having access to each other except those in the hospital. There were no beds or chairs and all slept on the floor. I shared a horse blanket with Surgeon Dixon, of Wisconsin, which was the only bedding we had for some time. Our bread was made of unbolted corn and was cold and clammy. We were sometimes furnished with fresh beef, corn beef, and sometimes with rice and vegetable soup. The men formed themselves into messes and each took his turn in preparing such food as we could get. At one time no meat was furnished for about nine days, and the reason given was that their soldiers at the front required all they could obtain. During this period we received nothing but corn bread. Kind friends sent us boxes of provisions from the north, which were opened and examined by the confederates, and if nothing objectionable was found, and it pleased them, the party to whom a box was sent was directed to come down and get it. Many of these were never delivered. Every generous soul shared the contents of his box with his more unfortunate companions. Had it not been for this provision our life in Libby would have been intolerable.

There was no glass in the windows and for some time no fire in the rooms. An application for window glass, made during the severest cold weather, was answered by the assurance that the confederates had none to furnish. The worst affliction, however, was the vermin which invaded every department. There was another peril which was fortunately unknown to us during our imprisonment. Fearing a raid would be made by our cavalry into Richmond, to liberate the federal prisoners, the rebel commander caused the prison to be mined, and ordered it to be blown up if our troops should enter the town. Each officer was permitted to write home the amount of three lines per week, but even these brief messages were not always allowed to leave Richmond.

A variety of schemes were adopted to improve or kill time. We played chess, cards, opened a theater, organized a band of minstrels, delivered lectures, established schools for teaching dancing, singing, the French language, and military tactics, read books, published manuscript newspapers, held debates, and by these means rendered life tolerable, though by no means agreeable. An incident occurred, after we had been in prison some time, which made a deep impression upon everyone. Some of our men had been confined in a block not far from Libby, called the Pemberton building. An order had been issued to remove them to North Carolina. When they left their line of march was along the street in our front, and when they passed under our windows we threw out drawers, shirts, stockings, etc., which they gathered up; and when they raised their pale and emaciated faces to greet their old commanders there were but few dry eves in Libby. Many of them were making their last march. Our sick were removed to the room set apart on the ground floor for a hospital; and when one died, he was put in a box of rough boards, placed in an open wagon and rapidly driven away over the stony streets. There were no flowers from loving hands, and no mourning pageant, but a thousand hearts in Libby followed the gallant dead to his place of rest. We were seldom visited by any person. The only call I received was from Gen. Breckenridge, of Kentucky; I had known him before the war. During our interview I referred to the resources of the North and South, and asked him upon what ground he hoped the Confederacy could succeed. His only reply was that "five millions of people, determined to be free, could not be conquered."

There being no exchange of prisoners at this time, projects of escape were discussed from the beginning. One scheme was for a few persons at a time to put on the dress of a citizen and attempt to pass the guard as visitors. A few actually recovered their liberty in this manner. Another plan was to dig a tunnel to the city sewer, which was understood to pass under the street in front of the prison, and escape through that to the river. This project might have succeeded had not the water interfered. The final and successful plan was the following: On the ground floor of the building, on a level with the street, was a kitchen containing a fire-place, at a stove connected with which the prisoners inhabiting the rooms above did their cooking. Beneath this floor was a basement, one of the rooms in which was used as a store room. This store room was under the hospital and next to the. street, and though not directly under the kitchen was so located that it was possible to reach it by digging downward and rearward through the masonry work of the chimney. From this basement room it was proposed to construct a tunnel under the street to a point beneath a shed, connected with a brick block upon the opposite side, and from this place to pass into the street in the guise of citizens. A knowledge of this plan was confided to about twenty-five and nothing was known of the proceedings by the others until two or three days before the escape. A table knife, chisel and spittoon were secured for working tools, when operations commenced. Sufficient of the masonry was removed from the fireplace to admit the passage of a man through a diagonal cut to the store room below, and an excavation was then made through the foundation wall toward the street, and the construction of the tunnel proceeded night by night. But two persons could work at the same time. One would enter the hole with his tools and a small tallow candle, dragging the spittoon after him attached to a string. The other would fan air into the passage with his hat, and with another string would draw out the novel dirt cart when loaded, concealing its contents beneath the straw and rubbish of the cellar.

Each morning before daylight the working party returned to their rooms, after carefully closing the mouth of the tunnel, and skilfully replacing the bricks in the chimney. An error occurred during the prosecution of this work that nearly proved fatal to the enterprise. After a sufficient distance was supposed to have been made, an excavation was commenced to reach the top of the ground. The person working carefully felt his way upward, when suddenly a small amount of the top earth fell in, and through this he could plainly see two sentinels apparently looking at him. One said to the other: "I have been hearing a strange noise in the ground there." After listening a short time the other replied that it was "nothing but rats." The working party had not been seen. After consultation this opening was carefully filled with dirt and shored up. The work was then recommenced, and after digging about fifteen feet further the objective point under the shed was successfully reached. This tunnel required about thirty days of patient, tedious and dangerous labor. It was eight feet below the street, between sixty and seventy feet in length, and barely large enough for a full grown person to crawl through by pulling and pushing himself along with his hands and feet.

When all was completed the company was organized and placed under my charge. The men having provided themselves with citizens' clothing, which had at different times been sent to the prison by friends in the north, and having filled their pockets with bread and dried meat from their boxes, commenced to escape about seven P.M. on the 9th of February, 1864. In order to distract the attention of the guard a dancing party with music was extemporized in the same room. As each one had to pass out in the immediate presence of confederate soldiers when he stepped into the street from the outside of the line, and as the guard were under orders to fire upon a prisoner escaping, without even calling him to halt, the first men who descended into the tunnel wore that quiet gloom so often seen in the army before going into battle. It was a living drama; dancing in one part of the room, dark shadows disappearing through the chimney in another part, and the same shadows reappearing upon the opposite walk, and the sentinel at his post, with a voice that rang out upon the evening air, announcing: "Eight o'clock, Post No. one," and "All is well! " and at the same time a Yankee soldier was passing in his front, and a line of Yankee soldiers were crawling under his feet. The passage was so small that the process of departure was necessarily slow, a few inches of progress only being made at each effort, and to facilitate locomotion outside garments were taken off and pushed forward.

By this time the proceedings had become known to the whole prison, and as the first men emerged upon the street and quietly walked away, seen by hundreds of their fellows who crowded to the windows, a wild excitement and enthusiasm was created, and they rushed down to the chimney clamoring for the privilege of going out. It was the intention of those who constructed the tunnel that no others should leave until the next night, as it might materially diminish their own chances of escape. But the thought of liberty and pure air, and the death-damp of the dark, loathsome prison, would not allow them to listen to any denial. I then held a parley and it was arranged that the rope upon which we descended into the basement, after the last of the party had passed out, should be pulled up for the space of one hour-then it should be free to all in the prison. Having joined my fortunes with Col. T. S. West, of Wisconsin, we were the last of the party who crawled through. About nine o'clock in the evening we emerged from the tunnel, and cautiously crossing an open yard to an arched drive-way, we stepped out upon the street and walked slowly away, apparently engaged in earnest conversation. As soon as we were out of range of the sentinel's guns we concluded it would be the safest course to turn and pass up through one of the main streets of Richmond, as they would not suspect that prisoners escaping would take that direction. My face being very pale and my beard long, clinging to the arm of Col. West, I assumed the part of a decrepit old man who seemed to be in exceeding ill-health and badly affected with a consumptive cough. In this manner we passed beneath the glaring gas lights, and through the crowded street, without creating a suspicion as to our real character. We met the police, squads of soldiers, and many others who gave me a sympathizing look and stepped aside on account of my apparent infirmities. Approaching the suburbs of the town we retreated into a ravine, which enabled its to leave the city without passing out upon one of the main streets. While in prison I copied McClellan's war map of Virginia which aided us materially in this escape. Our objective points were to cross the Chickahominy above New Bridge, then cross the Yorkville Railroad, then strike and follow down the Williamsburg pike.

After resting and breathing the pure air the first time for more than four months, we resumed our journey agreeing not to speak above a whisper-avoiding all houses and roads, and determining our course by the north star. In crossing roads we traveled backwards that the footsteps might mislead our pursuers. We soon came in sight of the main fortification around Richmond, and instantly dropping upon the ground we lay- for a long time listening and watching for the presence of sentinels upon that part of the line. Being satisfied that there were none in our immediate front, in the most silent and cautious manner we crossed over the fortification and pursued our way through a tangled forest. Coining to a niece of low ground, tired and exhausted, we lay down to rest. Our attention was soon attracted by the presence of a series of excavations, and on a close examination we found we were resting upon the battlefield of Fair Oaks, and among the trenches in which the Confederates had buried our dead; and, although it was the midnight hour, a strange feeling of safety stole over me, and I felt as if we were among our friends. It was the step and voice of the living that we dreaded. At early dawn (Wednesday) we crossed a brook and went up a hillside of low, thick pines to conceal ourselves and rest during the day. The valley of the Chickahominy lay before us. While in this concealment we saw a blood-hound scenting our steps down to the place where we jumped over the brook, it then went back and returned two or three times, but finally left without attempting to cross the little stream. Later in the evening we went to the river and worked till after midnight to make or find a crossing. The water was deep and cold, and, failing to accomplish our purpose, we turned back to a haystack and covering ourselves with hay rested until the first light of morning (Thursday). Going back to the river we followed down its course until eye found a tree which had fallen nearly across the stream. Discovering a long pole we found that it would just touch the opposite shore from the limbs of this tree. Hitching ourselves carefully along this pole we reached the left bank of the Chickahominy river. We now felt as if escape was possible; but hearing a noise like the approach of troops (for we were satisfied that the enemy's cavalry must be in full pursuit), we fled into a neighboring forest. As we approached the center of a thicket my eye suddenly caught the glimpse of a man watching us from behind the foot of a fallen tree. I concluded that we had fallen into an ambush, but our momentary apprehension was joyfully relieved by the discovery that this new made acquaintance was Col. W. B. McCreary, of Michigan, and with him Maj. Terrence Clark, of Illinois, who were among the first who had gone through the tunnel, and were now passing the day in this secluded place. The Colonel was one of my intimate friends, and when he recognized me he jumped to his feet and threw his arms around me in an ecstacy of delight.

By this time the whole population had been informed of the escape and the country was alive with pursuers. We could distinctly hear the reveille of the rebel troops and the hum of their camps. Thus reinforced we agreed to travel in company. It was arranged that one of the four should precede, searching out the way in the darkness and giving due notice of danger. At dark we left our hiding place and cautiously proceeded on our way. Late at night we crossed the railroad running from Richmond to the White House, our second objective point. Here Col. West saw a sentinel sitting close by the railroad asleep, with his gun resting against his shoulder. Just before daybreak we went into a pine wood after traveling a distance of more than twenty miles, and weary and tired we lay down to rest.

The morning (Friday) broke clear and beautiful, but with its bright light came the bugle notes of the enemy's cavalry who were in the pines close by us. We instantly arose and fled away at the top of our speed, expecting every moment to hear the crack of the rifle or the sharp command to halt. We struck a road and about-faced to cross it-the only time that we looked back. We pursued our rapid steps until we came to a dense chaparral, and into this we threaded our way until we reached an almost impenetrable jungle. Crawling into the center we threw ourselves upon the ground completely exhausted. A bird flew into the branches above us as we lay upon our backs, and the words burst from my lips: "Dear little bird! Oh, that I had your wings! " As soon as friendly darkness again returned we moved forward, weary, hungry and footsore, still governed in our course by the north star. During all this toilsome way but few words passed between us, and these generally in low whispers. So untiring was the search, and so thoroughly alarmed and watchful were the population, that we felt that our safety depended upon a bare chance. Again making our way from wood to wood, and avoiding farm houses as best we might, till the light of another morning, we retired to cover in the shade of a thick forest. Saturday night the journey was resumed as usual. It was my turn to act the part of picket and pilot. While rapidly leading the way through a wood of low pines I suddenly found myself in the presence of a cavalry reserve. The men were warming themselves by a blazing fire and their horses were tied to trees around them. I was surprised and alarmed; but recovering my self-possession, I remained motionless and soon perceived that my presence was unobserved. Carefully putting one foot behind the other I retreated out of sight, and rapidly returned to my party. Knowing that there were videttes sitting somewhere at the front in the dark w e concluded to go back about two miles to a plantation, and call at one of the outermost negro houses for information. We returned and I volunteered to make the call while the others remained concealed at a distance.

I approached the door and rapped, and a woman's voice from within asked "who was there." I replied that "I was a traveler and had lost my way, and wished to obtain some information about the road." She directed me to go to another house but I declined to do so, and after some further conversation the door was opened, and I was surprised to find a large, good-looking negro standby her side, who had been listening to the interview. He invited me to come in, and as soon as the door was closed lie said: "I know who you are; you're one of dem 'scaped officers from Richmond," Looking him full in the face, I placed my hand firmly upon his shoulder and said: " I am, and I know you are my friend." His eyes sparkled as he repeated: “Yes, sir; yes, sir; but you mustn't stay here; a reg'ment of cavalry is right thar,” pointing to a place near by, " and they pass this road all times of the night." The woman gave me a piece of corn bread and a glass of milk, and the man accompanying me I left the house, and soon finding my companions our guide took us to a secluded spot in a cane-brake, and there explained the situation of the picket in front. It was posted on a narrow neck of land between two impassable swamps, and over this neck ran the main road to Williamsburg. The negro proved to be a sharp, shrewd fellow, and we engaged him to pilot us round this picket. After impressing us in his strongest language with the danger both to him and to us of making the least noise, he conducted us through a long cane-brake path, then through several fields, then directly over the road, crossing between the cavalry reserve and their videttes, who were sitting upon their horses but a few rods in front, and then took us around to the pike about a mile beyond this last post of the rebels. After obtaining important information from him concerning the way to the front, and giving him a substantial reward, we cordially took his hand in parting. If good deeds are recorded in heaven this slave appeared in the record that night.

The line of the pike was then rapidly followed as far as Diascum River, which was reached just at light Sunday morning. To cross the river without assistance from some quarter was found impossible. We tried to wade through it but failed in the attempt. We were seen by some of the neighboring population which largely increased our danger and trepidation, for we had been informed by our guide that the enemy's scouts came to this point every morning. After awhile we succeeded in reaching an island in the river, but could get no farther, finding deep water beyond. We endeavored to construct a raft but failed. The water being extremely cold, and we being very wet and weary, we did not dare attempt to swim the stream; and expecting every moment to see the enemy's cavalry, our hearts sank within us. At this juncture a rebel soldier was seen coming up the river in a row boat with a gun. Requesting my companions to lie down in the grass, I concealed myself in the bushes close to the water to get a good view of the man. Finding his countenance to indicate youth and benevolence I accosted him as he approached. "Good morning; I have been waiting for you; they told me up at those houses that I could get across the stream, but I find the bridge is gone, and I am very wet and cold; and if you will take me over I will pay you for your trouble." The boat was turned in to the shore, and as I stepped into it I knew that boat was mine. Keeping my eye upon his gun I said to him: "there are three more of us," and they immediately stepped into the boat. "Where do you all come from?" said the boatman seeming to hesitate and consider. We represented ourselves as farmers from different localities on the Chickahominy. "The officers don't like to have me carry men over this river," he said, evidently suspecting who we were. I replied: "That is right; you should not carry soldiers or suspected characters." Then placing my eyes upon him I said: "Pass your boat over!" and it sped to the other shore. We gave him one or two greenbacks and he rapidly returned. We knew that we were discovered and that the enemy's cavalry would very soon be in hot pursuit, therefore we determined, after consultation, to go into the first hiding place, and as near as possible to the river. The wisdom of this course was soon demonstrated. The cavalry crossed the stream, dashed by us, and thoroughly searched the country to the front, not dreaming but we had gone forward. We did not leave our seclusion until about midnight and then felt our way with extreme care. The proximity to Williamsburg was evident from the destruction everywhere apparent in our path. There were no buildings, no inhabitants, and no sound save our own weary footsteps; desolation reigned supreme. Stacks of chimneys stood along our way like sentinels over the dead land.

For five days and six nights, hunted and almost exhausted, with the stars for our guide, we had picked our way through surrounding perils toward the camp fires of our friends. We knew we were near the outpost of the Union troops and began to feel as if our trials were nearly over. But we were now in danger of being shot as rebels by scouting parties of our own army. To avoid the appearance of spies we took the open road, alternately traveling and concealing ourselves that we might reconnoitre the way. About two o'clock in the morning, coming near the shade of a dark forest that overhung the road, we were startled and brought to a stand by the sharp and sudden command, "Halt!" Looking in the direction whence it proceeded we discovered the dark forms of a dozen cavalrymen drawn up in line across the road. A voice came out of the darkness asking "Who are you?" We replied: "We are four travelers." The same voice replied: "If you are travelers come up here!" Moving forward the cavalry surrounded us, and carefully looking at their coats I concluded they were gray, and was nerving myself for a recapture. It was a supreme moment to the soul. One of my companions asked: "Are you Union soldiers?" In broad Pennsylvania language the answer came, "Well we are." In a moment their uniforms changed to a glorious blue, and taking off our hats we gave one long, exultant shout. It was like passing from death unto life. Our hearts filled with gratitude to Him whose sheltering arm had protected us in all that dangerous way. Turning toward Richmond I prayed in my heart that I might have strength to return to my command. I was afterwards in Sherman's advance to Atlanta, the march to the sea and through the Carolinas, entered Richmond with the Western Army, and had the supreme satisfaction of marching my brigade by Libby Prison.

NOTE. - One hundred and nine prisoners escaped through the tunnel that night, of whom fifty-seven reached our lines.

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