National Tribune, 12/13/1928
From the National Tribune, 12/13/1928
THAT SPECTACULAR ESCAPE FROM LIBBY
How the Chickamauga Prisoners Schemed to Outwit the Confederates, Who Thought Libby Was Their Strongest Prison. Several Unsuccessful Attempts - “Rat Hell” - Digging the 50 - Foot Tunnel - Rose, Directing Genius, Almost Succumbs.
By L. W. LeMASTUS, 12th Ky. Cav.
(As told to his granddaughter, Miss Ester LeMastus. Maj. A. J. Hamilton, who is spoken of in this narrative, was murdered on dark night in the year 1894 just beyond the city limits of Morgantown, Ky.)
The annals of the Civil War disclose no more interesting story than that of the tunnel escape from Libby Prison on the night of Feb. 9, 1864. Before the war this prison was used as a tobacco warehouse, owned by Libby & Son.
The building was divided into three separate rooms on each floor, without any doors connecting. When the Confederacy took it over, however, they cut doorways in the upper floor connecting all three rooms, but the lower floors and basement remained separate.
Among the prisoners sent there after the Battle of Chickamauga, Sept. 20, 1863, was Col. Thomas E. Rose. He arrived on Oct. 1, 1863, and from that time forward was occupied wit some plan for escape. Directly upon his arrival he began to make observations of the surroundings of the prison. On the east end of the prison was a vacant lot, and beyond this were two buildings fronting Canal and Carey Streets, respectively.
The arrival of the Chickamauga prisoners had made it necessary for the Confederates to board up one corner of the east cellar as and additional cookroom, and the prisoners were allowed down there for a short time each day.
The north end of this cellar was very dark and covered to the depth of about two feet with loose straw. On account of the large colony of rats that lived there part of the cellar was known as “Rat Hell.”
While surveying this end one afternoon Rose encountered a fellow prisoner, Maj. A. J. Hamilton, of the 12th Ky. Cav. A confiding friendship followed and the two at once formulated a plan for digging a tunnel from here to the large cellar and escaping thru it. With the tools that they could secure they began operations at once, but the Confederates, fearing for the security of their captives, nailed up this stairway, thus cutting off all communication with the east cellar, the only practical base for tunnel operations.
Undaunted, the two one dark night succeeded in prying up a board in the floor and Rose crawled thru into the cellar below, which was used as a carpenter shop and had a door opening into the street on the south. There was only one sentinel guarding this side of the prison at this time and an escape might have been affected by slipping past him.
But they decided to make a try at it the next night. Then, to their dismay, they found that there were two guards on that side of the building, and when they made an attempt to escape were detected and barely escaped back to their quarters. Thus thwarted, they decided to tunnel out.
After much thought they decided to start the entrance to “Rat Hell” thru an opening by skillfully removing bricks in the fireplace.
Several nights they kept the secret and worked alone, but it was soon found that they were not making much progress and that more men were needed to successfully do the work. Accordingly, it was agreed that they should increase the size of the party to 15 and work in relays of five.
Great care had to be exercised in selecting the party, for it was known that the Confederates had often sent spies into the prison disguised as prisoners for the purpose of detecting any plans for escape that might be contemplated. After the party was organized it was taken to the cellar and initiated into the work by Rose, who was recognized as leader.
The first plan was to dig down under the east wall of the prison and then turn southward until they reached the big sewer, into which Rose had before watched workmen descending. The wall proved, however, to reach much lower than they could hope to penetrate with the meager tools they possessed, and they were obliged to cut thru it.
This cost no end of tedious work, for the only tools they had were old pen-knives and saws made from case knives. When at last they succeeded in piercing this wall they met a more formidable foe. They had cut down below the level of the canal so that the water began to seep into their tunnel and at last filled it so that they had to give up the project.
By now most of the part were not only discouraged but really ill from working in the bad air of the cellar. The men, feeling that they could do no more, quietly disbanded, but Rose and Hamilton continued to work alone.
This time they began operations in the northeast corner of the cellar, where the ground was so much higher that there was no danger from water and the clay soil formed a good roof for the tunnel. This tunnel would have to terminate in a shed that stood between the two buildings, over 50 feet away on the east side of Libby, and the escaping prisoners would be obliged to walk into Canal Street in full sight of the sentinel on the south side of Libby. However, Rose estimated that if he left the prison just as the sentinel began his westward beat he would be far enough into the shadow to escape observation when the eastward march was resumed.
After breaking the wall in three places they at last found turf that was firm enough to support a tunnel and began operations in earnest, but again that old difficulty confronted them - needed more help. Accordingly, Rose again enlisted the services of such of the party as were willing to renew the attempt and enough others to make a total of 15. As before, they worked in relays of five, and the work progresses, though slowly and with difficulty.
The danger of discovery was constant and one of the five men in the cellar always held the post of lookout. The Confederates often visited the cellar in their rounds of inspection, but, because of the unpleasantness of the place, never stayed long and gave the concealed party very little trouble.
The relief upstairs was always on the lookout for any sign of aroused suspicions on the part of the Confederates. This work was extremely hazardous because the guards had orders to shoot any prisoners seen too close to the windows and it was no uncommon occurrence for them to use the prisoners as targets.
A part of the prison routine was to count the prisoners twice daily, and as one division of the party was always in the cellar the others fixed the count by “repeating”; that is, after they had been counted once, five of them would slip down the line and be counted again. This device worked until some initiated meddlers began to imitate it for “fun.” Of course, this produced a miscount and the trick was found out. A roll call revealed that Maj. B. B. McDonald and Capt. I. N. Johnson were missing There two happened to be the only to in the cellar that day. When told of the occurrence McDonald decided to return to the Confederates and give the most plausible excuse he could manufacture for his absence.
In his statements he was backed up by the other members of the plot and the Confederates accepted the explanation. Johnson preferred to endure the cellar until the tunnel should be completed His confinement there nearly wrecked his health and he was obliged to return upstairs a few hours each night while the others were at work below.
These incidents made day work in the tunnel out of the question, but the night work was continued as before. One night when McDonald was at work he became so confident that the desired distance had been traversed that he turned the tunnel upward and broke the crust of the earth, to find that it was only a few feet from the sentinel’s path. He returned to the cellar horror stricken and the news of the mistake was immediately sent to Rose, who was asleep upstairs.
Rose came down and entered the tunnel, to find that the blunder was not quite so bad as the terrified McDonald reports. He succeeded in stopping the apperture so that it was not readily noticeable.
On Saturday, Feb. 6, 1864, and unusually large party of Confederates entered the cellar and made a critical survey, in the meantime conversing in low tones. When Johnson reported to Rose he was really alarmed. It was certain that the suspicions of their enemies were aroused, but as yet, he believed, they had taken no definite shape. The next morning Rose, taking with him a single helper - McDonald - descended into the cellar and began work. He was by far the best digger in the party, and from this tie forward he never relinquished the chisel to a relief.
All day long he dug while McDonald fanned air to him and carried away the dirt. So steadily did they work that by night his helper was nearly exhausted. Still he worked far into the night, and when at last he backed into the cellar he was so weak that he could hardly stand The next morning he was at it again, with McDonald as his only helper.
Rose determined that this day should be the last. He worked all day long and on past midnight. His physical endurance was almost gone and sheer persistence kept him going. Sweat dripped from ever pore of his exhausted body; the foul air that his comrade tried to send him never reached across the 53-foot tunnel. He felt as if he were going to faint, and he knew that to faint where he was would mean his death and burial. He knew that at midnight he had struck and passed a post, and he reasoned that this post was within the inclosure; therefore he had turned the tunnel upward. His strength was nearly gone; the end must come one way or the other. Dropping his chisel, the desperate men pounded the earth above him with all the strength that remained in his body.
Then, blessed deliverance! the crust gave way and the dirt, bringing with it good,, pure air, rained down upon his face, and thru a crack in the shed he could see Libby silhouetted against the sky.
Dragging his body out of the hole, Rose surveyed the yard, opened the door that led into the street, and, as soon as the sentinel’s back was turned, stepped onto the sidewalk and made his way around some buildings to the canal, whence he could survey the prison. Having satisfied himself, he returned to the shed and, after covering the mouth of the tunnel with a piece of old plank, returned to break the news to his comrades.
Poor Johnson, who had so long endured the dank air of the cellar, almost wept for joy, while McDonald received the news with scarcely less emotion. Ascending the rope ladder and rebuilding the fireplace as usual, Rose told Hamilton, who had instantly summoned the rest of the party to the dining room to receive the god news. Their joy can be more readily imagined than described. They danced about their leader and gratefully wrung his hand again and again.
It was now 3 o’clock in the morning, 18 days after the successful tunnel was begun. Rose and Hamilton were for starting at once, but the rest of the party convinced them that it would be better to wait until the coming of night, when they would have more time to escape.
It was arranged that after Col. Rose and his party had escaped Col. H. C. Hobart was to draw up the rope ladder, conceal it, rebuild the fireplace, and on the next night follow with t party of his own, deputing some worthy leader to follow him on the third night, and so on until as many should have escaped as possible.
Col. Rose and his party descended into the cellar about 7 o’clock on Tuesday and, bidding them all Godspeed, Rose and Hamilton left the prison together and the others followed in groups of twos and threes. After leaving Libby, Rose and Hamilton turned northward and cautiously walked a few squares, when suddenly they encountered Confederates who were guarding a military hospital.
Hamilton quickly retreated and ran off to the east, but Rose, who was a few paces in front, walked boldly on the opposite side of the street and was not challenged. Thus the two friends separated. After several days of wandering and exposure Hamilton reached the Union lines, but Rose was finally recaptured and returned to Libby, where he was confined in a dungeon for a while and three or four months later exchanged, after which he rendered notable service to the close of the war.
The plan agreed upon between Col. Rose and Hobart was frustrated by the news of the party’s departure leaking out. The story of the tunnel spread like wildfire over the prison, and in spite of all Col. Hobart could do there was a mad rush for the fireplace about 9 o’clock that night. While all were crowding into the dining room some one gave a false alarm and there was a second stampede up the stairs.
In all, there were 109 who escaped. Of these 59 reached the Union lines, 2 were drowned, and 48 retaken. The last one to pass out placed the plank over the tunnel mouth and before day some one rebuilt the chimney and suspended a plank from one of the windows by a blanket rope. When the Confederates discovered the escape of their prisoners they were particularly exasperated, for they had prided themselves on the security of Libby.
They concluded that the guard had been bribed and it was placed under arrest and searched for “greenbacks.” Later the opening of the tunnel was accidentally discovered.Maj. Hamilton rendered distinguished service during the closing scenes of the war and afterward returned to his home at Reedyville, Ky. Johnson, whose enforced confinement in “Rat Hell” gave him fame at Libby, also made good his escape and after the war settled at North Pleasantville, Ky. Col. Rose remained in the Army after the war, and the others returned to their homes in various parts of the country.
Page last updated on 07/01/2008
Copyright © 2008 Civil War Richmond Inc.