National Tribune, 3/11/1926

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From the National Tribune, 3/11/1926


The Terrors of That "Rat Hell" Basement Where Famous Tunnel Was Begun - Col. Rose in Command Marshals His Forces - Nights of Digging - The Sad Farewells - The Hardships of the Hunted - Reaches Williamsburg and the Protection of the Flag.

By MAJ. A. G. HAMILTON, 12th Ky. Cav., Reedsvill, Ky.

Editor’s Note: This sketch, written by his father, long since dead, was handed in for publication by the son of Maj. A. G. Hamilton, who was the "Second in command" at that wonderful escape from Libby Prison at Richmond. He was equally responsible with Col. Rose for the success of the tunnel and the escape of 109 Union officers confined there Feb. 9, 1864.


It has never been my desire to pose as a hero, and my comrade, Col. Thomas E. Rose, who was the prime mover in that enterprise to tunnel out of Libby Prison and my life-long friend and companion, never could be induced to give to a generous public his participation in that bold stroke for liberty.

Only through the earnest solicitation of his friends and admirers has he ever given anything to the public. He was a man of quiet and reserved manners and not given to self-exploitation.

The history of the tunnel and the escape of 109 Union officers through the tunnel of Libby Prison has been published more or less in all its details, and I will only add my experiences.

At the time the tunnel was completed it was agreed that the original 15 tunnelers should each choose a comrade from among their friends confined in the prison, thus making 30 who would pass through the tunnel, the tunnel party to pass out first in order, then the 15 comrades who were selected to pass out immediately after the tunnelers.

In making my selection of a comrade I had several in contemplation. My first choice was Gen. Neal Dow, of Main, he being the only General confined in Libby at that time; but owing to his age and infirmities he could not make the attempt. My next choice was Col. A. P. Henry, of the 10th Ky., who executed the model for the bronze statue of Henry Clay, of Kentucky. He was an intimate friend of mine, but he was in such feeble health at the time he declined to make the attempt owing to the extreme cold weather and the fatigue incident to the undertaking.

Sad Parting.

I will never forget our parting that night at the entrance thru the fireplace to the tunnel. He clasped my hand and embraced me for the last time on earth, for I never saw him afterward. He bade me Godspeed and wept over me, and prayed that I might reach our lines in safety. He placed in my hand some Confederate money, with the remark that I might need it on my journey.

My next choice was Capt. John Sterling, 30th Ind., who passed out in the order above named, but unfortunately was recaptured and returned to Libby. I never met him afterward.

Everything being in readiness, on the night of Feb. 9 about 7 o’clock the tunnel party all descended thru the fireplace to the mouth of the tunnel in "rat hell." Imagine 15 men of that little band of tunnelers receiving instructions from Rose and grasping each other’s hands, perhaps for the last time, after all of the hardships, privations, and danger incident to the completion of that famous tunnel. Then they were to separate and breathe the air of freedom.

It was a solemn parting, not a ray of light in the gloomy darkness. Groups about their leader, you could hear the half-suppressed sobs of that little band. They coul hardly articulate sentences, so overcome were they at the thought of parting from each other.

Hasty greetings were exchanged and Col. Rose advanced and entered the tunnel. I was the first to follow him. After passing thru the tunnel we went across a vacant lot into Kerr’s warehouse, and, as the sentinel turned on his beat up Dock or Canal Street. Rose stepped out of the enclosure and up Dock Street to the next corner and turned off the gas jet, and in another moment I joined him.

We passed east on Dock Street two squares, then over to Cary Street and proceeded east thru the principal street of Richmond. We had gone on in this manner for several squares when we reached a rebel hospital, where guards were patrolling in front, and as we approached a guard cried "Halt!"

Rose, being in front, advanced, presuming to give the countersign, and passed successfully; but the next guard challenged him. I was a few steps behind him and I noticed citizens passing out into the street from the pavement to avoid the guards, so I passed on with them to the opposite corner of Cary Street. There I waited to see if Rose would succeed in getting away from the guard.

I could see him parlaying with the guard and I waited with anxious longing to join him again, but the Officer of the Guard was called and Rose was marched into the office on the upper floor of the building. I now lost all hope of joining Rose again. I supposed they would find out that he was an escaped prisoner, however, I waited on the streets in sight of the building for half an hour and then, seeing that I was being noticed, as the street was full of citizens and soldiers, I started east on Cary Street.

After going some distance into the suburbs, I was passing a small cottage where some ladies had been visiting when one of them hailed me and inquired whether there were any guards at a bridge in the vicinity and if I would kindly see that she got safely home. As we neared the bridge I told her that I did not have the countersign just then, but would see the Sergeant of the Guard and get it and in half an hour would return for her and conduct her home.

It is a fact that I did not get the countersign and consequently I did not fulfill my promise, however much I wished to do so. As the Sergeant and I were not on speaking terms I declined to ask his assistance and passed on till I came to the bridge and found it guarded. I deployed as skirmisher and found that just below the bridge the stream seemed to be narrow and frozen over.

I clambered down the steep bank and attempted to cross on the ice. It broke with me and made such a racket that the guards heard it and cried for me to halt, but I kept on, breaking in waist deep. I reached the opposite bank and ascended by holding to some bushes.

By this time one of the guards had got within 20 steps of me, but had no gun - only a saber - so I started on a run for the swamp, knowing that he would not follow me into the water, as it was from one to two feet deep. He gave me a good cursing, but as I was pretty well used to that kind of language I paid little attention to him.

I was soon out of hearing, when I took a survey of my effects. Rose and I had saved up some rations to eat on our journey, but it happened that he had most of them on his person when he was captured. I had only a little corn bread and a pint of rum. The latter we had got thru the kindness of Gen. Neal Dow, as spirits of all kinds we prohibited in Libby.

Almost Frozen.

I was wet and almost frozen. There were seven lines of rebel breastworks that I had to pass thru in front of Richmond and they were all guarded at intervals of 75 yards. I kept along the main road, and when I approached a line of works I would wait until the sentinels met, and when they started in opposite directions I would crawl thru on my hands and knees. In this manner I passed thru safely.

It was now getting pretty well toward day and the Chickahominy swamps were in front of me. They were frozen over at intervals from six inches to three feet deep and were some four miles in extent.

I plodded on, breaking the ice at every step, and just as daylight began to appear I crawled into a pile of driftwood fro shelter and lay on the ice all day in view of the Chickahominy bottom road. I had got out about nine miles from Richmond. All day I lay concealed and almost frozen and could see from my hiding place scouting parties of cavalry and infantry in every direction.

As soon as it became dark I ventured out. I could scarcely walk, but by degrees I became stronger and I took a course due east, regardless of roads. During the second night I traveled 30 miles thru swamps and briars without meeting anyone. When daylight came I secured a good hiding place in a dense pine thicket. I began to get hungry. All my little store of provisions was gone except a small piece of corn bread.

Tracked by Hounds.

During the day I could hear scouting parties passing. I could not risk going to sleep. About 1 o’clock in the evening I heard the bay of a bloodhound. I had a good stout club. In a few moments a great, long slab-sided bloodhound came crawling thru the underbrush toward me. I arose to my feet with the intention of braining him if he came close to me. To my surprise he came up, wagging his tail, and licked my hand and laid down by me.

At dark I left my hiding place and proceeded in an easterly direction. I was passing thru a field, the hound at my heels, when I came up to a negro, who started to run at my approach. I halted him and threatened him with the hound if he did not stop. He then came toward me.

I thought of the Confederate money that Col. Henry gave to me. I handed the money to the negro. There was a $20, two $10, and a $5 bill. I told him to get me something to eat. He took $20 and handed the rest back. He told me to wait an hour and he would bring me some bread and meat and pilot me 18 miles down the peninsula. God bless him! The slaves were true to the Union cause.

His Bluff Worked.

He took me to a bridge over the Chickahominy. I was guarded by a sentinel at each end. The negro could go no farther, and, giving me directions, he left me. I had to cross this bridge, I walked boldly up to the guard, who was sitting by a little fire and nodding. I asked where the 28th Va. was in camp, as I had understood that a detachment of that command was guarding a conscript camp. I told him that I was ordered to report there. He remarked that it would not be long before I would be inquiring how to steal out of camp and sneak home, and then he hailed his comrade at the other end of the bridge and old him that I was a d--d conscript waiting to cross.

I sat in a pine tree all that day and at sundown I passed out to what was called the Plank Road leading to Williamsburg. This road I followed until daylight next morning, when it began to snow. The snow was three inches deep and I knew that I would be tracked and recaptured if I did not push on. This was the fifth day out. I now took a direct course toward Williamsburg, where a pontoon bridge had been thrown across the river. I got out of my course nearly a mile, coming out too low down the river. I finally arrived at the pontoon and hailed the guard on the opposite side.

Reaches Williamsburg.

He refused to let me pass over, until the Officer of the Guard was sent for, thus keeping me waiting nearly two hours. While waiting, a troop of cavalry rode up in my rear and, thinking they were Confederates, I ran down the river bank some distance and jumped into the river to swim across.

The river was a mile wide at this point, and after swimming some distance I recognized the voice of Capt. John F. Gallagher, one of the tunnel party, calling for me to come back. There had been a scouting party sent out to rescue the escaped prisoners, as one or two prisoners arrived at Williamsburg in advance of me.

I then for the first time recognized the old Flag. I was a pitiable sight; my clothes in rags and my hands and face literally torn in shreds crawling thru swamps and briars. But it was the proudest day of my life. I was surrounded by many of my old friends and comrades. What a glorious welcome we did receive. The loyal ladies of Williamsburg gave us a reception never to be forgotten.

It was telegraphed all over the North that a large number of Union officers had escaped from Libby and were coming to Williamsburg, and relatives and friends from all over the country came flocking there to greet us. We were requested as we arrived to retain the clothes we wore and travel to Washington in them, which we did.


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