From the National Tribune, 8/30/1906

THE LIBBY PRISON TUNNEL.

Shrewd Planning and Patient Labor rewarded with Success.

Hard Journey Through Bitter Cold to the Union Lines.

By Maj. L. P. Williams, 73 Ind.

So many different stories in regard to the famous tunnel of Libby Prison have been published that I feel like adding mine to the number.

How to get out of Libby was at all times an absorbing topic. Every means of escape was studied over, discussed and carefully considered, until at last a few enterprising men came to the conclusion that a tunnel was a practical scheme, and early in January, 1864, commenced the work, which required weeks of patient and vigorous toil to bring to a practical ending.

Col. Thomas E. Rose, of the 77th Pa., organized a tunneling squad, consisting of about eight men who were known to be discreet, with no “leaky” qualities, and could keep the secret from their best friends. A general knowledge throughout the prison of what was being done would have insured its failure.

The Beginning.

The work was begun one night after “lights out” by making a passage in the back of the fireplace in the kitchen, so as to reach the cellar below, by digging downward through the masonry work of the chimney a hole large enough for a man to descend a flue on the opposite side. In this flue they hung a rude kind of rope ladder, by which the workmen could pass up and down with comparative ease.

Every morning just before daylight the workmen would come up and carefully replace the bricks in the back wall of the chimney, so that all appearance of an opening to the cellar was carefully concealed. A cooking-stove sat in front of this fireplace and a barrel usually occupied a place near the stove, both of which assisted in hiding the work.

After reaching the cellar an opening to the outside was what was wanted, and to accomplish this a tunnel under the street east of the building was commenced. The cellar was immediately under the prison hospital, and was used only for the storage of boxes, straw, etc., and was never visited at night.

The tunnel was started on a level with the floor of the cellar, which made it about five feet under ground, by picking the bricks and stones out of the thick wall until a hole was opened large enough to admit the body of a good-sized man.

The Dirt Carrier.

The work was continued by digging with knives and a chisel, the dirt carried back into the cellar and concealed under the straw, with which the floor was covered several inches deep; a large wooden spittoon was used for carrying the dirt off. As the work progressed ropes were fastened too two sides of it, so that it could be drawn in and out of the excavation. This work was necessarily very slow, as the air would soon become impure and candles burn but a few minutes at a time, the workmen being compelled to come out and allow fresh air to flow in, as no method could be adopted for successfully ventilating it.

Thus inch by inch the work progressed wit the greatest secrecy and caution. Careful watchfulness was kept up night and day to see that the plan was not discovered.

A Nearly Fatal Mistake.

On Sunday night, Feb. 7, an error occurred which nearly proved fatal to the enterprise. It had been very difficult to ascertain the exact width of the street, and for that reason it was hard to tell just where the tunnel should end. When, as thought, the proper distance had been reached, the diggers worked their way to the surface, but to their dismay found they were some distance short of the proper place, and were emerging almost under the feet of the sentry.

The work was continued by filling up the place as well as possible, and going on with the excavation until the proper distance was reached, when an opening was made to the surface.

The Momentous Night.

Tuesday night, Feb. 9, was the time fixed to try the escape. About dark on that evening the plans began to be whispered from one to another. The order of departure had been arranged, so that all who worked on the tunnel were to go first, the friends whom they had neglected to go next in regular order, After that all others as best they could It was a slow process, getting down the chimney, crossing the cellar and crawling through the tunnel.

The first man passed out about 7 p.m. and after him a number of others had succeeded in getting out safely, by which time quite an eager crowd had gathered in the room impatiently awaiting their turn, when some one, either maliciously or mistakenly, raised an alarm that the guards were coming, and a stampede occurred. I supposed that all was discovered, and was thinking of retiring to my blanket, but soon found that it was a false alarm, and quickly gathering my squad together, we took advantage of the quiet that followed the uproar. I led off and got into the chimney and seized the rope, but in my eagerness did not grasp it tight enough, and it slipped through my hands and I dropped to the bottom of the cellar, and it seemed as I went down the chimney that it was 30 feet deep at least.

We were soon at the mouth of the tunnel. One man started in, and I quickly followed. In order to get through it was necessary to lie flat down and work one’s self through in that position. About the middle of the tunnel I got fastened by my overcoat, which I had rolled up into as small a bundle as possible, getting in by my side and completely wedging me fast. My only chance to get loose was to back out a few feet, and as some one was following close at my heels I was compelled to give him a few vigorous kicks, when he retired a short distance, and I was relieved. How long that place seemed. I would have said it was at least 100 yards instead of only about 60 feet. The roar of the noise as we crawled through was to me like the sound of wagons in a covered bridge.

The Exit.

The opening from the tunnel came up under an old shed with a plank fence between the exit and the guard line around the prison.

A vacant lot led from the shed toward Canal street, with a carriage house to be passed through before reaching it. The sentinels were on a line with the front of the carriage house, and before going into the street it was necessary to wait until the guards turned their backs and moved off in the opposite direction. A large warehouse near this shed was used to store hundreds of boxes containing clothing and provisions that had been sent to the prisoners by their friends. These boxes had been repeatedly robbed by soldiers or citizens hanging about the vicinity.

It was my opinion at the time that the guards must have seen some of us, but thinking it was a raid being made on the Yankee boxes, paid no attention to it. A Lieutenant of the guard afterwards corroborated this.

The author of the “New Yankee Doodle” versified this scene, as follows:

“Through tunnel, patiently scooped out

            Beneath the sentry’s beat,

One hundred captured officers

            Stand free upon the street.

The rebs on guard see dusky forms

            Had somehow taken wings;

And off through land and wood and swamp

            The scattered patriot band,

Hound-hunted, sore and famished, all

            Are headed for ‘God’s Land.’”

At precisely 1:30 o’clock at night the party with whom I made my escape left the prison and passed out on the street, free men. There were five in our squad, made up of Maj. J. P. Collins and Capt. McCaslin Moore, of the 29th Ind.; Capt. John W. Lewis, of the 4th Ky. Cav.; Capt. Matthew Boyd and myself, of the 73d Ind.

In the Street.

Upon reaching the street we moved off at a rapid walk until we got some distance from the prison, when we turned our course to the northwest, passing by two or three hospitals, which were guarded, but fortunately the sentinels did not challenge us. Near one of these hospitals I was walking near the top of a small but very steep hill, over which straw had been emptied from the hospital beds. Stepping on this straw, it gave waay beneath me and I slipped to the bottom and before I could again get to the top my companions were out of sight - they had not missed me - and I had hard work to overtake them.

Out of Richmond at Last.

When near the outside of Richmond we left the main streets, believing they were picketed. And, going out through lots and byways, passed the fortifications around the city without difficulty. We struck the Virginia Central Railroad, and followed it north a few miles, intending, if possible, to pass entirely north of the forces that we believed lay east of Richmond. After leaving the railroad we struck into the woods, and as the night was dark, we fell over logs and stumps, got into thorn bushes and brambles and tore our clothes and were generally very uncomfortable.

[author goes on at great length to describe his attempt to get to Union lines. This was not transcribed. The author succeeded in making good his escape to Williamsburg.]

...After reporting at the Provost Marshal’s office we were conducted to the headquarters of the Colonel commanding the post, where we met quite a number of companions from Libby, who had already reached our lines. Amongst others was Maj. Colllins, who had parted with us when Capt. Boyd was taken sick.

Of this squad of five who together got through the tunnel, Collins, Boyd and myself reached the Union lines in safety, and since that time Collins, Moore and Boyd have answered the last roll call.

This remarkable exodus consisted of 109 United States officers passing out through the tunnel, of whom 55 succeeded in reaching Union lines. Of the latter number there are not more than six or seven now living.

Page last updated on 07/24/2009