National Tribune, 3/17/1892

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From the National Tribune, 3/17/1892

LIBBY PRISON
THE TUNNEL DIGGERS.
Capture of Yankee Gunboats by Rebel Cavalry.

BY CAPT. FRANK E. MORAN, 73D N. Y., BALTIMORE, MD.

I.

THE amazing and amusing guilelessness of the average non-military editor, and the downy ease with which itinerant correspondents scoop them in with spurious “war history,” is sometimes enough to bring a sonorous guffaw from an army mule. A choice specimen of this trick was brilliantly displayed in a recent Sunday issue of the Baltimore American.

The correspondent, - perhaps I should name him better as the “operator,” - in cold-blooded disregard of the venerable years of the American, founded in 1795, and managed, but I fear not very closely edited on the occasion of the disaster, by our genial comrade, Gen. Felix Angus, took as his instruments two noted events in Libby’s career viz., the tunnel escape of Feb. 9, 1864, and the rebel powder-mine plot of a month later. This production was embellished with pictures, one of which showed the midnight burial of a “bogus powder-keg” in the prison cellar, and also the portraits of E. W. Ross (“Little Ross”), the Prison Clerk; Adj’t La Touche, Gen. John H. Winder and “Dick” Turner, the latter outrageously labeled “Major” Dick Turner.

Every old Libby prisoner of course knows that Maj. Thos. P. Turner was the military commandant of Libby, and that Dick was a civilian, whose peculiar official status was euphoniously described in orders as the “Inspector.”

Dick was formerly a Baltimorean, of the

PLUG-UGLY OR BLOOD-TUB BREED,

and it is said that climatic reasons lured him farther South just after the mob attack on the 6th Mass. in April, 1861. Wherever Dick was born, it was impossible to mistake how he was bred. But more of him further on.

The writer who perpetrated this pictorial fraud on the American concealed his name, and possibly, in spite of appearances, from feelings of innate modesty. His modesty was, however, not excessive enough to prevent him from appropriating whole chapters from the narrative of the tunnel escape which I published in the Century magazine for March, 1888, nor from offering as history a series of absurd misrepresentations about the powder mine and other prison incidents with which I chanced to have a personal connection.

Having spent 10 months within the grim walls of Libby Prison, Richmond, and 10 more in the prisons of Georgia and the Carolinas, in 1863, ‘64, and ‘65, I feel the keen and natural interest of a participant in all reminiscences on the subject. But the luminous display of historical ignorance of the American’s anonymous correspondent, who ___ his pictorial statement(?) “the only true and complete story of the tunnel escape,” is enough to give the survivors of Libby the grip. Affecting an air of exactness, this war romancer indulges in some alleged “corrections” of my Century account, to which he had so liberally helped himself in making up the solitary portion of truth that his whole article contained.

For instance, he says that my statement that the number of Union officers retaken in the escape was 48 is incorrect, and that the real number was 66. My means of knowing the correct number is that

I WAS ONE OF THAT 48

and took a particular interest in the other 47 comrades, who lived with me in five other prisons for more than a year afterward. Where is his evidence as to the number 66?

He declares that he has information from one William F. Crane, of Cowikee, Barbour Co., Ala., who claims to have been one of the Confederate guards on duty at Libby in 1864, when the tunnel digging was in progress under the supervision of the leader in the plot, Col. Thomas E. Rose, of the 77th Pa., and now of the 16th U. S. Inf., in Texas.

He (Crane) confesses that he connived at the escape and assisted Rose and his secret party of 14 by selling them occasional bottles of whisky and other comforts.

I directly and positively pronounce the alleged confession of this man Crane a flimsy invention from beginning to end.

Crane’s confession is scarcely less absurd and untrue than that said to have been made to the American’s romancer by Mr. George W. Libby, of Richmond. This gentleman startles us with the statement that the Confederate authorities never, for a moment, contemplated blowing up the 1,200 Union officers in March, 1864, and that the rumor to that effect was

PURPOSELY CIRCULATED AMONG THE CAPTIVES

through the medium of an old darky called “Uncle Harry,” and was a mere ruse to prevent a breakout at the time Dahlgren’s cavalry were approaching the city.

[Next line unreadable] night in the prison cellar, in the sight of the terrified “Uncle Harry,” who was solemnly conjured not to divulge the meditated slaughter to the Yankee officers upstairs, and into whose quarters his duties as an employee called him often. As “Uncle Harry” was believed to be in sympathy with the Yankees the manifest purpose of this nocturnal ceremony of the keg and the caution was to convince the captives that the prison was really mined, for the Confederates knew that the darky would do the forbidden thing at the first available moment.

We went inquiring what Mr. Libby had to do about Libby Prison, or about his relations to the keepers “Dick,” and Maj. Turner (for I have no remembrance of the gentleman during my stay here), I will narrate the facts to which his mis-statements allude in their proper place.

I want to make a few remarks about the escape of Feb. 9, 1864, from Libby that I could not well embrace in my Century account of the affair, and these remarks are called for by some marked features in this peculiar and dramatic incident of the war.

I feel warranted in saying that there was scarcely an episode of the rebellion about which there has been more fiction written than the

LIBBY PRISON TUNNEL ESCAPE.

A popular play embracing some striking incident in the affair, is now in the second year of its consecutive representation on the stage, ad there is scarcely any war book containing miscellaneous war adventures that does not give the imminent prominence.

The fact that the tunnel through which 109 Union officers escaped on the night of Feb. 9, 1864, was dug by only 15 men, solemnly sworn to obedience by Col. Rose, and not to divulge the plot even to their fellow prisoners, have never met since the escape in a body, and the added fact that Col. Rose, the leader, now and ever since the war a Captain in the 16th U. S. Inf., never wrote for publication nor gave to another person except myself the full details of the affair, which in the very nature of things, he alone could possess, will rationally account for the conflicting accounts that were afterward borne to the North by the released officers, and in such fragmentary forms as they had remembered them from the lips of the recaptured participants.

For it is necessary to remember that while 109 men used the tunnel, none save Rose’s “diggers” could have any knowledge of the hole beyond that derived from their passage through it. But that little they will remember vividly while they live. In fact, so well had Rose and his party secreted their nearly two months of terrible labor from the general populace of Libby, that I had lain don for the night without the remotest suspicion that such a work had been done; nor did I learn of the existence of the tunnel until more than an hour after Col. Rose and his diggers had passed out on Tuesday evening, Feb. 9, 1864.

Rose’s party during the digging were divided into three squads of five each, thus giving each five men

ONE NIGHT ON DUTY

and two days off. This relief was absolutely necessary to keep the men in physical condition for their trying work in the lengthening tunnel and the sickening atmosphere of “Rat Hell” cellar, its base. But, the work was constantly under the personal supervision of either Col. Rose or Maj. Hamilton, his chief assistant, who still lives at Reedyville, Ky.

An inexorable rule of the leader was that when not actually on duty himself, every incident, however trifling that occurred during the entire operations, should be fully reported to him, a command never known to be violated by his faithful comrades, who instinctively recognized in this silent man the commander for the hour and ordeal. Moreover, no man, except in cases of sickness, was permitted to do more kind of work than one.

Thus it will be seen that no one man - even among the diggers - could have a full personal knowledge of all the happening during the work, except Maj. A. G. Hamilton, who, more than any other, was in his full confidence.

When I say that my Century account of the affair has been pronounced accurate and unimpeachable by Col. Rose, Maj. Hamilton, and every living digger whose address could be found in 1888, the impossibility, not to say absurdity, of Guard Crane’s alleged “confession,” and of Mr. Libby’s romance about the _____ powder mining of the swarming prison in February, 1864, will be obvious, and will be fully exhibited in the record that follows.

I have partly indicated the accounting circumstances that have left a limitless field for war free an open to those who have fallen into the vice of distorting one of the hardest facts in

THE HARD HISTORY

of the Union prisoners of war for the ignoble profit of catching or a day the public eye and interest.

I can scarcely count the number of men who have in articles “reminiscences,” and “corrections,” in the papers and periodicals claimed that they were the party that dug the Libby tunnel and escaped through it. The lapse of years, so far from diminishing their numbers, tens only to swell the gallant mob until they now bid fair to outnumber the brave thousands who charged as members of the “gallant six hundred” at Balaclava, immortalized by Tennyson. Al ready they exceed the colored body-servants of Washington and the venerable ladies the General had kissed when they were babies. It is a bigger crowd than the “youngest soldier,” the “oldest Grand Army man,” or even that proud host of our countrymen whose ancestors crowded the deck of the little Mayflower to the sinking point in 1620.

Abraham Lincoln made this tunnel the subject of one of his “jokes.” Heaven forgive me if he didn’t when he said to the member of Congress who told him afterward that he was one of the Union officers who escaped through the long, narrow tunnel:

“That was really a wonderful feat of our poor boys,” observed the President, after listening attentively to the narrative. “But in your own case I can see nothing to excite my surprise.”

“How so?” said the puzzled Legislator. “I don’t quite understand; I” -

“Well, its just here,” broke in Mr. Lincoln, “and I talk from experience; I never saw or heard of a hole in this country so long or narrow that a member of Congress couldn’t crawl through it.”

It is an actual fact well known to the survivors of Libby, that the timely exposure of the spurious claims put forth by a politician who had based his claim to political preferment on

THE BRAZEN AND FALSE ASSERTATION

that he was the planner and real leader in the tunnel plot, was the sole and righteous reason that de__ed for the Governorship of his State.

Let me now dispose of the question as to the names of the diggers of the tunnel. As a matter of fact two tunnels had been started and had failed, before the last or successful tunnel was begun.

Just 37 nights of hard labor were spent on the through which the escape was made, and the name, rank and regiment of the men who dug it were given in a foot note to my Century account.

There were indeed some other officers who had done faithful but fruitless work on the two tunnels that were abandoned, and in the full list of whose names Col. Rose deeply regrets has not been preserved in his journal. But for direct information I here reproduce the names of the 15 men who dug the tunnel: Col. Thos. E. Rose, 77th Pa.; Maj. A. G. Hamilton, 12th Ky. Cav.; Maj. B. B. McDonald, 101st Ohio; Maj. G. H. Fitzsimmons, 30th Ind.; Capt. Isaac N. Johnson, 6th Ky. Cav.; Capt. Terence Clark, 79th Ill.; Capt. John F. Gallagher, 2d Ohio; Capt. W. S. B. Randall, 2d Ohio; Capt. John Lucas, 5th Ky.; Lieut. N. S. McKean, 21st Ill.; Lieut. David Garbett, 77th Pa.; Lieut. J. C. Fislar, 7th Ind. Art.; Lieut. John D. Simpson, 10th Ind.; Lieut. John Mitchell, 79th Ill.; Lieut. Eli Foster, 30th Ind. Six of these men are known to be dead. Neither W. F. Crane, a Confederate guard, nor

ANY OTHER MAN, LIVING OR DEAD,

either worked upon or ever saw this tunnel, except those above named, until the night of the escape, Feb. 9, 1864, and I challenge any man, Union or Confederate, to successfully impeach this statement.

W. F. Crane may, indeed, have been a guard at Libby, and I am not prepared to deny that he may have sold bottles of whisky to some of the prisoners. Indeed, I clearly remember seeing several of the prisoners royally drunk to the unspeakable horror of the author of the Maine liquor law, Gen. Neil Dow, who was then among the Libby captives, and also to the mingled amazement and envy of not a few of my fellow prisoners.

[next line unreadable] Libbyites, including the venerable temperance apostle himself. One of the Richmond dailies, copying a Northern press dispatch announcing the destruction of the General’s cotton mill at Portland, substituted the word distillery, and this clipping was conspicuously bulletined by thee Libby wags.

The one thing positive is that Guard Crane never sol whisky or anything else to Col. Rose, or any of his party, nor did he hold any conference of any nature with him or then touching the tunnel plot. His whisky bottles played no part in the operations, nor was any use made during the work of the “four sides of two canteens.”

The only tool used in digging was a broad-based chisel, a wooden spittoon with rope attached to two of its sides, a tallow candle, a large fan constructed by Maj. Hamilton out of a rubber blanket stretched over a sort of hoop; and a rope ladder, the rope given to Rose sometime before by Maj. Harry White, of the 67th Pa. (now Judge White, of Indiana, Pa.), completed the outfit of the tunnelers.

Again, the tunnel was not “70 feet in length,” but was 53 feet from the base. “Rat Hell,” to the exit yard between Kerr’s Warehouse and the Virginia Towing Company, east of Libby.

AS TO ANY COLLUSION

between Guard Crane, or any of his Confederate comrades, with the tunnelers, the thing is preposterous. For Crane alone to have shielded the escaping men, he must have spent the entire night unrelieved on the post at the southeast corner of the prison. Then the eastern end of that sentinel’s path was indeed perilously close to the wagonway under the Towing Company’s building, through which the escaping men reached the sidewalk, and the intervening space was in the full glare of a street lamp.

For obvious reasons the excited men who remained in the prison watched their departing comrades, as well as the movements of those east-side sentinels, with sleepless vigilance until daylight; and it was observed that the uniform custom of relieving each guard every two hours was strictly observed that night.

Thus it will be apparent that no one guard, however kind in his intentions, could have connived at the escape of any greater number than could have passed out during the brief two hours that he was on the post at that southeast corner of the prison. Whereas it took from 7 o’clock in the evening until 5 the next morning for the 109 men to pass out on Dock street and disappear, usually in parties of two and three.

This slow exit was in part due to a panic caused a short time after Rose’s departure by some idiot or treacherous informer shrieking

“THE GUARDS ARE COMING!”

among the dense mob struggling for precedence at the fireplace opening, from which the descent was made from the kitchen to “Rat Hell.”

This alarm intimidated many who feared an ambush outside, and a rumor of which was swiftly spread through the crowded prison by one of those “panic strikers” that, like the theater idiot who screams “Fire!” and the young man who “didn’t know it was loaded,” is always with us.

Another cause of delay was the sticking fast in the middle of the tunnel of the fattest man in Libby – a German Captain of a New York cavalry regiment.

During this hour of peril the panting victim could not hear (and it’s just as well he couldn’t) the blasphemy that the savage mob were hurling at his head, or to be more exact, his stomach. I rejoice to say that a final desperate struggle freed him from his awful grave, and that he was among the lucky 59 who reached the Union lines.

Still another reason for the time lost was that a bare few of those who followed Rose’s party out had ever been in “Rat Hell cellar” before, and it took a long and horrible search for many to find the tunnel entrance in the black den. This was my own case, when I dropped into the rayless pit, which was swarming with squealing rats. “Rat Hell” was no misnomer for the place.

Very often, and very naturally, the inquiry has been made: “How was it possible for 109 men to emerge on the south (Dock street) sidewalk without being seen by the sentinels on the southeast corner of Libby, the intervening space being in the full glare of a street lamp?”

I answer that it was not possible; and I am fully convinced that the majority of the escaping men were seen by the sentinels.

“Why then, didn’t the sentinels challenge the escaping Federals?”

This is just one of those features in the tunnel affair that has given a broad field for prison romancers; it is a question that a prudent writer prefers to leave to conjecture. The strange inaction of the sentinels that night led to their arrest and confinement in Castle Thunder by Gen. Winder, who instantly suspected bribery, a suspicion shown to be groundless against the guards, whose conduct may be

ATTRIBUTED TO MIXED MOTIVES.

Certainly no answer wholly satisfying has ever been publicly given to the inquiry, “Why didn’t they challenge?” although there has been no lack of claimants in the newspapers North and South, since the war, who each has claimed to know it all.

The most prevalent and rational opinion among the Libbyites and supported as it is by certain known facts, is that Kerr’s Warehouse, from whose rear the passage to the Dock street sidewalk was made, and in the yard of which the tunnel terminated, contained at the time about 5,000 boxes of edibles, clothing, and like comforts sent under flag of truce to the famishing captives at Libby and Belle Isle by loved ones at home.

Our men were at this time freezing to death nightly in the ditch that skirted their death-pen on Belle Isle, all in full view from the window of Jefferson Davis.

This favor of delivering boxes was, of course, reciprocated by the United States Government, which delivered promptly and intact the goods sent from the Confederacy to the Southern prisoners in the North.

It was believed by our too-credulous Commissioner of Exchange that the Confederate officials were keeping their pledge, given under an honorable truce, to deliver to the Union prisoners these precious comforts inviolately.

At last our people and the world had not yet learned of the inception at Richmond of the gigantic and atrocious “system” put in motion in that very month at Andersonville by “Hog” Winder, as the Southern people very aptly dubbed the ancient and

BLASPHEMING “THUG,”

whose sole becoming act in this world was to fall dead at the scene of his mighty crimes on New Year’s Day, 1865. Even this act was a parting cheat, for without the shadow of a doubt he would have died on the gallows beside his half-witted underling, Capt. Wirz, the Andersonville Keeper.

Well might a Richmond newspaper, that had obtained an outline of the “system” lately hatched regarding the Union prisoners, declare, with terrible significance, “Old Winder left Richmond yesterday to take charge of the Yankee prisoners in Georgia. May God have mercy on them!”

Thus Andersonville, in the same month of the tunnel escape, entered upon that appalling career of studied and unparalleled barbarity, whose sickening record has sent a thrill of dismay and horror to the farthest confines of Christendom.

To shorten the shameful story, those boxes – except in a very few special instances – were never delivered to the perishing owners during the war. They were found still in storage when Richmond fell, more than a year afterward, and their few unplundered but molded remains were forwarded North to the survivors of prison life, or to their friends, by Gen. John E. Mulford, after the surrender of Lee. I received in New York one such box from Gen. Mulford, in August, 1865. However, I do not purpose to deal with the big subject of thee treatment of prisoners, only so far as it is woven with the central subjects of this article – the Union tunnel and the rebel powder mine under Libby.

Those boxes were nightly plundered by posted and privileged Confederate officers and soldiers who had the entre to Kerr’s Warehouse where they were stored. The knowledge of this nocturnal theft become certainly known to the Libby guards about the date of the tunnel escape, though I feel assured that they were the smallest sharers in

THE YANKEE SPOILS.

The conclusion seems irresistible that the silence of the sentinels on the night of the escape was induced by a desire to share in the “good things” on the following night, when they would be off duty for the Confederacy and on for themselves. I need to explain here that blue overcoats on Confederates around Richmond [next line unreadable] our boxes entered Kerr’s Warehouse gray and came out blue.

There is no sufficient evidence to warrant the belief that any of the sentinels who saw the prisoners pass out realized for one moment that those vanishing men were Yankees, or anything else than Confederates making a raid on the Yankees’ boxes.

Wm. F. Crane, or whoever else “informed” the American’s correspondent of Dec. 20, may have been a guard at Libby, or some nice gentleman who was there; but not long, I fear. For instance, such a person could never by any possibility assert that Maj. Thomas P. Turner, the military commandant of Libby, who was promoted from Captain in 1863, was the famous, or rather infamous, “Dick” Turner, remembered – oh, yes, so toughly remembered – by the surviving Yanks who fell into their hands at Libby.

No really informed person could ever mistake that worthy for Maj. Thomas P. Turner, or any other human being. Nature, indeed, threw away the mold in which “Dick” was cast, and, oh, may she never find it again on this earth is the fervent prayer of the “experienced” Yankee Libbyite who signs this memoir. “Dick” was a civilian, not a soldier, and

HIS UNIQUE POSITION AT LIBBY

was, after much perplexing study by Gen. John H. Winder, euphoniously described as the “Inspector” in official orders.

Maj. Thomas P. Turner was the immediate responsible head of the prison, although he gave carte blanche to “Dick” to make it hot for the prisoners. The “Major,” a shallow military fop, who never got his boots soled or his skin tanned during the war, was too lazy to take more than a silent part in the villainies committed in Libby, and, like the poltroon that he was, he put upon “Dick” the execution of such atrocities as his feeble brain could coin.

These two Turners were not relatives, a fact which both worthies were equally anxious should be publicly understood. An informed person would not locate the dungeons at the Dock-street side of Libby, as the American’s correspondent has. They were at the Carey-street front of the prison. Neither would such a person, certainly not a guard, locate the building at the southwest corner of Twentieth and Carey streets. It stood at thee southeast corner of those streets.

Again, there was no “ancient African” called “Uncle Harry” known about Libby, who ever gave the prisoners information of any kind at any time.

There were but two colored men who were ever permitted o enter the quarters of the prisoners, except when accompanied by a guard or some of the prison officials. One was an old man known as the “General,” whose every-morning duty it was to enter each of the crowded lots with a pot of burning pitch, a fumigation as gracefully remembered as the old darky’s unvarying cry of “Yhar’s your good smoke widout money and widout price!”

It was said he had been a servant of Gen. Scott in Mexico, and doubtless it was in

THIS DISTINGUISHED CONNECTION

with the old Virginian hero that his title of “General” originated.

The other colored man having the entre to the prison-rooms, was a stalwart fellow called “Ben,” who came in each morning with a stack of the four Richmond dailies: The Enquirer, Examiner, Dispatch, and Sentinel. He possessed a stentorian voice, and his ringing cry of “Great news in de papers! Great news from Gin. Lee! Great news from Gin. Grant! Great news from eberywhar!” will be among the pleasant things ever remembered of Libby in 1863 and 1864.

The prisoners frequently made Ben the medium through which jokes more pointed than polite were inflicted by the captives on their comrades known to have some “weakness,” or who had by some act lain themselves open to the merciless sallies of their tormentors. Thus on one occasion when two Federal gunboats were quietly boarded in the night by a handful of Confederates on the Rappahannock, and surrendered without a blow or a word, Ben was given the “tip,” and entering the crowded loft where slept the captured Naval officers who were responsible for this disgraceful affair, he yelled in his highest key: “Great news in de papers! Great news from de Rappahannock! Capture of de Yankee gunboats by de cabalry!”

The roars of laughter that greeted “Ben’s” cry was a bitter pill for the victims; and the din put a look of amazement on the darky’s face such as might be caused by his accidental explosion of a mine of dynamite, for he had no suspicion that the innocent-looking words furnished him were “loaded.”

The Commander was dismissed the service, and his subalterns narrowly escaped a similar chastisement. They never speak of the affair in these days.

The misstatements already noticed of Guard Crane and Mr. Libby, of Richmond, are mild offenses compared with the effrontery of attempting at this lat day to induce a public belief that the meditated slaughter of 1,200 Union officers by a powder mine under Libby in the event of Col. Dahlgren’s column of rescue entering Richmond in February, 1864, was a mere “bluff.”

If there was any burial of a “bogus keg” under Libby in the presence of “Uncle Harry,” as stated by Mr. Geo. W. Libby, we may charitably conclude that the latter, and not the former, was made the victims of Turner’s alleged hoax.

[next line unreadable] “history,” and having shown some of the things that didn’t happen at Libby Prison and in the rebel Capital in the Winter of 1864, shall now recount some of the things that did happen.

In setting forth the truth concerning the powder mine I am happily under no necessity of seeking any further proof than that furnished by the highest Confederate authority, namely: Jefferson Davis and a Special Committee of the Confederate Congress - the very last of authorities to have acknowledged that such a hideous crime as the blowing up of 1,200 Union officers, prisoners of war, had been determined upon in Richmond, until ungovernable circumstances wrung the written confession from its inventors.

(To be continued.)

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