From the National Tribune, Thursday, 3/27/1890
The Experience of One of the Successful Tunnelers.
The following private letter of the experience of one of
the officers who were successful in escaping from Libby Prison by the famous
tunnel, has been given us for the publication by Hon. H. L. Morey, Member of
Congress from the Seventh District of Ohio:
Dec. 21, 1889.
HON H. L. MOREY, Washington, D. C.
DEAR FRIEND AND COMRADE: As you
are aware, I was one of the 25 men that formed Col. Thomas E. Rose’s tunneling
party, that dug the “Libby Prison Tunnel” in the Winter of 1863, ‘64, and
through which 109 Union officers made their escape.
I was what you might term a “digger” in the tunnel, and
all my work was under ground. The tunnel being so long, and eight feet under the
surface, starting away back in that deep, damp cellar, it was almost impossible
for us to get pure air enough to sustain life while working in the tunnel. We
often pulled out by our comrades, suffocated and exhausted, nearer dead than
alive. At first our tools were only two old case-knives and a piece of a little
sheet-iron shovel. I have one of those old knives in my possession now, and I
assure you I prize it very highly as a relic.
Two tunnels were commenced before the third and last one,
but both of them were failures. Downhearted and discouraged, we again made the
effort, which to our great joy was a success. I cannot describe to you my
feelings as I would enter that damp and dismal hole, to work and wallow through
the icy cold water that would settle in the bottom of the tunnel through the
day; but suffice it to say, that on the evening of the 8th of February, 1864, we
finished our tunnel. It was my turn to work in the tunnel that night, and Col.
Rose told me that we were far enough, and for me to open up to the surface,
which I did, coming to the top about 1 o’clock at night. We supposed that we
were far enough to come out on the opposite side of the board fence from the
rebel guard, but we were mistaken. I broke through on the side next to him,
close up to the fence. The guard heard me burst through the surface, and he left
his beat and came and stood right astride my face, leaned on the fence and
looked over into the inclosed yard. He thought the noise was over the fence. He
stood there, I suppose, for about half a minute. It seemed like half a century
to me. Great drops of cold sweat stood out on my forehead; I couldn’t breathe;
the events of my life seemed to flit before me, and I lived ages in a moment’s
time. But he did not see me, and went away. Scraping some dirt on my old
overalls, I hurriedly stuffed them into the hole, stopping it up. We then dug
downwards and under the fence, and came up in the little shed on the opposite
side of the fence.
I should have told you before this that a carpenter was
sent into our prison to do some work, and we stole an inch-and-a-quarter chisel
from him, and finished our digging with it.
After we finished the tunnel, it was then too near morning
to try to escape that night, so Maj. Hamilton closed up both ends of the tunnel,
and we all went back into Libby and remained another day. At 7:30 p. m. on the
evening of the 9th of Feb., 1864, we started out. Our last meeting
and parting in that old cellar that night will never be forgotten until the last
one of that little party is laid away in the grave. We went only two at a time.
We never met again, a few of us only having seen each other since. When the
digging party left the prison, we left the tunnel in charge of Col. Hobard, of
the 21st Wis. My working partner, and my partner all through, was
Lieut. N. S. McKean, of the 21st Ill. (Gen. Grant’s old regiment.)
We locked arms and walked right up through central Richmond with but little real
trouble; but we had many “hair-breadth” escapes. We got through their
fortifications and picket lines, making a circuitous route first north, then
northeast, and then east until we reached our lines. My shoes gave out the first
night, when we waded the Chickahominy, and the greenbriars and hedges and
thickets robbed us of nearly all our scanty clothing.
I suffered dreadfully with my frozen and lacerated feet,
and we almost perished with hunger. We often found ourselves in the midst of our
enemies at night, but somehow we managed to escape them.
They trailed us with bloodhounds, but we broke their trail
with cayenne pepper that was sent to me in a roll of butter, in a box that I
received by flag of truce from home. The pepper was in a bottle, and the roll of
butter was made around it. We finally came in sight of what we supposed to be
rebel cavalry dressed in our uniform. We watched them for a long time, and after
hiding from them for nearly a whole day, they came so close to me that I could
see the U. S. on their belts. They did not see me though; I was so well
concealed. After satisfying myself that they were our men, I came out of my
hiding-place, greatly to their surprise and my joy. They were a detachment of
the 11th Pa. Cav. This certainly seemed to be the crowning event of
We were sent to Washington, where we met the Hon. E. M.
Stanton, Secretary of War. I shall never forget his looks when we came into his
presence; it was a mingled look of pity, grief and hatred.
Every kindness was shown us after we reached our lines, and
we felt that our sufferings had not been in vain. We felt as though we had been
tried as by fire, and our love for our country and devotion to the old flag was
a thousand times stronger than before our capture. I entered the prison weighing
160 pounds and came out weighing less than 90 pounds, and have never reached 140
But pardon me, dear comrade, for taking up so much of your
valuable time, but I earnestly hoping this letter may be a “change,” and
read with some interest, I remain, as ever, very respectfully,
W. S. B. RANDALL. [2nd Ohio Inf.]
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