From the Philadelphia Weekly Times, Saturday, 10/28/1882 (Vol. VI, No. 36)
Annals of the War
CHAPTERS OF UNWRITTEN HISTORY
LIBBY PRISON’S TUNNEL
How Sixty-One Union Soldiers Escaped From the Famous Dungeon.
THRILLING NARRATIVE BY AN OFFICER
Hours of Suspense Followed by Welcome Breaths of Fresh Air.
A BREAK FOR LIBERTY.
An Account of the Trying Experiences of Three Unfortunate Fugitives.
BY FRANK E. MORAN,
Formerly Captain of Company H, Seventy-third New York Volunteers.
In a former article in THE WEEKLY TIMES, the writer gave a chapter of the humorous features in Libby Prison life while he was a captive within its walls in 1863 and 1864. It is designed in the present paper to review the interesting particulars of the famous tunnel escape of 1864, which forms one of the most memorable and remarkable episodes in the history of the famous prison of the South. The bold plan of escaping from Libby by digging a tunnel was conceived by Colonel Thomas E. Rose, of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, in November, 1863, and he was the director and supervisor of this perilous and ingenious work throughout. He was a brainy, cool and intrepid man, whom nature had coined for just such a daring enterprise, possessing in an eminent degree the cardinal qualities of a true soldier, and in the face of whatever danger or impediment was ever patient, discreet and dauntless.
FOURTEEN PICKED MEN.
At the time of the escape there were not less than a thousand Union officers confined in Libby, and Rose selected form among them fourteen men, sworn to secrecy, as the working party. Absolute secrecy was wisely considered essential to success, as the Confederates frequently sent spies among us disguised s Union prisoners, in order to get information of any contemplated escape. The work of the tunnelers occupied the greater part of four months, day and night, the implements used being a common table knife , a broken trowel and a small wooden spittoon, with a blanket rope attached. The dirt was hidden under straw in the east cellar, from which the hole, about two feet in diameter, began. The tunnel passing under the sentinel’s feet crossed vacant lot and terminated at the surface in a stable yard, about seventy feet outside the prison wall.
FAILURES AT FIRST MET WITH.
The men were baffled in their first beginning of a hole by contact with a large rock and with foundation timbers. Again it was attempted to effect an opening into the main sewer on the canal side of the prison, but after a prodigious labor of many days and nights water began to patter in, finally coming with a rush that threatened to drown the tunnelers and reveal the plot. After plugging it with great efforts this tunnel was reluctantly given up - a severe misfortune - for this tunnel, so much more roomy than the one through which the escape was finally made, would have emptied the prison in three hours.
THE SUCCESSFUL TUNNEL BEGAN.
The last and successful tunnel was dug several feet above the bed of the cellar in the east wall. To effect an opening through the thick foundation wall was a work worthy of the proverbial patience of beavers, considering the feeble implements at hand. The tunnelers gained access to the cellar at night by removing several bricks from the fireplace in the kitchen, or middle room, of the ground floor and penetrating under the floor joists. These bricks were replaced when the working detail had descended and all trace of the opening was removed by covering the replaced bricks by soot. At least two men were continually at the work, remaining until relieved the following night. The prisoners up stairs were carefully counted twice each day by the Confederates, and to make the count appear correct, two of the working party, by an ingenious fraud, managed to be counted twice while the absentees were boring for life and liberty.
THE NIGHT OF THE ESCAPE.
I had been a prisoner in Libby for over six months, and had mingled freely among my fellow captives in each of the rooms,, yet so well had Rose and his little party kept their secret that it was not until I had lain down to sleep on the night of February 8, 1864 - when the escape took place - that I learned of the existence of the tunnel. Then the startling information was given me by my friend, Colonel Aaron K. Dunkel (the present Secretary of Internal Affairs of Pennsylvania), who slept beside me in the “Gettysburg room.” It was after “taps,” the tallow dips firmly set in a petrified loaf of Confederate corn bread that had, it was said, belonged to a Union prisoner who died in 1861, and which was facetiously designated the “chandelier,” had long since been extinguished and the floor of each of the large rooms (a hundred feet by forty-five) were covered by the prostrate forms of hundreds of the prisoners. Indeed, except one or two standing groups of prisoners in whispered conversation near the upper east room windows, among whom I noticed Colonel Streight (who belonged in the upper west room). I could even then see no evidence of an intended escape, and I half suspected my friend Dunkel of one of his practical jokes, for which indeed he had already earned a reputation in Libby.
A START FOR LIBERTY.
However, I sought Captain W. H. H. Wilcox of the Tenth New York, whom I found dressed and equipped for a march. He told me the tunnel was reached through the kitchen and some of the prisoners had already gone out. He gladly assented to my proposal that we should attempt the escape together, and I made my toilet, which, owing to my scant wardrobe, took less than a minute. Picking our way among the sleeping forms of our comrades stretched out in hundreds upon the floor of the “Chickamauga” room, we descended the crazy stairway into the kitchen, which was as dark and dismal as a grave. Reaching the bottom we listened, but heard no sound save the familiar and incessant drip, drip of the damaged water faucet. Formerly this room had been patrolled by sentinels at night, but as the floor was a perpetual puddle of dirty water, rendering it wholly untouchable for sleeping purposes, the prisoners had entirely abandoned it for dryer quarters up stairs and the guards had been withdrawn - a happy circumstance for the tunnelers, as shown in the sequel.
AT THE PLACE OF EXIT.
Wilcox and I groped along the east wall, and when ten feet from the front door we ran suddenly against a silent and densely packed mob of men around the fireplace. Simultaneously with our discovery we became separated, much to my regret. Colonel Rose was the first man to go out and was promptly followed by the working party who having completed their work placed the
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not get either way. This news sent a chill of horror and unutterable disgust through the crowd, muttered curses were rained thick and fast upon the unlucky victim’s head, or rather stomach, and it was clear that the mob, in its savage and ungovernable vexation in finding the road to freedom thus, as it was feared, hopelessly blockaded, would, if they could, have removed the fat man in sections. Meanwhile the sensations of the luckless fat man in his appalling situation may be faintly conjectured, but the reader must wait for a bolder pen than mine to paint this picture. I confess that although eighteen years has elapsed since the occurrence, the bare thought of my fat comrade’s harrowing plight in the Libby tunnel that might give me a painful oppression of the heart. I hasten to say that at last the corpulent comrade on the verge of suffocation, with forty feet yet to go, made a supreme last struggle for life and reached the open air in the stable yard, when he sank down, bruised, limp and breathless, and I rejoice to add - although he delayed me with the rest - that he was one of the happy sixty-one who reached the Union lines. The escape of our at comrade was a deplorable loss to the Confederates, who had been pointing him out to distinguished visitors to Libby as a stupendous refutation of the damaging charges that Union prisoners were being reduced to skeletons.
THE GUARDS CAUSE A PANIC.
The way being again reported clear the descent was again resumed, and I was at last gratified to see that there were but three me ahead of me, while pressing at my back was a compact crowd of three hundred. Suddenly the muffled tread of feet was heard up stairs, and at the same instant a voice on the outer edge of the mob shouted loud and shrill: “The guards, the guards!” The panic that followed could not be seen in the pitch darkness, but the men broke and bounded toward the unbanistered staircase like a plunging herd of mad bisons. The stairs were ninety feet away from the fireplace, and as the panic-stricken crowd struggled up toward the “Chickamauga room” they fell in dozens on the heads of those beneath. At the first alarm I had been lifted from my feet like a cork borne swiftly across the room. I was dashed by the crowd against an upright supporting pillar with great violence, and falling in the water a hundred men trampled me under their feet, bruising my shoulder and hand painfully. Captain Willard Glazier was hurt at the same time and almost in the same manner as myself.
A THRILLING MOMENT.
As soon as I could recover my wits I rose to my feet and realized that I was entirely alone in the kitchen and was gratified and amazed at not finding myself surrounded by the Confederate guards. Even up stairs all noise had ceased ad I concluded after all that the panic was the result of a false alarm. I crept cautiously to the front door and looked out. The lamps on the street were shining brightly and a sentinel was at that moment looking toward the heavy door through a wide crack of which I was watching him. He was directly acing me, was less than eight feet away, and appeared, as I thought, at the moment to be looking straight into my eyes. I did not move and scarcely breathed, fearing to betray any presence by the slightest motion.
THE GUARDS STILL UNSUSPECTING.
Directly the corporal of the guard approached and the sentinel, turning to him, abruptly demanded to know “why in h--l he didn’t get out the relief,” and presently added that he “reckoned the Yankees must have had a ration of applejack to-night, for they had been fighting and raising h--l inside.” I eagerly watched for the effect of this speech upon the corporal, who made response whatever, but lazily turning on his heel, slowly crossed the street and disappeared. My belief was therefore fully confirmed that notwithstanding the unearthly racket in the kitchen at so late an hour, the Confederates had yet no suspicion o our desperate game. I determined to lose no more of the precious time, for it was already long past midnight, and I know well that in order to elude the guards who patrolled the city and to successfully pass the breastworks that encompassed it on every side, I had a hard and dangerous road to travel before the morning count in Libby should reveal the number missing (for I knew but a small number of the thousand captives could have time to use the tunnel) and put all Richmond on our track.
THE CELLS OF DEATH.
I squeezed myself feet first through the narrow aperture in the fireplace and found that the opening led in a descending slant from the back of the fireplace, through the chimney and into the east cellar, which was divided from the cellar containing the cells by a wall. These cells were directly under the kitchen at the front of the building and were alternately used for the confinement of hostages, “troublesome prisoners” and Union spies under death sentence. They were floorless closets about ten or twelve feet square. A small stream of light stole into them part of the day from a narrow grated window half sunken in the sidewalk above. They were guarded by special sentinels, were alive with enormous rats and the air in them was sickening. From these dreadful cages many a brave fellow went forth to death. A thick wall divided this from the east cellar under the hospital room, and it was in the east wall of this cellar that the tunnel proper began.
SURROUNDED BY RATS.
Finding the short fragment of a blanket rope hanging from the top of the opening, I let my feet down, hoping to touch bottom, but I found none, and as my bruised hand and shoulder made it impossible to hang long I balanced myself for a fall, whither and to what depth I knew not, for it was a rayless pit of darkness. With a sort of faith in fortune I shut my eyes and teeth and in the name of liberty let go. Thanks to my thoughtful comrades I fell into a huge pile of straw and after rolling over two or three times I found myself in the darkness among hundreds of squealing rats, and before I could recover my equilibrium a score of the repulsive creatures ran over me. Complying with my instructions I placed my back to the wall near where I dropped and waded knee deep toward the opposite wall through the straw that covered the cellar. The place seemed to be perfectly alive with rats that fought, squealed and tore each other and thumped against my ankle at every step.
IN SEARCH OF THE OPENING.
At last I reached the wall and ran my hand along the cold, damp surface in search of the opening to the tunnel. In this manner I groped along until I reached the southeast corner, and believing that I must have passed the hole I made my way back in the same way feeling the wall with increased anxiety and caution. I stopped a dozen times to listen for some friendly token from my comrades who had long since preceded me, but no sound could be heard but the horrible chorus of the rats. The thought of failure began to harass me as did the ear that I should be forced to pass the night in the loathesome place. Great beads of perspiration came out on my forehead when I thought of being found by the guards in the morning, if indeed the colony of rats did not long ere that time battle for the choice cuts of my remains.
A TRAIN OF HORRIBLE THOUGHTS.
It paralyzed me to think that through my blundering the tunnel would be discovered, that had cost such heroic labor, and that I should be loaded with the disgrace of depriving hundreds of my fellow prisoners of their liberty. In this train of oppressing thoughts came the remembrance that this had at one time been the “dead cellar,” where bodies from the hospital room above it used to be boxed up prior to burial. The revolting idea that the Union dead should ever have been left, even temporarily, in such a place sickened me, and I would have given a fortune at that miserable moment for a friendly stream of light and a blessed breath of fresh air. I thought I had already surveyed an acre of wall and was on the border of despair when to my boundless joy my hand fell upon a pair of heels. I knew they were live heels, or I had no sooner touched them than they vanished like magic in the wall.
“Who’s there?” said a voice, as if from a grave.
“Moran,” I answered, “from the Gettysburg room. Who are you?”
“Charley Morgan,” the sepulchral voice responded, “from the Chickamauga room. Are the rebs coming?”
“No. Go ahead and make room for me,” said I, and away went the heels, after sending a shower of dirt into both my eyes.
CRAWLING IN THE TUNNEL.
The hole appeared as I advanced to have an average diameter of about two feet. At times we appeared to be descending and again we seemed to rise. The earth was clammy cold and the air foul and suffocating. My bruised shoulder got rough usage as I wedged myself forward on my hands and face. The hole grew narrower as I advanced and notwithstanding my slight form I found myself more than one in the position of the fat man who had proceeded me. Morgan unhappily took a violent cramp in one of his legs and to relieve his distress I pulled off his hoe. This proved a somewhat troublesome charge, for in order to save it for its owner I had to push it ahead of me as I crawled onward. The length of the tunnel seemed interminable. I was gasping for breath and my shoulder was paining dreadfully. It seemed as if we were lost in some horrible grave.
PURE AIR AT LAST.
I was struck with the wonderful clearness with which all sounds were transmitted through the passage, as if we were encompassed by metallic instead of clay walls. At last, near fainting with suffocation, pain and fatigue, a ray of light gladdened my eyes and I felt the welcome blessedness of fresh air - certainly the most delicious air I have ever breathed in my whole life. Morgan extended his hand and gave me a friendly welcome as I rose like an apparition to the surface of the earth, and having reached terra firma I made a careful and minute survey of my surroundings. I was in a yard that divided two old buildings that faced respectively north and south.
I stood about seventy feet from the eastern wall o the prison and looking through the dilapidated fence saw the sentinels pacing their posts and by the light the street lamps could easily distinguish their features. An arched way of sufficient width for the passage of wagons led to the street on the south that ran next to and parallel with the canal. I now noticed a third person in the yard and Morgan in a whisper introduced Lieutenant William Watson of his own company of the Twenty-first Wisconsin Regiment. We held a hurried conference and decided to go down the street in an easterly direction, agreeing to meet at the second corner for further consultation. We each removed our shoes that we might run the swifter if challenged by the sentinels.
LEAVING THE PRISON BEHIND.
Watson went of first and was followed in about two minutes by Morgan. As they moved away I closely watched the two nearest guards who at one time halted on their posts and gazed together after the retreating forms of my two friends. I resolved should they show a sign of firing to shout an alarm to my comrades and dash down the street after them. But the guards appeared to have no suspicion that they were yankees and without any audible comment regarding them resumed the pacing of their posts. Feeling this to be my opportunity I stepped from the arched way and leisurely followed in the wake of my friends. It would be difficult to convey to one who has not shared in a like experience a clear idea of the peculiar sensation I felt when, after an imprisonment of over six months, I first found myself in the open fresh air and drank in the first fragrant breath of my liberty; and yet I felt a pang of regret as I turned irresistibly to look at the grim walls of Libby, where I was leaving, perhaps forever, many of the gallant fellows, the most valued friends of my lie. There came at the moment to my mind the touching words of Bonnivurd, Byron’s “Prisoner of Chillon:”
“Yet strange to tell,
In quiet we had learned to dwell -
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are: - Even I
regained my freedom with a sigh.”
IN THE STREETS OF RICHMOND.
My feet, long used to pacing the level floor of Libby, stumbled along over the uneven walk as if I had just landed after a long sea voyage, and the inhalation of the pure cool February air had an intoxicating effect. I found my two friends at the appointed place and after putting on our shoes we held a consultation. As I had served in McClellan’s Peninsula campaign of 1862 and was tolerably familiar with the topography of Richmond and its vicinity, I was duly installed as guide (my two companions belonging to the Western army) and at once it was decided to attempt the passage of the breastworks on the north side o the city. We moved forward quickly but with great caution, for we knew the streets to be thoroughly patrolled and that the provost guard compelled every soldier and citizen on the streets to exhibit the proper pass.
In spite of our care we found ourselves almost in the hands of the patrol several times and twice we came upon sentinels posted in front of buildings which we took to be military hospitals. After repeated narrow escapes in this way we turned a corner suddenly and before we had a chance to exchange a word with each other a dozen Confederates without arms passed us without a challenge or a visible suspicion that we were escaping Yankees. Grateful for our continued good fortune we turned northward at the next corner and moved rapidly forward. Dogs rushed out at us from every house and set up a hideous howl, as if the whole tribe had conspired to betray us to our enemies. Certainly we would have made it lively for the bard who, never having escaped from jail, says that
“‘Tis sweet to hear the honest watch-dog bark.”
We soon were in the northern skirt of Richmond and no longer had the aid of the gas lamps.
STARTLED BY A CHALLENGE.
The ground was frozen through and hilly and occasional dim lights appeared as we approached the breastworks and at times we came so near the sentinels that we could hear them conversing easily. Finally we reached a creek too wide to jump and too deep and cold to ford, except in the last extremity. Following it eastward we found it spanned by a bridge. Carefully examining it we found its southern landing unguarded, and hoping the opposite landing was the same we began a cautious crossing. I was in the advance and nearly over when I heard a voice just ahead of me call out loud and clear:
“Corporal of the guard!”
We dropped on our hands and knees and made a hasty retreat, expecting a shower of Minie balls after us, but we heard nothing but the confused hum of voices on the other side of the bridge.
THROUGH THE CITY ENTRENCHMENTS.
Returning along the creek we at last found it spanned at a narrow bend by a fallen tree. We mounted the trunk and with difficulty made a safe landing, not, however, without wet feet. We made our way over numberless rifle-pits between huge earthworks, mounted with cannon that bristled and frowned northward across broad acres of tangled brush and fallen trees that certainly would have proven a bloody path to an assaulting column of troops. In front of the works deep and almost impassable ditches ran, and a dozen times in our efforts to avoid the troublesome obstructions, we came within an ace of walking into the hands of the guards. Having passed the city limits successfully and the line of works outside of it, our spirits rose in spite of our cut hands, our empty stomachs and our wet, shivering limbs. As we advanced we carefully avoided the roads, believing that we should be less likely to encounter the guards. The first gray streaks of day were appearing in the east as we saw ahead of us a number of small fires, and as they seemed to be at uniform distance we concluded that it was the outer line of pickets, and these we felt sure extended in an unbroken line to the James.
PIERCING THE PICKET LINE.
We had no hope of advantage in going either to the right or left in search of a wide, safe opening. There was no time for debate, for daylight was upon us and we felt that our salvation depended upon our penetrating the picket line that now confronted us. We made a hurried reconnaissance and voted to attempt a passage between the fires in our immediate front. We cautiously went forward to within a hundred yards of the nearest post and saw five armed Confederates around the fire, while three guards were grouped at the next one. Their faces were to the fire and their backs towards us. We dropped upon our hands and knees and crept in single file directly toward the centre of the [next three lines illegible] crept across the beaten path that ran between the two fires the dry brittle brush snapped and cracked treacherously while the blazing logs illuminated the perilous path we were creeping across. At every sound o the snapping branches we looked anxiously toward the guards on both sides of us and resolved if we were challenged to take to our heels and run the gauntlet. But the Confederates, in blissful ignorance of the near presence of Yankees, were talking and laughing with their faces turned inward towards the genial fire.
[author goes on at length to narrate the journey from Richmond, and eventual recapture outside Richmond – not transcribed]
As we approached Libby our friends in the upper windows recognized us and their pale faces looked down upon us in mute sympathy. We entered the office, where we were received with a smile of pleasant recognition by the clerk of the prison, E. W. Ross (“Little Ross”). The commandant, Major Thomas P. Turner, was seated in the office, with his feet lazily resting in another chair. His back was toward us as he read or appeared to read the Richmond Enquirer, a very transparent trick of the Major, as we then gave him to understand by our answers to the questions which Ross had been instructed to ask. Turner, who was
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glad to see us as it was, he said, frightfully lonesome. Captain Gates was one of the tunnelers, and it is a singular fact that of the one hundred and nine who got out through the tunnel he was the only one retaken within the city limits. This fact was severely commented upon by the Richmond papers afterwards and the prison commandant and his guards, as well as the provost guard of the city, were ridiculed without mercy.
When the news of the escape was brought to General Winder he was furious and could not believe it until the prisoners had been counted for the third time and the roll was called by name. He placed the whole guard under arrest and locked officers and men up in “Castle Thunder” pending an investigation. In the meantime most extravagant accounts o the mysterious escape spread over the city and the excitement went up to fever heat. For days it remained an impenetrable mystery and the authorities were at their wits’ end. General Butler, learning of the escape, sent scouting parties in all directions to give aid to the fugitives. The articles of the Richmond papers were copied widely throughout the North. Curious crowds surrounded Libby daily and particulars of the strange affair were eagerly sought.
DISCOVERY OF THE TUNNEL.
As the recaptured officers were brought back, they each refused, as did we, to answer questions, and at last the brutal Turner had packed thirty of us in the twelve foot square dungeon. The narrative of the recaptured prisoners would fill a book of thrilling adventure, and their experiences were both varied and deeply interesting. The recapture of Colonel Rose, the brave engineer of the tunnel, caused the deepest sympathy and regret, for all felt that he had bravely deserved his liberty. At last the tunnel being discovered through the incautious answer of a recaptured officer, who supposed that the Confederates already knew of it, we were released from our horrible confinement and restored to our former quarters up stairs, where we received the condolence of our comrades.
And so ended the tunnel escape. Of the one hundred and nine who passed through the tunnel that night forty-eight were retaken and sixty-one reached the Union lines. Considering the meagre resources of its daring constructors and the difficulties overcome, the Libby Prison tunnel fairly takes rank among those achievements that put the highest test on human patience and endurance, while the story of the escape will always preserve and command a keen and enduring interest for the readers of our war annals.
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