With Touch of Elbow

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Wells, James M. (Capt., 8th Michigan Cav.), With Touch of Elbow; or Death Before Dishonor, John C. Winston Co.: Philadelphia, etc., 1909, pp. 134-161

…At the end of two weeks a trainload of prisoners was made up and started by rail for Richmond, Virginia, by way of Augusta, Salisbury,’ Columbus and Petersburg. On this journey, which occupied fourteen days, the prisoners were temporarily quieted and, for a time, were induced to bear with greater fortitude and resignation the privations incidental to their surroundings which they were compelled to undergo, by statements made to them to the effect that as soon as Richmond was reached all were to be exchanged or paroled and at once sent home. These statements proved to be wholly imaginary. Coming up from Petersburg, we crossed the long bridge just below Belle Isle, and, disembarking on the Richmond side of the James River, were marched in columns of twos down Cary Street to a point, as we believed, where the exchange was to take place.

Visions of home and loved ones whom we expected soon to meet were uppermost in our minds, and, thus encouraged, we passed down the streets, incidentally viewing the strange sights of the Confederate capital – that Mecca the Union Army had been striving so long to reach. For my own part I remember to have read many of the signs over the business places, but only one has been retained through the long years that have intervened since that day. As our column halted under a dark and frowning wall of brick and mortar, on looking up, there over the entrance to a jail-like structure I saw painted on a board in large black letters these words: “A. Libby & Sons, Ship Chandlers and Grocers.” And immediately the thought came to me, despite the fair promises made to us on the journey from Atlanta that an exchange of prisoners would take place on our arrival in Richmond, we had now reached our final destination, and that the building before us was the notorious Libby Prison of which we had heard so much, and instinctively the familiar quotation came to my mind: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

At the windows, which were barred like those of a jail, could be seen the wan faces of our friends who had preceded us. The officers of our party were singled out and escorted to the office of the “Hotel de Libby,” while the enlisted men were sent to Bell Isle, Castle Thunder and other places in different parts of the city. After a thorough search for weapons and more valuables, and our names, rank and regiment had been made a matter of record, we were escorted up a flight of stairs, at the head of which was a door secured by ponderous bolts. These were thrown back, and between the points of two bayonets in the hands of stalwart soldiers standing on either side we passed the dreaded portals and found ourselves at last secure within the famous


Our group, on entering, was quickly surrounded by the old prisoners, all anxious to learn something of the progress of the war and of their friends in the various commands to which they belonged, as the information the Confederates furnished was very meager and exceedingly unreliable.

For the first three months many of the prisoners lay on the bare floor, with nothing either over or under them, and only their boots on which to lay their heads at night. Among the twelve hundred men confined there at the time (all officers in our service of greater or lesser rank) was represented almost every trade and profession. Many were masters of science, art and literature, whose names were not unknown to fame. There were preachers, painters, sculptors, orators and poets. Many were the beautiful and curious designs wrought from beef bones saved for that purpose after the bones had first been picked to the marrow by our hungry men.

The pencil and pen sketches, drawn on whatever even surface might be found, often showed evidence of genius and a cultivated hand. Among those more or less famous in music I remember one of the Lumbard family, of Chicago, at that time celebrated singers of the Northwest, who led and conducted the musical part of Lincoln’s campaign for the Presidency in 1860. General Neal Dow, the father and founder of the Maine liquor law, treated us now and then to a temperance lecture, which, in a practical view, seemed to be quite unnecessary, as food was very scarce and intoxicating drinks absolutely out of the question. Religious services were held quite frequently, but in an evil hour a minstrel troupe was organized, which came near swamping religion and all other considerations for the time being. Any old prisoner will remember the song of “Johnny Smoker,” and how the chorus, “Wizer, Wizer, Rinctum Bum,” was rendered by the minstrel band, and with what gusto it was received by the whole prison.

The prisoners were constantly hungry, and dreams by night were filled with visions of home and loved ones, and tables spread with every conceivable luxury known to the culinary art; but on waking in the morning the old sensation of hunger came back with renewed force. In my more contrite and submissive moments I remember to have agreed with myself that if spared to get out of that place I would never ask or require anything more or better to eat than bread and butter. Often I wakened in the night hungry, and, going to the kitchen, scraped and ate the burned rice from the bottom of the kettles, as they had been left soaking in water that they might readily be cleaned for the next hungry installment.

Some of the prisoners were in the habit of lying on the floor late of mornings, to the annoyance of those who wished to be up and about. Often an inquest, “super viscum corporis,” was held, and curious and witty epitaphs were placed at the head, as though the sleeper were a dear departed friend. Mock .funeral services were sometimes observed, and after this ceremony the “remains” were taken up and, amid great lamentations, carried to some remote part of the prison for interment. This was often under the hydrant. These corpses frequently became quite lively before the ceremonies ended, and the funeral would then break up in a row.

An armed guard, for the purpose of calling the roll and for other reasons, visited the prison daily. Having no better employment, the prisoners resorted to various stratagems to embarrass and mystify the guards. But when practical jokes became too serious, and those directly responsible could not be apprehended in any other way, the authorities would reach the guilty parties by shutting off the rations of the entire prison for twenty-four hours. This treatment generally produced results.

In calling the roll, the prisoners in each room separately had to stand in line four ranks deep. Then a commissioned officer, stepping along in front, would count off the fours. To puzzle and annoy him, a number of prisoners standing in the rear rank (after having been so counted), unobserved by the officer in front, would fall out, and, slipping through a hole in the partition wall (which had been dug through for that purpose and screened from observation), go through into an adjoining room and there be counted a second time. Thus the authorities gained from three to half a dozen more men by count than they had names on their rolls. This also would throw off suspicion in case it became necessary at any time to account for the absence of any member of the tunneling party. This trick (varying in the numbers to be counted) was repeated several times. But, unable to make their different accounts agree, they would finally drive the whole mass of prisoners into the lower east room for a roll-call by name. In this position we were packed like sardines in a bog and unable to move. After answering to his name the prisoner was compelled to move out through the crowd to the door, and there pass between the points of two bayonets in the hands of the guards. A man standing in the back part or near the center of the room, having in this manner to respond to his name, the very best he could do would occupy twenty to thirty minutes in finding his way through this mass of men to the door.

This operation prevented further mischief for one day, at least, and in the matter of preserving order had a very salutary effect.

An event of general interest during the confinement in Libby, and especially so to me, was the visit of the great raider, General Morgan, who had, since his capture in Ohio, escaped from Columbus, and thence found his way to the Confederate capital, where he was given an ovation and lionized by the people to the extent that the ladies at a reception given him (so the local papers stated) gathered around in great numbers and kissed his hand. Having had a taste of prison life himself, he made this tour of inspection in Libby, no doubt, that he might the better enjoy his own release from the toils, and incidentally, perhaps, to witness the discomfort of the other fellows when under the conditions that proved so irksome to him.

Having heard through Confederate sources that he had been shaven, clothed in stripes and treated as a common felon at Columbus, I was a little apprehensive he might, on discovering me as one of his captors, be pleased to see me placed in like embarrassing circumstances; and, for this reason did not make myself known to him, otherwise I. should surely have gone forward and congratulated the General on his good fortune in making the escape. While to be decorated in the garb of a common felon would have been humiliating enough, yet I would gladly have accepted almost any sort of clothing at that time, in lieu of those I had on, the same presented me by my captors in East Tennessee.

In Libby the prisoners lived under discipline of their own, adopted from the military plan, and in this way kept themselves in comparative good health. A quartermaster selected from among the number apportioned the rations and dealt them out daily. Regular details were made for policing the quarters, and although compelled to use cold water with no soap, the floors were mopped every day, and there was a penalty attached for spitting on the floor. At our request the room was provided with cuspidors made of small boxes of wood filled with sawdust. These self-imposed duties in a great measure relieved the irksomeness of prison life, and this leads me to say: the Southern soldier as a prisoner, though provided with better quarters and better and more abundant rations than we, did not seem to fare so well, and to this day he contends that his treatment was even worse. The difference is easily explained. He lacked the ingenuity to make the best out of the materials at hand, and the inclination to help himself. Part of the daily duty of many of our farm and shop-raised boys before entering the army was found in the kitchen with their mothers, aiding in the general household work. Many were accustomed from childhood to wait on, and in a measure support and shift for themselves. The Southerner, on the other hand, had been accustomed to being waited upon, and when it came to the exigencies of prison life he was not so well prepared as the Northerner, for, under such conditions, there’s something required more than mere bravery. The inability to take care of himself accounts for a large share of the discomfort that often attended the Southern soldier as a prisoner.

The Libby, at the time of which I write, was situated between Cary and Canal Streets, in the city of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Southern Confederacy. The width of the building extended one hundred and ten feet from one street to the other, its sides running along either street, 140 feet east and west. It was three stories high on Cary, with a basement cellar under the entire building, making it four stories high on Canal Street. Across the width of the building, extending from the basement to the roof, were two partition walls, dividing each floor into three rooms or apartments of equal size. Our prisoners at this time occupied the two upper floors, or the six upper rooms. The rooms were designated as the upper and lower east rooms, the upper and lower middle rooms, and the upper and lower west rooms. The middle room on the first floor below was used for cooking purposes, ‘and was known as the kitchen. It had three fireplaces in its east partition wall. This kitchen was the only place in the building the prisoners had free access to, save the six rooms spoken of above. The fireplaces were not utilized, but in front of each one of them were three stoves, the pipes of which went into the chimney flues, running upward above the fireplaces. The flues did not extend below this floor, so the partition wall from here down was solid. The east room on the first floor was used for hospital purposes; the west room was the office where the prison officials were quartered, and the basement beneath was divided into dungeons for the confinement and punishment of unruly prisoners. The doors and windows were barred like those of a jail. Heavy guards, of course, were stationed on the outside, so the only hope of escape seemed to be through


Aside from the effects of hunger, there was a feeling of unrest among the prisoners which, if yielded to, often led to serious despondency and even insanity. Plan after plan was devised for escape, which upon trial proved to be impracticable. In the dead hours of the night a few could be seen prowling around the prison, in the hope that some means of egress might offer. On dark stormy nights the guards sometimes came up for temporary shelter under cover of the prison walls, where, unobserved by anyone from the outside, they would enter into conversation with the prisoners, often giving expressions of sympathy. Among them frequently was found a man of Northern birth, who had been conscripted into the Confederate army, and at heart a Unionist. Bribes were sometimes offered by the prisoners, and taken by the guards; but attempts to escape by that means generally resulted in the prisoner being handed over to the authorities, after he had gotten outside and given up his valuables.

At one time a plan was laid for the escape of all the prisoners in Richmond. There were fifteen or twenty thousand confined in various parts of the city at the time. At a preconcerted signal these were to break out, overpower the guards, take their arms, seize the Tredagar Iron Works; where, it had been learned from the daily papers which reached the prison occasionally, there were enough small arms and ammunition stored to put a loaded gun into the hands of every prisoner. Successful thus far, the design was to take possession of the city and the Confederate Congress then in session (including President Davis) and hold them until aid could come from our forces in Virginia. The signal for the outbreak was fixed; every prison had its special duty assigned, and the day of the night on which the attempt was to be made came, when lo! the secret had been revealed by a traitor in the prison.

This act of treachery was charged upon Lieutenant Colonel J. M. Sanderson, of New York, and although no direct evidence was produced, many threats were made by the prisoners against his life. Indeed the authorities, fearing he might be assassinated, took Sanderson out of the prison and kept him secreted until the excitement died out. But this only strengthened the suspicion of his guilt, and in a short time he was exchanged or paroled, and pending a court martial fled to London.

After this misadventure it was resolved that any new plan should include only men whose sagacity and fidelity could be implicitly relied upon. By their continued movements at night the prisoners most desirous of escape gradually came to know each other and to take counsel together. In this way a compact association, consisting of only fifteen men, was formed, when tunneling was finally decided upon. An effort to go out through a large sewer was abandoned as impracticable after the loss of


It was then determined to begin in the basement under the east end of the building, a place familiarly designated as “rat hell,” and tunnel eastward, coming out under a carriage shed attached to a large building on the opposite side of the street. From this point the escaping prisoners could lie screened from observation by the guards, behind a high board fence extending from the ground to the roof of the shed, until they found it safe to emerge. The tunnel was to run under a short cross street reaching from Canal to Cary Street, at the east end of the prison.

But how was this cellar, which was to form the base of all tunneling operations, to be reached? The prisoners could not go into the hospital room and thence through the floor into the cellar, for in this room were nurses and guards who would at once discover the plan. They could not go into the basement under the kitchen, for there were the dungeons for the punishment of offending prisoners, and guards on duty all the time. Every step taken had to be kept a profound secret; not only from the Confederate authorities, but from the majority of the prisoners also, and until access to the cellar could be obtained nothing could be done.

It was finally determined to go behind the stoves in one of the fireplaces just described, and taking out bricks in the center, follow the partition wall down below the floor on which the cook and hospital rooms were located (a distance of three or four feet) and then break through the wall into the cellar, thus escaping observation from every quarter. This was successfully accomplished. Major A. G. Hamilton, of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry, was the author of this plan, while Thomas E. Rose, late of the 16th U. S. Infantry, then Colonel of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was the chief engineer of all tunneling operations, the originator and leading spirit of the entire enterprise. The first to propose the plan, and foremost in the great labor incident to its accomplishment, he was also first to make the exit through the tunnel, having gone out into the street the night before the escape took place to reconnoiter, and returning again to assure his associates and all who were to be benefited by his daring example that escape by such means was not only possible but practicable. And at last, as if by the irony of fate, when the 109 men had gone out, Colonel Rose among the number, he was among the first of the recaptured prisoners to be brought back and placed in solitary confinement for thirty days on a diet of meal and water, as a punishment for his offense.

Thomas Elwood Rose was born March 12th, 1830, in Bucks county, Pennsylvania. He enlisted as a private soldier in the three months’ service at the outbreak of the war, and worked his way up to become full Colonel of a regiment, the 77th Pennsylvania Infantry. After having rendered the most valuable service through the Civil War, he was honorably discharged December 6th, 1865, having been advanced to the rank of Brigadier-General of Volunteers, meantime. He commanded the 2d Brigade, 2d Division 20th Army Corps at the battle of Liberty Gap. His command was desperately engaged at the battle of Chickamauga, September 19-20th, 1863, he being captured on the second day and sent to Libby Prison. After all this distinguished service, July 1866, Colonel Rose was commissioned Captain 11th U. S. Infantry, and in that capacity served his Government on the frontier in Indian campaigns to April, 1892-a period of 26 years of faithful service in the Regular Army without a promotion-and then was raised only to the rank of Major by brevet. .Drawing near the close of his service on account of old age, he was finally passed to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel U. S. Army by brevet, and so was retired at the age of 64 years, March 12th, 1894. This soldier incomparable died November 6th, 1907, at Washington, D. C. Had such a record been made by a soldier in the French or British armies, aside from substantial recognition in the way of promotion, the highest honors within the gift of those governments would undoubtedly have been bestowed, viz.: The Decoration of the Legion of Honor, or the Victoria Cross.

Returning now to the escape-beginning in the fire place, the bricks were removed from the center of the wall, so as to make an opening wide enough to admit a man’s body. From fifty to seventy-five bricks were taken out. The work was all accomplished secretly and at night. After “lights out,” or 9 o’clock, at which time everybody in the prison was supposed to be lying down, two men, having first quietly removed the bricks, would go down and take turns with each other in digging throughout the night. In the meantime, two or three others, detailed for the purpose, would remain on watch in different parts of the prison, to ward off eavesdroppers, and be ready to give the signal and help the two workmen up on the first approach of day. This accomplished, the bricks were carefully replaced, covered over with soot and dirt, which was always plentiful behind the stoves, and in this condition the place was left secure from observation until night came on again. This operation was repeated every night for more than seven weeks.

The authorities made regular tours of inspection through the prison every day, while hundreds of prisoners were in this room and about these stoves, engaged in cooking from early morning till 9 o’clock at night; and yet not more than twenty or twenty-five men ever knew of the work until it was nearly all accomplished. From the bottom of the cellar an opening was first made through the stone wall, some four or five feet thick, and then the work of excavating began. Clam shells and case knives were the principal tools used, and with these simple instruments a tunnel sixteen inches in diameter, eight or nine feet below the surface of the ground and about sixty feet long was dug.

As the work progressed, difficulty in removing the dirt from the tunnel was experienced. To overcome this, a spittoon from one of the rooms above, a box about eight inches square and five inches deep, was taken down into the cellar; and the man digging inside would pull the box in by means of a cord attached to one side, and after filling it with dirt, give a signal, when the man in the cellar, by another string would pull the box out and empty it. By this wearisome process the whole mass of dirt was removed.

The back end of the cellar or basement was not used by the authorities, and was seldom invaded by any person or thing except rats. It was filled several feet deep with straw, which had been placed there for hospital purposes, though not in use at that time.

As the dirt from the tunnel came out, it was spread evenly over the bottom of the cellar and covered with this straw, thus concealing it from observation through the day. The front part of the cellar was used as a store room, and attaches of the prison were in and out by day, but seldom, if ever, at night.

When the tunnel had reached a distance of twenty feet, the air became so foul that one man had to fan the open mouth while the other was digging. Even then, at times, a candle would not burn. Yet to dig successfully light was found to be necessary as well as air. This was obtained by stealthily taking a portion of the candles furnished the various rooms each night.

Those who had been let into the secret of the tunnel now began to put themselves in readiness for the exodus, which it was believed would mark the real beginning of their trials. To harden our limbs and muscles, persistent and continued walking and other physical exercises were resorted to. My comrade and myself once walked a distance of twenty-two miles around the room in a single day. Athletic games, such as running, jumping and boning, were also in vogue. A favorite exercise was that of placing two sticks on end, each within a circle about three inches in diameter and three feet apart, marked on the floor at one end of the room. Then two men, starting evenly from the other end (110 feet distant) would run to see which could pick up one of the sticks, set it up squarely on end within another circle near by, and get back to the starting point first. This was a pretty fair test of speed, and agility, and proved a valuable exercise.

The rigors of one of the severest winters known to the history of the country added greatly to the discomfort of the prisoners at this time. The James River in front of the prison was frozen over solidly and occupied by skating parties for days at a time. While watching the skaters from the upper windows of the prison one day the ice gave way and five or six young men were precipitated into the river and drowned. Cries were plainly heard at the prison, and the people were seen rushing to and fro in a vain endeavor to rescue the unfortunate victims.

The Confederate authorities, seeing the destitution among the prisoners, and their suffering from the cold, finally agreed to a proposition which in the end proved of great advantage to both. The understanding was that they would impartially distribute for our use and comfort any blankets or clothing the Government might send for that purpose. This was no sooner known at the North than great boxes and bundles came in filled with the necessaries in clothing and delicacies to eat. From this time forward the general condition of the prisoners was greatly improved.

While these articles were shipped under the supervision of the Government, they were in fact made up by the Ladies’ Sanitary Commission, an organization that extended throughout the Northern States, maintained for the relief of the Federal soldiers in the field and very largely supported by the loyal women of that section. Young and old contributed alike to its maintenance. Little girls not yet in their teens added their mite to the general fund. Well it was for these devoted women that their overburdened hearts found a modicum of relief, while their busy hands found employment in the preparation of lint and bandages, blankets, socks, shirts and underclothing for the sick and wounded and destitute soldier in the camp, in the field and in the prison pen.

In the main the agreement was fairly carried out on the part of the Confederates, but in time these good things came in such quantities that their own soldiers (none too well provided for themselves) began quietly to open the boxes and appropriate such articles as struck their fancy most. So the guards about the prison and many Confederate soldiers on the streets were soon sporting Yankee uniforms. However, “It is an ill wind that does not blow good to some one,” as will be seen further on in the story of an overcoat and


Among other things received from the sanitary fund was a pair of woolen socks such as “mother used to knit” On putting them on, something was discovered in the toe of one of them. Upon investigation it proved to be a note written in a delicate female hand by a young lady residing in the city of Philadelphia, who had herself – so the note informed me – knit the socks, and she took the means of inviting the soldier into whose hands, or upon whose feet, the socks might luckily fall, to write her a letter in acknowledgment. It is unnecessary, perhaps, to add that I complied with her request, and that upon this a correspondence ensued. But, alas! our letters had to pass the unsympathetic eye of the prison censor before delighting the senses of the one for whom they were especially written. If, however, the censor viewed them as I did, certainly no adverse criticism could arise, for “love,” they say, “is blind.” In the course of time the young lady’s picture was received, and with it an invitation to visit her at her home in Philadelphia. But owing to the close proximity of soldiers on guard from without, and bolts and bars within, my movements were somewhat circumscribed, and, however ardent may have been my desire, I was unable to comply with the young lady’s request. It has been said that “love laughs at locksmiths,” but in this case it was different. You couldn’t well vanquish a stalwart rebel on guard by laughing at him. But what has ever since been a source of deep regret, in the hurry and excitement of the escape that followed soon, I lost the young lady’s letters and her picture, and the fortunes of war caused our paths to diverge; but her memory, God bless her, in the kindly act through which our brief acquaintance began, is green in my heart to-day.

Aside from a cavalryman’s overcoat and other articles of clothing I drew from these supplies, there came from home a large box of delicacies and extra clothing, made up by the deft and loving hands of my mother and sister. If it were possible the value of these precious things could in any manner have been enhanced it would arise from the fact that many of them were contributed by the girls in the town in which my mother lived and where I had previously gone to school.

But I was still nearly barefooted and destitute of a hat, and, before the escape could be undertaken, must have a suitable covering for


For a long time my eyes were on a pair of boots belonging to Lieutenant Mead, of a Union Kentucky regiment, and I had often tried to negotiate a deal for them, offering Mead many of the choicest things that came in my box for his boots. But Mead, who was not in the secret of the for and knew nothing of the special purpose for which the boots were wanted, was inexorable. I had often tried them on to show how well they fitted me, even better, I thought, than they fitted Mead. But in fact I had already begun to consider the boots mine, for when the night came for the escape I lay down by his side, ostensibly for a night’s rest, though the thought of sleep was never farther from my mind. But I had not long to wait. Within an hour Mead was wrapped in profound slumber, when I quietly pulled on the boots, and, like the Arab, “folded my tent and silently stole away.”

Still the head needed protection as well as the feet, and, in passing out among my sleeping comrades, I stumbled upon a hat which later proved to be the property of Lieutenant Thomas H. McKee, of the 1st West Virginia Regiment, who nightly shared the luxuries of the floor with me in that immediate neighborhood. Without compunction or unnecessary ceremony, I placed the hat where it would do the most good for the present, and proceeded on my way, afterward learning, to my regret, that McKee was sick that night, and in consequence unable to participate in the escape. What will serve as a sequel to the story of the hat and boots will appear later on.

There was no way of judging the distance across the street over which the tunnel ran, save as the ground was measured by the eye from the windows, above. So when the digging had proceeded far enough, as was believed, to reach the carriage shed, it was thought best by those in charge to prospect by means of a small hole running upward for the purpose. This opening was made at an angle of about forty-five degrees.

A short time before some workmen had been employed making repairs and strengthening the doors and windows. It was their custom to leave their tools in the prison over night. So, improving that opportunity, an auger and chisel were stolen from the carpenters’ outfit, and carried down into the cellar for use in that quarter, and these tools, originally designed for fastening our chains, did good service in forwarding the escape. The chisel was the principal tool in use the night the prospecting hole was made. The man engaged in digging was reaching ahead into a small opening, letting the dirt rattle back down the inclined plane, when suddenly the chisel went out through the surface at a point in the full glare of a street lamp, and not more than ten or twelve paces from where a sentinel walked. The noise made by the chisel was heard by a guard, who asked another near by if he had heard any unusual noise, and, replying in the affirmative, the other said: “It is nothing but rats.” Upon this both guards walked on. Their conversation was plainly overheard by the real “rat” under the ground but a few feet away. The hole was then stopped up with little stones, an old trousers leg stuffed with dirt and whatever material could be utilized for the purpose, and the main tunnel then went on some ten or fifteen feet farther. The plan was wisely adopted to let as many prisoners into the secret when the work was completed as could well get out in a single night, and then, by leaving someone behind to cover up the excavations in the walls, prevent the discovery of the tunnel, so that eventually others might escape, by the same means,


Accordingly, on the night of the 9th of February, 1864, everything being in readiness, about two hundred men, who at this time had been taken into the secret, were assembled in the cook room after 9 o’clock, ready to take the desperate chance of escape. This was a trying moment. The digging of the tunnel had been a gigantic undertaking, accompanied with great anxiety, hardship and privation; and, completed at last, it only opened the way to dangers no man could forecast.

Aside from Colonel Rose, one of the first to take advantage of the exodus was Colonel A. D. Streight, of the 61st Indiana, who was being held by the Confederates as a hostage, and, according to the report of the escape as given by the Richmond Dispatch, printed elsewhere, “a notorious character charged with having raised a negro regiment.” Streight, it was thought by the prisoners, was being unnecessarily persecuted by the Confederates, and, for a portion of the time at least, during the process of the tunneling was confined in one of the dungeons; but, having been released and returned to the rooms above just before the escape, he was made one of the first to go through the tunnel, and, with two or three other officers, was secreted and cared for in Richmond for a week or more by Miss Bettie Vanlew [Elizabeth Van Lew], finally making good his escape. This lady, after the surrender, was appointed postmistress of Richmond by President Grant in consideration of her kindness to the Union prisoners. Although it soon after was known that she had performed this act of loyalty to the Union cause, it is believed she was never in any way disturbed by the people of Richmond.

Some fifteen or twenty had gone down through the hole in the wall into the cellar, and my turn had just come, when a noise at the outside door caused a report to be circulated to the effect that those who had already passed through the tunnel had been captured and that the guards were coming in to take the whole party in arrest. This was made the signal for a general stampede across the room, a distance of one hundred and ten feet, to the stairway in the corner leading up to the rooms where the prisoners belonged. My partner, who was equipped with a haversack containing a scant supply of rations saved for the occasion and a map of the country, which together we had drawn up with a pencil, ran back with the crowd. I remained behind the stoves and reflected a minute, and, listening at the door, could hear no one coming in. “And if they do,” I thought, “they know nothing of this hole and nothing of the tunnel, and anyhow I may just as well go down and out, it can be no worse for me.” Accordingly, down through the hole in the wall I went, without any thought of the obligation I was under to the Confederacy for six months’ board and lodging.

On reaching the tunnel I found Lieutenant A. P. White, of Erie, Pennsylvania, Just going in. He said: “Wells, I will wait for you at the shed.” I remained at the opening until he made his way through, for on account of foul air it was dangerous for more than one person to enter the tunnel at a time. I was soon through, dragging, my overcoat on my legs with one hand behind me, the other being ahead, and found on emerging that White had gone and that I was alone. Stretching myself up at full length I breathed the fresh air for the first time in six long months. After standing so long on the hard floor the soft ground under my feet was noticeable at once, and involuntarily I looked overhead and about me, as if to assure myself that it was not all a dream. My determination to accomplish what had thus been undertaken was still strong and I resolved to push on, and by continued efforts realize the benefits of the labors already performed or perish in the attempt. Every nerve was strung to the highest tension, all fear had vanished and my senses were alert and quick as those of a wild animal.

From the shed we had to pass through a gate which opened on Canal Street. Along this street, to within ten steps of the gate, a sentinel walked, who, on reaching the end of his beat, would face about and go a distance of forty paces the other way. Taking advantage of the time when his back was turned the prisoners would open the gate, and, stepping out on Canal Street, pass out of sight. In this manner all emerged from the shed, one by one, or sometimes in parties of two or three, as the case might be. It would have been very injudicious to have formed larger parties. The alarm causing the prisoners to stampede from the cook room proved to be a false one, and that night one hundred and nine men got out, it being daylight, however, when the last one reached the shed. Among this number was my partner, but after four days of ceaseless endeavor he was recaptured. Of the whole number who went through the tunnel only forty-three were successful in reaching the Federal lines; all others were eventually overtaken, carried back and placed in the dungeons below.

Watching my opportunity, I slipped out in the manner just described and walked two squares eastward on Canal Street. I had no fixed plan for getting out of the city, but was guided wholly by impulse and by circumstances as presented, though my general purpose was by some means, if possible, to place the Chickahominy River (which to the northward is not more than six miles distant from. Richmond) between myself and my pursuers that night. The especial object in so doing was to baffle any pursuit that might be made with dogs, for, though at liberty, I was


The Federal uniform and overcoat I wore was rather an advantage than otherwise, for the Confederate soldiers, as stated elsewhere, had appropriated clothing sent by our Government and were then commonly wearing our overcoats on the streets. After reaching the borders of the city, beyond the street lamps, I took the center of the road and made my way as quietly and rapidly as possible, but soon discovered a light in front. Dropping upon the ground and watching closely I saw a sentinel pass the light with musket at a right shoulder. The place I took to be a guardhouse or perhaps a hospital. Then creeping on my hands and knees some distance around, thus flanked the light and the sentinel, and soon after came to the fortifications around the city. Here there was great danger and difficulty in eluding detection and arrest. On these fortifications were large siege guns in position and sentinels mounted on the parapets. For more than an hour I felt my way along, never standing at full height, and most of the time on my hands and knees. This caution and perseverance brought me safely out upon an open plain, far beyond the city and its defenses.

Coming to a thicket of brush on low bottom land, covered here and there with water, I believed myself near the Chickahominy. To teat this fact I crawled out on some flood wood over the body of water, and, breaking off a large piece of light-colored bark, threw it in. In a few minutes I had the pleasure of seeing the bark move away with the current of the stream, and without delay proceeded to place the Chickahominy between myself and Richmond. In doing this, however, I was compelled to wade in water and mud waist deep.

The uplands on the northern banks were barely reached, however, when daylight came on, and I at once sought a hiding place by crawling inside an old enclosure which had grown up to a dense thicket of laurel. As daylight came on I could hear the voices of Confederate soldiers encamped near the river a half mile away. About 9 o’clock A. M. a ,company of cavalry, some twenty or thirty in number, came up the road from the camp, and, rising to my feet, I could see their heads as they passed on the gallop, not more than two hundred yards distant.

These, as I readily divined, were in pursuit of escaped prisoners, for that morning at the accustomed roll-call one hundred and nine failed to answer to their names. It appears that Confederate cavalry, infantry and trained dogs were at once brought into requisition to hunt down the fugitives. A rigorous search was also instituted by the authorities to discover, if possible, the means through which the exodus was made. But some of the prisoners remaining behind, in accordance with a previous arrangement, took the precaution to stop up the places of egress, and at the same time pried off a bar from a window and hung out a rope, made by tying together strips of blankets. This ruse led the authorities to suppose the escape had been accomplished by going out through the window, having first bribed the guards. In this, of course, they were deceived, and the guards and officers on duty were arrested and sent to the guardhouse, all the while protesting their innocence. Search was made throughout the day, but it was not until nearly nightfall that a colored boy, chancing to go into the shed, discovered the hole where the prisoners had emerged. But the Confederates did not learn by what means the prisoners reached the cellar for many months thereafter.

My hiding place for the day was on a gentle slope at the lower side of which was a spring where some colored women came to do washing. At times I could understand their conversation, and as the cavalry passed up the road, I heard them say something about “de Yankee pris’ners.’’ Chickens and hogs came about through the day, all seeming to view me suspiciously, the hogs especially. These would dash away with a loud boo-a-boo,.after looking at me intently for a moment. This noise made me a little nervous, as it increased the chances of my discovery and capture.

Night again coming down, after first taking an observation, I moved on, and presently came to a road which I ventured to follow for a short distance, before turning into the brush again. In passing, I noticed some saw logs, and it occurred to me there must be a mill not far off. Soon, at a point where the road forked, I saw a man coming toward me, and believing that everybody must by this time be up in arms about the escape, this gave me great anxiety. But knowing it would not do to show signs of hesitation or fear, I accosted the unwelcome stranger at once and said: “Good evening, sir, can you tell me which of these roads leads to the mill?” Of course I was making a blind guess as I ‘lad no positive knowledge of the existence of a “mill” in that neighborhood. He said, “To Gaine’s mill?” and I answered, “Yes,” and then told him I had an uncle living down there somewhere, by the name of Jackson, and asked if he knew any member of that family. He said he thought there was a Henry Jackson not far from the mill, and I assured him that “Henry” was my “uncle” and the very man I was looking for; and then told him I belonged to the 1st Virginia Infantry, and had obtained a furlough for a few days for the purpose of paying my relatives a visit. Thanking him kindly I hurried on, without further inquiry as to the whereabouts of my Uncle Henry.

Toward morning, I came to a cross roads where there was a mile-post and fingerboard. I climbed the post, and holding on by one hand with the other struck a match. On the board was an index finger pointing nearly in the direction I had been traveling for the past two hours, and beneath it the words, “Twelve miles to Richmond.” So for nearly two hours I must have been going in the direction of Richmond instead of away from it. I had then been out the greater part of two nights and made but twelve miles on my journey. By this time hunger, fatigue and loss of sleep were closing in upon me with a deathlike grip. I pushed on however, though from sheer exhaustion often stumbled and fell to the ground. In going through an open woodland I unexpectedly came upon an encampment of Confederate teamsters; doubtless a Quartermaster’s train carrying provisions to the army about Richmond. Some of the men were up knocking about among the mules and wagons. It was very dark. Assuming the rôle of a driver and bursting out in the vernacular common to the class, I walked up to an unsuspecting mule, and giving him a kick in the ribs, in a gruff voice commanded him to “stand around.” Repeating movements of this character two or three times I found my way through the encampment without interruption.

When morning came, I again sought a hiding place. Shivering and hungry throughout that day, and unable to move for fear of detection, I had a good opportunity to reflect upon the mutability of human affairs, and the vicissitudes of a soldier’s life. Night coming on again, I took my bearings, and was about to start out when I overheard footsteps in the brush not far distant, and crouching down like a frightened rabbit, awaited developments. Nearer and nearer the steps came. I thought I had been discovered and that my time had come, for now the steps of two persons were distinguishable. Soon into plain sight, almost on tiptoe; walked two escaped prisoners,


The former was of the 2d Ohio, and the latter of the 21st Illinois Regiments. I recognized and hailed them in a whisper. They shared with me from their scant rations of corn bread, and then for the first time in thirty-six hours I tasted food. We now traveled together and once or twice during the remainder of the week obtained provisions of colored men who were true to the escaped prisoners as the needle to the pole.

We had traveled four nights, all the time in the woods, and Sunday morning found us well nigh exhausted. Now coming to the conclusion that it would be impossible to continue the journey by night we laid down for an hour’s rest before starting out for the first time by daylight. Following up a ravine, we soon came into an open field inside of which was a school house or church; and people, evidently attending service, had already begun to assemble. Two roads crossed at the school house not more than one hundred and fifty yards distant from our hiding place in the brush. Several dogs came uncomfortably near, and while we were debating what course to pursue, about seventy-five cavalrymen rode by and halted at the corner near the school house. Randall volunteered to crawl around below to see if it were possible for us to cross in that direction unobserved. He disappeared in the brush, and we never saw him again, but the report of three or four shots fired in the direction he had taken led us to suppose he had been shot and possibly killed or recaptured.*

One of the dogs now discovered McCain and myself and commenced barking furiously. We started back down the ravine, keeping as far as possible under cover of the brush. The firing below and the barking of the dog had set everybody else on the lookout, and the soldiers discovered us and gave chase down a lane, but we finally eluded them and, for the balance of the day, remained in the swamp closely secreted, being fully satisfied with our experience in trying to travel by daylight; but night coming on, the weary march was resumed.

Soon reaching an opening we discovered at a distance some one standing in the doorway of a cabin. Thinking it to be a colored man, we had little hesitancy in approaching him; but on closer inspection found instead a white man. It was then too late to back out and putting on a bold front we walked up and asked for something to eat; telling him we were Yankees recently escaped from Libby [remainder of memoir not transcribed]

*It has since been learned that Randall escaped, and returned home where he died a number of years ago.

Page last updated on 02/12/2008