National Tribune 5/14/1885

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From the National Tribune, 5/14/1885


An Interesting Account of Its Construction.

TO THE EDITOR: I see in your issue of April 9 that I am called upon by Col. I. B. Dodge, 30th Ind. , to give a full and complete history of the Libby Prison tunnel. He says that he knows well that I am reluctant to do this, but he assigns a reason therefor which I hardly think just. It is not false modesty that makes me reluctant to do so, but it is because I am not accustomed to writing articles for publication. Besides, I cannot write a correct history of the Libby Prison tunnel without dwelling on my own connection with its entire construction. In this case, however, Col. Dodge says that it is a duty that I owe to my comrades to write this history for publication.

Capt. A. G. Hamilton, 12th Ky. Cav., (afterwards promoted,) and myself began the tunnel scheme in the eastern cellar of the prison shortly after my arrival there Oct. 1, 1863 . We continued our work but for a few days when we were compelled to suspend it by reason of the shifting of prisoners to different rooms; also, the tearing down of stairways, walling up doorways, etc., which continued for tow or three weeks. During this time Hamilton and myself cut our way down into the carpenter shop, out of which we prepared to make


A party of us then went down into the shop for this purpose on more than one occasion, but the unexpected shifting of the prison-guard prevented the attempt. This party at that time consisted of Hamilton, Fitzsimmons, McDonald, Lucas and myself. This shop continued to be a reconnoitering ground for some time, and a larger party, consisting of 70 men, was organized to operate from this place; the object being to overpower the guard and break away whenever the near approach of raiding parties of our own troops or other circumstance would render this plan of escape practicable. At length the shifting of the prisoners ceased and the work of the prison officials seemed finished. Then Hamilton and myself again turned our attention to the tunnel project; but we were now cut off from the eastern cellar, the only place from which a tunnel could be made with success, for he reason that it was the only place where we could conceal the dirt, and where we could work without interruption for several hours at a time. The hospital and hospital office were immediately over this cellar. The carpenter shop and the dungeons were along side of it. We had access to the dining-room, which, fortunately, was seldom visited by any one at night. It was from this place that we had cut into the carpenter shop directly underneath, and we could cut through the carpenter-shop wall into the cellar, but the hole in the wall could not well be concealed. We could cut through the dining-room wall into the hospital, then through the hospital floor into the cellar, but this plan would not do for many reasons. We therefore resorted to a device the execution of which has never been surpassed for care and skill, when it is considered that instruments little better than pocket-knives were used. We went to the chimney, between the dining-room and hospital, close to the dining-room door, where the rebel sentinel stood. In the fireplace of this chimney was a large amount of soot and ashes. In front of the fireplace were some stoves. We shifted the stoves a little, removed the soot and ashes from the fireplace and placed them in a gum blanket. A hole was then cut in the back wall just far enough not to make an opening into the hospital; then straight down through the wall to below the hospital floor, and just wide enough not to make an opening into the carpenter shop; then straight out under the hospital floor into the cellar, making a hole through the entire wall – somewhat in form to the letter S – from the dining-room to the cellar, large enough to admit the passage of a man. The material was so cut that after the hole was completed it could be replaced and removed at will, and not a vestige of the work be seen when the material was replaced and the soot thrown back. For the careful execution of this ingenious work the credit is due entirely to Hamilton .

We now went down into the cellar by means of a strong rope, which was afterwards made into a rope-ladder, and recommenced the work which we had begun several weeks before. There was no more very ingenious work to be done after we made our way back again into the eastern cellar, but there was a great deal of hard work before us. Three holes were cut through the heavy foundation wall on the eastern side of the cellar before a place was found where the dirt was firm enough to support the tunnel. We were now so much more secure from interruption and discovery that I determined to organize a party of workmen. The great readiness that had been shown by the prisoners to engage in the other adventures led me to suppose that there would be but little difficulty in organizing a work party that would push the work through in a very few days. Four men could be on duty at one time – one to dig, one to fan fresh air into the tunnel, one to draw the dirt back and deposit it, and one to stand guard near the rebel sentinel and give the danger signal. A party of 15 was therefore sufficient to be divided into three reliefs, each to work one night and have two nights’ rest, and still have supernumeries in case of sickness or accident.

Fifteen men therefore, including Hamilton and myself, were selected to compose this party. I found more difficulties with this arrangement than I had anticipated. The men were totally unused to the circumstances. The profound darkness of the place caused some of them to become bewildered when they attempted to move about, and, as absolute silence had to be observed, they cold not find their way to places where they were needed, or even find their way out of the cellar, and, what was worse, as the cellar was very large and no one must speak above a whisper, it was a matter of great difficulty to find them. I sometimes had to feel all over the cellar to gather up the men that were lost. The indescribably bad odor and impure atmosphere of the cellar made some of them sick. The uncomfortable positions in which they had to work amid crawling rats – the cellar was called rat h__l – was unendurable to some. To the unreflecting the scheme seemed impracticable as soon as the first burst of enthusiasm was over. The work did not progress as I thought it should. In a very short time, this party was disbanded, and Hamilton and myself continued our dreary work alone, as before, for many nights. Every day added to our experience, and I resolved to organize the working party anew. The same men that composed the first working party, as nearly as practicable, were assembled, and, taking advantage of acquired experience, the party was reorganized with great care. A few of those who composed the first party, from sickness or other cause, were not available, and new men were selected to fill their places. The party was divided into three permanent reliefs as before, and no man was permitted to do but one kind of work. If he was not an expert at the kind of work assigned to him he was enjoined upon to become so as quickly as possible. This party now worked with energy and system, and, although their work progressed very slowly at first, it increased each night, and in 17 nights the tunnel was completed from the cellar to the shed in the yard on the west side o the warehouse, from which the escape of the prisoners was easily made.

To this band of men, and to no other person or persons, is the credit of the Libby Prison tunnel due. It was this band of men, headed by myself, which first escaped on the 9th of February, 1864 , and was long gone from Richmond , Va. , before any other prisoners escaped. Their names are as follows: Col. Thomas E. Rose, 77th Pa.: Capt. A. G. Hamilton, 12th Ky. Cav.; Capt. Terrance Clarke, 79th Ill.; Maj. George H. Fitzsimmons, 30th Ind.; Capt. John F. Gallagher, 2d Ohio; Capt. W. S. B. Randall, 2d Ohio; Capt. John Lucas, 5th Ky.; Capt. I. N. Johnson, 6th Ky.; Maj. B. B. McDonald, 101st Ohio; Lieut. N. S. McKeen, 21st Ill.; Lieut. David Garbett, 77th Pa.; Lieut. J. G. Fislar, 7th Ind. Art.; Lieut. John D. Simpson, 10th Ind.; Lieut. John Mitchell, 79th Ill., and Lieut. Eli Foster, 30th Ind. There are two of the above named men, I am informed, who have “sold their birthright for a mess of pottage,” and whose names do not deserve to appear in connection with those of honorable men; but this statement would not be true if their names were omitted, and the publication of truth is the object of this article. There are, besides the above, two men whose names it would be proper to mention in this letter. Lieut. F. F. Bennett, 18th Inf., on one occasion assisted Hamilton in rescuing me from a perilous position while at this work. Capt. John Sterling, 30th, frequently furnished the party with ropes and candles, which we used in the tunnel, he having money to procure these things. Both these men belonged to the first party of workmen, but did not belong to the second. To A. G. Hamilton belongs the credit of having done all the work that required great care and mechanical ingenuity. It was he who cut the hole from the dining-room to the celebrated eastern cellar; it was he who made the rope ladder – in fact, he executed little ingenious devices too numerous to mention here. His work was altogether indispensable to the success of the scheme. For the organizing of the hands for work or any other adventure; for the assignment of the details and the instruction of the men, I am obliged to take the credit to myself. There was no other leader in the whole affair.

It will be seen that I have not attempted to go into the details of the history of the tunnel any further than to draw an outline of the matter that will do justice to my comrades. –

THOMAS E. ROSE, Colonel, 77th Pa. , Pittsburg , Pa.

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