Army Experience of Major Morton Tower from 1861 to 1864
His Escape from Libby Prison - At the Battles of Bunker Hill, Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Gettysburg and others.
[Captured at Gettysburg]
...When we arrived at Stanton a large crowd was at the depot to meet us; our reception was very loud if not very warm. Here we were to say goodbye to our guards, and to be handed over to the tender mercies of the "Stay at Homes." Captain Patterson, of the 61st Virginia, had been in command, and he bade us goodbye saying: "I and my boys have treated you as well as we could. When you get to Richmond everything will be taken from you; the rubber blankets, haversacks and canteens you have will be of great use to my men." Instantly almost every man handed them what he had, the guard then left us, but soon came back and loaded us with pies, cakes and cold meat, and when the cars started for Richmond gave us three cheers, which we returned. This was a goodbye for a long while to any considerate treatment. On the evening of the same day our sorry [page break] column, weary, foot-sore and dust covered from eighteen says hard marching, was marched through the streets of Richmond to Libby prison.
The gloomy and forbidding exterior of the prison, and the pale, emaciated faces staring vacantly at us through the bars, were repulsive enough, but at least it was a haven of rest from the weary foot march. We were ushered into a lower room where we were thoroughly searched, and all money and articles of any value taken from us. We were then ushered into the upper, south room, not a chair, bench, table or bunk was there, from the rafters hung a lot of old dirty blankets, from these we helped ourselves, and when put to use we found them filled with vermin. Weary and sore we laid ourselves on the bare floor and slept as only overworked men can sleep.
Libby prison stood close by the Lynchburg canal, and in full view of the James river. It is a capacious ware-house, built of brick and roofed with tin; the building has a front of about 140 feet, with a depth of 105, there are nine rooms, each 102 feet long by 45 feet wide; the height of the ceiling from the floor is about seven feet, except the upper story, which is better ventilated owing to the pitch of the roof, and at each end of these rooms are five windows.
We are now fairly embarked up Libby life, little thinking what a long weary time it would be before we were once more free.
The room I was in was occupied by officers from the Army of the Potomac; there were over two hundred of us. Our only water supply was one faucet in one corner, with a sort of a trough for the water to run into, which we utilized as a bath-tub when we could get a chance, which was not often among so many. Our rations were of the scantiest kind with the exception of a short time they allowed us to receive boxes from home. Mornings, the first thing was roll call, which meant standing in line in files of fours until counted. After this came what was called breakfast, which consisted of a piece of unbolted corn-bread three inches square and a very small piece of meat, mostly rancid bacon; this was all the bread and meat for the day. About five o’clock in the afternoon a half a dozen negroes, each with a couple of buckets, would appear; these buckets were filled with a sort of broth that the meat had been boiled in, with a little rice added, and of this they gave us about a pint. Such were the rations we received every day. Every morn came a darky with a frying pan filled with tar; which was steaming hot to fumigate the rooms. Once a week came scrubbing day, which was most dreaded of all days; the same darkies would appear with buckets and brooms and thoroughly drench the floor with water; this, as we had to sleep on the bare floors would make it decidedly uncomfortable for a day or two.
Life at Libby at best was very monotonous, but as we became used to it we passed the time playing cards, chess and other games. Schools of all kinds were in vogue. We [page break] had mock trials, civil and military, in which generally the culprit would be an officer who understood very little English, and the jury would be selected from the same kind; generally during the trials the anxiety of the prisoners and the jury to understand what was going on would be very interesting to the outsiders, but did not appear so to them. We had lectures, and published a weekly paper called the "Libby Chronicle." The editor, I thought then, and still think, could have been successfully used [sued] for libel the items were generally quite personal. Then at night after lights were out came what was called "Catechism", when such questions as these were asked and answered: "Who hid behind the big gun?" "Who surrendered for humanity’s sake?" "Who washed his clothes in the soup buckets?" "Who burnt the hash?" "Who took a bath" etc., and these were replied to with the names of the several offenders, much to the amusement of those acquainted with the circumstances referred to. These highly refined entertainments usually closed with a bombardment of all the utensils one could find at hand, which resulted in a general search for personal property the next morning. At one time we gave theatrical and musical entertainments, and they were remarkably good, as among so many, more than average talent was to be found. Sundays, as we had several chaplains amongst us, we had divine service. And we had temperance lectures by the famous Neal Dow. They did not make much impression on the audience, for of all the 1500 or 2000 men who attended, I knew of not one who used intoxicating liquors, perhaps the fact it was not to be had, had something to do with it.
About a month during the Fall of ‘63 we were allowed to receive boxes from home and some clothing was sent for the prisoners at Belle Isle by the Sanitary Commission, and here I want to say what any true, loyal man who saw the workings of that commission will echo with his whole soul, "God bless the Sanitary Commission." Words cannot tell the good work they did.
While we received boxes from home we fared very well. We gave and received dinner, and for a time, if prisoners can be, were jolly. Christmas came about this time and we had a grand ball in one of the lower rooms, were allowed to burn candles until midnight; we sang and danced until then. Soon after lying down some one started singing "Home, Sweet Home", and soon, I do not think, there was a man but that joined in singing the grand old tune, and grand sad it must have sounded when one takes into consideration our surroundings.
Winter was cold and cheerless without fires and scanty clothing. Life was dreary indeed; we had long given up hopes of exchange, but all willingly submitted to the decision made by our government, that no arrangement for a just and equable exchange of prisoners could be made.
From the time one becomes a prisoner the whole tenor of his thoughts will be the [page break] means and method of escape. Very few chances were offered, owing to the almost impregnable position of the prison. Few escapes were made, and most of these by seizing sudden opportunities. Occasionally visitors, mostly citizens of Richmond, were allowed by the authorities, to enter the prison, and when leaving would pass out without being challenged by the sentinels.
One day several visited the prison. Captain Porter, Major Bates and Lieut. King, having obtained citizens clothing from home, donned the same, followed this group of visitors past the guard; Capt. Porter succeeded in reaching our lines, but the other two were recaptured.
At another time workmen were replacing wooden bars in the upper story with iron ones, and Lieut. Cupp disguised himself as one of the number by soiling his hands and face, putting his old shirt over his clothes and taking a piece of iron bar in his hands. When the workmen left at dinner time he quietly followed them out of the prison. As he passed across the street he was stopped by a citizen, to whom he apparently explained the alterations being made at the prison. He then coolly walked up the street and probably as coolly into our lines.
At another time Major Halstead and Lieut. Wilson were in the hospital, presumably sick. The major, who had been a tailor prior to his military life, offered to make a uniform for one of the surgeons, but the surgeon, however, did not wear the same, for one afternoon the major in the surgeons uniform, and Lieut. Wilson, who by some means had obtained a Confederate private’s uniform, not only walked out of the door, but all the way down the peninsular to the Federal lines.
Libby prison had always been considered by the Confederate authorities as one of the most difficult of all the prisons from which to effect an escape, the building being completely isolated. On the north and south sides were vacant lots, on the east and west streets. Libby itself is a brick building divided into three tenements, of which the middle portion of the ground floor was the only portion accessible to the prisoners, the north and south rooms being occupied, one as the Confederate Officer’s quarters, the other for a hospital for the Union sick; the basement under this hospital was used as a place for rubbish, also as a place of temporary receptacle for the dead previous to burial. The prison was guarded night and day by twenty sentinels, five on each side of the building. During December of 1863 and January of 1864, combined attempts at escape were commenced. The first of these was to tunnel to the sewer; his was found to be impracticable. They had meantime obtained access tot eh middle tenement by raising a board from the floor. Next tunneling was tried, but was stopped by the tunnel coming in contact with a large rock. Another tunnel was abandoned on account of striking a flow of water. Trace of the tunnels were obliterated and all endeavors in this direction ceased. Had they been able to reach the sewer, which was built of brick, [page break] and led to the outskirts of the city, undoubtedly the prison could have been emptied of prisoners in a few hours.
Discouraging though these failures were to the men engaged, they were not disheartened. The next attempt made was commenced in a brick fireplace on the south side of the middle room, the object being to reach the basement under the hospital. This was done by digging out the bricks from the fire-place, the only implements used being a common case-knife. These bricks had to be replaced after the night’s work was finished every trace of which must be obliterated.
After obtaining entrance to the basement under the hospital, a ladder was formed of old pieces of ropes, blankets and sticks, which was hidden away during the day. The first work in the cellar was to remove the bricks from the foundation, thus making an opening of about two feet by eighteen inches in size. Then it became necessary to cut through one of the piles which formed the foundation of the building. This was a tedious labor, as the work had to be done with ordinary pocket-knives. Then commenced the process of tunneling through the dirt, which was accomplished by filling common spittoon boxes, with which the prison was furnished, and placing the contents under the rubbish in the cellar, throwing it into sinks where it was washed away by the water, and in every other conceivable place where it would not attract attention. After the tunnel had been dug a few feet, one would lie on his back draw the spittoon to his chest by means of a string, loosen the dirt behind his head with an old chisel, fill the box with his hands and pull the string, when the spittoon full of dirt would be drawn out by a comrade and replaced with an empty one. All the excavating of the tunnel was accomplished in this manner. As we had no means of propping the tunnel, the sensation of being buried alive was fearful and men could work only for periods of time. Near the middle of the tunnel quite a large rock was encountered, which caused us to deflect slightly form our original course. As they approached the yard of the war-house, thinking they had reached the enclosure, they dug up to the surface, and upon breaking through discovered they had come out in the street outside the fence, within a few yards of the sentinels. The hole was quickly filled with a pair of old pants and some straw, and the digging was continued a few feet farther to the desired point in the yard. An empty hogshead was drawn over the opening to conceal it in the day time. After the final completion of the tunnel the excavation, necessarily small, could only be passed through with great exertion, one being able to just crawl through the opening.
After 52 nights of hard and dangerous labor the tunnel was completed Feb. 8th, 1864. Even then while passing out of the yard into the street we came in full view of the sentinels about the prison.
In a building which occupied a part of the yard, our boxes from home were stored, [page break] since the authorities had stopped delivering them to us. Could we but reach that yard we supposed the sentries would think we were their own men stealing them. This they probably did as not one of us was challenged during the night of our escape. The entrance from the street to the yard was a brick archway, closed by ordinary wooden picket gates; through these we passed into the street in plain sight of at least seven sentinels.
On the night of February 9th, as soon as it was sufficiently dark, the exodus from the prison commenced. Major Hamilton, Col. Rose, and some of the projectors were the first to pass through. Col. Davis of the 4th Maine, and myself passed through the tunnel to the yard just as the clocks of Richmond were striking twelve. The Colonel had been seriously wounded in his left arm, which was now nearly helpless, and I had to help him crawl through the tunnel pulling him along as best I could. We passed under the archway waiting for what we thought favorable moments to evade the sentinels’ observation. Col. Davis turned into and went down the street first. After a few anxious moments I followed and came up with Davis leaning against a building. We then passed along to the suburbs of the city, when we came to a railroad, near which a sentry was standing near a small fire. We succeeded in eluding his vigilance and walked as rapidly as possible away from Richmond, crossing over unoccupied fortifications. Near daybreak we reached a thicket of woods where we stopped to rest. We had scarcely lain down when we heard "Reveille" sounding all around us. We knew we had to move and we did so suddenly. We came out in full view of their camps, and tried to find some hiding place. We were not successful in this; we were on a small hill, within not more than a thousand yards from where cavalry was located. We lay down on the ground expecting of course to be recaptured before the day was over. Time passed on, and still we were safe. After the longest and most anxious day I ever spent, night came again and once more we breathed freely. We again started on, evading in the best way we could their camps and sentries. Early in the morning we reached the banks of the Chickahominy river, where there was a grove of large trees with no underbrush, in plain sight of a sentry, had he been looking our way. He was leaning over a small fire around which several men were sleeping. It was as dangerous for us to retreat as it was to advance, so we did the latter. We struck the river where parts of an old pontoon boat and other drift had lodged, over which we passed in safety. For an hour or more we travelled on, hiding in the brush the remainder of the day. As soon as night fell we again took up our line of march. During our wandering we avoided all highways and open fields. Most of the way lay through swamps filled wit tangled underbrush, and with water sometimes waist deep. The weather was very cold, even the Potomac river being partly frozen over during the time we were out. We shaped our course by the North star At one time during the night, we heard the tinkling of a cow bell, as we were walking along a path. Davis thought it [page break] would be a good scheme to have some fresh milk; we therefore hid in the brush beside the path, waiting for the cow to come along; however, the cow proved to be no cow at all, but a Confederate soldier leading his horse, which had a cow bell suspended from its neck. We hunted no more lacteal fluid that night, as we had come to the conclusion that it was not healthy, although at different times we heard more bells, which we always carefully avoided. Early that morning we found, as we thought, a secure place for the day, near an old log. We had not hidden there long before we heard the baying of a hound, and as the sound grew nearer and nearer, we knew the enemy was on our track. It was no use to run and we prepared ourselves the best we could. The Colonel selected a stout club, and I opened a common pocket knife, which I possessed, and we waited. Soon a hound came up, jumped on a log and commenced to bay, not offering to touch us unless we moved. The Colonel struck the dog over the head with his cudgel and I with my knife, and soon he was a good enough dog for us. We travelled for an hour or two hunting for another place to hide, where we stayed until dark, when we once more commenced our tramp. We journeyed all night through the swamp until daylight, when we suddenly came into the Williamsburg turnpike, which we had all along been trying to avoid.
We struck the road in plain sight of a Confederate picket, who called upon us to halt, which we did not see fit to do, but turned and ran for the swamp; three shots were fired at us as we disappeared. We managed to hide under some old logs, in water nearly up to our necks. For nearly an hour we could hear them hunting for us and calling to each other. We travelled for a couple of hours and hid for the day in a thicket. As soon as it began to grow dark we heard someone passing near us, and as they came in sight we discovered them to be two escaped Union Officers. We joined forces and travelled together during the night. Early in the morning we came in sight of a house, which we concluded to visit. We found three or four women there, and to them we said that we were Confederate cavalry, and that the Yankees had captured our horses and chased us through the swamp. We asked where our troops were. They gave us some corn bread and biscuit when we immediately left, making a wide detour of the place indicated as being occupied by the Confederates and soon again went into hiding.
At night-fall we once more started, and had travelled for about three or four hours when we saw a large fire ahead of us. We proceeded toward this, coming soon into a large field in which were three haystacks, we could plainly see the fire, which was near a road; we dared not approach nearer, as the haystacks offered a tempting bed we burrowed into the center of one, lay down and enjoyed our first real rest since leaving Richmond. Next morning, feeling much refreshed, we concluded to travel for a few hours and find a safe hiding place, as we though the haystacks from their position, too conspicuous. We [page break - remainder of narrative not transcribed. Author was successful in his escape.]