From the New York Times, 3/15/1891
TUNNELING TO FREEDOM
A FAMOUS INCIDENT IN LIBBY PRISON’S HISTORY.
THE FEVERISH ANXIETY OF THE LAST DAY - MEN FIGHTING FOR A CHANCE TO US THE PASSAGE - LIBERTY AT LAST - A MIDNIGHT WALK.
Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
The importance of a stirring event is seldom realized by the actors in it. It is only when time has given the essential perspective that we can rightly estimate the daring and the persistency that accomplished a certain purpose. Looking back at the famous Libby tunnel after the lapse of a quarter of a century it impresses the survivors of Southern war prisons as a creditable undertaking, while the new generation, or those who were not active participants in the contest, regard the escape as one of the most daring exploits of the war. The novelty of the enterprise and the success attendant on its execution have not doubt much to do with the romance that surrounds the event. I am very sure that Col. Rose, the originator of the tunnel, and the little band who carried out his design, had no thought that they were doing anything particularly heroic.
Exchange had come to be a hope deferred, but in the case of the men in Libby it did not make the heart sick. If the authorities would not or could not give them liberty, they were determined to achieve it for themselves. It was this intense, never-ceasing desire to be free that designed the tunnel and kept the man working during the black cold nights of that wretched Winter, till they had cut a way for freedom from the prison to a point that took them out of the notice, if not out of the reach, of the line of guards encircling the gloomy structure in which they had been so long cooped up.
I have already indicated the imperfect implements with which the tunnel was made, but it is impossible to convey an adequate idea of the difficulties to be surmounted. The cutting through of the thick foundation wall was itself a formidable undertaking. This had to be done at night. The men were guided entirely by the sense of touch, for even in the day time the Carey Street front of the hospital cellar was always dark. This part of the cellar had once been used as a storage place for fodder, and much of this had been broken and scattered over the floor - a most fortunate arrangement for the men working in the tunnel. The fodder was drawn back in places each night, and the dirt, taken from the tunnel in the bags or wooden cuspidores, was spread on the floor, and when the work for the night was done the fodder was replaced and the opening in the foundation was concealed in the same way, so that a casual examination of the place would have disclosed nothing out of the ordinary.
The front part of this cellar, and not a hundred feet from the mouth of the tunnel, was on a level with the street striking the canal. Here there were two large storerooms filled with barrels of potatoes and sacks of cornmeal. Our men, wounded or sick on the floor overhead, were not slow to discover the whereabouts of this food, and their audacity in raiding it not only endangered themselves but threatened the discovery of those working in the tunnel. They succeeded in cutting up the floor under one of the cots, and through this opening they descended into the storeroom, which they regularly plundered within fifteen feet of the guard.
The men in the hospital knew about the tunnel, and one night, to the great alarm of the workers, a noise coming from the front was heard; the intruder was Capt. Singer of Portsmouth, Ohio, who, with the aid of a crutch, had worked his way down from the hospital to learn how matters were progressing and to say that when all was ready he proposed to “shin out” himself.
As the tunnel neared completion the anxiety of the workers became intense, and weary though they were with long weeks of labor, they redoubled their efforts. Capt. Johnson of the First Kentucky was one of the most energetic workers. He was, I think, the most tireless man I ever met, and the only one who seemed to be entirely indifferent to sleep. He preferred to be right in the tunnel grubbing to hauling out the dirt by means of the rope or string fastened to the box, or to fanning in air from the entrance by means of a blanket or coat, which was kept going continuously so long as there was a man inside.
There were no engineering instruments to measure distance, nor could we send out to get the number of feet between the prison wall and the high board fence to the east, behind which it was proposed to have the exit from the tunnel, so that close guessing was a factor in the construction.
One morning, when the tunnel was nearing completion, Capt. Johnson was missing from roll-call. The prison was searched and the guards questioned by Turner without giving any clue to the disappearance of the absent man. At length he was given up for “lost” and with this the prison authorities had to be content. Johnson’s companions, however, were at no loss to account for him. He had simply made up his mind to live in the cellar and to work night and day till the job was completed, and this he did in those Stygian depths and without seeing a ray of light for ninety-six hours.
Johnson’s enthusiasm and energy came near bringing disaster on the whole enterprise. He miscalculated his distance and began to work up too soon; the consequence was a cave-in on the wrong side of the fence. A guard saw the earth moving and giving way, and, supposing it was caused by a rat, he sprang to the place and plunged his bayonet into the opening again and again. It is said that one thrust passed through the Captain’s coat sleeve. It took twenty-four hours to remedy this mishap and work for another opening.
In the early morning of the 10th of February, 1864, the tunnel was practically completed, and the following night was set as the time to reap the fruits of this long and arduous labor. Up to this date the secret to the tunnel had been so carefully guarded that, outside those actually engaged in the work, it is safe to say that not more than 50 out of the 1,300 men in the prison knew anything about it. Of course, every man would have been more than willing to have helped along with the work, and it would have been perfectly safe to intrust him with the secret, but there were enough enlisted for the purpose of construction, and more than those would have been in each other’s way and have jeopardized the success of the undertaking. But as soon as the tunnel was ready the injunction of secrecy was removed, and each tunneler told the friends he wanted to get out, and these friends told other friends, so that by night every man in the prison knew of it and made his preparations to go through to “God’s land.”
I was a day of feverish anxiety. There were no mock courts, no bone carving, no walking for exercise. Men examined their worn boots and speculated as to how far they would have to tramp before they would be forced to walk shoeless over the frosty ground. Men from the West consulted men from the East, who knew from experience the country from the Chickahominy to Fortress Monroe, and they gathered in groups and drew maps on the floor or on the walls with their penknives and gave estimates of the distances.
There was little or no eating in prison that day. The meagre ration of corn bread was stored away to be used on the march, for there was no knowing when we could get food again. But we did not feel hungry. The burning pain of long weeks vanished before the intense hope of release. Men who had become bowed and gaunt walked erect once more, and there was a brave light in eyes that suffering had made hollow and dim. No man preparing for escape seemed to realize that the capacity of the tunnel was limited and that only a certain number could get out, and of these many must inevitably be recaptured. But it is always the other man who is going to fail; and, failure or no failure, it was worth a life to make the effort.
If it had been possible to organize the men and to regulate the order in which they should drop from the cook room chimney into the cellar and so reach the tunnel, 1,000 instead of 110 might have left the prison that night. Up to this time the shout of the guards at 9 o’clock ordering “lights out” was never a welcome sound, but to-night the men listened for it with feverish impatience, and as soon as it was heard the few tallow dips fastened here and there to the posts were extinguished on the instant.
A majority of the men who had worked in the tunnel succeeded in getting to the opening first, but some had to take their chances with the great crowd surging down to the cook room. In the awful eagerness to escape, the rights of the weak were entirely ignored, and the stronger and heavier men forced their way to the fireplace by brute strength.
It was generally understood that it would increase the danger if, after we got out, we kept together in squads. Two were enough for any party, and in the event of one giving out on the march, which must be done at night, the other would be on hand to help him. Capt. Martin and myself decided to go out together, though both being from the West, we were entirely ignorant of the country to be traversed.
In the cook room we kept close together, and often when within a few feet of the coveted opening we would be pulled back and crowded away by the surging throng of men behind us. The uproar in the place was increasing every moment and there was danger that it might arrest the attention of the guards and lead to an investigation. We heard the half hour called by the men at their posts until 12 o’clock was announced, and yet the prospect of getting through was no better, not so good, indeed, as at first, and we were becoming exhausted by the effort. At this juncture we heard two men talking near us by the wall and one of them said:
“There’s only one was to clear the room and get a chance for ourselves and by --- I’ll try it.”
“What is that?” asked the other.
“Why, raise the cry that the guards are coming, that will stampede the crowd to the upper floors, and we’ll have a clear field to ourselves.”
I groped for the speaker till I could feel his arm, then I gave him my name in a whisper and added, “I overheard you, and myself and Martin will help along with the scheme.” Keeping close together we raised the cry:
“The guards! The guards! Make for quarters, boys! The guards are coming.”
Manning of the California Battalion of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry deserves the credit for this beautiful scheme. It worked as never charm worked since the days of the first astrologer. The alarm spread on the instant, and the great crowd, shouting “The guards!” dashed through the darkness for the steps and some were seriously injured.
The space about the chimney was cleared, and our opportunity had come. In less time than it would take to write a description of the act in shorthand we crept down, one at a time, feet foremost, and dropped into the hospital cellar. We listened and could hear the sound of returning feet overhead; the men had discovered that the alarm was false and were returning with more care.
We had no trouble in finding the familiar entrance to the tunnel. I went ahead, Martin following close behind. The excavation at its widest part was about 20 inches in diameter and 90 feet in length, so that a fat man would have had difficulty in getting through; but, then, there were no fat men to try it. As we both stood panting at the exit, the cry of the guard to the west of the prison could be heard: “Half-past twelve! Post number one, and all’s well!” and my heart echoed back, “All’s well!”
The only way to get out of the inclosure was to go through an archway in the prolonged wall of the building to the east. It is a curious fact that the guards saw the man going out all right toward the south or canal side of this structure. They did not call the attention of their officers to the fact, for the very god reason that in this warehouse there were thousands Yankee boxes that had been received under flag of truce and never delivered. The men of the guard detail not on duty at night were in the habit of entering this building and plundering the boxes under cover of darkness, and so the men coming out of he archway were thought to be their own friends, making a more than ordinarily persistent raid n the supplies, for most of which so many brave fellows were actually famishing.
As Martin and myself walked out to the street and turned to the left we saw, not 100 feet away, the guard standing under a lamp at the southeast corner of the prison, and that he saw us was evidenced by the fact that he made a motion from his empty haversack toward his mouth, as if inviting us to come over and share with him. We passed to the east and out of sight of the guard. It was a cold night, not so cloudy as to hide all the stars, but we did not feel the cold nor miss the light. We walked on with the proud, strong stride of old, for the exhilarating sense of freedom gave us a strength that for the time seemed inexhaustible.
Before starting out, my companion and myself decided on the course we should take. We had studied with some care a map drawn by a New York officer who had participated in the seven days’ fight before Richmond, and with this in our minds we determined to make our way to the northeast, so as to reach the swamp of Chickahominy by daylight. Our plan was to lie concealed in the daytime and travel at night till we reached our lines near Williamsburg or Fortress Monroe.
A short distance below Libby we turned north into Carey Street, but, owing to the lateness of the hour, the streets were deserted, and our spirits and confidence increased every minute. Through the darkness we saw to the left a depression, and the light of a distant lamp fell on glistening iron. It was a railroad track that had not been set down in the map we had been studying, but as it led north and seemed to have no houses on either side, we followed it. We had walked along the track a mile or more, and were thinking of ascending the hill to the right, when we were startled by hearing a shout close to our ears of:
“Halt! who goes there?”
Our first impulse was to ignore the challenge and run for it, but as it was accompanied by no appearance in our front, and the voice seemed decidedly husky, I put a bold face on it and asked:
“Hello! Who are you?”
“My name’s Williams, d- you, and if you’ve got a better one I’d like to hear it.” Saying this, the man rose unsteadily from the ground, and, dark though it was, we could see that he had no arms, while his breath told us that he had been out on a carouse.
“My name’s Brown and my friend’s name is Robinson,” I replied.
“D-- good names, boys; glad to know you. I belong to the Eighth Georgia. Been back here on furlough for a week, and got in with the boys, and drank a little. But you don’t blame me, do you, old fels?” and Mr. Williams insisted on shaking hands with us.
“We don’t blame you at all,” said Martin, “but I am mighty sorry you didn’t bring some of the liquor away in a bottle instead of carrying so much inside.”
“Say, you think I’m a d-- recruit, don’t you? Well, I ain’t. I’m a-a veteran, I am. I can forage for myself, and Quar’master and the Com’ssary’ll have to keep thar eyes peeled and sit up nights, and then they can’t stop my gettin’ what I go huntin’ for.”
As the Confederate spoke he unstrung his canteen, drew the stopper, and, after taking a drink himself to show that the stuff was all right, he thoughtfully wiped the mouth on his sleeve and passed it over.
The canteen was half full of new, strong-smelling corn whiskey. Neither my companion nor myself cared for liquor, but to show our appreciation of the man’s generosity, and with a dim notion that it might give us strength for our undertaking, we each took a drink. Then Williams wanted to know where we were going and the command to which we belonged. We gave a fictitious regiment, and said we were going to join it out on the Chickahominy.
“Why, when did you fellahs git down thar?” asked Williams in evident surprise.
“Yesterday,” I replied.
“Oh, yesterday! Wa’al, that’s all right. Knowed thar wasn’t any troops out thar day before. Wonder what in h-l’s up now. Must be that d- Butler’s a-comin’ up the Peninsula. Let ‘em come, let ‘em come - but if they don’t never come I’ll never hunt ‘em up. Mebbe you think I’m licked, but I ain’t. I’ve been hit four time, once along top of the head, ‘nother such and it’d a been good-bye Mary Jane. But I want the d-d Yanks to stay home and let us go home. Ain’t that right, boys?”
We assured him that he was quite right; then, after refusing “another pull at the canteen,” we shook hands with the generous Georgian and resumed our journey. At the top of the slope to the right we came upon a rough clay road that led east, and this we followed for some miles without seeing a living thing or even the glimmer of a light in front. Now and then we saw on either side and close to the roadway one of the many earthworks that made up the line of formidable defenses surrounding Richmond.
The road led directly into one of these works. We found the guns mounted and the bomb proofs open. We both regretted that we had not the means along to spike these guns, and we were sorry that we had not struck the fortification later on, so that we might be able to utilize one of the bomb proofs as a place of concealment during the day.
Throughout nearly all the night the north star was visible, and this not only served as a guide, but, eager to draw comfort from any source, we looked on it as a sign of success. We rarely spoke, and then only in whispers, and every few hundred yards we halted to listen for a possible pursuit or to ascertain if there was danger in front.
We were now off beaten roads, and were making our way across fenceless fields and through patches of jungle, where the briars made sad havoc with our ragged clothes. About a half hour before daylight, and just as we were beginning to fear that we had missed the Chickahominy or would not reach it before sunrise, we entered a jungle consisting, as we could tell by the touch, of water willows. After passing through the outer fringe we found ourselves on a field of ice, broken here and there by island-like hummocks that rose above the surface.
“Hurrah! We have reached the swamp!” This exclamatory whisper had scarcely left Martin’s lips when a crackling sound was heard The next instant he was through the ice to his armpits. I rushed to his assistance, but it was only to share the same fate.
We had to break a way for a hundred feet to the nearest hummock before we could rise. After this we broke through a dozen times. Daylight found us on a hummock, our teeth chattering with the cold and our little stock of corn bread reduced to mush by the soaking.