The Photographic History of the Civil War
                  Volume 7 -
Prisons and Hospitals

   Escapes from Prison


  Escapes from Prison

By Holland Thompson

            I never knew any man to make a correct calculation of the time of a tunnel's completion. But you can always conclude, when its engineers declare positively that it will be done in two days, that it will still require some finishing strokes at the close of a week. . . . The truth is, that the operators are so anxious to finish a tunnel that they calculate their capacity for performance, even with their wretched implements, by the intensity of their desire. Junius Henri Browne, in Four Years in Secessia.

            Next to the hope of being exchanged, which became almost an obsession with all prisoners confined for any length of time, the idea of escape was perhaps uppermost. Few prisoners would ever acknowledge that they had ever seen a "beautiful jail," and no sooner had they been confined than they began to lay plans for escape.

            Some of these plans were exceedingly ingenious. Occasionally, citizens' clothes were smuggled into the prison, sometimes by the connivance of the guards. On both sides it was found almost impossible to prevent prisoners from trading with the guards, and in many cases patriotism could not withstand an offer to purchase a blue or gray coat, as the case might be. During the latter part of the war, many Confederates had no uniforms. A bribe might cause a guard to turn his back, or a pass might be forged. Prisoners were known to climb out through the chimneys of their temporary quarters, and to use the time-honored expedient of letting themselves down from the roof or from windows by means of ropes made from their bedding.

            Occasionally, prisoners made a rush and attempted to overcome their guards by force, but this required a better organization and more confidence in the good faith of their companions, to say nothing of more physical courage, than was possessed by the larger proportion of the prisoners. If a large number of men should simultaneously attempt to overcome the guards or throw themselves against the flimsy barriers which enclosed so many prisons, undoubtedly a large number would escape, but it was almost certain that the foremost would be wounded, if not killed. So only the most reckless or the most despairing usually attempted to break their confinement in this manner. Since the prisons were in many cases only enclosures surrounded by a fence or a stockade, and since the only tools easily procured were knives, pieces of tin, or sheet iron, unequal to the task of cutting through stone or iron, but entirely adequate for removing earth, tunneling was the means of escape to which prisoners most often resorted.

            Sometimes these tunnels were of great length, and the fact that they could be constructed in the short time given to them is astonishing, particularly when the simple tools are considered. The usual plan was to begin in some concealed spot, preferably under a bunk, sink a shaft three or four feet and then run out horizontally beyond the stockade or fence. Where an outer ring of sentinels was stationed at some distance from the fence, the attempt was always made to run the tunnel beyond them. Seldom was the diameter of the tunnel greater than would accommodate one person on all fours. The loosened earth was either carried back by the operator, thrown into a well, a sewer, a sink, or a stove, or concealed in any one of a dozen other ingenious ways. Sometimes two cords were attached to a box or a haversack. When the vessel was filled, some one at the end would draw it back when the signal was given, and empty it.

            The seekers for liberty were sometimes successful in carrying their tunnels under the fence without discovery. A dark night was usually chosen for the attempted escape. The earth above the end would be broken through, and the prisoners might emerge like the head of a turtle from its shell. However, in comparison with the number who attempted to escape in this manner, few succeeded, as the odds against their success were too great. Only a few could be entrusted with the secret of an attempt, as any considerable gathering of the prisoners in one particular place was almost sure to arouse the suspicion of the guards. Frequent inspections were made to discover these underground passages, and some of the guards became quite skilful in thwarting such plans. Then, too, in almost every prison there were spies in the guise of prisoners, who reported any suspicious circumstances to the authorities. But if all these dangers were avoided, others remained. Since the prisoners had no means of discovering whether or not they were proceeding horizontally, passages often came to the surface too soon, as it seems to be a tendency of those burrowing underground to work upward. Sometimes the passage of a team caused the roof to fall. At Salisbury, a Confederate officer, making his rounds, broke through the thin crust and sank to his waist.

            Attempts to escape in this manner were not always treated with severity. In some prisons the guards appear to have regarded it as a game, at which each side was trying to thwart the other. A prisoner at Andersonville tells of starting a tunnel from the little hut which he occupied. The attempt was betrayed, possibly by a spy, and the sergeant of the guard came and investigated. Plunging a steel ramrod into the ground in various places, he discovered the excavation and sent a negro down to find how far the work had been completed. The negro brought back a box by which the dirt had been removed. "Hello," said the sergeant, "that is the third time I have caught that box. Take it and go to work somewhere else, boys."

            Comparatively imperfect tools sometimes accomplished wonderful results. With a small jeweler's saw procured for the making of bone or metal jewelry ‑ a common occupation in  many prisons ‑ prisoners have been known to saw through a heavy stockade. In one instance, at Point Lookout, a North Carolinian sawed through a wall six inches thick and made a hole. He and a number of his companions had provided canteens which they had tightly corked for use as floats. All in the secret passed through the hole and into the waters of the bay, except the man who had sawed the hole, who, waiting courteously until all his friends had passed, found that some one had appropriated the floats which he had prepared. As he could swim but imperfectly, he was unwilling to venture into the bay without some support.

            Desperate prisoners constantly attempted to escape from the old penitentiary at Alton, Illinois, and were sometimes successful. Once they set the prison on fire, and in the confusion several got over the wall. The most remarkable escape from this prison, however, was that of Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin, of Missouri, and thirty-five companions, on the night of July 24, 1862.

            The investigations of the court of inquiry showed that the prisoners had climbed to the top of some unused brick ovens under a shed in the yard, had cut through the top, and then down through eight feet of masonry. The tunnel was excavated three feet below the surface for a distance of fifty feet, cutting through on the way the solid limestone foundation of the outer wall of the prison, at that point three feet thick. Only eight of the industrious burrowers were recaptured. The tools were an old spade and some knives abstracted from the mess kitchen.

            The Confederate prison at Salisbury was never very secure, and many interesting stories of escape come from there. On one occasion, one of a squad of prisoners sent out under guard as a burial party was an amateur ventriloquist. When a corpse had been put in the ground and the first shovelful of earth had been thrown into the grave, apparently the corpse began to protest indignantly. The guards were so frightened that they scattered, and the entire detail of prisoners escaped. On several occasions, when smallpox was prevalent, prisoners thrust red-hot needles into their faces and hands. The result was a fair imitation of smallpox, and they were transferred to the hospital, outside the main stockade, from which they had little difficulty in escaping.

            One morning a ladder was found leaning against the fence. How it got there was never known, nor was it easy to find in the confusion how many had escaped. The ground, being as it was a tenacious clay, was especially suitable for tunneling. At one time it was known that sixteen tunnels were in various stages of completion.

            As mentioned elsewhere, the guard at this prison was composed almost entirely of boys under seventeen or men over forty-five, and prisoners gifted with assurance were sometimes able to deceive or intimidate them into believing that they had a right to pass out. It was only a short distance to the forest, and several escaped by this means and made their way through the mountains of North Carolina into the Federal lines in east Tennessee. Among them were Junius Henri Browne and A. D. Richardson, correspondents of the New York Tribune, who had been confined in Libby and Salisbury for several months. Mr. Browne's account of his escape says he gave to his friend his own pass giving him the right to visit the hospital. He had visited the hospital so often himself that the guard allowed him to pass without calling for his credentials. After walking about the hospital enclosure long enough to disarm suspicion, they slipped out of the gate and hid in a barn near by for twenty-four hours, thus eluding their pursuers.

            For a short time officers were confined in a part of the prison separated from the men only by a line of guards. A paper written by one of the officers, said to be General Hays, and ordering the men to make preparations for an outbreak by force, was intercepted by a sentinel and led to the transfer of the officers to Danville. An outbreak occurred, however, on October 20, 1864. As the relief of the guard entered the prison in the afternoon, the prisoners by a concerted rush disarmed and killed some of them. Sentinels on the parapet raised the alarm and began to fire into the mass, and the cannon at one of the angles discharged grape and canister and did considerable execution. About fifty of the prisoners were killed and wounded.

            Escapes from Andersonville were not frequent. The triple stockade required such a long tunnel that many grew tired before it was completed, and many of the prisoners were too weak to do much vigorous work. Then, too, the pack of hounds kept outside the stockade was successful in running down some of the fugitives, though the stories of their ferocity have been much exaggerated. Usually they surrounded the escaping prisoner and prevented his further progress, but did not injure him appreciably.

            Warren Lee Goss tells of extending a tunnel from the side of a well abandoned because of lack of water. By night the men worked away, digging the tunnel and throwing the dirt into the well. By day they removed the dirt from the well amid the jeers of their companions, who did not believe that they would ever reach water. The tunnel was finally opened up, and about twenty passed through and scattered into small parties to increase the probability of escape. Living upon fruit and the flesh of a calf they killed, and aided to some extent by negroes, Goss succeeded in getting seventy-five miles away but was finally captured.

            Another story from Andersonville says that a tunnel once came to the surface in the middle of a camp-fire which the guards around the stockade had built. The prisoners sprang up through the fire, nevertheless, much to the alarm of the guards, who took to their heels, apparently thinking that the door of the infernal regions had opened. For a time, escapes from Camp Douglas, at Chicago, were frequent. Prisoners were sent to that point before a fence had been constructed around their barracks, and many slipped through the inefficient guard. When the prison was again occupied in 1863, after serving as a detention point for paroled Federal soldiers, it was much dilapidated and extensive repairs were authorized. The commanding officer complained that many prisoners had passed out as workmen, and that once outside the enclosure Southern sympathizers often effectually concealed their friends.

            One of the most celebrated escapes was that of General John H. Morgan. In the summer of 1868, his cavalry made a famous raid across the Ohio River, which is described in another volume of this work. The command was captured on the 30th of July, and as General Burnside, commander of the department, declared that he had no safe place in which to keep these dreaded raiders, General Morgan with about thirty of his officers was confined in the State penitentiary at Columbus. It was announced that they were kept in close confinement in retaliation for the treatment of Colonel Streight and his officers at Richmond. Though they did not receive prison fare and were separated from ordinary convicts, they were for three months under the entire charge of the warden in the penitentiary. On the 4th of November, Sergeant J. W. Moon was appointed prison steward by General John S. Mason, military commander at Columbus. His duties were not clearly defined, and the warden understood that the immediate care of the prisoners was no longer one of them.

            From this time on, the cells were not inspected and the prisoners were expected to clean them themselves. Some of the resourceful prisoners had discovered that beneath the floor of the cells was a large vaulted air chamber. With knives abstracted from the dining-room a hole was cut through the cement floor and the brick arch ‑ about two feet of solid masonry ‑ into the air chamber beneath. This hole was concealed by a carpet bag from the eyes of the warden, but the slightest inspection inside the cell would have revealed the secret.

            A few officers were let into the secret, and each took his turn at digging. The mortar of the cement was picked from the stones forming the side of the arch, then a hole eighteen inches wide and thirty inches high was continued through the earth underneath the prison until the outer wall was reached. The thickness of this wall made it impracticable to pierce it, and the tunnel was continued under the wall, then upward until it reached within a few inches of the surface of the prison yard. The prisoners next cut away the brick and mortar from beneath a point in the floors of six cells, until only a thin shell was left. A rope of bedding was prepared, and on the night of November 27, 1863, the attempt to escape was made. General Morgan's cell was on an upper tier, but that night he exchanged cells with his brother, who regularly occupied one of the six cells already mentioned. The seven men prepared dummies in their beds to deceive the night watch, broke through the weakened floor into the archway, followed the tunnel to the end, and emerged into the prison yard. By means of a rope they scaled the wall and sought safety in flight, leaving for the warden the following note:

            Commenced work ‑ November 4th; number of hours worked per day, 3; completed work November 8th; tools, two small knives. Patience est arne're, mais son fruit est doux. By order of my six confederates.

            Two of the prisoners were recaptured, but Morgan and the others made their escape.

            Because of its importance as the chief prison at which officers were confined in the Confederacy, Libby Prison, Richmond, was guarded with especial vigilance, but nevertheless many officers escaped from here. In February, 1864, by the efforts of Colonel Rose, a tunnel was dug from the storeroom in the basement of the building, under the wall and the adjoining street, beneath the feet of the guards.

pages 138, 140, 142, 144, 146, 148, 150, & 152 in 1911 book

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