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