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[285]

How the prisoners escaped prom the Richmond jail-incredible underground work-friendship of Virginia negroes.

About the beginning of the year 1864 the officers confined in Libby Prison conceived the idea of effecting their own exchange, and after the matter had been seriously discussed by some seven or eight of them, they undertook to dig for a distance toward a sewer running into a basin. This they proposed doing by commencing at a point in the cellar near to the chimney. This cellar was immediately under the hospital, and was the receptacle for refuse straw, thrown from the beds when they were changed, and for other refuse matter. Above the hospital was a room for officers, and above that yet another room. The chimney ran through all these rooms, and prisoners who were in the secret, improvised a rope, and night after night let working parties down, who successfully prosecuted their excavating operations.

The dirt was hid under the straw and other refuse matter in the cellar, and it was trampled down to prevent too great a bulk. When the working party had got to a considerable distance underground, it was found difficult to haul the dirt back by hand, and a spittoon, which had been furnished the officers in one of the rooms, was made to serve the purpose of a cart. A string was attached to it, and it was run in the tunnel, and as soon as filled was drawn out and deposited under the straw. Btu: after hard work, and digging with [286] finger nails, knives, and chisels, a number of feet, the working party found themselves stopped by piles driven in the ground. These were at least a foot in diameter. But they were not discouraged. Penknives, or any other articles that would cut, were called for, and after chipping, chipping, chipping, for a long time, the piles were severed, and the tunnelers commenced again, after a time reaching the sewer.

But here an unexpected obstacle met their further progress. The stench from the sewer and the flow of filthy water was so great that one of the party fainted, and was dragged out more dead than alive, and the project in that direction had to be abandoned. The failure was communicated to a few others beside those who had first thought of escape, and then a party of seventeen, after viewing the premises and surroundings, concluded to tunnel under Carey street. On the opposite side of this street from the prison was a sort of carriage house or outhouse, and the project was to dig under the street, and emerge from under or near the house. There was a high fence around it, and the guard was outside of this fence. The prisoners then commenced to dig at the other side of the chimney, and after a few handfuls of dirt had been removed they found themselves stopped by a stone wall, which proved afterward to be three feet thick. The party were by no means daunted, and with pocket-knives and penknives they commenced operations upon the stone and mortar.

After nineteen days and nights at hard work they again struck the earth beyond the wall, and pushed their work forward. Here, too (after they got some distance under ground) the friendly spittoon was brought [287] into requisition, and the dirt was hauled out in small quantities. After digging for some days the question arose whether they had not reached the point aimed at; and in order if possible to test the matter, Captain Gallagher, of the Second Ohio Regiment, pretended that he had a box in the carriage house over the way, and desired to search it out. This carriage house, it is proper to state, was used as a receptacle for boxes and goods sent to the prisoners from the North, and the recipients were often allowed to go, under guard, across the street to secure their property. Captain Gallagher was allowed permission to go there, and as he walked across under guard, he, as well as he could, paced off the distance, and concluded that the street was about fifty feet wide.

On the 6th or 7th of February the working party supposed they had gone a sufficient distance, and commenced to dig upward. When near the surface they heard the rebel guards talking above them, and discovered they were two or three feet yet outside the fence.

The displacing of a stone made considerable noise, and one of the sentinels called to his comrade and asked him what the noise meant. The guards, after listening a few minutes, concluded that nothing was wrong, and returned to their beats. The hole was stopped up by inserting into the crevice a pair of old pantaloons filled with straw, and bolstering the whole up with boards, which they secured from the floors, etc., of the prison. The tunnel was then continued some six or seven feet more, and when the working party supposed they were about ready to emerge to daylight, others in the prison were informed that there was a way now open for escape. [288] One hundred and nine of the prisoners decided to make the attempt to get away. Others refused, fearing the consequences if they were recaptured.

At half-past 8 o'clock on the evening of the 9th the prisoners started out, Colonel Rose, of New York, leading the van. Before starting, the prisoners had divided themselves into squads of two, three, and four, and each squad was to take a different route, and after they were out were to push for the Union lines as fast as possible. It was the understanding that the working party were to have an hour's start of the other prisoners, and, consequently, the rope-ladder in the cellar was drawn out. Before the expiration of the hour, however, the other prisoners became impatient, and were let down through the chimney successfully into the cellar.

The aperture was so narrow that but one man could get through at a time, and each squad carried with then provisions in a haversack. At midnight a false alarm was created, and the prisoners made considerable noise in their quarters. Providentially, however, the guard suspected nothing wrong, and in a few moments the exodus was again commenced. Colonel Kendrick and his companions looked with some trepidation upon the movements of the fugitives, as some of them, exercising but little discretion, moved boldly out of the enclosure into the glare of the gaslight. Many of them were, however, in citizen's dress, and as all the rebel guards wore the United States uniform, but little suspicion could be excited, even if the fugitives had been accosted by a guard.

Between one and two o'clock the lamps were extinguished [289] in the streets, and then the exit was more safely accomplished. There were many officers who desired to leave, who were so weak and feeble that they were dragged through the tunnel by mere force, and carried to places of security, until such time as they would be able to move on their journey. At half-past 2 o'clock, Captain Joyce, Colonel Kendrick, and Lieutenant Bradford passed out in the order in which they are named, and as Colonel Kendrick emerged from the hole he heard the guard within a few feet of him sing out: “Post No. 7, half-past 2 in the morning and all is well.” Lieutenant Bradford was intrusted with the provisions for this squad, and in getting through was obliged to leave his haversack behind him, as he could not get through with it upon him.

Once out they proceeded up the street, keeping in the shade of the buildings, and passed eastwardly through the city.

A description of the route pursued by this party, and of the tribulations through which they passed, will give some idea of the rough time they all had of it. Colonel Kendrick had, before leaving the prison, mapped out his course, and concluded that the best route to take was the one toward Norfolk or Fortress Monroe, as there were fewer rebel pickets in that direction. They therefore kept the York River railroad to the left, and moved toward the Chickahominy river. They passed through Boar Swamp, and crossed the road leading to Bottom Bridge. Sometimes they waded through mud and water almost up to their necks, and kept the Bottom Bridge road to their left, although at times they [290] could see and hear the cars travelling over the York River road.

While passing through the swamp near the Chickahominy, Colonel Kendrick sprained his ankle and fell. Fortunate, too, was that fall for him and his party, for while he was lying there one of them chanced to look up, and saw in a direct line with them a swamp bridge, and in the dim outline they could perceive that parties with muskets were passing over the bridge. They therefore moved some distance to the south, and after passing through more of the swamp, reached the Chickahominy about four miles below Bottom Bridge. Here now was a difficulty. The river was only twenty feet wide, but it was very deep, and the refugees were worn out and fatigued. Chancing, however, to look up, Lieutenant Bradford saw that two trees had fallen on either side of the river, and that their branches were interlocked. By crawling up one tree and down the other, the fugitives reached the east bank of the Chickahominy.

They subsequently learned from a friendly negro that, had they crossed the bridge they had seen, they would assuredly have been recaptured, for Captain Turner, the keeper of Libby Prison, had been out and posted guards there, and in fact had alarmed the whole country, and got the people up as a vigilant committee to capture the escaped prisoners.

After crossing over this natural bridge they laid down on the ground and slept until sunrise on the morning of the 11th, when they continued on their way, keeping eastwardly as near as they could. Up to this time they had had nothing to eat, and were almost famished. [291] About noon of the 11th they met several negroes, who gave them information as to the whereabouts of the rebel pickets, and furnished them with food.

Acting under the advice of these friendly negroes, they remained quietly in the woods until darkness had set in, when they were furnished with a comfortable supper by the negroes, and after dark proceeded on their way, the negroes (who everywhere showed their friendship to the fugitives) having first directed them how to avoid the rebel pickets. That night they passed a camp of rebels, and could plainly see the smoke and camp fires. But their wearied feet gave out, and they were compelled to stop and rest, having only marched five miles that day.

They started again at daylight on the 13th, and after moving awhile through the woods they saw a negro woman working in a field and called her to them. From her they received directions and were told that the rebel pickets had been about there looking for the fugitives from Libby. Here they laid down again, and resumed their journey when darkness set in, and marched five miles, but halted till the morning of the 14th, when the journey was resumed.

At one point they met a negress in a field, and she told them that her mistress was a secesh woman, and that she had a son in the rebel army. The party, however, were exceedingly hungry, and they determined to secure some food. This they did by boldly approaching the house and, informing the mistress that they were fugitives from Norfolk, who had been driven out by Butler; and the secesh sympathies of the woman were at once aroused, and she gave th-m of her substance, and started [292] them on their way, with directions how to avoid the Yankee soldiers, who occasionally scouted in that vicinity. This information was exceedingly valuable to the refugees, for by it they discovered the whereabouts of the Federal forces.

When about fifteen miles from Williamsburg the party came upon the main road and found the tracks of a large body of cavalry. A piece of paper found by Captain Jones satisfied him that they were Union cavalry; but his companions were suspicious, and avoided the road and moved forward. At the “Burnt ordinary” (about ten miles from Williamsburg) they awaited the return of the cavalry that had moved up the road, and from behind a fence corner, where they were secreted, the fugitives saw the flag of the Union, supported by a squadron of cavalry, which proved to be a detachment of Colonel Spear's 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, sent out for the purpose of picking up escaped prisoners. Colonel Kendrick says his feelings at seeing the old flag are indescribable.

At all points along the route the fugitives describe their reception by the negroes as most enthusiastic, and there was no lack of white people who sympathized with them and helped them on their way.

In their escape the officers were aided by citizens of Richmond; not foreigners or the poor class only, but by natives and persons of wealth. They know their friends there, but very properly withhold any mention of their names. Of those who got out of Libby Prison there were a number of sick ones, who were cared for by Union people, and will eventually reach the Union lines through their aid.

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