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A Florida boy's experience in prison and in escaping.

Henry G. Damon.
On the 19th of June, 1864, I became an inmate of Rock Island prison, having been captured June 12th, at Cynthiana, in the last battle fought by Morgan on Kentucky soil—a battle that crowned with disaster a raid which, up to that time, had succeeded beyond every anticipation. We were so completely outnumbered, that it was hardly a battle. The enemy approached us in front, and flanked us right and left. In a few minutes the fight became a rout, and our men were flying in every direction. About two hundred and fifty were captured, a few of whom were taken to Camp Chase, some to Camp Morton, and the remainder to Rock Island.

Rock Island prison, located on an island in the Mississippi, between the towns of Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois, was perhaps the strongest prison in the West. It was a large, rectangular pen, covering about twenty-five acres, and containing one hundred and twenty barracks, each having berths for one hundred and twenty men. A fence twelve feet high surrounded the prison yard. Inside and fifteen feet from the fence was a ditch from three to ten feet deep, dug down to solid rock, to prevent prisoners from tunnelling. The ditch was the dead line. We were commanded not to get in it, or cross it, on penalty of being shot. Guards paced the fence at short intervals, and overlooked the prison yard. For further security, the yard was illuminated every night by large kerosene lamps with reflectors, which were placed against the fence. [396]

These precautions made escape so hazardous that an attempt was seldom made, and very few of those who tried succeeded. The favorite method for a time was tunnelling, but after the ditch was dug, efforts in that direction ceased. Bribery opened the gates to a few who were so fortunate as to have money, and the shrewdness to use it rightly. Plans of escape were continually formed, but none would bear the test of an attempt, and so as day after day passed by, the stern conviction forced itself upon each one of the new comers that they would have to remain there until the war ended — the old prisoners had already resigned themselves to that prospect.

Three months of prison life satisfied me that I could not stand a winter there. I was only a boy of eighteen. A month's sickness had reduced me almost to a skeleton. My weight was probably not more than ninety pounds. There was no prospect of gaining strength, for the scanty rations barely sustained life; did not for a moment satisfy the cravings of hunger. A pone of bread so small that it could be squeezed into a pint cup, and a piece of beef three inches long and one inch thick, constituted the daily ration; occasionally, but not oftener than three times a week, a pint of soup was added. We were always as hungry as ravenous wolves. There was such a craving for food that we would eat the young hickory-nuts growing in the yard—hull, shell, and all. After my recovery from sickness, I was hungry every moment I was in prison, and thousands of men were there who had been in that condition over twelve months. It is terrible to have a continual, unappeased craving for food. No one knows what suffering it is, save those who have experienced it.

My constant thought was how to escape. Tunneling was out of the question, and no other plan seemed feasible. One evening a few of us were walking in the prison-yard, and stopped near the ditch, opposite the large gate constituting the main entrance. For some reason, which we never pondered, the sentinels on that side of the fence were not so numerous as elsewhere. There were only six on the whole side-three on each side of the gate, and the two nearest the gate had beats fully one hundred feet long. Observing that while walking their beats they at one time had their backs turned to each other, with quite a long distance between them, one of our crowd, Buck Alexander, one of Morgan's most gallant soldiers, exclaimed: ‘There's a good chance to get to the fence, and I believe I will try it.’ My heart sank when he uttered the last words, for nothing seemed easier, and I knew that not more than one could make the venture. The next day nothing was said about it. The day after I [397] asked Buck if he was still in the notion of going to the fence. He answered, ‘No.’ I resolved then to try it. That evening, September 19th, at dusk, and before the bugler had sounded the signal for prisoners to retire to their quarters, a few friends, with myself, leisurely sauntered about the yard, and finally stopped near the ditch, opposite the gate. As soon as the sentinels opposite had their backs turned—one going up, the other down the fence—I jumped into the ditch. I did not then attempt to go further, but, closely hugging the opposite bank, dug holes for my hands and feet, so when the time came there would be no delay in getting out. Presently ‘Annie Laurie’ was whistled. It was the signal agreed upon. By it I knew that the sentinels were relatively in the same positions. Without hesitating a moment, I clambered out of the ditch and ran to the fence. A friendly wheelbarrow was near, which I had calculated on making use of. To my consternation, it was so low I could barely lie flat under it. It was impossible to stay under it and work. However, I placed it against the fence, and then commenced with a caseknife to dig. When the sentinel above approached (I could plainly hear every step), I crawled under the wheelbarrow. It did not afford much protection, only covering my body. He or any sentinel up or down the fence could easily have seen me, for I was not more than fifteen feet from a lamp that shed the brightness of day all around.

At 8 o'clock the bugle warned prisoners to their barracks, and my work had just fairly begun. The friend who made the signal was to follow me, but after the bugle sounded I knew there was no chance for him. The prisoners retired to their quarters, and soon no sound was to be heard except the tread of the sentinels above.

It did not take me long to dig the hole; a very small one was sufficient. In a few minutes it was completed, and I squeezed through. The danger outside was as great as that I had already encountered. True, I was beneath the platform on which the sentinels walked, but the guard-house was just in front; a large lamp was burning near it; the fence was whitewashed, and a soldier was walking by, not more than ten feet away. I laid still until he passed, and then, as fast as possible, crawled down the fence. There was no sense in trying to creep where there was so much light. Soon I came to a large bush, behind which I hid. At 9 o'clock tattoo was beat. The soldiers retired to their quarters; the last straggler soon passed by, and silence reigned supreme.

The next difficulty was to get away from the fence. I crawled further, until I came to a point beneath two sentinels, who were conversing. [398] I knew they would not stay together long. Presently they separated. When a short distance apart, I stepped out. The noise of the stones crunching under my feet was heard by one, who stopped, looked at me, and took his gun from his shoulder. My heart beat a reveille. It seemed as if my hopes were to be frustrated in the very moment of success. However, I kept evenly on, occasionally glancing over my left shoulder at the sentinel. He seemed to change his mind, replaced his gun, and resumed his walk. A half-hour's walk brought me to the river, on the eastern shore of the island. Pulling off my clothes and tying them in a bundle, I started in, expecting to have to swim; but fortunately the river was not deep, and 1 waded across. Having gained the other shore, I started up the railroad for Chicago. By morning the first station, a distance of twelve miles, was reached. I concealed myself during the day in some high bushes on the prairie, and at night walked into the station. A freight train was about to start. As it moved off I climbed up between two box-cars, and the next morning was in Chicago.

Before leaving the prison a comrade told me to go to Mrs. Morris for help if I succeeded in reaching Chicago. The address he gave me was incorrect, but by the merest accident I found her. I shall never forget her kind, sympathizing face as I told my tale. A nobler woman never lived, and hundreds of Dixie boys whom she assisted, and whose wants she relieved, will ever hold her in grateful remembrance. She gave me money, and advised me to go to Marshall, Ill., where I would find Captain Castleman, to whose company I belonged, and other Confederate soldiers, most of whom also belonged to Morgan's command. I left Chicago that evening, arriving the next day at Marshall, where, to my surprise, I found, comfortably established at the leading hotel, several of my comrades from whom I had parted at Cynthiana.

I do not know whether or not the history of the part played by the Confederate soldiers in Illinois and southern Indiana, in the summer and fall of 1864, has ever been written. Strange as it may appear, some of our men were to be found in several towns, mingling freely with the people, to a large number of whom their purposes were known. Under the directions of Castleman and Hines (the latter a member of Morgan's staff), they were quietly organizing the disaffected element into a force with which they expected to pounce upon Chicago or Indianapolis, or perhaps both, release the Confederate prisoners, and then, joined by a volunteer force from Kentucky, make such a demonstration as would cause Thomas to retreat [399] from Nashville. Whether or not their plans were well laid, it is impossible to say. Treachery in the camp and the arrest of Castleman prevented their trial. His arrest was a pure accident. On the 29th of September, having to attend an organization at Evansville, Indiana, he left Marshal, accompanied by Lieutenant Munford, an officer of a Tennessee regiment, and myself. At Sullivan, a little town on the Wabash, we saw a great many excited people. They eyed us suspiciously, and finally arrested us. We then learned that a band of scoundrels had for some months been stealing horses and committing other depredations in that vicinity. The officers of the law were supposed to be in league with them. The citizens finally organized a vigilance committee, and arrested every suspicious character. We happened along, and they arrested us. An examination of Castleman's valise, which contained some of his correspondence, soon convinced them that we were more dangerous characters than horse thieves. Soldiers were telegraphed for, and that night found us quartered under a strong guard at Indianapolis. Before we left Sullivan, and once afterwards, Castleman could easily have escaped, but not being able to get Munford and myself off with him, chose to stay and share our confinement. In the course of the next three weeks the authorities discovered who Castleman was, and ferreted out some of his projects. He and Munford were accordingly kept in close confinement, and I being merely an escaped prisoner and not of any importance, was placed with the common herd in Camp Morton.

The general plan of camp Morton was the same as that of Rock Island. It was not near so neat however, nor were the accommodations as good. The barracks were very large, each being made to contain five hundred men, and were without floors. My recollection is that they had no doors, but I am not certain on that point. They were undoubtedly however well ventilated, the cracks in the walls being plentiful and conveniently arranged to let in the winter blasts. There were twelve barracks; the prison being made to contain six thousand men. The rations were as scanty as at Rock Island, and the prisoners were as emaciated, gaunt, and hungry as those I had left.

As soon as I had become accustomed to my new quarters, and had answered the many questions that my old comrades (for many of Morgan's men were there) propounded, I took a tour of observation for the purpose of discovering what vulnerable points, if any, there were. The prison did not seem to be so well guarded as Rock Island, and I soon came to a spot where it seemed to me I could dig [400] under. I communicated my hopes to one of my messmates, Dave ——I forget his last name, but he was a gallant boy, and the first dark night we made the attempt. It was unsuccessful. We were caught, our hands tied behind us, the rope attached to a lamp post, so the sentinel on the fence in the rear could have us in full view, and we were ordered to mark time. It was 9 o'clock when our monotonous tramp began. We heard the sentinels call every hour that night, and when the sun rose, we were still at our unceasing task. At nine in the morning, the adjutant of the prison guard, Davidson, a man whose memory will be held infamous by every prisoner whose misfortune it was to be confined in Camp Morton, came out to amuse himself by taunting us and making sport of our misery. This odious, despicable wretch was of the sort that power developes into Neros and Caligulas. He loved cruelty for its own sake. The moaning of a tortured victim was music to his ear. For the slightest offence he had prisoners tied up by the thumbs (one poor fellow was tied eleven hours, and not cut down until he fainted). I was told that the preceding winter, when half-frozen prisoners sometimes huddled together for increased warmth, he would rush upon the crowd, with some of his guard, and beat them with clubs, pretending to believe that they were plotting to escape. Many bruised and broken limbs testified to these outrages.

At 12 o'clock, after fifteen hours of punishment, he untied us. We were ready to drop from exhaustion. I could hardly bring my arms back to their natural position, they were so numb and swollen. Marking time was a terrible punishment, but it was nothing compared to the excruciating agony caused by having our hands tied so long behind us. My comrade was sent back to his quarters, but I was carried to a guard-house outside, and the corporal in charge instructed to keep me in solitary confinement and feed me on bread and water. Being a humane man, he disobeyed instructions, and my fare was better than at any time during my stay in prison.

Thursday, two weeks afterward, Davidson came and marched me back to the prison-yard, remarking as he parted from me at the gate, ‘I don't think you will try to escape again, if you do, look out!’ The next Monday evening (November 14th), as I was sitting in my bunk, getting ready for bed, one of the men came in and said: ‘Damon, I just saw a crowd with ladders going across the yard towards No. 4, I reckon they are going to make a charge.’ Instantly I jumped to the ground, and calling out, ‘Come on, boys,’ started to [401] the door. I stopped when I got there, and turned around. Not a man had stirred. ‘Are you not coming?’ said I. Some one answered: ‘No use! It's been tried before! You will all get killed.’ There was no time to waste in trying to persuade them. I turned and ran towards No. 4.

No. 4 was a large barrack on the north side of the prison, about ten feet from the ditch. The crowd, as if to nerve themselves for their desperate effort, had made a temporary halt behind it. There seemed to be about sixty men. A few in front, with ladders in their hands, were crying out, ‘Come on, boys!’ but holding back, whilst those behind, in most determined tones, yelled, ‘Go ahead, boys!’ It was natural for the front rank to hesitate. They were to catch the fire, and it seemed certain death to the foremost. All this I took in before I got there. I said to myself, ‘They only want some one to lead them, and I will do it.’ That honor, however, was not reserved for me. I was within ten steps of the front, when the whole crowd, as if actuated by one impulse, rushed forward. Into the ditch we went, regardless of the volley fired at us, and up on the other side. There, planting our ladders against the fence, we almost flew over. After firing one volley, which seemed to miss us all, as no one fell, the guard scattered. When the foremost man reached the top only one sentinel was left, and he appeared to be too frightened to run. The whole prisonful could have gone out at that gap.

Outside we all scattered. A corn-field was to be traversed, and beyond that was timber. On reaching it I turned obliquely to the left, ran in that direction a few minutes, then made another left turn, and soon came to a road some distance west from the prison. Following this, a few minutes's walk carried me into Indianapolis, and then I felt safe. I was now south of the prison. The pursuit would naturally be on the north side. I had no fear of being arrested. I wore a nice citizen's suit generously given me by a comrade in Marshall. Moreover, I was small for my age, and could easily have passed for a boy of fifteen. No one would have suspected me of being an escaped prisoner.

All that night and the next day I walked on the railroad leading to Terre Haute. My destination was Marshall, Ill., ninety miles west from Indianapolis, where I arrived Thursday night. The Confederate boys were all gone. A traitor had betrayed their councils. Some had been arrested; the rest were scattered. A kind family of Southern sympathizers kept me with them two weeks, and then gave me money to carry me to Boone county, Ky. There I found a [402] squad, who, under Captain Wainwright, one of Duke's recruiting officers, were about to start for West Virginia. I joined them. Christmas week we crossed the line, and early in January I was with my brigade.

Henry G. Damon.

Corsicana, Texas.

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