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Escape of prisoners from Johnson's Island.

In an interesting article by Lieutenant J. H. Carpenter, of New Orleans, La., on Prison Life on Johnson's Island, in the Century Magazine for April, 1891, he makes the statement that the prison was so isolated and so well guarded that notwithstanding repeated efforts of the more daring spirits confined there to secure their liberty, not a single escape occurred during the war. This has been proven to be a mistake. Lieutenant T. E. Fell, of Newnan, Georgia, in a communication dated April 5, 1891, and published in the Newnan Herald, gives his personal knowledge of the escape of Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy, of Alabama. Kennedy was ‘a perfect daredevil, and no situation, however perilous, seemed to daunt his courage.’ Captain Kennedy's escape and subsequent recapture, conviction by a court martial and final execution, are thus described:

Few officers of inferior rank figured more conspicuously during the late war than Captain Robert Cobb Kennedy. His career was short, thrilling, full of daring, and its final end closed very sad. Captain Kennedy was, we believe, a Georgian by birth, and a distant relative of one of Georgia's most distinguished sons, Howell Cobb. He entered the Confederate service in the early part of the war, and was captured near Decatur, Ala., whence he was carried a prisoner of war to Johnson's Island. It was there the writer first knew him. Of his services in the field we knew but little, and this brief sketch is written in the hope that some of his family or friends will give us a more complete history.

Soon after his imprisonment he commenced devising means of escape, and made several unsuccessful attempts. He finally succeeded, [429] by long, weary nights of unceasing toil, in tunneling under a deep ditch and the parapets of the prison, eluded the vigilance of the guards, stole one of the officers' boots, and escaped to the opposite shore.

He made his way through the country on foot, travelling most of the time in the night. He finally crossed at Buffalo into Canada and joined the faithful band of exiles and escaped Confederates who had taken refuge within her borders. Soon afterwards he joined the secret expedition to New York, was followed on his return by a detective, who kept close watch on his movements, and after crossing the border the detective was satisfied he was one of the party engaged in the attempt to burn New York city. Captain Kennedy resolved shortly thereafter to return to the Confederate lines. All preparations were made, but he had no sooner crossed the line than he was arrested by the United States detective who had been watching his movements all the while. He made a terrible resistance, but was finely overpowered, placed in irons, and carried to New York. On the way he attempted to escape by jumping through the car window, although heavily ironed, and the train in motion. Nothing seemed capable of subduing his courage or restraining his rage against his enemies. Holding up his shackled arms he told the passengers on the train that he considered “these irons ornaments,” and “he was proud to wear them for the cause he loved.” He was tried in New York, condemned as a spy, and executed some time during the latter part of 1864. We saw a letter from him a short time before his execution. Speaking of his approaching doom, he said that “he expected to die like a man,” but “death was a leap in the dark.” He died as he had lived, believing in the justness of our cause, and sacrificed his life for his country's good.

There also appeared in the Richmond State of April 13, 1891, a correction of the assertion of Lieutenant Carpenter. The article in the State, while correct in the main facts stated, was erroneous in some of its details. The prison was enclosed by a high fence (about sixteen feet), near the top of which was a parapet for the guards to walk upon, and from which they could overlook the prison enclosure. At intervals there were sentry boxes in which the guards could protect themselves from the cold and storms. The night of December 31, 1863, was intensely cold, as stated in the Sandusky papers, the coldest ‘in the memory of the oldest inhabitant.’ By 10 o'clock that night Lake Erie was frozen over to the main-land. There were no guards on duty within the prison. There were only the benumbed [430] and head-muffled sentinels of the parapet. The opportunity seemed an auspicious one to the starving and restless spirits fretting in galling durance. A number of them resolved to attempt to escape by scaling the enclosure and crossing the lake on the ice. Among them was Captain (subsequently Major) Waller M. Boyd, of the Nineteenth Virginia infantry, who has given some of the information here embodied. He was not well, and found himself unequal to the endurance involved. His bunk mate, Captain T. Herbert Davis, however, was one of those who was successful in the desperate undertaking. A scaling ladder, from portions of the enclosure was improvised, and with its aid, as well protected from the cold as their scant resources of clothing afforded, the following gallant spirits, at about 9:30 o'clock P. M., a half an hour after the sounding of taps, successfully scaled the wooden walls: Colonel John R. Winston, Fortyfifth North Carolina infantry; Captain Charles C. Robinson, Ninth Virginia cavalry; Captain T. Herbert Davis, First Virginia infantry; Dr. Luke P. Blackburn, chief surgeon of the division of Sterling Price, of Missouri, and George Young and E. T. Osborne, of Morgan's cavalry. They lowered themselves on the outside with a rope improvised of their blankets. The scaling ladder, at great personal risk, was taken away by an inside comrade after having subserved its purpose, that the escape might not be immediately discovered by the sentinels. The fugitives crossed the lake on the ice, reaching the Canadian shore early the following morning. Here they appropriated the horses of a farmer and made their way to Toronto, and later to Montreal. At the latter place they were photographed in a group, and a copy of this picture, presented to him by his relative, Captain T. Herbert Davis, is now in the possession of Lieutenant Charles G. Bosher, of the Richmond Howitzers, a member of the firm of Messrs. R. H. Bosher's Sons. At Montreal the fugitives were duly supplied with money by Hon. James P. Holcombe, Confederate States Commissioner. They made their way to Nassau, from whence they ran the blockade, coming into the port of Wilmington, North Carolina. Their suffering from the cold in crossing the lake was great, and several of them narrowly escaped the loss of their hands and feet from frost bite.

Captain Davis was a native of Richmond, Virginia, and was the son of William H. Davis, long a successful coal-dealer who lost his life in the capitol disaster—the falling through of the floor of the Court of Appeals—during the contest of the late Hon. Henry K. Ellyson for the post of mayor—April 27, 1870. [431]

Captain Davis enlisted in Company B., First Virginia Infantry, Captain James K. Lee, April 21, 1861. He was soon afterwards promoted to sergeant and served as such at the first battle of Manassas. In September following, he was made first lieutenant of his company and on the 26th of April, 1862, after the death of Captain Lee, succeeded him in the command. At the second battle of Manassas he was wounded, taken prisoner and carried to Johnson's Island. Captain Davis, after returning to his command, was again taken prisoner at Sailor's creek, and a second time incarcerated on Johnson's Island. After the war he went with Major J. B. Ficklen to San Antonio, Texas, and with him established a transportation line which was operated by them for several years. He finally died with yellow fever and is buried in San Antonio.

Officer Logan S. Robins of the police force of Richmond served under Captain Davis as first lieutenant of Company B. and is cognizant of the facts herein given. Johnson's Island is distant from Sandusky about two miles, and from the Canada shore about eight miles.

A memorial of the prison, 1862-1864, with a view of the prison, list of the prisoners, and various effusions from their pens, is given in Volume VI, Virginia Historical Collections. New Series. 1887.

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