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Lieutenant Charlie Pierce's daring attempts to escape from Johnson's Island.

By Lieutenant M. Mcnamara.
Early in November, 1863, after General Lee had successfully driven Meade across the Rapidan back to Centreville, and retired with his entire force south of the Rappahannock for the purpose of going into winter quarters, Hays' brigade was sent to picket the north bank at Rappahannock station. Here they were reinforced by the Louisiana Guard battery and a portion of General Hoke's North Carolina brigade.

After being on duty a day, a forward movement was made by the enemy in that direction, and French's entire corps, under Sedgwick, bore down upon them. The onslaught was terrific — the enemy being ten to one--but the gallant brigade held them in check until night, when their lines were broken and they were cut off from their only pontoon bridge. The Rappahannock was at that point not fordable, and the night was intensely cold; so that their capture was inevitable. Nevertheless, they resisted to the last.

The Louisiana Guard battery discharged their pieces when the enemy were upon them, and two of their number were bayoneted at the guns. Many of the officers threw away their swords to avoid surrendering them, and Lieutenant Charlie Pierce, of the Seventh Louisiana, broke his sword on his knee and handed the hilt to the officer — the effect of which can easily be imagined. The weapon was a highly prized one, being a trophy of the battle of Winchester. General Harry T. Hays ran the gauntlet of the pontoon bridge under an enfilading fire of the enemy. Colonel [62] Monaghan swam his horse across the river. Colonel Terry and a few others successfully swam across, but many lost their lives in the attempt. Leon Bertin, the color-bearer of the Seventh Louisiana, tore the flag from the staff and concealed it in his bosom. In fact, everything possible was done by the gallant fellows to render their capture as barren of trophies as possible, while in point of casualties it was a dearly-bought victory for the enemy.

The entire force captured numbered about fourteen hundred men, consisting of the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Louisiana regiments, the Louisiana Guard battery, and about two hundred of Hoke's North Carolina brigade.

The capture was witnessed from the south bank by Generals Lee and Early, who accepted it as a sacrifice that had to be made, and under its cover successfully retired the remainder of the army across the Rapidan.

But the writer's mission is to record the daring and chivalric deeds of a member of the command that surrendered. The captured prisoners were marched to General Sedgwick's headquarters,. and when assembled around the camp-fire at night, surrounded by Federal pickets, Leon Bertin, by the advice of Colonel D. B. Penn, the only field officer captured, threw the flag into the flames, as the most effectual means of preventing it from falling into the enemy's hands.

The following morning the prisoners were taken to the Old Capitol prison, where they were confined three days, when the officers were sent to Johnson's Island and the privates to Point Lookout.

As soon as the captured officers reached their future prisons, the bouyancy of their natures asserted itself, and during the winter months every species of amusement possible was indulged in to drive away the ennui and render prison life bearable.

A minstrel company was formed, of which Charlie H. Pierce was among the leading performers, and their entertainments were witnessed and appreciated by many outside as well as inside the prison, and by none more eagerly than the officers of the garrison, who invariably assembled to witness them.

They also organized base-ball clubs — the Southern nine, composed of those below the rank of captain — of which Charlie Pierce was captain and catcher, and the Confederate nine, composed of the higher officers. Their championship game was considered one of the best ever played, and was witnessed by upwards of 3,000 [63] people, including the prisoners, officers and citizens of Sandusky, Ohio, who eagerly embraced the opportunity to be present. So apprehensive were the prison officials that the game was gotten up for the purpose of covering an attempt to break out, that they had the slides of the port holes drawn back and the guns prepared for action. The Sandusky Register published a long and eulogistic account of the game, which was won by the Southerns, and it was made the subject of severe comment by the bitter Radical press of the North, who immediately demanded the removal of the commanding officer, for allowing the Rebels so much liberty. Their malicious efforts were successful, the commander was removed, and the amusement of the unhappy prisoners, for the time being, cut off.

In all the prison sports, Lieutenant Charlie Pierce was regarded as the leader. His versatile talent, genial humor, sterling manhood and undoubted bravery, together with his kindness of heart, endeared him to all, and even commanded the respect of his captors. But his notoriety and popularity proved disastrous to his future operations, as he was known and constantly watched by the prison spies.

Johnson's Island, it will be rembered, is three miles from Sandusky, Ohio, and about thirty miles from the Canada shore. There is, however, a strip of land twelve miles from the prison, leading to a swamp or woods on the Canada side.

The severity of the wintry season being past, the minds of many of the prisoners naturally reverted to attempts to escape, and no one was more bent on it than the heroic and daring Charlie Pierce. A tunnel had been commenced from Block 8, but the project was deemed abortive, owing to its long distance from the dead-line, and abandoned. Charlie then transferred his operations to Block 1, where he soon organized a working party, who succeeded, by incessant labor, in completing a tunnel to the extreme end of the works. But, alas! for human expectations, when the attempt was made to pass out, they were pounced upon by a guard, and their hopes blasted. Thus ended the first attempt.

On a less active and vigorous mind, such a signal failure would have had a paralyzing effect. But it only aroused the ambition of our hero to succeed at all hazards, and his thoughts were instantly turned to some plan for the future.

An opportunity soon presented itself, which he eagerly seized. One morning the offal cart was driven in by a soldier under the [64] influence of liquor, who lay down in Charlie's block while the cart was being filled. Charlie succeeded in securing his overcoat and cap. Quick as thought, he jumped upon the driver's seat, seized the reins, drove out the cart, passed the sentinels at the gate, who opened it for his egress, and got beyond the parapet, imagining himself at last free. But the condition of the soldier being discovered by the prison guard, a hue and cry was raised, the ruse detected, and a squad sent in pursuit of the fugitive, who was soon overtaken, and the intrepid Charlie was brought back to his prison quarters.

This daring attempt led to increased vigilance on the part of the sentinels, and rendered our hero an object to be watched and dreaded. But his darling object was not to be abandoned, and his third attempt exceeded the previous ones in strategy and execution.

With a chosen few, he conceived the project of scaling the parapet, attacking the sentinels with rocks, and breaking for the Canadian shore, the lake being frozen over.

Scaling ladders were made as secretly as possible, and a bright moonlight night selected for the attempt. There was only one pistol obtainable, and this fell, by lot, to the possession of Lieutenant Wheeler, of Morgan's cavalry. The others armed themselves with rocks. Lieutenants Pierce, Wheeler and J. B. Bowles, of Louisville, Kentucky, were the first to get their ladders in position and attempt the ascent. Our hero, however, was the only one who gained the parapet. A rock in his hand was as true as a rifle ball, thanks to his base-ball experience. With it he felled the sentinel. His cousin, Lieutenant Bowles was shot on the ladder, and his body fell inside. His dying words to Charlie were to push on, and leave him to his fate. Lieutenant Wheeler and the sentinel in front of him fired at each other simultaneously, and singularly both missed, when the Lieutenant slid down to avoid a second shot, he having no other means of defence. Lieutenant Pierce speedily pursued his way over the natural bridge of ice on the lake, under a constant fire from the sentinels, until he got beyond the range of their guns. At the same time the guns of the fort opened with solid shot, for the purpose of breaking the ice, while the signal guns could be heard for miles around booming on the still air. Unheeding the cold, for his heart beat high at the prospect of once more being with his comrades in the field, and proving with his sword the faith that was in him, he gained the strip of land twelve miles distant, and pursued his way through the woods until daylight, [65] when he was halted by some farmers, with shot-guns in close proximity to his body. Those fellows, when aroused by the alarm guns, were ever on the alert to capture an escaping prisoner, and claim the reward. They had no ordinary one in Charlie Pierce, and hungry, chilled and foot-sore, he was speedily marched back to his old quarters. The gallant fellow often said that he felt more chagrined and discouraged at being brought back by civilians than if captured by regular soldiers. But his fortitude soon returned, and his mind constantly dwelt upon the one darling object of escape.

It is not to be wondered at that Charlie now became an object of the strictest surveillance on the part of every agent of the enemy. His every movement was watched, so that his sole reliance was upon strategy for his fourth attempt.

Procuring a Federal uniform (it was supposed from some one connected with the hospital), he carefully concealed it in his bunk. With a piece of wood, of which there was plenty, he manufactured a gun-stock; with a lot of fruit cans, which he procured from the hospital, he manufactured a barrel, and a piece of the handle of a camp-kettle was wrought into a lock. After five months incessant labor, he completed his task, and during that time he was exceedingly reticent, confining himself to his bunk as much as possible, keeping his own counsel, like a good general, but working like a beaver. As a piece of workmanship, it was pronounced by all who saw it a marvel of mechanical ingenuity and skill. He was fortunate enough to find an old, rusty bayonet, which he soon made look like polished steel, and how he stained the gun to make it look real no one but himself knew; but that it did look so the sequel will show. Having everything in readiness, how put them to use? The guard must be brought into the block at night, so that he could fall in with the men and march out with them. Confiding his intention to only a trusted few of his mess-mates, he requested Lieutenant Michael Long (now living in New Orleans) to inform the guard that an attempt would be made to break out that night from Block 8. The Lieutenant was thanked for the information; the sentinel called, “Corporal of the guard” ; the Corporal carried the information to the Officer of the Guard; the guard was doubled for the emergency, and an inspecting party was soon going the round of the prison. While passing through Block 8, Charlie, with his Federal uniform and improvised gun, quietly fell in with them. Not finding any thing suspicious in that block, they [66] were marched out. All the other blocks were visited without any discoveries being made. The guard was then formed in line for inspection. The Lieutenant in command, examining the accoutrements of the men, discovered that Charlie had no cartridge box, when the following dialogue took place:

Lieutenant of the Guard--How is it, sir, that you have no cartridge box?

Charlie--Well, Lieutenant, we fell in outside in such a hurry, I declare I forgot it.

Lieutenant — Well, you are a fine soldier! no cartridge box! Suppose the Rebels were to attack us while we are in here among them? Let me see your gun, sir!

Then the Lieutenant proceeded to an inspection of arms, still upbraiding the delinquent soldier.

Charlie seeing this his last effort was defeated, straightened himself, brought his gun to “inspection arms,” in true military style, and passed it to the officer. Of course, its weight told the tale. The ruse was discovered, and by neglecting the cartridge-box, the easiest of all to make, our hero was again defeated in his plans. By permission of the Lieutenant, however, he was allowed to make the experiment of passing the sentinel at the gate, which he did without eliciting any surprise. He was then taken before Colonel Charles W. Hill, of the 112th Ohio, then commandant of the prison at Johnson's Island, who showed himself a humane and considerate officer, and who frankly admitted the prisoner's right to attempt to escape, complimented him on his courage and strategy, and condemned him to no other puishment than the removal of his disguises and his money, but insisted on keeping his gun, which he deemed a fit trophy to be placed among the archives of the State of Ohio, where it is at present.

Charlie was then sent back to his quarters to brood in sorrow over his several failures, notwithstanding the indomitable courage, the strategy, the energy and the patience with which he prosecuted them. So confident was his comrades that he had been successful in this last attempt, that they prepared his bunk to lead the sentinel to believe that he was still there, and were ready to vouch for his sickness at roll-call the following morning. But vain hope, when roll-call came, the intrepid Pierce was there to answer for himself, and there he remained until paroled with the others at the close of the war.

Arriving at his home in New Orleans, like all true soldiers, he [67] accepted the situation as best he could, and pursued the even tenor of his way.

But the gallant spirit that could never bend to the enemy had to succumb to the yellow monster in 1867, at the age of twenty-six years, and his remains now rest, with the dust of many of his former comrades, in Greenwood Cemetery.

The brilliant record of Hays' brigade will show no name more fit to adorn the niche of fame than that of Lieutenant Charles Hatch Pierce.

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