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Sunday, February 5, 2017


Under the cover of darkness in February, 1864, more than 100 Union soldiers broke out of Libby Prison (pictured) in the heart of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. Though many were recaptured and a few died in their attempt.
         Author Isaac N. Johnston, a captain in the U.S. Army, was one of the successful escapees.  The daring effort remains the largest prison escape of the Civil War.
Image: Alexander Gardner, 1865.

By Captain Isaac N. Johnston, Company H, Sixth Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, United States Army.  Source:
This excerpt is from the public domain via Gutenberg E-books.  For the complete work click “"Four Months in Libby.”

Chapter Four / Tunnels of Failure
During our trip from Chickamauga to Richmond in the Fall of 1863, the weather was clear and beautiful, but the nights were cold, and many of us, having lost our blankets, suffered much; for, in addition to the want of our usual covering, we were hungry nearly all the time.

Many of the cities and towns through which we passed presented a pleasing appearance; but the country, for the most part, had a desolate look; few men were to be seen, save such as were too old for service, and the farming operations bore marks of neither care nor skill.

Published in December 1864

The officer who had the prisoners in charge was kind and gentlemanly, and rendered our situation as agreeable as was possible under the circumstances; that we suffered for food was no fault of his, and when we were turned over to the authorities at Richmond we parted from him with a feeling akin to regret.

All the private soldiers were sent to Belle Isle, a place, which has become infamous on account of the cruel treatment to which they were subjected; but the officers had quarters assigned them in Libby Prison.

Before being shown to our apartments we were requested to give up our money and valuables, under the assurance that they should be returned when we were exchanged; at the same time we were given to understand that we should be searched, and whatever was then found in our possession would be confiscated.

Nearly all gave up what they had; some secreted a portion, which was found to be clear gain, as those of us who escaped had not time to call for our money and watches before leaving for the Federal lines.

This now world-famous building presents none of the outward characteristics of a prison, having been used in peaceful days as a warehouse; but none of the castles and dungeons of Europe, century old though they be, have a stranger or sadder history than this.

There many a heart has been wrung, many a spirit broken, many a noble soul has there breathed out its last sigh, and hundreds who yet survive will shrink in their dreams, or shudder in their waking moments, when faithful memory brings back the scenes enacted within its fearful walls.

The building is of brick, with a front of near one hundred and forty feet, and one hundred feet deep. It is divided into nine rooms; the ceilings are low, and ventilation imperfect; the windows are barred, through which the windings of James River and the tents of Belle Isle may be seen. Its immediate surroundings are far from being agreeable; the sentinels pacing the streets constantly are unpleasant reminders that your stay is not a matter of choice; and were it so, few would choose it long as a boarding-house.

In this building were crowded about one thousand officers of nearly every grade, not one of whom was permitted to go out till exchanged or released by death. To men accustomed to an active life this mode of existence soon became exceedingly irksome, and innumerable methods were soon devised to make the hours pass less wearily.

A penknife was made to do the duty of a complete set of tools, and it was marvelous to see the wonders achieved by that single instrument. Bone-work of strange device, and carving most elaborate, chessmen, spoons, pipes, all manner of articles, useful and ornamental, were fashioned by its aid alone. If a man's early education had been neglected, ample opportunities were now afforded to become a proficient scholar. The higher branches of learning had their professor; the languages, ancient and modern, were taught; mathematics received much attention; morals and religion were cared for in Bible classes, while the ornamental branches, such as dancing, vocal music, and sword exercise, had had their teachers and pupils.

Indeed, few colleges in the land could boast of a faculty so large in number or varied in accomplishments, and none, certainly, could compare in the number of pupils.

But truth must be told; the minds of many of those grown-up, and, in some instances, gray-headed pupils, were not always with their books; their minds, when children, wandered from the page before them to the green fields, to streams abounding in fish, or pleasant for bathing; or to orchards, with fruit most inviting; but now the mind wandered in one direction—home.

Others were deeply engaged in the mysteries of "poker" and "seven-up," and betting ran high; but they were bets involving neither loss or gain, and the winner of countless sums would often borrow a teaspoon full of salt or a pinch of pepper. Games of chess were played, which, judging from the wary and deliberate manner of the players, and the interest displayed by lookers-on, were as intricate and important as a military campaign; nor were the sports of children—jack-straws and mumble-peg—wanting; every device, serious and silly, was employed to hasten the slow hours along.

But amid all these various occupations, there was one that took the precedence and absorbed all others—that was planning an escape. The exploits of Jack Sheppard, Baron Trenck, and the hero of Monte Cristo were seriously considered, and plans superior to theirs concocted, some of them characterized by skill and cunning, others by the energy of despair.

Period diagram of successful Libby Prison escape route, February 1864.

One of these was as follows: After the arrival of the Chickamauga prisoners, a plot was made which embraced the escape of all confined in Libby, and the release of all the prisoners in and about Richmond. The leader in this enterprise was a man of cool purpose and great daring; and success, I doubt not, would have attended the effort had it not been that we had traitors in our midst who put the rebel authorities on the alert only a few days before the attempt was to have been made.

Prisoners, it is true, have no right to expect abundant and delicious fare; but when the rations served out to rebel prisoners in our hands are compared with the stinted and disgusting allowance of Union prisoners in rebel hands, a truly-generous and chivalrous people would blush at the contrast. It is not saying too much to assert that many of the rebel prisoners, from the poorer portions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi, have, at least, as good fare, and as much of it, as they ever enjoyed at home, and much better than the army rations which they were accustomed to before capture; while it is equally true that the Union prisoners have been compelled to subsist on a diet loathsome in quality, and in a quantity scarcely sufficient to support life.

True, it may be urged that the scarcity of provisions in Richmond, and elsewhere, rendered it out of the question to remedy this to any great extent; but all candid men will decide that no army could be kept, in the physical condition of Gen. Lee's, upon a Libby ration; and if such a miracle as that were possible, it would not justify the denial to prisoners of the Union army the provisions that the United States were ever ready to furnish their own men while prisoners in an enemy's hands, much less the appropriation of the stores sent to those sufferers by benevolent associations and sympathizing friends.

That vast quantities of food and clothing sent to our prisoners has been thus diverted from its object, is susceptible of the clearest proof. If it be asked, how can a people, professing to be civilized, act thus? The answer is simply, that the war, as far as the South is concerned, is a rebellion. The Libby ration nominally consisted of about ten ounces of corn bread—of meal just as it came from the mill—beef, and rice; but really less often than this; for it often took two rations of beef to make a single tolerable meal, and frequently we would fail to get any beef for from one to eight days; at such times we would receive sweet or Irish potatoes; and I state the case very mildly when I say the food was at all times insufficient.

Of wood for cooking purposes we had a very small allowance; and during the Christmas holidays we had to burn our tables in attempting to make palatable dishes out of very scanty and unpalatable materials. One thing, however, we did not lack; the James River was near at hand, and we had plenty of water; it was brought by means of pipes into each room; and had it possessed any very nutritious properties, we might have fattened.

I must do the officers of the prison the justice to say, that as long as we did not violate the rules of the house, they permitted us to enjoy ourselves in any way that suited our taste. Prayer meetings and debating societies were tolerated, laughter and song in certain hours were not prohibited, and bad as our condition was, it might have been even worse.

Our first plan of escape being thwarted, no time was lost in devising another, which, after many delays and interruptions of a very discouraging character, was finally crowned with success. Captain Hamilton, of the 12th Kentucky Cavalry, was the author of the plan, which he confided to Maj. Fitzsimmons, of the 30th Indiana, Capt. Gallagher, of the 2d Ohio, and a third person, whose name it would not be prudent to mention, as he was recaptured. I greatly regret to pass him by with this brief allusion, as he had a very prominent part in the work from the beginning, and deserves far more credit than I have language to express.

As this, however, is one of the most wonderful escapes on record, when its complete history is written he will not be forgotten. John Morgan's escape from the Ohio Penitentiary has been thought to have suggested our plan, and to have equaled it in ingenuity and risk. His difficulties, however, ended when he emerged from the tunnel by which he escaped, while ours may be said to have only begun when we reached the free air, and every step till we reached the Union lines was fraught with great danger.

After Capt. Hamilton's plans had been entrusted to and adopted by the gentlemen above named, a solemn pledge was taken to reveal them none of the others, and at an early date in December, 1863, the work was begun.

In order to a perfect understanding of it, a more minute description of the building is necessary. It is not far from 140 feet by 110, three stories high, and divided into three departments by heavy brick walls.

The divisions were occupied as follows: The two upper east rooms by the Potomac officers, the two middle upper rooms by those captured at Chickamauga, the two west upper rooms by the officers of Col. Streight's and Gen. Milroy's command; the lower room of the east division was used as a hospital, the lower middle room for a cook and dining-room, and the lower west is divided into several apartments which were occupied by the rebel officers in command.

There is also a cellar under each of these divisions; the east cellar was used for commissary stores, such as meal, turnips, fodder, and straw—the latter article was of vast benefit in effecting our escape. The rear and darker part of the middle cellar was cut up into cells, to which were consigned those of our number who were guilty of infractions of the rules of prison—dungeons dark and horrible beyond description.

The portion of it in front was used as a workshop, and the west cellar was used for cooking the rations of private soldiers who were confined in other buildings, and as quarters[58] for some negro captives who were kept to do the drudgery of the prison.

As the plan was to dig out, it became necessary to find a way into the east cellar, from which to begin our tunnel, which was accomplished as follows:

Near the north end of the dining room was a fireplace, around which three large cooking stoves were arranged. In this fireplace the work began. The bricks were skillfully taken out, and through this aperture a descent to the east cellar was effected.

This part of the work was entrusted to Captains Hamilton and Gallagher, who were both house-builders, and in their hands it was a perfect success. The only tools used were pocketknives; consequently their progress was slow, and 15 nights elapsed before the place was reached where the tunnel was to begin. The stoves mentioned above aided greatly in the prosecution of the work, screening the operators from observation. Immediately in front of them the prisoners had a dancing party nearly every night, and the light of their tallow candles made the stoves throw a dark shadow over the entrance to the newly-opened way to the cellar, and the mirth of the dancers drowned any slight noise that might be made by the working party.

Considerable skill was necessary in order to reach the cellar after the opening was made; and on one occasion one of the party stuck fast, and was released only by great efforts on the part of his associates.  Though fortunate enough to escape detection in this instance, and afterward to reach the free air, he was recaptured and taken back to a confinement more intolerable than before.

The cellar being reached, a thorough examination was made in order to decide upon a route, which would be most favorable for our escape; and it was determined to make an attempt in the rear of a cook-room, which was in the south-east corner of the cellar. The plan was to dig down and pass under the foundation, then change the direction and work parallel with the wall to a large sewer that passes down Canal-street, and from thence make our escape. The attempt was accordingly made; but it was soon discovered that the building rested upon ponderous oak timbers, below which they could not penetrate. Determined to succeed, they began the seemingly-hopeless task of cutting through these; pocket-knives and saws made out of case-knives were the only available tools; and when this, after much hard labor, was effected, they were met by an unforeseen and still more serious difficulty.

Water began to flow into the tunnel; a depth below the level of the canal had been reached, and sadly they were compelled to abandon the undertaking. A second effort was made; a tunnel was started in the rear of the cook-room mentioned above, intended to strike a small sewer which started from the south-east corner, and passing through the outer wall to the large sewer in front.

Some 16 or 18 feet brought the tunnel under a brick furnace, in which were built several large kettles used in making soup for prisoners. This partially caved in, and fear of discovery caused this route to be abandoned.

With a determination to succeed, which no difficulty could weaken or disappointment overcome, another attempt, far more difficult than the preceding, was made. A portion of the stone floor of the cook-room was taken up, and the place supplied by a neatly-fitting board, which could be easily removed; and through this the working party descended every night.

The plan was to escape by the sewer leading from the kitchen, but it was not large enough for a man to pass through; but as the route seemed preferable to any other, it was determined to remove the plank with which it was lined; and this out of the way, the tunnel or aperture would be sufficiently large.

The old knives and saws were called for, and the work of removing the plank was continued for several days with flattering success, till it was concluded that another hour's work would enable us to enter the large sewer in front, into which this led, and thus escape. So strong was the conviction that the work would be completed in a little time, that all who knew the work was going on made preparation to escape on the night of the 26th of January. After working on the night of the 25th, two men were left down in the cellar to cover up all traces of the work during the day, and as soon as it was dark to complete the work—to go into the large sewer, explore it, and have every thing ready by eight or nine o'clock, at which time the bricks would be removed from the hole leading into the cellar, which had to be placed carefully in their original position every night, from the beginning to the completion of the work.

When the last brick was removed, a rope ladder, which had been prepared for the occasion, was passed down and made fast to a bar of iron, placed across the front of the fireplace. Now came long moments of breathless silence and agonizing suspense, all waiting for the assurance from one of the men below that all was ready.

He came at last; but, alas! his first whisper was, "bad news, bad news;" and bad news, indeed, it proved. It was found that the remaining portion of the plank to be removed was oak, two inches thick, and impossible to be removed by the tools, which had heretofore been used; moreover, the water was rapidly finding its way into the tunnel, and all the labor expended had been in vain.

The feelings of that little band who can describe!—from hopes almost as bright as reality they were suddenly plunged into the depths of despair.

Nearly all the work above mentioned was performed by Captains Hamilton and Gallagher, Maj. Fitzsimmons, and another officer. As a natural consequence, they were worn-out by excessive labor, anxiety, and loss of sleep, that being the 39th night of unremitting toil. They were, however, still unconquered in spirit, and declared that another attempt must be made as soon as they were sufficiently recruited to enter upon it.
Noble fellows! Hard had they toiled for liberty, and it came at last.

Tunnel Notes:
All told, 109 men made that lonely crawl before the chimney hole was closed for the night.
         The escape was found out the next day at roll call. Cavalry, police, and bloodhounds were immediately sent out in search of the escaped men. At least four were recaptured the very next day, two captains and two lieutenants.
         Eventually the Confederates were able to recapture 52 of the Union officers, but 57 others safely reached Union lines. Captain Isaac N. Johnston was one of these lucky souls. He is listed as rejoining the 6th Kentucky before the war ended. 

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