THE ESCAPE FROM THE LIBBY.–

The
following is the account given by the Union officers, who succeeded in
reaching the Federal lines, after their escape from Richmond, in
February, 1864:

Over two months previous to the consummation of
their plan, 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 towards a sewer running into the basin. This they proposed
doing by commencing at a point in the cellar, near a 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 the prisoners who were in the secret, improvised a rope, and night
after night let work 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 so as not
to present too great a bulk. When the working party had got to a
considerable distance under ground, it was found difficult to haul the
dirt back by hand, and a spittoon, which had been furnished by 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 the dirt deposited under the straw. But,
after hard work, and digging, with finger nails, knives, and chisels, a
number of feet, the working party found themselves stopped by piles
driven into 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 tunnellers commenced again,
and in a few moments reached the sewer.

But here an unexpected
obstacle met their farther progress. The stench from the sewers 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
besides 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 out-house, 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 afterwards to be three
feet thick. The party were by no means daunted, and with penknives and
pocket-knives they commenced operations upon the stone and mortar.

After
nineteen days’ and nights’ hard work, they again struck the earth
beyond the wall and pushed their work forward. Here, too, (after they
had got some distance under ground,) the friendly spittoon was brought
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, Capt, 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 prisoners from the North, and
the recipients were often allowed to go, under guard, across the street
to secure their property. Capt. Gallagher was granted 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 some two or three feet yet outside the
fence.

The displacing of a stone made considerable noise, and
one of the sentinels called to hid 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. This hole was stopped
up by inserting into the crevice a pair of old pantaloons filled with
straw, and by bolstering the whole up with boards, which they secured
from the floors, &c., 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. One
hundred and nine of the prisoners decided to make the attempt to get
away. Others refused, fearing the consequences if they were recaptured;
and others yet (among whom were Gen. Neal Dow) declined to make the
attempt, because (as they said) they did not desire to have their
Government back down from its enunciated policy of exchange. Col. Rose,
of New York, Col. Kendrick, of Tenn., Capt. Jones, Lieut. Bradford, and
others, informed Gen. Dow that they could not see how making their
escape would affect the policy of exchange. Their principle was, that
it was their personal right to escape if they could, and their duty to
their Government to make the attempt.

About half past eight
o’clock on the evening of the 9th, the prisoners started out, Col.
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 was 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.

Col. W. P. Kendrick, of West Tennessee, Capt. D. J.
Jones, of the First Kentucky cavalry, and Lieut. R. Y. Bradford, of the
Second West Tennessee , were detailed as a rear-guard, or, rather, to
go out last; and from a window Col. K. and his companions could see the
fugitives walk out of a gate at the other end of the enclosure of the
carriage-house, and fearlessly move off. The aperture was so narrow
that but one man could get through at a time, and each squad carried
with them provisions in a haversack. At midnight a false alarm was
created, and the prisoners made considerable noise in getting to their
respective quarters. Providentially, however, the guard suspected
nothing wrong, and in a few moments the exodus was again commenced.
Col. 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 on the enclosure into the glare of the
gas-light. Many of them were, however, in citizens’ dress; and as all
the rebel guards wear 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 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 main force, and carried to places of
safety, until such time as they would be able to move on their journey.
At half past two o’clock, Capt. Jones, Col. Kendrick, and Lieut.
Bradford passed out in the order in which they are named; and as Col.
K. emerged from the hole, he heard the guard within a few feet of him
sing out, “Post No. 7, half past two in the morning, and all’s well.”
Col. K. says he could hardly resist the temptation of saying, “Not so
well as you think, except for the Yanks.” Lieut. Bradford was intrusted
with the provisions for this squad; and in getting through he 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
had of it. Col. Kendrick had, before leaving the prison, mapped out his
course, and concluded that the best route to take was the one towards
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 towards the Chickahominy River. They passed through Bour 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 could see and hear
the cars travelling over the York River Road.

While passing
through the swamp near the Chickahominy, Col. 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, Lieut. 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; and Col.
Kendrick could not help remarking that he believed Providence was on
their side, else they would not have met that natural bridge.

They
subsequently learned from a friendly negro that had they crossed the
bridge they had seen, they would assuredly have been recaptured, for
Capt. 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 vigilance committee to capture the escaped prisoners.

After
crossing over this natural bridge, they lay 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. 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 feed 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 a while through
the woods, they saw a negro woman working in a field, and called her to
them, and from her received directions, and were told that the rebel
pickets had been about there looking for the fugitives from Libby. Here
they lay low again, and resumed their journey when darkness set in, and
marched five miles, but halted until the morning of the 14th, when the
journey was resumed.

At one point they met a negro in the 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 them
of her substance, and started 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 Union 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
Capt. Jones, satisfied him that they were Union cavalry; but his
companions were suspicious, and avoided the road, and moved forward;
and at the “Burnt Ordinary,” (about ten miles from Williamsburg,)
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 Col. Spear’s Eleventh Pennsylvania regiment, sent
out for the purpose of picking up escaped prisoners. Col. Kendrick says
his feelings at seeing the old flag were indescribable.

The
party rode into Williamsburg with the cavalry, where they were
quartered for the night, and where they found eleven others who had
escaped safely.

Originally posted 2008-11-11 23:06:05.

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I'm a lover of God and His Son Jesus Christ. In addition I love to make yesterday's words come alive through the republishing of good and profitable books of old. The Civil War project is an ongoing labor of love. - Karan
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