An Escape from Prison
Libby Prison was in Richmond, Virginia. Before the Civil War, it was a tobacco warehouse, close by the Lynchburg Canal, and not far from the James River. It was three stories high in front, and four in the rear, built of brick and stone, with thick partition walls which divided it into three sections, with a cellar under each.
The first floor contained three apartments, one for the prison authorities, one as a hospital, and the third for cooking and dining purposes. The upper stories had sleeping quarters for the prisoners. In this prison, one thousand Union soldiers were confined.
There was little chance of escape from it. A strong guard surrounded the prison, and every precaution was taken. The only attempt at escape that even partially succeeded was made by a number of Union prisoners through an underground tunnel.
The enterprise was undertaken by a few of the most daring of the Union soldiers, and was carefully kept secret from the others. One of the cellars, reserved for the storage of old boxes and barrels, was used as a starting place. Fortunately, it was never visited by the prison authorities, and, once at work, the prisoners could proceed without much fear of detection or interruption.
How to reach the cellar and begin excavating the tunnel was the first question to be solved. It was decided to remove the stones and brick in the fireplace of the cooking room, and to make a sloping entrance into the cellar. All this work was done at night, with as little noise as possible, by several prisoners who were stone-masons by trade. By day, the bricks and stones were carefully replaced, and all evidence of their labors was covered up. In a few days the cellar was reached, and all was ready to begin digging the tunnel.
This proposed tunnel was to be just large enough to admit one man, crawling on hands and knees. It was to cross a narrow street, and enter a lot used as a stable yard, which was concealed from the street by a high board fence. Once in this yard, and behind the fence, the prisoners would be safe from detection from the street, and could make good their escape through the other side of the stable yard.
The work on the tunnel began. It was eight or nine feet underground, and only one man could dig at a time. The only tools they had were pocket-knives, small hatchets, a broken fire-shovel, and pieces of fire-wood. But the earth was soft, and the prospect of liberty was alluring.
Night after night the work went on, one man digging forward and another one passing the dirt back to others who scattered it on the floor of the cellar and covered it with straw. The air in the tunnel was very close; the positions of the men were cramped; and there was constant danger of the earth caving in. But these daring men worked on, for they were struggling to gain their freedom.
In about three weeks, the tunnel was considered to be long enough, and so the forward workman began to dig upwards. In a short while, he had made an opening, and cautiously stuck his head out. To his dismay he found he was on the wrong side of the fence, and still in the street, with a sentry only a few yards away. Fortunately, the sentry did not see him. Quickly concealing the opening with grass, and packing it from underneath so it would look like a hole in the ground, the workman succeeded in avoiding detection, and work on the tunnel was renewed.
Ten feet further on brought them well inside the stable yard, and behind the protecting fence. The opening was now made, and, to the joy of the prisoners, the way of escape seemed plain. The evening of February 9, 1864, was appointed as the time to make their dash for liberty. The hour set was nine o'clock. One can well imagine the intense eagerness and excitement with which the men awaited the moment for their adventure.
About one hundred men, who were in the secret, assembled and, in single file, one by one, they crawled through the opening in the fireplace, across the cellar, and into the tunnel. There was no crowding and no rushing. The men proceeded silently on their knees, one behind the other, and climbed out into the stable yard.
As soon as two emerged, they made off together, and, crossing the yard, came into a nearby street. They strolled away, conversing in ordinary tones, as though they were citizens bent on their own affairs. They wore no prison clothes, so their appearance excited no suspicion. In about three hours, one hundred and nine men had escaped, and had scattered through the town. Not one of them had been challenged by the guard, who was pacing his rounds on the other side of the fence.
The fugitives found themselves in well-lighted streets, filled with people, and with shops open. But they gave no sign of haste. Talking and laughing, they proceeded to the outskirts of the town, and disappeared into the open country.
The absence of so many at roll-call the next morning excited the suspicion of the prison authorities. A search was immediately begun, and, as soon as the facts were established, an alarm was sent out to scour the country for the escaped prisoners. Of those who had gone, fifty-five reached the Union lines in safety, but fifty-four were recaptured.