The Great Escape of the Civil War

Submitted By: Uley Washburn

Many horror stories exist through the ages about the treatment of POWs. A counterpoint to these stories are the stories of escapes from prisons and prison camps. As a young boy growing up during the Vietnam era, these types of stories were of great interest to me. I have read of escapes from German prisons in World War Two, and been personally acquainted with at least one Henry County POW from that war. I also read about the escape of General John Hunt Morgan, and the Henry County ties to that escape. It was during research on the Morgan story that I ran across the beginning information on the following story.

Every escape story begins with a capture, and this one begins at Chickamauga Creek, Georgia and the bloodiest battle in the Western Theater of the Civil War. All told, the contending armies lost 36,000 men killed, wounded, or missing those two days of September 1863. Henry and surrounding counties lost many men there, including at least seven taken prisoner. One of those men was Captain Isaac N. Johnston of Pleasureville. While we do not have his exact story, there is enough info to reconstruct the main events.

At first held in reserve, the 6th Kentucky Infantry was thrown into the heaviest fighting on the first day of the battle. Due to the mistake of a staff officer, General Rosecrans moved one division of troops to cover a nonexistent gap in his lines. This opened a real gap in just the spot General Longstreet’s gray clad men were heading for at the time. Striking the units on both sides of the gap in the flank, Longstreet’s men rapidly rolled up Rosecran’s right flank. A full third of the Union army was broken and forced back, with Confederate units overrunning General Rosecran’s own headquarters. It was in this wild melee that Captain Johnston and several of the 6th Kentucky were captured.

Marched thirty miles to Tunnel Hill, Georgia, with the only food green sorghum picked from roadside fields, the men were placed in box cars for the trip to Atlanta. Once there the men were place in an open field surrounded by armed guards. Many kind people from Atlanta came out to toss bread and other food across the guard line, until a second line was placed at a greater distance to stop these charitable acts. Before dark, the captured “Yankees” were moved to an old slave holding area. As each man entered the narrow gate to the pen, he was forced to give up his overcoat and blanket. The guards put the blame on General Bragg for this inhumanity, stating that this was a direct order from Bragg at the front. That night over seventeen hundred brave Union troops slept on cold ground with no protection from even the heavy dewfall.

The next morning, two hundred fifty officers from the Army of the Cumberland were formed up and marched through the main streets of Atlanta to board trains for Richmond, Virginia. Despite the hardships of battle, capture, and exposure the night before, these brave souls sang The Star Spangled Banner as they marched toward the depot. At the end of an eight hundred mile trip from Chickamauga, they joined nearly a thousand other men in the former warehouse that was Libby Prison.

Libby Prison is described as such: A large brick building of about one hundred forty feet length and one hundred and forty five feet of depth. In contained nine rooms on three floors, each room about one hundred feet long by forty five feet wide, with seven foot ceilings. The lower middle room was used as a kitchen, another room on the lower floor served as a makeshift hospital. There was also a basement fitted out for confinement and punishment of those who offended the guards, with the remainder used for storage.

Life was decidedly unkind to the brave men imprisoned there. There was no glass in the windows, and for a long period of time, no heat. There were no chairs or beds furnished, everyone slept on the floors with what little bedding had been brought in by the captives. The food consisted of bread made from unbolted corn, a quart of rice per sixteen men every eight days, and (when available) four ounces of low quality meat per man each day. Occasionally a box of provisions from “home” would make it past the guards; this would then be shared as far as possible. Rats and insects were constant companions of these brave men in blue. Still they were far better of than men in such prison camps as the notorious Andersonville.

Many plans for escape were made and tried from the very time the Chicamauga captives arrived at Libby. A few managed to win freedom by sneaking out as “visitors” wearing smuggled in civilian clothing. An attempt was made to tunnel into the sewer and escape by way of the river, high water cut off this attempt.

A workable plan was finally agreed upon, and shared at first with twenty five trusted men.

Working at night, the men made an opening into the basement storeroom from the chimney of the kitchen. From this cellar storeroom, then men dug a thirty foot long tunnel under the street to a spot beneath an empty shed opposite the prison. Only two men could work at a time due to the small space. One man would crawl into the tunnel with a table knife, chisel, spittoon pull along on a string, and candle; the other man would fan air into the hole with his hat and pull back the spittoon with another string and empty it under the straw and garbage on the cellar floor. Each morning before roll call, the men would carefully replace the bricks in the chimney and cover all signs of their work.

It took the men thirty long nights of tedious, dirty and dangerous work to complete the tunnel. Dug eight feet under the street, worming around rocks to large to move, the tunnel ran almost seventy feet to the safety of the shed. Barely large enough to allow a full grown man to wiggle through, this would be the escape route for one hundred nine brave souls on the night of February 9, 1864. The only thing left now was how to cover for the men as they went out the tunnel.

In the end, a simple ruse was set upon as the proper cover. Having organized a band and taught singing and dancing to kill the boredom of imprisonment, the captives arranged a dance party in the kitchen area. At exactly 7 P.M. on the fateful night, the “freedom dance” began. It was a scene fit for a movie. Dancing and singing in one well lit area of the room, while in the shadowy area quiet forms in dark clothing disappeared

into the chimney on the road to freedom. Suspense and dread filled the air as the men slipped away, well knowing they could be shot without warning if recognized on the outside as escapees.

The twenty five original planners had prepared for this day by saving bread and dried meat, now these were shoved into pockets. In most cases jackets, and sometimes pants, were pulled off in the cellar and pushed ahead of the crawling men. Movement was by mere inches the whole length of the tunnel, but the knowledge of pure air and liberty at the end kept the men going. Coming up into the dark shed across the street from their former prison, the men would brush themselves off, redress, and slip by ones and twos into the streets of Richmond. All told, one hundred nine 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 fifty two of the Union officers, but fifty seven others safely reached Union lines. Captain Isaac N. Johnston was one of these lucky souls. He is listed as rejoining the 6th Kentucky in May of 1864; further commanding the regiment from May until August of that year.

Drawn from the records of Brevet Brigadier General Harrison C. Hobart, and newspaper articles from the Richmond Examiner, Richmond Enquirer, dated Feb. 11, 1864, and New York Times, dated Feb. 15, 1864.