From the New York Times, 3/29/1891, p. 10
AGAIN IN LIBBY PRISON
THE BOLD BREAK FOR FREEDOM ENDS IN RECAPTURE.
HOW THE CONFEDERATE AUTHORITIES WERE PUZZLED BY THE ESCAPE - COUNTING THE MEN LEFT - DAYS IN A CELL AND THE HOSPITAL.
Copyright, 1891, by the New-York Times.
When Capt. Martin heard the pickets announce themselves as belonging to the Twenty-first Virginia, he knew that the end had come to our flight. He was too lame and too much exhausted to think of getting away after he saw I was held at the muzzle of a rifle, so he came from behind the shield afforded by the uprooted tree and limped over to the fire.
“It’s d-d hard luck, gentlemen,” said a young officer, who suddenly appeared from the darkness and the two bars on whose collar told me he was a First Lieutenant. “You made a fine fight for it, and it’s rough that you didn’t get through.”
“Have many of the escaped prisoners been recaptured?” I asked, as I sat down on a log beside the fire.
“A hundred and ten got out, and so far I believe forty have been retaken. Your people are giving you all the help they can. Yesterday we had to get back in a hurry from their cavalry, and the chances are you may have a peep at them in the morning. But you both look hungry and played out.”
“And that’s just how we feel,” groaned Martin.
The Lieutenant ordered the men to get us something to eat, and they obeyed with a cheerfulness that showed they had kind hearts and the promptness of veterans.
Seeing how eager they were to recapture us, it was surprising, and might have been amusing, if anything could have amused us at that time, to hear their expressions of sympathy and regret. One of them washed and bandaged up Martin’s bleeding foot and told him that he would try to find him a pair of shoes in the morning. “The chances are,” he said, when he had finished, as far as he could, the role of good Samaritan, “that we’ll have a tussle with your folks to-morrer, and, if so, some one won’t want shoes after it. I’ll watch out for you.”
I had heard of “waiting for dead men’s shoes,” but I doubt if ever the question was discussed before this in such a calmly-benevolent way.
The soldiers broiled some meat on the ends of sticks and emptied their haversacks to supply us with bread. We were so hungry and exhausted that we could not fully realize the failure that had followed our attempt to reach our own lines. We had certainly done our best, and this comforted me if it did not reconcile me to the situation. After we had eaten, the pickets spread their blankets for us, and we lay down and were soon fast asleep.
We were aroused by Lieut. Brown, the officer in command. When we got up we found the sun was about an hour high, and, looking off to the east, we could see the light reflected from the arms of moving horsemen.
“Those are your people,” said the Lieutenant, “and we’ll have to get out of this neck of woods.”
“Where are going to take us?” asked Martin.
“Back to Richmond,” he replied.
“Well, Lieutenant, I don’t want to bother a man that means to treat me like a soldier; but look at our feet, and ask yourself if we are in a condition to march to Richmond,” I said.
“If you can hobble back for a mile, I can send you in a supply wagon that returns to-day. But you must hurry gentlemen,” said the Lieutenant, nervously.
“If you are in a hurry,” I said, “you can leave us to follow at our leisure,” but Mr. Brown did not think it wise to trust us.
One of the men gave poor Martin his arm, and, after a quick march of a mile, we came to an old colonial farmhouse on the Williamsburg road, and here we found a four-mule wagon into which we were helped by the two guards detailed to take us back. These men, like all old soldiers on both sides, were good men and as kind as they well could be in the circumstances. They fixed us up a bed in the bottom of the wagon with their own blankets, and Martin and myself, completely played out, but far from feeling “licked” or disheartened, sank to sleep.
When we woke up it was night and the wagon was halted in front of a building whose patched windows showed that the glass had been badly damaged and never replaced. This was the old Cold Harbor tavern, which was the centre of much fierce fighting in the seven days’ battle in the Summer of 1862, and was destined to be the scene of a more desperate struggle within a few months. The place was filled with soldiers, a here were two of the escaped prisoners, Lieut. Von Klodt and Capt. Dawn, the latter one of my mess. Martin and myself were taken into the building, where we met our ragged comrades in misfortune. We were all placed in one room on the upper floor, where a fire was lit, and we were served with a ration of hard bread and bacon.
The experience of Von Klodt and Dawn was much like that of Martin and myself, except that they were caught while fast asleep in a barn not far from Savage Station. While we were condoling each other and vowing that we would try it again the first chance that offered, a Sergeant came into the room for a chat. He was a bronzed, middle-aged man, with the frank, open manner that comes to those who have grown familiar with danger. He told us to get all the sleep we could, as he had charge of the party and had orders to start us into Richmond at 4 in the morning, which would be two hours before daylight. He was sympathetic and communicative, and, turning back from the door, just as he was to go out, he began to laugh, and he explained the reason for his hilarity in the following words, as nearly as I can recall them:
“I was in Richmond day before yesterday and saw that tunnel. It’s a big thing, I can tell you, and you gents deserved to win. But in love and war we’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. Why, it wasn’t till away in the afternoon of the day after you got away, that Turner discovered the tunnel and sent a little nigger through. When it became known in Richmond that so many Yanks had got out of Libby, every one, from President Davis down, reckoned at once that the guards had been bribed to let the prisoners out, and the fact that some of the boards had been knocked off one of the sinks and a rope let down strengthened this notion. Well, all the officers and the whole two companies of guards were put under arrest, and the more they swore they were innocent the more folks didn’t believe them, till the tunnel was discovered, and then, as is usual, all the wise men wondered why they hadn’t thought of that before,” and the Sergeant laughed very heartily and continued:
“Of course, you gents will hear all about it when you get back, but it’ll interest you to know how they discovered the exact number missing, and how your fellows tried to mix Turner up, which they did succeed in doing pretty bad for awhile. You know that roll call is made by counting the prisoners from the upper east into the middle room, and that Little Ross stands at the entrance and keeps tally of the men as the pass through?”
We assured the Sergeant that we knew all about the process of roll call.
“Well,” he went on, “it seems Ross kept a sort of euchre tally, making four strokes and then crossing it for every five that came through,, so when the works was over and he added the list up, lo and behold there were a hundred and ten prisoners short. He reported this to Turner, but the Major couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it. ‘You’ve made a mistake in the tally,’ he said. ‘The missing number is divisible by five, and that proves it.’
“But, to make sure, Turner ordered another roll call, and this is where the Yanks got in their fun and came near sending the Major to the insane asylum as a howling, gray-headed lunatic. The prisoners learned there were over a hundred men missing, and so they determined to make up the loss in the second roll call, and this is how they worked it. You know any two of the Yanks of the same age in Libby look as if they were twins; so when the second count began, a lot of the younger men hurried into the west room and out of sight of the guards. Then they climbed up the posts and got out on the roof, through a skylight. They sneaked along the roof and dropped into the east room through another skylight, and were counted over again. Well, sir, they kept this blamed game up till Ross wore out his pencil in keeping tally. Then he took himself to one side to add her up, and he nigh fainted at the result, for this time, by the jumping Jupiter! instead of having 110 Yankees short he had 137 Yankees too many. Oh, it was rich!” and the Sergeant laughed till the tears came, and, despite our misery, we had to laugh with him.
“Well, when Turner heard the result of the second count, he just stood up on his hind legs and howled and foamed at the mouth. He swore that it was possible for a lot of Yankees to get out without being aware of the fact at the time, but he’d be everlastingly dog-goned if 137 could steal a march on him and get in, for he’d made it his business ever since he’d had charge of the prison to count and search every man who went in.
“Well, to make a long story short, as they used to say when I was a boy, Major Turner doubled the guards, ordered another count, and, as by this time his confidence in poor Little Ross was powerfully shaken, he decided, so as to make sure, to keep the tally himself. Then, when the last Yank was counted out, the Major withdrew to the seclusion of his own private office to figure up the grand total. The result paralyzed him. This time the footing showed that there were 213 Yanks more on hand than the ration requisition or the prison books called for. After damning the Yanks and everybody else, including himself, light began to glimmer through the Major’s befogged head, so he ordered another count, but this time he forced every man jack of the prisoners into the cook-room, where there was no show for repeating, and then he counted them up the steps one at a time. The result proved the accuracy of Ross’s first figures. Oh, everybody in Richmond is laughing about it, and I can assure you, gentlemen, it’s the first laugh the Yanks have given us since this cruel war began. Good night, and remember you start before day in the morning.”
The Sergeant went out, still laughing. After learning that there was a guard outside the door and guards about the building, we lay down before the grateful fire and went to sleep. The man outside awoke us by hammering on the door with the stock of his gun. Following this, another man brought us in some bread and meat, which we had not finished when the Sergeant appeared to take us back to Libby.
Von Klodt and Dawn were placed with Martin and myself in the wagon in which we had come to Cold Harbor, and with four guards and the driver we started off. The roads were very bad, and the mules were very slow and lean, so that it was nearly noon before we halted before the gloomy walls of Libby. On the way in we passed over the scene of Porter’s battle at Gaines’s Mill and crossed the Chickahominy by what was known as the “Lower Trestle Bridge,” then on to Old Tavern and into the city by the Nine-mile Road. Stiff, sore, and with hearts far from light, we clambered out of the wagon and were led into Turner’s office, the memory of my first visit to which was still very vivid. It would seem that Turner was not in the prison at the time, for Adjt. Latouche, fat and florid, appeared to take our records and to question us, and, strangely enough, we were searched, but why I cannot imagine.
“Gentlemen,” said Adjt. Latouche, after these preliminaries were concluded, “my orders are to send you to the cells.” Then, as if to exculpate himself, he hastened to add: “I am simply obeying orders. As soldiers you can appreciate my position.”
“Certainly,” replied Dawn; “but why should we be sent to the cells?”
“I suppose it’s for trying to escape,” said Latouche.
“But that was our right. A prisoner of war is not a culprit, and if he can escape, he is right in doing so, and it is contrary to the rules of war and to the dictates of humanity to punish him for it. It is your privilege to take every precaution to keep him from getting away, but it is simply infamous to send him to a cell if he fails.”
Latouche was evidently ashamed of his part in this cruel business, for he again protested that he would rather not do it, and that he was simply carrying out orders; and, as he had never been disagreeable to the prisoners, we believed him.
The cells were in the cellar under the cook-room and in the Carey Street front. We were led down by a guard and conducted into a walled-in room, so very dark that it was some minutes before our eyes grew so accustomed to the less than twilight gloom as to enable us to look about the place and to note that there were already six persons in the cell, all men who, like ourselves, had failed to get through. The cell door was bolted and locked, and then, for the first time in my life, a feeling of helplessness, despair, and degradation came over me.
The cell was about ten feet square, light, such as we had, coming through a little grated window from the street. The floor was wet and slippery, and, I need not add, very cold. The walls were damp and exuded a green slime. There was a wooden bench, also damp and rotting, against the wall, and a bucket in one corner gave a clue to the sickening stench that pervaded the atmosphere. There was an aperture at the top of the door intended to act as a ventilator, but it did not take us long to discover that it did not answer its purposes.
Among the men we found in the cell was Lieut. Manning of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry, a fine, soldierly fellow who had come on from California at the first of the war to enter the army. As the bench was not large enough to permit of more than five sitting down at one time, the last arrivals were given whatever advantages it afforded. Looking back at the cell now, the wonder to me is that we did not become silent, gloomy, or desperate in that wretched place. I know that the philosophical cheerfulness of the others raised my spirits till I found myself taking part in the talk and exchanging experiences with the other unfortunates.
There was at least one more cell to the west of us, for we could hear the low murmur of voices. Some of the men who had been recaptured the first or second day after the escape had already been sent up stairs to make room for the new arrivals. Manning and his friends had been down here for forty hours, in which time they had been given a little corn bread and water; there was not even a vessel for water left in the cell. To keep warm, it was necessary to be on the move, so we circled around and around that loathsome cell till we got giddy going in one direction and then circled back again, with the dim notion that it would enable us to collect our senses.
Late in the afternoon I heard three regular raps, evidently a signal, on the cookroom floor directly overhead. On the instant one of the men leaped on the bench and answered with three like raps. I glanced up and to my great surprise I saw a piece of the board about four inches square lifted out and the greater light coming down through this made the opening look like a star. Then a face appeared at the opening and a voice called down:
“How are the boys that came in to-day?”
“Living, but not lively,” was the response.
“There’s no use in praying down there, boys,” said the man at the opening, “but just damn the Johnnies and have patience. Were a-thinking of you up here, and we’ve saved a little more grub to help you out. If we can make the opening wider we’ll try to get you down some blankets. We can do without ‘em better than you can. But keep a stiff upper lip and ease yourselves with cuss words.”
The face was withdrawn, and then a hand, holding a chunk of corn bread, appeared through the hole; then more corn bread; then a tin cup was passed down. This cup was held up to the hole again and again, and Confederate coffee, grateful because it was warm, was poured into it from above till we had all drank. Then the voice shouted down more words of encouragement, and the piece was reset in the floor overhead. On myself the moral effect of this incident was more beneficial than even the bread and coffee. Hatred for the men who had placed us here gave place to a feeling of affection and admiration for the comrades who had not forgotten us, but who, though starving themselves, spared from their scanty food that we, who were in a worse plight, might be saved some of the intended suffering.
Our friends could not get us down a blanket that night, for then and as long as we continued in Libby a guard was stationed in the cookroom after dusk. The only way the ten men in the cell could sleep was by taking the old overcoats of half the party and using them for a bed in the corner furthest removed from the stench while the others paced back and forth through the inky darkness to keep from being chilled to death. We regulated the time for the men to sleep by the cries of the guards on Carey Street, who assured us every half hour that “all was well.”
I was four days and nights in this cell, but of the last forty-eight hours I have only the dimmest recollection. I know, however, that there came a time when I ceased to be cold and I talked a great deal, and the others wrapped me in their coats and laid me on the bench. Then I recall that two men were bending over me, one holding a lantern; the other was Dr. Sabat. I remember that Dawn was examined at the same time, and the doctor, who, apart from his uniform, was one of the most humane men I ever met, said something about “the hospital.”
I was able to walk; indeed, all the fatigue and languor had left me, and the fevered delirium gave me a fictitious strength. We were taken out of the cell - the others were sent up stairs at the same time - and Dawn and myself were led into the hospital. I recall that when we came up to the daylight the change from the cell was so sudden and so great that I had to look through half-closed eyelids to keep from being blinded. I was placed on a cot, stripped, and wrapped in a blanket. The wild dreams of the next ten days I can distinctly recall, but I have no memory of an actual incident.
“Typhoid pneumonia” was what Dr. Sabat called my trouble, and to him I am indebted for my recovery. The Libby hospital, compared with the hospitals for our own sick and wounded in the North, or even on the field, was far from being a model, but, in contrast with the cold, bare rooms overhead, it was quite luxurious and palatial. The walls were whitewashed. There were cots to sleep on. There was a stove in the middle of the room that heated the place, and lights were kept burning all night. The upstairs ration was supplemented by beef, lean to be sure and not so abundant as to satisfy the wounded men whose appetites had not been impaired, yet a decided addition to the regular prison fare.
Pneumonia and rheumatism began to tell on the prisoners up stairs, so the strongest men in the hospital, and this does not mean well men, were sent up to make room for them. Wounded officers were brought in from Averill’s raid, and these encouraged us with the assurance that before long a large cavalry force would be dispatched from the Army of the Potomac to take Richmond and release the prisoners in Libby and on Belle Isle. This was actually attempted, and if properly managed it might have been made one of the most brilliant achievements of the war.
On the 2d of March, although far from well, I was again returned to my old quarters in the Upper Chickamauga room.