As February 10, 1864 dawned at Libby Prison, the remaining inmates awaited the inevitable hurricane of outrage and disbelief that they knew was coming. All through the night, men had made their way through Col. Thomas Rose’s tunnel and out of Rat Hell to the dark streets of Richmond. Now they would have to face the music once the morning count was conducted.
The jailer in charge of the morning count, a man nicknamed Little Ross, did not arrive at his usual time. When the count finally started, disbelief washed over the faces of the Libby jailers. They could not comprehend that over a hundred men had just vanished in the night. Shouting and jostling the inmates, they counted and recounted, taking over four hours; but finally the reality of the situation settled in. Confederate general John Winder, the officer responsible for all Union prisoners in the south, was understandably irate. He was stationed in Richmond and immediately arrived at Libby to conduct an investigation. After surveying the grounds and speaking to the jailers, he became convinced that some of the jailers had been bribed. To him there could no other explanation; Libby had been touted as escape-proof. The inmates let on nothing; no one dared mention the tunnel.
A few prisoners tried to maintain the ruse for as long as possible. A few hung blankets twisted into ropes from the window bars, to confuse the inspectors into thinking that the bars had been removed. But the tunnel was eventually discovered when a Rebel sentry found the exit hole under a wooden board across the street from Libby. For once, the Confederate press showed some grudging admiration for the Yankee escapees’ intrepidity and daring. The Richmond Daily Dispatch wrote:
The whole thing was skillfully managed and bears the impress of master minds and indomitable perseverance…The excitement in Richmond next morning after the escape was intense. In a twinkling, church bells were ringing, cavalrymen were out with horns blasting, and all hounds obtainable were yelping…A thousand and more prisoners in Libby were compensated, in a measure, for their failure to escape by the panic they saw among the ‘Rebs.’ Messengers and dispatches were soon flying in all directions, and the horse, foot, and dragoons of Richmond were in pursuit of the fugitives.
But for the men on the run, escape was only the beginning of a perilous and arduous odyssey. Most of them were extremely malnourished and weak. They had only the rags on their backs, and maybe a few fistfuls of cornbread in their pockets. The North Star in the sky could guide them, in a way, to the Union lines that were about fifty miles distant, but they had no maps or compasses. The Chickahominy swamp was a formidable barrier to Union lines as well. The ground they traversed was bitterly cold, wet, and barren; the only friendly faces they could expect were those of slave families living in isolated shacks. Even if an escaped prisoner reached Union lines, there was always a chance he might be mistaken for an enemy infiltrator and shot. Most escapees were caught soon after leaving the tunnel. To survive on the run, a man needed fanatical determination, courage, and a good deal of luck.
Col. Rose walked out of Richmond a free man after leaving the tunnel he had so arduously constructed. After this, he was delayed by the Chickahominy River; when a Confederate cavalry patrol scoured the area at sunrise, he hid inside the hollow of a large sycamore tree. He then waded across the freezing Chickahominy. Hypothermia was a constant threat; if he rested anywhere for too long, death by exposure might result. He later wrote:
When I attempted to rise I found myself perfectly stiff and my clothes completely frozen. I pushed right ahead, however, and I found several deep places filled with water…I was still very lame from the effects of a broken foot. This wound became very troublesome, as the nights were dark and I could not see the inequalities of the ground. I was in great danger of freezing to death. I had with me a haversack which I had held at arms’ length while crossing the Chickahominy in order to keep it dry. I had a box of matches, and upon coming to a large thicket of cedars I resolved to build a fire.
Rose was careful to hide by day and travel by night. In agony with his broken foot, he eventually reached a dirt road called the Williamsburg Pike. Enemy pickets were all around him; he kept low to the ground and was forced to wait hours in freezing dampness. He knew that the Williamsburg Pike would take him to Williamsburg and Union lines, so he traveled along it by night, dropping to the ground whenever enemy patrols came by. When he crossed Diascund Creek, he knew friendly lines were close. But bad luck intervened. When Union lines were within sight, Rose spotted an intervening group of men in blue uniforms blocking his path. At first he thought they were federal troops, but after observing them for a time, he realized they were disguised Confederates.
By the time Rose figured out these men were not friendlies, he was already walking towards them. When he was about seventy-five yards distant, they called out to him, challenging him. He hesitated; for a second he was not sure whether he should flee or try to bluff his way past the patrol. He was out of options. As he came within conversational distance of the men, he tried to be genial, and convince them he was a Confederate. They were not convinced. The officer present told one of his men to escort Rose away. Rose walked away with him, but then turned and overpowered the Confederate. He disarmed him, fired off his rifle, and made a desperate dash for Union lines.
But the Confederates gave chase, and Rose, with his broken foot, could not put enough distance between himself and his pursuers. The caught up with him, clubbed him with rifle butts, and stretched him out on the ground. “Be quick,” one of them said to another. “The Yanks are right here.” Rose was lucky not to have been shot on the spot. One Rebel soldier yelled out, “Give me a gun, let me kill this scoundrel—he tried to shoot me after he surrendered.” Rose was now seized by the men, who tried to drag him off to a greater distance from Union lines. But Rose had difficulty moving; they threatened to kill him if he could not keep up. And at this point, Rose showed that incredible courage that had brought him to this point. He struggled to his feet and told his captors,
Shoot me. I am Colonel Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania Regiment. I have tunneled out of Libby Prison and have been without food for the past two days, and I won’t be taken back there alive.
His captors were not moved by this display. He even made a direct, emotional plea to them, telling them about life at Libby and the wife and children he had back home. Nothing worked, and Rose resigned himself to his fate. It was a bitter pill to swallow. He had given the escape attempt every ounce of his physical and mental power. Rose now joined the 48 other escapees who were recaptured and sent right back to Libby, where the jailers were more vengeful and malicious than ever. Dick Turner, the head jailer, gave the escapees weeks of solitary confinement in the dungeons. One man, a black soldier named Robert Ford, was singled out and given a brutal whipping for allegedly helping the escapees. After the war, he was given an allotment of $800 and a job as compensation, but he never fully recovered from his injuries, and died within a few years.
Col. Rose was eventually released in a prisoner exchange in late April 1864. He rejoined his regiment and served there until peace was concluded. He became a career soldier, but did not like to talk about the escape. With time, however, he began to see things differently, and wrote a compelling memoir of the incident. The Libby escape shook the Confederate prison system to its core; for the remainder of the war, Libby diminished in importance, and prisoners were housed in places far from urban centers. But even these prisons, places like Danville and Andersonville, were horrific. At Andersonville alone, around 13,000 men died of exposure and starvation. Its commandant, Henry Wirz, was tried for war crimes and hanged on November 10, 1865.
Of the 109 men who escaped from Libby, 61 were recaptured and returned to confinement. The remaining 48 made it to Union lines and freedom. In 1889, the prison itself was dismantled and shipped to Chicago, to be reassembled there as an exhibit at the World’s Fair. The job was enormous. The material filled 132 rail cars, each weighing 20 tons. The prison was “rebuilt” on Wabash Avenue, between Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets.
Tickets were sold to this new museum, and well-dressed, well-fed ladies and gentlemen of Chicago’s gentry could hear a highly sanitized and fanciful story of what life at Libby was like. No one really wanted to hear the truth. As ticket sales slumped in the years after 1889, the building’s owners decided to dismantle it and sell it off for scrap and souvenirs. It should have been made into a national historic site. The fact that it was not remains a mark of shame on those who allowed it be destroyed. So quickly are the heroism and sufferings of men forgotten when no effort is made to preserve their memory.
Read more about courage and character in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: