Skip to content

1864 March 12: Hobart’s Account Continued—The Escape

March 17, 2014

The second part of Colonel Hobart’s address before the Wisconsin Legislature follows.  It appeared in the March 12, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  The whole article is very long and we have split it into three postings, one yesterday about Libby Prison, the second part detailing the famous escape today, and Hobart’s closing remarks tomorrow.

COL. H. C. HOBART’S RECEPTION.

HOW THE PRISONERS ESCAPED.

Exciting Narrative.

The final plan by which so many escaped was as follows :  On the ground floor of the prison, on a level with the street, is a kitchen containing a fire-place at which the prisoners inhabiting the rooms above do their cooking.  Beneath the kitchen is a basement story, one of the rooms in which is occupied as a store room.  The store room is next to the street and though not directly under the kitchen, is so located that the prisoners found it possible to reach it by digging downward and rearward through the masonry work of the fire-place.  When this was accomplished, the next object was to construct a tunnel, on a level with the floor of the store room, beneath an[d] across the street, to an open shed, on the opposite side of the street, which was considered the most practicable point for egress.

A knowledge of this plan was confided to but twenty-five of the prisoners, and nothing was known of the proceedings by the remainder of the occupants of the prison until two or three days before the escape.  The twenty-five, among whom was Cols. Hobart and West,¹ divided themselves into two parties for arranging the escape—one under the direction of Col. HOBART and the other under that of Major McDonald² of Ohio.  A table knife, a file, a chisel and a spittoon were secured for working tools, when operations commenced.  Sufficient of the masonry was removed from the fire-place to admit the passage of a man to the storeroom below ;  and evacuation was then made through the function wall in the storeroom toward the street and the construction of the tunnel proceeded night by night.  But two persons could work at the tunnel at the same time.  One would enter the hole with his tools and a small tallow candle, dragging the spittoons after him, attached to a string.  The other would fan the air into the tunnel, and would draw out the novel dirt-cart employed, when loaded, concealing its contents beneath the straw and rubbish of the storeroom.  Each morning before daylight the mouth of the tunnel was covered by straw and the brick replaced in the fire place.  This tunnel required about fifty days of patient, tedious and dangerous labor.  It was eight feet below the street, between sixty and seventy feet in length and barely large enough for a full grown man to crawl though, by pulling himself along with this hands and toes.

Diagram of the escape from Libby Prison

Diagram of the escape from Libby Prison³

When all was complete, it was arranged that Maj. McDonald’s party should leave the prison first, at 7 o’clock p. m. ;  Col. H. and the balance of the twenty-five afterwards.  By this time the proceedings had become known to quite a number of the prisoners not of the original number, and as McDonald’s men emerged on the street from the tunnel, they were seen by the prisoners from the windows.  This success created general excitement and enthusiasm and over a hundred gathered around the chimney, then commanded by Col. Hobart, all clamorous for the privilege of leaving.  Col. H. finally concluded to see his party though, including Col. West, and leave the whole to take care of itself, and take the chances.  Before daylight one hundred and nine had passed through, so large a number of course increasing the danger of capture to all.  By arrangement Cols. Hobart and West were to link their fortunes.  Each had procured a citizen’s dress.  The tunnel was so small, that the process of departure was necessarily slow, a few inches of progress only being made at each effort.  To facilitate locomotion, outside garments were taken off and pushed forward.  The constructors of the tunnel never supposed it possible that more than twenty or thirty could pass through it in a single night.

This was Tuesday, Feb. 9th.  Col. Hobart and Col. West emerged from the tunnel about 10 o’clock in the evening.  They passed into the street together, in plain sight of the sentinels, Col. H with overcoat on, clinging to the arm of Col. W. and playing the part of a decrepit old man, who seemed  to be in exceeding ill health and badly affected with a consumptive cough.  In this manner the two passed beneath the glaring gas-lights and through the crowded streets without suspicion as to their real character.

When he struck the last lamp-post of the city, said Col. H., I straigntened [sic] up.  (Laughter and cheers.)  In the transit he was very much amused at the sympathetic looks he received from ladies and others on account of his broken-down condition.  They took a ravine outside the city, avoiding all houses.  On going about five miles they came to the breastwork.  They used great caution and saw no guard.  They went on about two miles and then rested for the first time among the graves of the battle field of Fair Oaks.— In the morning at daybreak they crossed the Chickahominy on a fallen tree.  They then betook themselves to a swamp, and were looking for the most tangled thicket to hide themselves for the day.  Just at this juncture Col. H. caught a glimpse of a man and for a moment thought they were discovered.  His momentary apprehension was joyfully relieved by the discovery that his new made acquaintance was Col. McCleary [sic] of Michigan,4 who together with Capt. Clark of Illinois,5 had escaped from the tunnel with the first party that went out, and were now passing the day in the swamp, like hunted negroes.

By this time, the whole population had been informed of the escape, and the country was alive with pursuers.  The four agreed to travel in company and hastily concealed themselves for the day between logs in a tangled grove of holly.  During the day, two rebels approached so nearly that their conversation was distinctly understood, and the reveille of the rebel troops and the hum of their camps were heard on both sides of them.  At dark, the party left their hiding places and cautiously proceeded south-easterly.  When they left Richmond, Cols. Hobart and West had placed a quantity of dried beef in their pockets—sent the prisoners from the North—and on this they subsisted through their journey.  Fortunately, Capt. Clark had in his possession a pocket map of the country, which was a material aid in guiding the party on its way.  It was arranged that thereafter one of the four should precede searching out the way in the darkness and giving due notice of danger.  In this manner they traveled over twenty miles, avoiding all roads and dwellings.  Late at night they crossed the railroad running from Richmond to White House.  As they crossed, Col. West saw a sentinel near by fast asleep on his gun.  They then made their way eastward, just before daybreak passing into the deep pine woods, a distance of four or five miles where they remained during the day.  Rebel cavalry were in force all through that vicinity especially toward the river and scouts were flying in every direction.  Their bugle notes fell quite too frequently on the ears of the travelers to permit them much of sleep or quietude.

That night (Friday) weary hungry and footsore, as soon as friendly darkness came they started south-east, making their way from wood to wood, and otherwise avoiding the farm-houses as best they might.  About twenty miles were passed over when daylight coming, again they retired to cover in the deep shade of the forest.  A woman passed near them during the day but happily they were not discovered.  Col Hobart states that during all this toilsome march, but few words passed between the fugitives and these few in low whispers.  So apparently untiring was the search, and so thoroughly alarmed and watchful were the population, that they felt their safety depended upon a bare chance.

Saturday night the journey was resumed as usual.  It was Col. Hobart’s turn to play the part of the picket and pilot.  During the night incautiously emerging from the thick pine forest, he suddenly found himself almost in the immediate presence of a party of rebel cavalry.  His surprise and alarm for the moment welded him in his tracks.  Not doubting that he was seen, he felt his case hopeless.  Recovering his self-possession, however, he perceived that his presence was unobserved.  Fortunately no guard had been stationed.  He was but three or four rods from his enemies, and the slightest noises on his part might seal his fate.  Cautiously putting one foot behind the other he retreated from the place.  The party of fugitives feeling considerably confused as to the “situation,” scarcely knew now whether to retreat or attempt to turn the enemy’s flank.  They finally returned a distance of about three miles, and halted for further consultation.—They had lost their way ;  and being satisfied that there was danger ahead, and that it would be labor lost to return farther toward Richmond, they concluded to make an effort at considerable risk, to obtain information as to their locality.  The others concealing themselves, Col. Hobart marched up to the door of a negro dwelling and knocked.  The voice of a black woman responded, inquiring who he was.  Col. Hobart answered that he was a traveler who had lost his way.  After considerable parley, during which Col. H. refused to comply with the request to go to another house for his information, the door was opened, when is [sic] appeared that a large, good looking negro was inside and had heard the conversation.

The negro said, “I know who you is.  You’re one of dem scaped officers from Richmond.”  Col. H. laid his hand on the negro’s shoulder and said “I am, and you are just the person I wanted to see.  I want you to help me through.”  The negro asked if there were any others with him.  Col. H. told him.  He said they must not stay there, that the road was picketed with rebel cavalry, who passed up and down every hour looking for the fugitives.  The negro woman offered Col. H. some milk to drink which he said did him more good than anything he ever took before in his life.

The negro proved a sharp and shrewd fellow, and he invited Col. H. to a private spot at a distance in the field where the party all assembled and held a conference.  The result was that the negro engaged to pilot them round the cavalry pickets.  He then conducted them through a low swamp, then through several fields, and then directly over the road, crossing between the cavalry and their videttes—the cavalry sitting on their horses not over thirty or forty rods distant—and accompanied them a mile further on.  They asked him to go with them, but he said he would not go unless he could get his family away also.  He was a slave.  As they were about leaving him, he said to Col. H. “Now, Mighty God, mussa, how soon is you all coming down here?  We all want to go wid you?”  Col. H. told him he thought we should be along very soon.  (Laughter and cheers.)  He said he had the name of that negro, and he should remember him, and his kindness to his dying day and should repay it if ever opportunity was given.

The line of the Williamsburg pike was then followed rapidly, as fears the “Diascum river,” which was reached just at light on Sunday morning.  To cross this river without assistance from some quarter was found impossible.  They endeavored to wade through it, but failed.  After a while they succeeded in reaching an island in the river, but could get no further.  At this juncture a rebel citizen was seen coming up the river in a row boat, with a gun.  Col. H. concealed himself in the bushes by the river to get a look at the man.  Finding his countenance to indicate youth and benevolence, Col. H. accosted him as he approached.  “I have been waiting for you, ” said the Colonel.  “They told me here at these houses that you would take me across the river.”  The end of the boat was toward the shore.  “There are three more of us,” said Col. H., having by this time got his foot on the boat and his eye on the gun.  The other three approached.  The determination was to pass the river in that boat—peaceably if possible, forcibly if they must.  “Where  do you all come from?” said the boatman, seeming to hesitate and consider.  The party represented themselves as farmers from various localities on the Chickahominy.  “The officers don’t like to have me carry men over the river,” said the man who held the oars.—”That’s right,” said Col. H., “you shouldn’t carry soldiers or suspected characters.  Besides there are Yankees about here sometimes.  But we farmers should be taken over without trouble.”  Suffice it to say that the boat went and the escaping prisoners went in it, but in a short time thereafter a hue and cry was raised, and the entire population seemed to be out on the paths of the fugitives.  Fortunately, the officers, instead of going farther that day misled the rebels by concealing themselves near the river until night—a fact to which their escape at this time was due.  At dark, the flight was again commenced with renewed hope, but perceiving evidence of continued pursuits, they returned to their hiding places where they remained until toward midnight.  They then took a fresh start, going to the Williamsburg pike, where they lay in ambush by the roadside for an hour before venturing to progress.

It was now early in the morning of Monday.  For five days and six nights, this little band of hunted and almost exhausted fugitives, with the stars for their guide, had slowly picked their way among surrounding perils toward the camp fires of their friends.  They knew they must be near the outposts of the Union troops, and now began to feel as if their trials were nearly over.

After six nights, they approached our pickets.  The danger now was in being shot by them.  They now changed their style and took the middle of the pike, walking leisurely and irregularly.  At length, as they came into a thick wood, at about 4 o’clock in the morning, they were startled and brought to a stand still by a sharp and sudden command, “Halt !”  Looking in the direction whence the command proceeded, they discovered the dark forms of a dozen cavalrymen drawn up in line of battle, who seemed to have risen from the ground.  Neither knew whether they were friends or foes.  His heart sunk in his breast, as in the shadows of the night he saw the gray confederate uniform while sickening visions of Libby  Prison, and despairing thoughts of another exile from home and still worse durance vile than he had yet endured, passed over his brain.  “Who are you?” was the next question.  “Citizens!” they answered.  Col. Hobart thought he could see distinctly that their uniforms were gray.  He had “gray” on the brain about that time.  (Laughter.)  They were immediately surrounded.  One of the fugitives then ventured to inquire—”Are you Union troops?”  “Well we are!” was the reply.  The answer, the tone, the dialect of the reply, told them at once that they were in the hands of their friends.  Col. H. said the gray uniforms turned to blue in a moment.  (Laughter.)—He and his comrades, without stopping to make explanations, lifted their hats and gave one long, exultant shout of joy, which at once assured the soldiers who they were.  The party proved to belong to the 11th Pennsylvania, and they were but twelve miles from Williamsburg.  Here their sufferings and perils ended.

[CONTINUES TOMORROW]

1.  Theodore Sterling West (d. 1889), from Waukesha, enlisted July 13, 1861, and was the adjutant of the 5th Wisconsin Infantry. He was wounded at Williamsburg. West was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 24th Wisconsin Infantry on March 31, 1863. He was wounded and taken prison at Chickamauga. After the escape, West became the colonel of the 24th Wisconsin (dated March 4, 1864). He was wounded again at the Battle of Resaca (May 13-15, 1864), and resigned on May 12, 1865. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
2.  Bedan B. McDonald (ca. 1840-1880) enlisted as a 32 year old Captain of Company C, 101st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, on July 23, 1862, mustering into service August 30, 1862. Promoted to Major to date December 26, 1862, he was captured September 19, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga and imprisoned at Libby Prison in Richmond. After his escape, McDonald was promoted to lieutenant colonel, dated February 18, 1864. He was wounded in action at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. McDonald was mustered out June 12, 1865, at Camp Harker, Tennessee.
3.  From Story of the Famous Tunnel Escape from Libby Prison, as told by Maj. A. G. Hamilton (Chicago, 1893), available from the Library of Congress or online at the Internet Archive. This diagram also appeared in the “Colonel Rose’ Tunnel at Libby Prison” chapter in Famous Adventures and Prison Escapes of the Civil War, edited by G. W. Cable, (New York: The Century Co., 1893); available from the libraries at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Stevens Point, or online at Project Gutenberg.  For more information and illustrations, see the Libby Prison article in the online Encyclopedia Virginia.
4.  William B. McCreary (1836-1896), was initially in Company F of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 21st Michigan Infantry. McCreary was seriously wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg and again at the Battle of Chickamauga, where he was captured. After the War, McCreary was the state treasurer of Michigan (1875-1878).
5.  Terrance A. Clark (1839-1909), at the time captain of Company A of the 79th Illinois Infantry. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Chickamauga and sent to Libby Prison. After the escape and a brief furlough, he rejoined his command, receiving a promotion to the rank of major and after the fall of Atlanta being promoted to colonel. At the time of his death, he was believed to be the last survivor of the men who participated in building the tunnel.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: