The Daring Escape from Libby Prison

February 9, 1864 – Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania plotted a remarkable escape from disease-ridden Libby Prison in Richmond.

Libby Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Libby was a four-story warehouse situated near the James River that held captured Federal officers. This building housed about 1,200 men in extremely overcrowded, drafty, and damp conditions that invited the spread of illness and disease. Rose, who had been captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, worked with Major Andrew G. Hamilton, a Kentucky cavalry officer, to tunnel out of the prison from underground.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Rose estimated that digging a 50-yard tunnel to a warehouse shed beyond the compound fence could enable prisoners to escape undetected. Rose opened a hole in the fireplace on the building’s first floor, which enabled him to gain access to the basement. He enlisted the help of other officers to tunnel out from there, and each man was sworn to secrecy.

The men worked in shifts in the east section of the basement, which they called “Rat Hell.” They collected the dirt in spittoons and emptied them among the basement straw and rubbish. The work took several months to complete; the prisoners estimated the tunnel to be eight feet below ground and just wide enough for a man to crawl through.

Colonel Abel D. Streight, who had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest, was the ranking officer and became the first man to use the tunnel on the 7th. He emerged short of the fence, but the guards did not see him. The hole was plugged and the digging continued.

Two nights later, a loud music show covered the escape of six colonels, six lieutenant colonels, seven majors, 32 captains and 58 lieutenants. The escapees scattered throughout Richmond, and when guards noticed their absence, the city’s alarms were sounded.

Rose and 47 others were eventually recaptured, and two others drowned while trying to cross waterways. However, 59 managed to reach Federal lines, making this the largest and most sensational prison escape of the war.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 436-38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28

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