NOTT - SKETCHES IN PRISON CAMPS
E S C A P E .
THROUGH illness, changes, toil and trouble, the subject of escape never left our minds. At Camp Groce, weakness and ill-health constantly postponed intended at-tempts. Moreover, the open prairie country around the camp, the nearness of the coast-guard, and, above all, the absence of any point or outlet to which to run, were disheartening obstacles. At Camp Ford, it was somewhat different; for the woods came down nearly to the stockade, and the country was one vast forest.
The troubles that beset, the path of an escaping prisoner in Texas were entirely different from those which would attend him in the Northern States. The difficulty of passing the stockade and guard was trivial; the difficulties of crossing the surrounding country were not insurmountable; but after hundreds of miles were traversed, and weary days and nights had exhausted the body and dulled the mind, then the chief obstacles began. Two hundred miles to the south was the Texan coast-guard. One hundred and fifty miles to the east were the carefully watched lines of the Red River and Atchafalaya. To the north were the rebel Cherokees and the open Indian country. Five hundred miles west of us stretched desolate prairies, and beyond them were the scouts that watched and guarded the Rio Grande. In short, when we studied the map, we saw no city of refuge to which we might flee; when the stockade was scaled and the pursuit evaded, there was still no outlet of escape. Further than this, the chances of re-capture were many. To look over the wide extent of country with its sparse population, its scattered plantations, its remote towns, and talk of pursuing prisoners would seem as idle as searching for needles in a haystack. But every road was watched, every river was guarded. Every man or woman or boy who was not a secret Unionist was in effect a Confederate patrol; the entire State was one great detective police, constantly pursuing prisoners, refugees and slaves.
Yet, after calmly contemplating these difficulties, the greater part of the prisoners at Camp Ford determined to escape. Perhaps the determination was quickened and extended by annoyances which began soon after our arrival, and which steadily increased. There are said to be "bad streaks" in all countries, and Tyler is situated in a very bad streak of Texas. The inhabitants were poor, ignorant and narrow-minded, and viewed, with angry ill-will, the liberality of Colonel Allen. They poured in complaints at head-quarters, and the result was, that one fine morning, the poor Colonel received a reprimand for his liberality, and strict orders not to let us out of the stockade.
The kindness of Colonel Allen and his amiable wife was not lessened by its unpopularity. Regularly, every afternoon, Mrs. Allen came within the stockade, accompanied by a little black girl bearing a basket. Sometimes she brought in visitors, partly to amuse us and partly to soften them. She was tireless in every work that could add to our comfort. She cheered the despondent and comforted the weak, and for the sick, showed that beautiful solicitude that no one save a Christian woman can evince.
There was a little paper then in camp, printed with the pen by Captain May, of the 23d Connecticut, which was read successively in the "shebangs," and shortened the hours and occupied the mind. It had much local wit and humor, but so blended with the inner life of Camp Ford, that the outside world can never understand its hits and jests. Yet frequently the Old Flag rose above satire and humor, and it enabled Lieutenant-Colonel Duganne to pay to Mrs. Allen the following graceful tribute:
“ALL kindly acts are for the dear Lord's sake,
And His sweet love and recompense they claim:
‘I was in prison’ - thus our Saviour spake,
‘And unto me ye came!’
"So, lady! while thy heart with mother's love
And sister's pity cheers the captive's lot,”
Truth keeps her record in the courts above,
And thou art not forgot.
"Though nations war, and rulers match their might,
Our human bosoms must be kindred yet,
And eyes that blazed with battle's lurid light,
Soft pity's tears may wet.
"Were all like thee, kind lady, void of hates,
And swayed by gentle wish and peaceful thought,
No gulf would yawn between contending States,
No ruin would be wrought.
"May all thy matron's heart, with joy run o'er
For children spared to bless thy lengthened years –
Peace in thy home, and plenty at thy door,
And smiles, to dry all tears.
"And may each cheering hope and soothing word
That then to us sad prisoners hast given,
Recalled by Him, who all our prayers hath heard,
Bring the reward in Heaven."
When the minds of many men are given wholly to one subject, it is incredible how many expedients they can devise. Yet no expedient could be devised to comply with one condition which the calmer judgments imposed, and which was thus allegorically expressed by one of our friends in the guard, "When General Green spreads his tents, there will be plenty of good recruits join him;" which meant, "You had better wait till the leaves are out."
At length, in the latter part of March, ere the buds were fully blown, the impatience of fifteen officers broke through their discretion. They divided into three parties, and made their preparations carefully. Old haversacks were mended, and new ones made. Suspicious articles of dress were exchanged. Some beef was saved and dried; hard-tack was baked, and panola made. This last article was recommended by the Texans. It consists of corn-meal browned to about the color of ground coffee, with a liberal allowance of sugar stirred in. Its advantages are that it requires no cooking, and contains a large amount of nutriment in proportion to its bulk and weight.
The parties were soon ready to start. But the Texan atmosphere is dry and clear, with cloudless nights. One evening, while the colors of sunset were still glowing upon the western sky, an officer came to me, and pointing to a black cloud that was rising from the horizon, said, "If that cloud comes up overhead, we will make the attempt." It was a bad hour, in every way; for darkness had not yet succeeded day, and the moon was already throwing her pale light upon the eastern clouds. Yet this cloud might not come again for weeks, and its dark shadow was too precious to be lost.
A gay party assembled in the “shebang” nearest to the southern side of the stockade. They had a fiddle and banjoes and castanets, and all the vocal minstrelsy of the camp. They roared Irish songs, and danced negro break-downs, and the little cabin shook with the tumult of their glee. Down at the farther corner of the inclosure, where all was gloom and quiet, two men crawled on the ground to the stockade. They were about thirty feet apart, and a rope lay between them. The sentry on the outside heard the merriment in the "shebang," and as all was quiet on his beat, he walked up to look at the Yankee's fun. He passed the two men. The second twitched the rope; the first quickly rose, and dug with all his might. A few minutes, and the hole was deep enough to allow a post of the stockade to be canted over, so as to leave a narrow aperture between it and its neighbor. The man laid down his spade, signalled to some one behind him, and began to squeeze himself through the opening. Fourteen others rose from the ground, and one by one, trembling with impatient eagerness, pressed through and followed him. They crossed the sentries' path, ran up a little hill that fronted the stockade, and disappeared beneath the trees beyond. The second of the two men still lay upon the ground. The last of the fifteen was to have twitched the rope, and this man was to have replaced the post. But who, at such a time, ever looked behind to see if he were last? The signal was not given! Within the "shebang" still rose the racket, and still the sentry stood grinning at the Yankee antics. But from the other direction came the tramp of the next guard-relief!
Among those who waited and listened, and saw nothing, there was intense suppressed excitement. In vain one or two, moved round, begging the little groups to break up — to stifle their earnest whispers — to resume the ordinary hubbub of time evening — to laugh — to sing — to do anything. In vain a young lieutenant, who was both a wit and vocalist, burst forth with —
“Roll on, silver moon!
Light the traveller on his way.”
The groups broke up, but re-formed; the whispers stopped for a moment, and then went on.
The corporal of the guard halted his relief, and could be seen observing the opening of the leaning post. There was a little pause, and then a light came down to the suspicious opening. There was a little longer pause — a slight stir through the guards' quarters, and then a squadron of cavalry rode out, and an officer, with four or five men, went at a gallop down the Tyler road.
The black cloud seemed to be the fugitives' friend; for at this moment of discovery it poured down a heavy shower. We retired to our cabins, and felt some little relief in the hope that the friendly cloud had washed away the trail. Some time passed — perhaps two hours, and our hope had well-nigh turned into belief; when, from the Tyler road, a low, wailing, ominous cry smote upon our ears. “Did you hear that?” each asked of the other, in startled whispers. “Yes; the blood-hounds!”
The hounds came down to the stockade. They snuffed and moaned for a moment around the opening, and then ran straight up the bank and under the trees. There lay the trail. We listened until their faint baying could be heard no longer. Of all the dismal sounds that mortal senses were ever laden with, none more melancholy than the baying of these hounds was ever heard. We passed the uneasy night in speculating upon the chances of the three parties, and in trying to imagine the feelings of our friends when they should first hear the fore-boding wail behind them, and surmise that the blood-hounds were upon their track.
Yet the next morning the prospect appeared brighter. Three showers of rain had fallen during the night; twelve hours had passed since the escape, and we felt confident that the hounds must have lost the scent. The day passed in growing cheerfulness, and at taps no tidings had come. We went to our quarters, sure that all bad been successful. About nine o'clock that evening, the door of my "shebang" opened, and Lieutenant-Colonel Leake, of the 20th Iowa, entering, presented, with mock formality, Lieutenant Lyon, of the 176th New-York. He and his party had been recaptured.
There were still eleven officers out, who, we knew, were divided into two parties. Twenty-four hours must have passed before the hounds could have taken their trail, and every hour dissipated the scent. The second day passed without news. So did the third evening, and the morning of the third day. Then, about noon, word was passed in from the guard-house that nine more were caught.
In an hour or two, they came, close packed on the bottom of a wagon. We waited with some anxiety the reception they would meet with at head-quarters. Colonel Allen came out, shook hands with one or two, laughed, and manifestly treated the affair as a joke. The wagon started for the gate. Its way lay through the quarters of the guard, who had, of course, turned out to look at the runaway Yanks. We waited in the painful expectation of hearing a Texan yell over the misfortune of our friends. To their honor be it known, the Texans showed no ill-mannered exultation. But the instant it was settled that no shout of triumph was to be raised by the victorious rebs, there was a revulsion of feeling in the prison community. As the gate opened, a slight, restless stir ran through the crowd. As the wagon drove in, a loud shout arose (couched in expressive Texan slang) of, "Here's your mule! Here's your mule!" The runaways smiled feebly, as men do who are the victims of a joke. The crowd laughed boisterously, and gave excellent imitations of the baying of hounds. About the same time, a little three-year-old, the child of a commissary-sergeant, came out on the bank opposite to us, and in shrill tones piped out, “Yankee ran away! Yankee ran away!” And all the afternoon, the little wretch would come, at short intervals, and re-sing his refrain, “Yankee ran away! Yankee ran away! Yankee ran away!”
When we came to collate the stories of the three parties, and of their captors, we gathered the following account: each party had kept secret its intended movements; yet all had selected substantially the same route. Unluckily for them, their trails crossed, and, still more unluckily, there rode with the Confederates an old western trapper, whom the men called Chillicothe. When the first party was captured, the pursuers merely returned to the crossing of the second trail, and followed it up. In like manner, when they had captured the second party, they only came back to the third trail. At these crossings, the prisoners could see nothing; but to the eyes of Chillicothe and the instinct of the dogs, the two trails were as plain as the crossings of two streets. The trapper told the prisoners where they had been, and nearly everything they had done. He showed them where (unknowingly) they entered a swamp by the same opening, and crossed a stream on the same tree. He pointed out to them the spot where they sat down to rest, and the hill up which one climbed to reconnoitre. He described to them a log where one pulled off his boots, and another lit his pipe. A secret history of their movements seemed to be written upon the ground.
The story of the last party captured was this: they marched rapidly all of the first night, and hid themselves through the first day. At dark, they resumed their march, and continued to travel rapidly through the woods. On the second morning, they selected, as a hiding-place, a narrow gully, roofed over and completely hidden by a fallen tree. The barking of dogs and crowing of cocks told that a plantation was near. In the afternoon, two restless members of the party insisted on going there to buy eggs. Hardly had they gone, when, in the opposite direction, was heard the baying of hounds. Yet there were no fears of being tracked, for forty-four hours had passed since the party left camp. The baying came nearer. Still it was thought that a party of hunters were accidentally coming that way. A number of horsemen rode down to the little brook at the foot of the hill, and paused there to water their steeds. The dogs, at the same time, started, and came directly up the hill. A beautiful dark hound led the pack, and when he reached the tree, he mounted it with his fore-feet, and looked intelligently down on the prisoners. They remained quiet, fearing that some growl or bark might betray them, yet hoping the hounds would pass on. The leader turned, and quietly trotted down the hill. He went, not to his owner, but to the lieutenant who commanded the party; he looked a moment at him, and then turning looked toward the fallen tree. The lieutenant instantly shouted, “Here they are!” All of his men drew their pistols, and spurred their horses up the hill. The tree was surrounded, and the fugitives recaptured.
What became of the two remaining officers was a question with us for many weeks. The unerring hounds had started on their trail, but the lieutenant who commanded, had ordered that they should be called off. He did not know how many prisoners had escaped, and moreover, he had already caught two parties of four each. Therefore, when he found five prisoners in the gully, he naturally concluded that they were all. Several weeks after this, a quotation from a New Orleans paper assured us of their safe arrival within our lines.
The first fact impressed upon us by these adventures was the wonderful power and sagacity of the bloodhounds. During the next three months, a long list of experiences re-taught this lesson. The Confederates possessed in them “pursuing angels,” whose powers exceeded those of men. If you buried yourself in the earth, they dug you out. If you climbed a tree, they came and stood at the foot. If you plunged into trackless wilds, they followed you. If you threw yourself into a stream, and threaded its windings for miles, they passed tirelessly up and down its bank, until they came to the spot where you had left it. As every means that ingenuity could devise failed, and as prisoner after prisoner who tried them was recaptured, there gradually grew up, in our minds, a feeling that to be hunted by these brutes was like being pursued by dreadful phantoms, such as we read of in old stories, which no mortal power could outstrip or elude, if their insatiate chase once began.
At the time of the escape of the fifteen, a number of officers were secretly engaged in “tunnelling out.” There were two plans connected with this tunnel. The first, was that all who wished to escape should pass out on the same night and then scatter in small parties. We knew that some of these parties would be caught — we also thought that some would escape, and every man hoped that he would be in a lucky party. The second plan rested in the breasts of but three or four officers, and they hardly ventured to speak of it to each other. It was that on some dark night we would pass all able-bodied men out, form them in the neighboring woods, march boldly down the road, and surprise the guard in their quarters; then after burning the Confederate arsenal and workshops at Tyler, we would seize upon horses sufficient to mount the party, and push without ceasing for the Sabine and our lines beyond.
About one hundred feet beyond the north side of our enclosed camp stood two large trees. The spot was known as the “Quartermaster's Grave,” for there slept Lieutenant John P. Kimball, Quartermaster of the 176th New York. The grave, carefully enclosed by a wicker fence, was between the two trees. The sentries' walk was close to the stockade and parallel to the grave. Within our enclosure the “shebangs,” though not built upon any plan, had nevertheless sprung up with somewhat of the regularity of streets. One, however, called from its Indiana owners, the Hawk-eye, stood detached, and only about sixteen feet from the stockade. This cabin was taken for our starting point. In one corner a shaft was sunk eight feet in depth and length by four in width. From the bottom of this shaft the tunnel started. It was just high enough for a man to sit erect and work, and just wide enough for two men to meet and pass by each other. Two men worked in it at the same time, the one excavating and the other removing the earth. Their tools consisted of an old sword-bayonet, a broken shovel and a small box.
The first difficulty met was in establishing the grade and direction of the tunnel. The top of it at the shaft was less than five feet below the surface, while the posts of the stockade stood four and a half feet deep. It was necessary to go well below them, and therefore necessary to start with a descending grade. Beside the Quartermaster's grave were three others. They projected over a line drawn from the shaft to the largest tree, and we designed that the tunnel should come out through the roots of this tree like a fox-earth. The wicker fence with the trunk and shadow of the tree, formed so perfect a screen from the sentries that a hundred men could have passed out on a stormy night with only remote chances of detection. Yet as the graves projected over the line I have mentioned, it was necessary for us to deflect from our true course until we should pass them, and then turn and work toward the tree. To bore under ground in the dark, and hit such a mark as the tree could not be done by chance or guess work. We also must know the exact distance of the point where we should turn from our deflecting course; for if we turned too soon we should run into the graves, and if we turned too late we should shoot beyond the tree.
The difficulty of grade and direction was speedily disposed of. A pocket-compass and a small vial were soon procured, and Mr. Johnson, engineer of the gun-boat “Diana,” with admirable skill combined them into a good surveyor's compass and level. The direction of the tree was taken, the amount of our deflection estimated, and the compass-level handed to the workmen with orders to keep on a certain grade and course.
To ascertain the exact distance of the tree was a harder task. For this three methods were suggested. It was first proposed that an officer should go out for wood, and as he passed this part of the stockade, some one should request him to copy the inscription on a head-board. He would then come up to the stockade for a pencil, and thence walk directly to the tree, counting his steps as be went. The objection to this was that it might excite suspicion, and draw attention to the tree.
The second method was to form an interior triangle, which should be equal to an imaginary exterior triangle. To do this it was indispensable that we should have “a given angle” and a “given side” of each. Our pocket-compass was too small to take angles, and moreover this had to be done literally within a few inches of the sentries and before their eyes. It was advisable, therefore, to measure and establish our given angle without instruments, and in the most artless manner.
Now every body possessed of a smattering of geometry knows that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypothenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides. Yet very few people can turn that knowledge to any practical account. This theorem, however, enabled us readily and accurately to establish a right-angle, and to use it as our “given angle.” It was done in this way: we took a cord and measured off and marked with pins, ten feet, eight feet, and six feet. By squaring these numbers it will be seen that 10 2 = 8 2+6 2. Hence by bringing our line into the shape of a triangle (the pins designating the angles), we formed of it a right-angled triangle.
It was not to be supposed that a Texan sentry, seeing us measuring with a cord on the inside of the stockade, would ever dream that we were measuring distances on the outside. Yet it was desirable that our measurements should be few and quickly done. After thus marking the line, and also measuring upon it twenty feet, Captain Torrey, of the 20th Iowa and myself carried it up to the Hawk-eye cabin, dropped it on the ground, and quickly
drew it into the form of the little triangle – A J K. As soon as the side A J came on a line with the tree, one of us glanced along the other side A K and noted the point B where its projection struck the stockade. He then quickly measured twenty feet in this direction, and stuck a peg in the ground at C. He measured twenty feet more and placed another peg at D. Here we re-set the triangle, which gave us the new direction D E. One of us then walked down this course till he found himself on a line with the peg C and the tree.
Here we placed another peg, F. We then picked up the cord and came away. When the guard was relieved, and a new set of sentries stood around the stockade, we went back and measured the distance from F to D. It was equal to the distance from the cabin to the tree.
The third method was suggested by Captain Torrey. It was to take the altitude of a triangle by trigonometry. A table of logarithms remaining in the possession of a naval officer enabled us to do this. Captain Torrey laid off the base of his triangle well down in the camp, out of sight of the sentries. To measure the angle at A he
described a circle on the back of a large chess-board, and divided it as accurately as he could into degrees. When the altitude B T was thus obtained, all that remained necessary to be done was to measure the distance from the base to the corner of the "shebang" (B C), and subtract it from the altitude B T. The results obtained by these two methods were substantially the same.
A great deal of earth comes out of such a hole. It was estimated that we brought out two cart loads a day. For the first day or two our plan was simply to carry it from the cabin after dark. Now this might escape notice, but if it once attracted observation, and that observation should continue from night to night, detection was certain. The boldest course is always the safest, and therefore it was determined that all the earth should be carried out in broad daylight. Accordingly a number of officers were detailed for this work. They never went for a bucket of water without filling the bucket with earth; none carried out a bag or basket empty. Little by little, the contents of the tunnel were distributed around the camp. Some was thrown in the paths and trampled down — some in the ravine, and covered with ashes, and some was used to bank up “shebangs.” It was scattered so perfectly that many of our own number were at a loss to know what had become of it.
A sentinel constantly watched the gate. When any Confederate visitor entered, a signal was given, the work stopped within the tunnel, and a blanket was spread over the shaft. Yet all these precautions did not satisfy our anxiety. The ingenious engineer of the “Diana” was again called in. He skilfully arched over the shaft, leaving a hole at one end, over which he placed the meal-box of the Hawk-eye. The bottom of this box was movable. When work was suspended in the tunnel the bag of meal and cooking utensils were thrown into the box, and it became as honest a looking box as a man could have. When work was to begin again the box was emptied, the bottom was lifted out, and there appeared a dark hole, through which a man could drop down into the shaft below.
Yet still our anxiety grew with the work. We knew that if suspicion ever fell on any “shebang” it would fall on this one. We, therefore, determined to push a sap to an inner cabin, and pass all the earth through to the less suspicious building. A wet morning gave us a pretext for digging a trench. The trench was speedily roofed and covered with earth. When fully completed, one end of it entered the shaft, and the other opened in the second “shebang.” The operation then was this: a workman in the tunnel tilled a small box with earth; a second one in the shaft drew out the box, and lifted it into the " baby-jumper" (as the sap was called); a third drew it through, and emptied it in the second “shebang.”
Yet all this precaution was deemed insufficient. The "baby-jumper" was enlarged so that a man could crawl through; the box was removed, and the shaft was covered over entirely. On the very day that this was completed, the gate suddenly opened, and Colonel Allen came in. He walked rapidly to the Hawk-eye (whither he had never gone before), and contrary to his invariable custom, entered it unasked and unannounced. He saw only a bare earth floor.
It was plainly desirable that information of the projected movement should be sent to our army, and accordingly a message to that effect was duly forwarded to our lines by the Confederate authorities in the following letter:
CAMP FORD , March 19, 1864,
“Letters came yesterday for some
“of* us*, and it will please J-- to know that hers did
“not escape this time. About a dozen of us have had
“letters containing news to 15th ult. There were two from
"mother, and one dated April 7th from C— for me.
“On the whole we will not complain of our luck. I
“am even willing to scatter them more equally amongst the
“prisoners, and indeed to let others have a few of mine.
“We feel certain the blockaders
“at* Sabine* and Galveston keep ours. Maj. Hyllested
“assures us, he sent a flag off with them at least
“three times. Let F-- look out* for them. Some
“were sent in September, others in October, November and
“December, I think, but will not be sure as to all of
“these months. Those which go by Shreveport and Red River
“seem to get through and reach their destination in
“Stevenson (as I wrote to you) whom
“we left sick at Iberia, is here nearly well. Let
“his family know this.”
The key to this letter had been previously sent out by an exchanged prisoner. It early became apparent that secret correspondence might be useful to us and of advantage to the government. But it was necessary that it should be both secret and unsuspected. An ordinary cipher would have been as worthless as any contraband letter. My first idea was to take a certain word of every line to convey the hidden message. But this I found lengthened the letter too much, and I therefore added to these every blotted and underscored word. If a person were sure that his correspondent knew the key, and if he were allowed to coin facts and write nonsense, this correspondence would be easy enough. But it became somewhat difficult when, written under the following conditions; viz., 1. To write briefly; 2. To use such words and subjects as a prisoner in that camp would naturally use; 3. To state in the body of the letter the personal information I wished to communicate; for I was never sure my key had reached my correspondent. Yet a very little practice removed much of the difficulty, and for six months, every letter carried out its twofold intelligence. If now the reader will collate the fifth word of every line, the words marked thus* and those in italics, the inner meaning of the foregoing letter will become apparent.
News now arrived of the advance of our army up the Red River. The leaves were coming out, and the time was slowly approaching when we expected to use the tunnel. The officer who had been selected to direct the work, well knew that when this time should arrive it would be absolutely impossible to prevent the whole camp from talking of it, and that one careless word might ruin everything. He therefore sought to conceal the real situation of the affair, by concealing the real distance to the tree, and under-rating the amount of work actually performed. Every precaution was taken to divert attention from the progress of the work; for the inspection of the shrewd Colonel betokened that some foolish word had been overheard by the sentries, or else that we had a secret spy in camp. There were then a few straggling privates within the stockade, and suspicion pointed at two of these. A constant watch was kept upon them; and orders were given that all conversation on the subject should cease.The night of the fifteenth of April would be the first which the moon would rise late enough for a sufficient number of men to pass out; and on the fifteenth of April it was designed that the tunnel should be finished and the sally made. On the ninth, news arrived that a great battle had begun at Mansfield. On the tenth, rumors came, saying that the Confederate General had possessed sufficient courage to move forward and strike our invading army. On the eleventh, we heard that he had struck it in detail, routing it and driving it back toward Alexandria. On the thirteenth, Colonel Allen received orders to prepare for four thousand new prisoners. On the fifteenth, the stockade was moved back six hundred feet, and our unfortunate tunnel left high and dry in the middle of this new enclosure.
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