SWIGGETT - THE BRIGHT SIDE OF PRISON LIFE

C H A P T E R   X I I I .

INCIDENTS, AND ANOTHER ESCAPE.

 

I soon became a stockholder in a tunnel enterprise which was prosecuted vigorously and gave many hopes of success. We started the tunnel inside of an old cabin, using various expedients to conceal the work and get rid of the dirt, all of which were successful. A survey was made to locate the exit in a clump of bushes quite a distance from the stockade, and all was ready for the final move. Quite a number of men were taken into the scheme, and the greatest danger of discovery, that of being "peached" upon by someone on the inside who was more anxious to curry favor with our captors than to be true to his comrades, had been avoided.

The night set for the escape should have been dark, according to calculation, but it turned out to be a clear, starlight night, and some of us were for postponing the enterprise, but the eager spirits prevailed, and the attempt was made. Over a hundred men silently gathered in the neighborhood of the cabin, and the leaders, who had been chosen beforehand, went into the tunnel, followed closely by many others.

A sentinel paced his beat about fifty yards from the clump of bushes in which our tunnel was to come up, and as he slowly walked up and down, probably thinking of home and friends and wishing for his relief, he was suddenly startled by the sight of several dark forms springing apparently from the bowels of the earth. The tunnel had been miscalculated, and the men emerged several feet from the bushes, in full view of the sentry. He was so astounded that he stood stock still for several minutes without uttering a sound, during which time about fifty men had climbed out of the tunnel and made a streak for liberty. Suddenly the sentry came to his senses, fired his gun, called loudly for the guard, and ran to the mouth of the tunnel, with his bayonet really for action.

Those who had not entered the tunnel concluded that they did not want to escape that night, and we returned to our quarters in the stockade.

Over fifty got out and away, but the guards put the dogs after them, and nearly all were brought back in the course of a few days.

The most amusing feature of this abortive attempt to escape occurred at the exit of the tunnel after it was blockaded by the sentinel.

The narrow passage was full of men when the bayonet of the sentry prevented further egress, and those inside could not turn back, while none save the leader knew the cause of the halt. The rest were kept in ignorance and suspense until the guards, who quickly gathered around on the outside, had come to their senses and begun to permit the boys to come out of the hole one by one. As the guards would call out, "Next!" and let another unfortunate creep out, only to find himself still a prisoner, the remarks to be heard were decidedly mirth-provoking, even while the situation had its pathetic aspect.

A day or two after this event one of the officers, a captain in another regiment, came to me and asked if I knew where he could get a pair of pants. His own were a sight to behold, and I told him that I had a spare pair with which I did not wish to part, but that I hated to see him in such a plight. He at once offered me some trinkets for them, and proposed to pay me a big value if he ever got back home. I told him that they would be too small for him, and appeared reluctant to sell. A crowd had gathered, as the smallest things were of interest to the prisoners, and when I thought he was sufficiently eager for the trade, I went into our cabin and brought out the pair given to me by the woman whom I lead asked for patches while on my return to the stockade. When the pants were produced, and it was seen that they were intended for a small boy, having all conveniences, a shout of laughter went up from the crowd, which brought all the other prisoners in the stockade to see what it meant. The captain was half inclined to be angry at first, but he quickly put his ill-humor aside and joined in the merriment. It is needless to say that the trade was declared off.

A few days later about thirty men of the guard, known as Sweet's men, deserted, and there was trouble in the rebel camp.

The desertion was one of the coolest things I ever saw. This portion of the guard was a cavalry detachment. They had just mounted guard on horseback, about 9 o'clock in the morning, when, apparently by common consent, one man, as leader, gave the signal, and all raised their hats politely, saying, "Good-bye, gentlemen; we are going to Mexico," and rode off. No one dared to follow, as they were well armed.

A new guard was sent, and the balance of the old guard relieved. It was said that these men had been sent to this distant duty on account of doubts as to their loyalty to the Confederacy.

We changed our quarters to a deserted cabin nearer to the gate, and were thereby much better prepared for the coming winter, the move being made because it now seemed certain that we were destined to remain in prison until spring, unless we should be able to effect an escape.

Almost all the prisoners were in need of clothing, and we had been informed that a lot had been shipped to us, but that it was delayed somewhere.

We were all on the lookout for that clothing, and when at last we heard that it had arrived we were joyous until we were informed that, allowing one garment apiece, there would be clothing for only three-fourths of the men. As some men needed shirts, some coats and some pants this promised to be quite a problem to solve, and all the officers were instructed to find out the needs of their men, so as to simplify the matter as much as possible.

When the time came for distribution the clothing allotted to our regiment was turned over to the officers, and we got together to divide it. The men of all the companies except my own were crowding about us and clamoring for what they wanted, but not a man of Company B was on hand. This mute expression of their confidence in my willingness and ability to look out for them was one which I appreciated highly, although they had had several evidences of my willingness and determination to secure for them at least all to which they were entitled.

The number of men not being the same in the different companies, it was hard to divide satisfactorily, and it happened that there was an odd garment of each sort. As the odd men were unequally divided, and fractions were necessarily eliminated, we decided to draw lots for the odd articles. I was the lucky man in the lottery, and Company B had the best of matters.

After the division had been made the neighborhood was a scene of confusion, many quarrels and some fights, until all the clothing had been as fairly distributed as was possible. My company kept away from the crowd and in their own quarters, where I had our allowance conveyed. The men were drawn up in line, and my first sergeant and myself proceeded to allot the garments as seemed most fair. Only one murmur of discontent was heard, and that from a man better clothed than any of his comrades, the men being practically unanimous in their wish that I should decide who needed clothing most and what was most needed.

This incident is related principally to show my appreciation of the conduct of my men, and because I think that I may be pardoned for feeling proud of their confidence in me.
The next three weeks were fully employed by all in making log cabins and in filling up all chinks, as the winter was fast approaching.

During this time I was informed by one of my men that a guard, who had seen me almost every day taking part with the men of my company in some amusement, had been asking questions about me and had sent me word that he wanted to see me. After learning when I could see him, I approached his post at night, when, after he had satisfied himself that I was the right man, he directed the guard on the inside, who was one of the line placed within the stockade when the sentries were doubled each night, to stand aside so that he could talk to me. We leaned against the fence and had a long and interesting conversation, during which he stated that he had frequently noticed the interest manifested by me in my company, and desired to do me a favor because of the attachment he felt for me in consequence, intimating that he was disposed to help me make my escape if I so wished.

Before I left him he had volunteered to let me out, give me a horse, saddle and bridle, inform me as to names and locations of different rebel regiments and furnish me with an expired furlough. I was not inclined to be friendly to the horse idea, although I could see the ease and celerity of my escape if all went well, for I knew that it would be sure death to be discovered as an escaped prisoner with a horse and equipments in my possession; but the guard was so enthusiastic over the matter that I promised to think it over, after thanking him heartily for his kindness.

When I explained the plan to some of my former companions in escape they tried to discourage the idea of escape altogether, saying that we would soon be exchanged, and that another failure would keep us from exchange when the time came. I had no hope of release before the end of the war, and so I sought other companionship, believing that the guard could be induced to help more than one of us.

Capt. J. B. Rummel, of the 120th Ohio, had impressed me as a man of the right sort, and I approached him on the subject. He was ready and willing to try an escape, but he confirmed my own impression about the risk of trying it with horses, and we finally concluded to devise a scheme and try it on foot. He suggested that we take Capt. B. F. Miller, of the same regiment, and we decided to do so, after finding that Miller was as anxious to go as we were to have him do so.

When I saw our friend the guard, he was mad because we would not adopt his scheme, but he showed his desire to help us get away by agreeing to let us out when we got ready, even while insisting that the safest and best way would be to take horses. He said:

"Why, man alive, you can start early in the evening, and the horses will not be missed until late the next day. Then if the stable-door is left open they will not dream that prisoners have taken the horses -- at least until you are missed from the stockade. By that time you will be so far away that they can't possibly catch you before you reach the Federal lines on the lower Red River.

I was too timid, however, to risk my life in this way, as I considered the chance of suspicion and apprehension too great, and regarded it as certain death to be caught with a stolen horse. Notwithstanding the risk, I can now see that the guard proposed the plan most likely to insure a, successful result.

We determined to try it on foot, but, while we were preparing for a start, another opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of it rather than risk getting our guard or ourselves into trouble.

Miller, being a turner, manufactured a rude lathe and made numerous articles likely to be purchased, chessmen being the principal of these, being the most salable. We realized some cash from the demand for just such novelties.

Having some flour, we bought some meat on the outside, made some bread, jerked the meat, and thus had provisions and a little money for our enterprise.

We sent out the provisions, little by little, and had them taken to the hospital and concealed until such time as we were ready to start.

Captain Fee was in the hospital at the time, just recovering from an attack of illness, and the day before we were ready to start he came in to see us, on a pass. As we were talking together, I asked to see his pass, and read as follows, on a rough scrap of paper:

"Pass Capt. Fee in and out of stockade, with soap.
McCANN, Adjutant."

I was a very good imitator of handwriting, although I had never been guilty of using my gift for unlawful purposes, and, as I read this pass, the manner of our escape was settled, all being fair in war.

After some little effort on my part, Rummel, Miller and myself were each provided with a pass similar to the one on which Fee had been admitted to the stockade. We told no one of our intentions, but decided to leave the next evening, it being understood that I was to go out just before the change of guards at the gate, and that Miller and Rummel should follow a little later, after the change, in order to avoid the presentation of too many passes to one guard.

At the appointed time, after much mental bracing up, I walked quietly to the gate and presented my pass for inspection. The guard looked it over in a hasty manner and silently opened the gate. As I passed out I saw that several hundred men were watching me, and I concluded that in some way our scheme had become known. The Colonel and some other officers were sitting on the porch at headquarters when I passed, and I cooly saluted him, saying:

"Good evening, Colonel."

He responded politely, and I walked on to our meeting place at the hospital.

My comrades waited until the guards had been changed, and then, with inward tremor and a bold, confident exterior, they walked in a business-like way to the entrance and submitted their authority for departure, which was duly acknowledged without a question. They soon joined me, in high spirits over the ease with which the departure had been accomplished.

We had $4 in greenbacks between us, and felt quite wealthy. Securing our provisions as soon as darkness came, we quietly slipped over into the woods, thence to the road, and went on our way rejoicing, full of hope and with bright thoughts of home and dear ones.

 

 

Swiggett got much further from Camp Ford on this escape, making his way to Arkadelphia, Arkansas before he and his companions were apprehended. The escaped prisoners were taken to a small prison in Shreveport, Louisiana. The details of Swiggett's escape to Arkadelphia and his recapture are covered in Chapters XIV through XII.



 

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3/19/2001