Friday, January 4, 2008

Escape from Fort Warren

Fort Warren is strategically located on Georges Island, midway between the northern and southern arms of Boston Harbor. The National Park Service calls Fort Warren the most important Civil War site in New England, as it served as a prison for Confederate leaders and officers, including vice president Alexander Stephens. Battery Jack Adams, an unusual single gun battery within the Fort, was considered to be a key part of Boston Harbor's defense system during the Spanish-American War. Confederate Captain J.W. Alexander led an escape from Fort Warren 1n 1862. His account of the event, included below, originally appeared in New England Magazine,Volume 13, Issue 2, October 1892. pp. 208-212


By Capt. J. W. Alexander

In the month of November, 1862, I was detached from the James River Squadron and ordered to Savannah, Georgia, as executive officer of the new iron-clad Atlanta, being constructed for the Confederates at that place. On arriving, I found the Atlanta at the lower end of the city, still in the hands of the contractor ; but her guns were on board, and there only remained some finishing to be done before she was turned over to the government.More... Captain McBlair was in command, and the other officers reported for duty about the same time as myself. The Atlanta was an iron steamer, built in Scotland, and had run the blockade into the Savannah River and been purchased by the Confederate government. Her upper works had been removed and she had been cut down, and a shield for the battery constructed upon her iron hull after the pattern of the old Merrimac, with sloping sides covered with two bars of iron, each two inches thick. These bars were bolted to the solid pine logs with which her shield had been constructed. It is not my purpose to give any detailed account of this vessel or her career, but only to state in a general way how she was eventually captured by the Federal fleet in Ossabar Sound. Her crew were mostly Georgians, volunteers from the army, and, with the exception of a few sailors, were totally unacquainted with the duties required of them; but they soon learned to work the battery very well, and with the few sailors that were on board made eventually quite an efficient crew. The vessel was at first commanded by Captain McBlair, but before her sailing, Capt. W. A. Webb had been placed in command. After the usual delay, we dropped down to the obstructions in the river and began exercising and drilling the crew; and it was not until June, 1863, that it was thought the vessel was ready for action.

Sometime before this we passed through the obstructions in the river and dropped down to Fort McAllister, which was on one of the mouths of the Savannah River. On the night of the 16th of June, we dropped down to the bar at the entrance of Ossabar Sound, where the Federal fleet, consisting of two monitors and some wooden gunboats, was lying, awaiting the expected attack. The next morning we were under weigh before day, and steaming down so as to get over the bar at high water. At daylight the Federals were under weigh and coming to meet us, and not long afterward, in attempting to cross the bar, we ran hard and fast aground, and notwithstanding every effort, here we remained, not able to move. The two monitors came up within close range, and taking positions where our guns could not be brought to bear on them, they opened fire on us with their heavy guns. Nearly every shot hit, and it was only a short time before one struck the pilot house, wounding both pilots and Captain Webb; another struck the shield on the starboard side forward, and the effect was to stun nearly every man in that part of the ship, wounding several severely. The woodwork to which the iron plates were bolted was completely shivered, and many men were struck by the splinters. The shot did not come through, but wherever a shot struck the woodwork was broken and splintered. In a very short time it was evident that to continue the contest would only result in the destruction of the crew. The tide had fallen so low that all hopes of getting the vessel afloat had to be abandoned. No resistance could be made, as our guns could not be brought to bear on the enemy, they having taken positions on our bow and quarter. Captain Webb reluctantly gave the order to haul down the flag, and in a few minutes we all found ourselves prisoners of war on the different vessels of the Federal fleet. We were carried first to Port Royal and then to New York, and were, for a time, confined in Fort La Fayette. From this place we were taken to Boston and placed in Fort Warren, on one of the islands about seven miles from the city.

Fort Warren was commanded by Colonel Dimmick, and was garrisoned by some local Massachusetts troops. The officers and men always treated us kindly. At first we were allowed to purchase anything we wished, and for a while our friends in Baltimore and some in Boston sent us many things, clothing and eatables; but after a time, acting under orders received from Washington, we were not allowed to buy anything, and had only the rations usually allowed prisoners, which were neither plentiful nor inviting. The privilege of purchasing provisions was taken from us, it was said, in retaliation for the treatment the Federal prisoners received at the hands of the Confederates ; but this matter has been fully discussed, and will not be dwelt on here. After this the underground railway brought us such things as we were able to pay enormously for.

Besides the prisoners taken on the Atlanta, there were the officers and crew of the Tacony and some political prisoners and blockade-runners confined in Fort Warren. We were kept in the casemates under the main battery. In the daytime we were allowed to take exercise on the pavements in front of our quarters, but after sundown we were locked in the casemates and sentinels placed in front of our doors. Four of us, Lieutenant C. W. Reed of the Tacony (a prize vessel converted into a Confederate naval boat), Lieutenant of Marines James Thurston of the Atlanta, Reed Sanders, a political prisoner from Kentucky, and myself determined to escape. Many plans were suggested and discussed, but none seemed feasible. Indeed, situated as we were on an island, and strictly guarded day and night, with sentinels stationed in front of our doors, confined within solid masonry constructed to resist the shot from the heaviest guns, it seemed impossible to escape; and yet the escape was easily accomplished.

In the basement under the room in which we were confined was a pump where we obtained our water, and in the outer wall of this basement were two openings called musketry loop-holes. These were something over six feet high, two or three feet wide at the inside of the wall, and gradually sloping to a point, so that at the outer side of the wall they were only a little over seven inches wide. One day, while bathing, the thought struck me that I could get through this hole, — and I immediately tried it. I found that by turning my head so as to look over my shoulder, I could get through, but with my clothes on I could not get my body through. Stripping off my clothes, I tried again, and found I could squeeze through, though it was hard to do it. This discovery was made known to the other three, and each one found he could get through quite easily, as I was the largest one of the party. No time was lost after this in getting ready for our escape.

Waiting for a dark night, we one by one squeezed through the loop-hole, and lowered ourselves down into the dry ditch between the main and water batteries. We made our way cautiously over the water battery and then through the grass towards the sea-wall, where we found, as we expected and feared, that sentinels were posted. These would walk backwards and forwards on the wall, and when they met they would turn and walk off in the opposite directions. Keeping close to the ground we would approach the walls when they were walking from each other, and remain quiet after they turned and were coming together. Finally we succeeded in passing between them while their backs were towards us, and got into the water close to the wall, lying down with our heads against the wall, and our feet in the water. Finding the sea very rough and the wind high, after a considerable time we concluded it would be very dangerous to try to swim off at that time; so we watched our chance and succeeded in regaining our quarters, as our friends inside, by our direction, had left the rope hanging down from the loop-hole so that we could go back if for any reason we could not succeed in getting off the island. Only a few of the prisoners knew we had been out. Most of them ridiculed the idea that any one could get through so small a hole. A smart little midshipman, seeing our wet clothes, tasted, and, finding them salt, was convinced.

The failure of our first attempt did not discourage us. Lieutenant Reed suggested that two of his men, good swimmers and very reliable, be allowed to go with us. He talked to them, and they readily agreed to accompany us. The plan was for these two men to swim over to the adjoining island, procure a boat and return to within a short distance of the shore, and we would then swim out to them.

We made the second attempt the night following the first. At the time agreed on we lowered ourselves down into the ditch, and were here joined by the two sailors. Proceeding as before, we stopped in the grass, between the water battery and wall, while the sailors, crawling on, passed between the sentries, and getting into the water swam off, and we never saw them again. I heard that they finally made their way back to the Confederacy, but I am not certain that this is true. Waiting, as it seemed to us, for hours, and the sailors not returning, Thurston and I determined that we would swim over to the island on which the lighthouse stood, get a boat, and return for Reed and Sanders, neither of whom, being poor swimmers, were willing to run the risk. Close to the shore where we passed to the water was a target, made of white pine and very light. The garrison used this target to practice on, and after consulting together we, Thurston and I, determined to use it to float our clothes over on, shoving it ahead of us as we swam. Watching our chance, we pulled it down and got it into the water while the sentinels were on their outward trip; and it came very near being the means of defeating our plan; for before we could get away they came together again, right over our heads, on the sea-wall, and began to talk on indifferent subjects, and continued for some time.

Finally one said to the other, "Where is the target? Wasn't it here when we came on post?" "Yes," was the reply. "Where can it be ?" They came to the edge of the wall, and looked over. It was very dark in the shadow, and we lay close together, barely breathing.

"I believe I see something down here in the water," said one. "Stick your bayonet into it and see what it is," said the other. The sentinel lowered the muzzle of his musket, and shoved it slowly towards Reed's breast, directly under him. The point finally rested on his chest! He never moved a muscle, but remained perfectly quiet. That was the bravest thing I saw during the four years of the war.

But it was only for a moment. The man pulled his gun up, remarking, "I am not going to stick my bayonet into saltwater." After this they stood for what seemed to us an age, and discussed the disappearance of the target, finally concluding that the "spirits had taken it away." Then they separated and moved off, widening the distance between us.

Now was our chance. Tying our clothes to the target, we pushed it off and headed for the shore of the island, which lay some distance from the fort. Though it was August the water seemed as cold as ice. Want of exercise had weakened us, and though we made apparently good progress, it seemed hours that we were in the water, and the tide swept us down all the time. There was a lighthouse on an island opposite the lower end of the island on which the fort was built. We kept this light a little to the right of us as we swam, and finally, after a long time, -- it seemed hours, -- we stopped for a moment, letting our feet sink under us. We both touched bottom at the same time, and, straightening up, we waded ashore, pulling the target after us. We were almost frozen, but as soon as we had put the target some little distance from the water we set out along the shore to look for a boat, keeping together for fear we might not be able to find each other without a noise, if we separated, and not knowing whether or not anyone lived on the island.

After a long time we came upon a small fishing boat, which had been dragged up on the beach, and anchored so as to keep it in place. We pulled the anchor up to the bow of the boat, and secured it; then we tried to shove the boat into the water. It was so small that we ought to have launched it easily; yet after moving it a certain distance, we could get it no further. I cannot tell how long we were at this business, but it was a long time. Finally, trying to see what kept the boat from moving, we found there was a second anchor over the stern. Cutting the rope which held the boat, we shoved it into the water, and getting on board we hoisted the sail and steered over towards the fort, intending to take down the sail when we got nearer and pull in for Reed and Sanders.

It had been getting lighter for some time, but was not quite daylight. We stood on, but did not go too near, for fear of exciting the suspicion of the sentinels, whom we could see very plainly. Finally, as it got lighter and lighter, we reluctantly turned the boat's head toward the sea, as we could plainly see that Reed and Sanders had left and were perhaps back in the casemates, having given us up. It was a sad disappointment to us. I believe we could have got them off, if we could have launched the boat without delay. I afterwards learned that, waiting till nearly daylight, they attempted to return to the casemates; but they waited too long, and were discovered and put in close confinement. Thurston and myself sailed by the fort, in plain view of the sentinels on the sea-walls, and after getting outside to what we considered a sufficient distance from the land, we headed up the coast, intending to land in New Brunswick. All that day we sailed with a light breeze ; and towards night we ran close in shore to see if we could get something to eat. We had no clothes except our hats and shirts, and we were very hungry and thirsty.

Just about dark we were close in to the beach. Near the shore we saw a house and a man standing in front of it. We hailed him and asked him to come off, which he proceeded to do in a small boat. He looked at us very suspiciously, but listened to our tale calmly. We told him we had sailed out from Portsmouth for a lark, and had gone in bathing, and that while in the water our clothes had blown overboard, and asked him to get us some clothes if he could, and bring us some water and something to eat. He went on shore, and soon returned with some old clothes, a good supply of plain food, some tobacco, and a small bottle of cherry brandy. I am satisfied he knew what we were, but we said nothing, except to thank him for his kindness, telling him we would remain where we were till next day ; but as soon as he was out of sight, we hoisted our sail and stood on up the coast towards Eastport, intending to land in New Brunswick. Had the wind held we should have reached there before morning; but it was nearly calm.

Thurston slept some in the first part of the night, and at midnight he took the helm and I lay down to rest. For two nights I had had no sleep, and I was very tired. I slept soundly. When I woke it was broad daylight; indeed the sun was up, and the breeze was very light. We were not heading our course, but we afterwards did so. For the greater part of the forenoon the wind was light, and we made little progress. We noticed about eight or nine o'clock, what appeared to be a good sized schooner, which was sailing around; and from the fact that it changed its course frequently and was apparently running towards different sails — several being in sight,— we concluded that the vessel was hunting for us. This proved to be the case, for towards noon she came sailing towards us. The officers in the boat hailed us, and coming alongside asked us a number of questions, we telling pretty much the same tale we had told at Rye Beach. I think they were about to let us go, when someone suggested we had better be searched. This was done, and finding some Confederate money on one of us they at once told us that they knew who we were, and that we must go on board the revenue-cutter, which the vessel proved to be.

I think the Captain's name was Webster. He treated us very kindly, and told us he had been looking for us both that day and the day before, and that several other boats were out after us. He carried us into Portland harbor, and before we had been there very long the United States marshal came on board, and Captain Webster delivered us into his charge.

As soon as we had passed into his boat, which lay alongside the revenue cutter, he put his hands into his pockets, and, pulling out a pair of handcuffs, proceeded to put the cuffs on to my left wrist and on to Thurston's right wrist, so we were handcuffed together, which made me feel very queer. We must have presented a sorry spectacle on landing, for a little newsboy seemed to have felt very badly about us. He ran off somewhere and came back with two apples, which he gave us. A crowd was collecting about us, and the marshal put us into a cab and carried us to the city jail and delivered us over to the jailer, who took us upstairs and put us into cells adjoining each other. We could talk, but could not see each other. The food furnished us in this jail was certainly the most disgusting ever offered to men. After a few days our friends in Fort Warren sent us some clothes, and we heard that Reed and Sanders were well, but were in close confinement. We were kept locked up in our several cells at night, but in the daytime we were allowed to be out for a short time in the morning, being afterward locked up in the same cell for the balance of the day.

Our capture evidently caused great excitement in Portland. The jail was crowded with visitors to see the two "Rebel" prisoners, — or pirates, as we were generally called. They would come and stand at the doors of our cells and discuss us as if we were a species of wild animals; and I suppose we were a kind of menagerie to them. After a while we got used to being stared at and paid no attention to them. One day, I remember, there was a large crowd peeping at us through the bars. One young and quite pretty girl said, looking at me: "Oh, Susan, he is reading ! "To which Susan replied, "Pshaw! this one's writing." Several of the visitors were evidently very sorry for us, and some few books were sent us by some kind people of the city; but, as a general thing, the people were very bitter, and told us plainly that they thought we ought to be killed.

We remained in Portland jail about one month, and while there formed plans for escape. We were confined in cells on the second story of the jail. The doors of the cells were of iron bars about one inch in diameter. We determined to saw through these bars, and once out of our cells we could go down to the lower floor, where we were permitted to go for a short time to wash. The windows of this wash-room had the usual iron bars; by removing one or two of them we could get through, — and once out we determined to make for the water or the country, as seemed best, and get up into Canada.

It took some time to get the instrument to saw the bars with, but we finally succeeded. Before we could make much progress, however, we were again transferred to Fort Warren, and found our two friends, Thurston and Reed, confined in a room on the opposite side of the fort from the other prisoners, and closely guarded. We were put into this room, and some time afterward we were joined by Samuel Sterrett, a son of Captain Sterrett of the C. S. N. Sterrett was a native of Baltimore, and had been arrested as a Southern sympathizer and sent to join the other political prisoners in the fort; but being regarded as a dangerous prisoner, he was put with us into close confinement. He was a real acquisition, for he came in provided with many things by friends, and was generous, dividing liberally with us all he had and everything that was sent to him from Baltimore by his friends.

We were kept in close confinement for several months. The colonel commanding offered to put us with the other prisoners if we would give our parole not to attempt to escape ; but this we declined to do. We had formed our plans to get out of this room; but before we could make any beginning, we were put back with the other naval officers in our old original casemates.

Never losing hope, we began to look around at once to see how we could get out of the casemates. There were two chimneys in our room, and both were stack chimneys — that is to say, there were two flues in the chimney, one for the fireplace in our casemate, and one for the fireplace of the adjoining one.

We determined to move the partition in one of these chimneys and get out at the top. This would be a work of months, but we commenced at once. The fireplaces were closed and only a hole for a stovepipe remained. We took down enough of these bricks to let one man get into the fireplace, and he commenced removing the partition between the fireplaces, or rather enlarging the flue so we could pass up. The bricks removed from the inside of the chimney were beaten into dust and carried out in the slops every morning. After working nearly all night, taking turns and being helped by another prisoner, Morrell, an engineer on the Atlanta, we would put back the bricks we had taken down, using bread made into dough for mortar, and whitewashing the brick over every night before we went to bed.

This work went on for several months; but when we could see that our work was getting to a point where we could begin to see the end, we ascertained that a sentinel was posted at the top of the chimney and that all our work was thrown away. It was a bitter disappointment to us; but we did not have to bear it for a very long time, for in September, I think it was, we were ordered to get ready to go to City Point for exchange.

While in the fort I had a beautiful little English terrier named Fanny, which had belonged to one of the sons of Captain S. S. Lee, and was turned over to me when Lee was ordered abroad. This little dog gained the affections of one of the sergeants attached to the commissary department in Fort Warren, and he used to bring fresh beef every day it was issued to the garrison as a present to the dog. Of course we took charge of the meat and the little dog was given the bones, and this meat was a great addition to our larder. This little dog was with me until the close of the war, and was carried to my home in Lincolnton, North Carolina, where she lived to a good old age, and raised many sons and daughters.

The exchange was a special one, arranged between the navy departments of the two governments. We were sent in a steamer to City Point, on James River, where General Grant had his headquarters on a large river steamboat. We remained here some time, and we learned that the reason was that the Confederates refused to treat with General Butler, the Federal agent for the exchange of prisoners. The Confederates had outlawed General Butler on account of his conduct in New Orleans, and refused to hold any communication with him. Then Captain Webb, the senior captain present, asked for and obtained an interview with General Grant, who listened to what he had to say, said nothing himself, -- but on the following day we were sent up the river, and meeting the Confederate flag of truce about nine miles below Richmond, we were put on board that vessel, and the Federal naval prisoners sent down to be exchanged for us took our places in the one we left. After a short time the two vessels separated, and our boat steamed up the river. We had not gone very far before we saw a Confederate picket standing among some bushes near the bank of the river, and we knew we were once more inside the Confederate lines after having been prisoners for seventeen months. I think that was the happiest day of my life.

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