Saturday, January 5, 2008

My escape from Richmond: John Bray's account of his escape from Libby Prison

Federal soldier John Bray of the First New Jersey Cavalry shares his recollections of his capture, confinement, and escape from Libby Prison. Originally appeared in the April, 1864 edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine on p. 662-665.

My name is John Bray. I belong to the First New Jersey Cavalry, and have shared in the perils of every Virginia campaign. In November last I was at Warrenton, with a detachment of comrades, performing picket duty. On the night of the twelfth of that month we were suddenly surrounded by a band of Mosby's rough-riders, and before we knew it were prisoners, the darkness enabling the assailants to come upon us unobserved.More... We did not enjoy, as you may suppose, the prospect of a protracted imprisonment in Richmond, which we knew would be our fate; but there was no door of escape, and we submitted as gracefully as we could. Our captors, though rough and shaggy fellows, were by no means the savages they have sometimes been painted; on the contrary, they treated us kindly, respecting all our rights as prisoners, not even appropriating any of our effects, as it would have been natural for them; as guerrillas, to have done. We were, of course, put under guard, and were disarmed; but we were not altogether excluded from the chat of the camp to which we were carried; and the night, though starless and cold, was by no means the dreariest we had Known in our long and varied experience.

In the morning, under an armed escort, we set out on foot for Richmond, moving by easy stages and a circuitous route to Salem, Sperryville, Orange Court House, and Gordonsville, whence we went by cars. At Sperryville, where we were handed over to the Fourth Virginia Cavalry, we had a taste of the "chivalrous" manners of the true Virginian. These cavalrymen, representing probably the First Families, the moment we were placed under their control, helped themselves unceremoniously to our caps and overcoats, and, regardless of common decency and humanity, attempted even to take our blankets, notwithstanding we were shivering with cold and suffering greatly from exposure. In this intention, however, they were finally restrained by their officers, who had yet some scruples of conscience remaining, and for the rest of the way we continued in the enjoyment of the little protection the blankets could give us.

We arrived in Richmond on the 17th, and were at once conducted to the "Pemberton Factory Prison," where we had a speedy introduction to all the repellent features of prison life. The prison is a building twenty-five by one hundred feet, four stories high, occupied originally as a tobacco manufactory, but appropriated for the last two years to its present use. Each floor contained 280 prisoners, making 1120 in all in this single building. The building was filthy to the last degree; there was not a clean spot any where; the hold of a slave-ship could not have been more offensive. The mere appearance of the place was sufficient to sicken sensitive stomachs. Some of the prisoners who had been exhausted by their long journey did actually faint upon entering their quarters. As for myself, I had become hardened to the utmost rigors of camp life; two years or more in the saddle had effectually emptied me of all refinement of smell or taste, and, as a consequence, I got along in my new situation with comparatively little inconvenience.

Of course there was little amusement in sitting, day after day, on the floor of our prison and looking into one another's faces like so many gaping imbeciles. Isolated from the world, hardly permitted to look from our small windows into the streets without, we could only find within ourselves the diversion we needed, and our thought was far too monotonous to suggest any variety of entertainment. We had one amusement, however, which somewhat relieved the daily monotony, and that was "skirmishing." This was an indiscriminate scuffle, in which every man received a thorough shaking, all entering into the "engagement" with the zest of country boys into a husking frolic, but all in good-humor, and for a benevolent and proper sanitary purpose. The object of this wholesale scrimmage was the rout and dispersion of the vermin which moved upon us in dense and threatening columns at every opportunity, surrounding us, assailing us, actually, at times, "occupying, holding, and possessing" our persons. But for the skirmishing in which we indulged, and the "demoralization" thereby of the vermin forces, many of us would have been inevitably overcome, and probably carried out piecemeal at the keyholes, or dragged bodily to the dens of the persecutors.

Our food was of much better quality than we had expected to receive, but the quantity was any thing but satisfactory. Each man received daily half a loaf of bread, the loaf no larger than an old-fashioned country "rusk," a piece of fresh meat about two inches square, and a pint of bean soup, all without salt, not a morsel of which was ever seen in the prison. This food was obtained every morning by a detail of our own men under a sergeant, who, with pails and tubs, were marched down into the yard and there furnished the allowance for the floor to which they belonged by the cooks in charge. Occasionally, some of the men, by the sale of parts of their clothing, obtained a little money with which they were able through the guards to purchase articles outside, thus reinforcing their strength and making up for deficiencies in the regular supplies. On one or two occasions I indulged myself in this way, once selling my cavalry boots, for which I obtained seventy-five dollars in rebel money, and at another time disposing of a threadbare, dirty blanket for twenty-five dollars, the guards eagerly purchasing in both instances, and seeming to imagine that they had made excellent bargains.

After a month's confinement I determined that I had long enough submitted to the hardships of prison life, and that, if possible, I would make my escape. I broached the subject to my comrades, suggesting that we had better act in concert; but they regarded the risk as too great, and unanimously declined to unite in the undertaking, some of them even endeavoring to dissuade me from my purpose. But my resolution was fixed; I longed to be free again, and to fill the saddle I knew to be awaiting me in the ranks of the gallant First. Many things, however, had to be considered, and many preliminaries arranged before it was possible to attempt the execution of my purpose, at least with any hope of success. The first thing necessary was to possess myself of a rebel uniform, which would enable me to pass the guards. So, one day, just after we had received a batch of new clothing from our Government, I said banteringly to Ross, the officer having chief charge of our floor, "Ross, how will you trade coats? Mine is bran-new, but I must have some money, you know; so, if you'll trade right, I'm on hand for a bargain."

Ross was an easy, good-natured fellow, and was particularly ragged, having scarcely a whole, garment in his entire wardrobe. Of course he was only too anxious to "trade," and we soon struck up a bargain, Boss agreeing to give me his coat for mine and thirty dollars to boot. Thus I secured a gray coat, a necessary part of the disguise in which I intended to escape.

Some days after, upon pretense that I was again out of funds, I bantered Boss to trade pantaloons, offering mine, which were new, for his old ones and ten dollars in money. He knew that the prisoners often obtained in this way the means of purchasing supplies, and my offer therefore excited no suspicion. He at once closed with my offer, and making the exchange on the spot, I became, to all appearance, a rebel soldier, having a suit of gray precisely like those of the guards.

The day after this last transaction I determined, if possible, to put my plan in execution. Accordingly, when the men passed down into the yard to draw their rations I went with them, resolved to seize any opportunity that offered to get away. But my time had not yet come. Every avenue of escape was guarded; sentinels stood at all the gates with vigilant eyes; and I was obliged to return to my quarters, still a prisoner, but still firmly set in my purpose. A circumstance which happened on the same day served to confirm me in my determination. One of the tyrants in charge of the prison — they were all despots in their way except Boss and one or two others — threatened, because of some caper of the men, to starve us in punishment, heaping upon me especially all sorts of abuse. Having something of Yankee grit in my nature, I resented the insult, telling the fellow I would throw him out of the window unless he at once desisted. The coward at once reported me at head-quarters, no doubt with many exaggerations as to my offense; and a few hours after I was removed to Libey Prison for punishment. This consisted in "bucking" and "gagging," a process by no means calculated to inspire one with admiration for rebel tenderness or humanity. Tying my hands together with strong cords about the wrists, my persecutors drew the arms thus united down over the knees, where they were securely pinioned; my mouth was then gagged, and having been placed on the floor, I was left for eight hours to my fate. Of course, in such a predicament, it was impossible to sit, and to lie down was equally inconvenient. Aside from the suffering, one could not resist a feeling of humiliation mingled with anger that he was made to occupy so ridiculous a position; I think I would not have had a comrade see me as I lay on the floor of Libey, knotted info the most grotesque sort of tangle — rolled up, as it were, into a little heap — for a whole year's pay and all the medals I may ever win.

My punishment ended at last, and I went back to my prison only more intent than before on getting away. The next day I again attempted to put my scheme into execution, but was again unsuccessful.

On Sunday morning, January 10, I made my last and final attempt. Arranging necessary preliminaries with a comrade, I passed down stairs with the detail sent for provisions, wearing my blanket, and keeping as much as possible under cover of those whom I was about to leave. Beaching the yard, which was filled with rebel soldiers, I suddenly, upon a favorable opportunity, slipped the blanket from my shoulders to those of my chum, and, stepping quickly into the throng, stood, to all appearance, a rebel, having precisely their uniform, and looking as dirty and ragged as the worst among them. But I was not yet free. The point now was to get out of the yard. To do this it was necessary to pass the sentinels standing at the gates, all of which were thus guarded. My wits, however, difficult as I knew my enterprise to be, did not desert me. With an air of unconcern, whistling the "Bonnie Blue Flag," I sauntered slowly toward the nearest gate — paused a moment as I neared it, to laugh with the rest at some joke of one of the guard; then, abstractedly and with deliberate pace, as if passing in and out had been so customary an affair with me as to make any formal recognition of the sentinels unnecessary — passed out. That my heart throbbed painfully under my waistcoat; that I expected every moment to hear the summons, "Halt!" you need not be told. An age of feeling was crowded into that moment. But I passed out unchallenged. Whether it was that my nonchalant air put the sentinels off their guard, or that they were for the moment absorbed in the joke at which all the soldiers were laughing, I can not tell; nor does it matter. I was free; the whole world was before me; and my whole being was a-glow with that thought. I had still dangers, it was true, to encounter; but the worst was past, and I felt equal to any that might lie before.

The sun was at its meridian as I passed the prison gate. In an hour I had struck the line of the Chickahominy Railroad. The weather was bitterly cold and the ground covered with snow; but I thought of nothing, cared, for nothing but effecting my escape. Of course the utmost vigilance was necessary as the whole Peninsula was full of pickets, mostly mounted, and while, therefore, pressing forward with all the rapidity possible, under the circumstances, I kept my eyes on constant duty, scanning closely every marsh and thicket lest some enemy should unexpectedly appear and arrest my flight. No enemy, however, that day crossed my path, though I frequently saw cavalry-patrols in the distance, causing me to seek the shelter for a time of some friendly tree or fence.

At eleven o'clock that night I was within nine miles of New Kent Court House, having traveled a distance of twenty-one miles since noon. After nightfall the stars formed my only guide, and, having quitted the line of the railroad, I very naturally lost somewhat my reckoning. Besides, for the last few miles my strength had rapidly failed me, and much as I desired to get on I found that it would be impossible to continue any further. My feet were sore, my legs weak and limp, and withal I was chilled through and through, having neither blanket nor overcoat to protect me from the keen, piercing wind. Accordingly, utterly exhausted at last, I dropped upon the snow in the swamp, and in a moment was asleep.

When I awoke at last, with a stinging pain in my hands and feet, it was daylight. I endeavored to rise, but for a time was unable. My feet were like lumps of ice, my face smarted with pain, my hands were red and without feeling; I had barely escaped freezing to death. After considerable effort, however, I got upon my feet, and with slow and difficult motion, and appetite clamoring for food, resumed my journey. As the blood in my veins warmed and strength returned I increased my pace, going in a northeasterly direction, seeking an outlet from the swamp in which I had spent the night. After a while, pursuing my devious way, a negro suddenly confronted me. Whence he came I knew not; I only knew that he stood before me with a look of inquiry in his eyes as much as to say, Who are you, Sir ? I was, of course, startled; but I remembered that I wore a rebel uniform, and met him accordingly. But he was not to be deceived.

"Yer can't come dat game on dis chil'," he said, with a sparkle in his eye; "I knows yer, Sar; you'se a Yankee pris'ner 'scaped from Richmon'." Then, as if to reassure me, he hurriedly added, " But, Lor' bless yer, massa, I won't tell on yer; I'se real glad yer's got away."

I saw in a moment the fellow could be trusted — I have never seen a negro yet, in this war, who could not be trusted by the Union soldier; and so I unbosomed myself to him at once, telling him the whole story of my escape, that I had lost my way, that I had not eaten a morsel of food in twenty-four hours, and that if he could help me in any way I would be more indebted than I could describe.

"Dis chil' glad to help yer," he replied, in a tone of real pleasure and with a bright look in his eyes, and at once started off at a rapid pace, leading me across the fields, a distance of four miles, to the house of another negro, to whom he explained my situation and wishes. Here I was given something to eat, both the man and woman treating me with the greatest kindness; and after a short rest again set out, this time with my host as guide, for the main road, from which I had wandered. This was soon reached, and parting with my black friend, I pushed on, keeping the road as nearly as I could. The road was thick with pickets and scouts, and I was obliged at almost every turn to dodge aside to avoid discovery. For miles I succeeded in "flanking" all I met; but at last a sharp bend in the road brought me within twenty-five feet of a soldier on horseback looking squarely toward me. How my heart leaped at the sight! "Who are you?" was the instant salute; but without stopping to answer I leaped into the swamp and plunged into the depths of underbrush which overrun it. My leap was followed by a shot from the soldier's pistol, the ball whistling shrilly after me, but fortunately missing its mark. As if determined not to be balked, the soldier dismounted from his horse, and for two hours hunted for me in the swamp, often passing close to my retreat, and keeping me in constant trepidation lest I should be discovered. But Providence again favored me; the scout tired at last in his vain search and moved away, and I once more started for the Canaan of my hopes.

All that day I traveled on, dodging the pickets, hiding in the swamps, lying under thickets, wading through bogs and water, until night again found me exhausted and incapable of going any further. But I was not to be permitted to sleep without one more fight. Making my way in deep darkness through the underbrush, crackling the brittle twigs under my feet, a "What's that?" uttered in a sharp, strong voice, suddenly warned me of danger. A moment after I heard men talking, the words "spy" and "Yankee" being conspicuous in their discussion. Then, crouching down, I heard them moving to and fro all around me, and once one of the number passed so close to where I lay that I could hear him breathe. For an hour or more they kept up their search, discussing among themselves the probable cause of their alarm, when, apparently concluding that they had been unnecessarily startled, they abandoned the field and left me to my thoughts. For some time, however, after their departure I did not dare to stir, not knowing at what moment they might return, or how near they might be to my retreat; but fatigue finally overcame me, and finding a soft place I threw myself on the ground, and pulling over me such leaves and brush as I could reach, very soon found oblivion in sleep.

Of my adventures the day following, which was Tuesday the 12th, I need not speak at length. They were numerous, many of them perilous in the extreme; but fortune was still on my side, and at eleven o'clock that night I reached the suburbs of Williamsburg, the goal of all my wanderings. It was a long time, however, before I could make up my mind, after I saw the lights of the town, whether it was the place I sought. My many escapes had made me, if any thing, unduly cautious; I had come so far, had suffered so much, and had so much to fear from capture and return to my prison, that I felt it would be terrible, now that the Promised Land was in sight, to lose all by a want of vigilance or a premature discovery of myself to the pickets. Consequently, I determined, if possible, to get through the lines into the village without discovery, and I had nearly succeeded when a sharp challenge brought me to a halt. Again, however, the darkness favored me, and though an immediate hunt was instituted, I once more escaped, this time from our own pickets. At length, quiet having been restored, I managed to creep through, and shortly after was in the village. Seeing a light in the windows of a large building on the principal street, I cautiously crept up, designing to peer into the apparently occupied room, and learn from the uniform of the occupants whether I was really among friends or foes. I had reached the window, and was raising my head to look in, when, suddenly, a hand was laid heavily on my shoulder, and a loud voice exclaimed,

" Hello, here! — who is this ? A spy ?"

I started as if a ball had struck me. Was I again a prisoner, or was this the grasp of a friend deceived by my uniform ? But instinct was true, and I answered at once,

"I'm a Union soldier escaped from Richmond."

That was enough. Before I knew it I was within the lighted room, which proved to be the head-quarters of the post commandant; an armchair was placed before the fire, and I was thrust into it; my shoes were drawn off, and I was as cozy as kindly hands could make me. Of course, the moment my story was told I became a hero; that part of it relating to my skirmishing with our own pickets affording especial delight to the merry fellows of the One Hundred and Thirty-ninth New York Regiment who thronged headquarters.

I remained at Williamsburg until Thursday morning, when I proceeded to Yorktown, going thence to Washington, where Secretary Stanton gave me a furlough of a fortnight. And this is the story of "My Escape from Richmond."

But some day I hope to ride into it with my comrades of the New Jersey First, with the old flag streaming over us — expelling before us as we go the miserable traitors whose hands would drag that flag, if they could, in the dust, and put out forever the lustrous promise shining on its folds. When we march into Richmond I trust that there will be with us men Of darker hue than ours, who, having fought their way from a prison-house worse than the Libby, will have won the right to rejoice in the triumph of the Stars and Stripes.


Meg Crossman said...

Our ancestor (my husband’s great-grandfather-James Dean Higgins) was captured at the Battle of Winchester and sent to Libby Prison. He served in the 18th Connecticut Volunteers.

We have his letters from prison and a written and published account of his unusual escape. Would there would be any interest in those artifacts or accounts?

Meg Crossman

A.J said...

There is most definitely an interest in your ancestor's account of his escape and his letters from prison! If you would like to share them on this space, please let me know!