In 1865, Youth’s Companion printed a series of articles by abolitionist James Redpath, who contributed several pieces from 1865 to 1867. In “Eye and Ear Notes,” he offered readers of the Companion descriptions of Southern incidents before and just after the War: everything from a slave auction to a patriotic May-day celebration. The pieces are surprisingly gritty and often have a raw power.

Colonel Abel Delos Streight and over 100 others escaped from Libby Prison in February 1864.
[Scraps for Youth] “Eye and Ear Notes: A Glimpse at Libby Prison” (from The Youth’s Companion, December 28, 1865; p. 206)

I was in Richmond again a few weeks ago. I visited the Libby Prison. It is a tobacco warehouse, three stories high, built of brick, situated in the lower part of the city, and near by the canal. Every boy and girl knows that it was in this building that our prisoners and the officers were kept and cruelly treated by the rebels during the slaveholder’s war against the Union. “Castle Thunder” is a short way off, and it, also, was a warehouse, which was changed for a time into a jail.

I do not mean to tell you how our brave officers were treated in the Libby, but only to speak of the way in which some of them got out.

Near the back door the stones of the pavement have fallen in. As I was looking at it,—

“Dat’s war de Yankees got out,” said a black woman, who had followed me from the Libby, and seemed to wish to get into a chat with me, because I had spoken kindly to one of her children.

“Indeed!” said I, “was this where Col. Streight got out?”

“No, massa,” the woman said, “he done got out ’tother end, over dar, inside yon fence dar; he comed out a place in de yard dat’s covered up wid coal.”

She went with us, and we saw two other holes, out of which the officers had escaped.

Would you like to know how this was done?

I met Col. Streight a year ago. I was on his staff on a raid into Alabama, and he told me all about it.

They first dig down three, four, six or eight feet, (the deeper, the longer the tunnel is to be,) before they attempt to dig horizontally. One man only could dig at a time, for the prisoners dare not make the hole too large, because they could not hide away the dirt, and therefore would be detected.

They dig generally with a case-knife, and carry out the dirt in their hats. How to hide the earth is the first difficulty that they have to meet and overcome. All sorts of ways are taken to do so. They hid it under their beds when they had them; inside of their mattresses, when they had them; or spinkled it thinly over the floor.

When this is cared for, two men are set to work. One digs, digs, digs, further and further in; another crawls behind him and carries out the dirt. He has to crawl backwards, as the hole is never large enough to allow him to turn. In this way, changing the men often, a tunnel can be dug at the rate of four or five feet in every twelve hours.

The next difficulty is to supply the tunnel with air. It is necessary to make these tunnels long enough to reach beyond not the prison walls only, but the outer line of sentinels. The great tunnel at Libby Prison was sixty-five feet long. Now at the distance of thirty feet or so from the mouth of a tunnel the air becomes so foul that lights will not burn, and the men can hardly breathe. How would you overcome this puzzle, my boys? Give it up? Very well, I’ll tell you how “the Yankees” got over it. They took some boards that were in their prison, and determined to make a pair of bellows—large ones, like those used by blacksmiths. But they had no leather! Now how do you think they managed to do without it? Guess! Try to find out before you read any further.

They used their blankets, and got some tacks, and with these made a huge pair of bellows! So when the two men were in the tunnel, one digging and one carrying, (crawfish-fashion,) another was sitting at the mouth of the pit blowing in fresh air.

By this ingenious contrivance the tunnel was completed and ready for use.

The rebels hated Col. Streight more bitterly than any other officer; first, because he had been captured on a raid, and in the next place, because he was very “saucy” to them, as they termed it. Maj. Turner called him the Yankee Devil.

For these reasons, the officers insisted that Col. Streight should be the first man to go through the tunnel. He is a tall, muscular, fine-looking officer, but is quite stout, and he feared that he should not be able to go through it. But he tried, and sure enough he nearly found a grave, but he managed to push through, and soon was at liberty again. One hundred and fourteen of our officers followed him, and many of them succeeded in working their way over lonely and deserted tracks of country, through marshes, through swamps, every inch of their journey through an enemy’s country, until once more they found friends, and safety, and honor, beneath the starry flag of the United States.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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