Today is an important day in Civil War history – not for a famous battle or skirmish – but for an event that required no less courage and perseverance than the bloodiest encounter.

On Feb. 8, 1864, Yankee prisoners in Richmond’s infamous Libby prison finally tunneled their way to a tobacco shed out of sight of Confederate sentries. This after two heart-breaking failed attempts that made the effort seem futile to those who were risking their lives to dig.

Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pa. Volunteers was the leader of the group of officers that began a tunnel in the rat-infested cellar of Libby (dubbed Rat Hell). In the first attempt, Rose hit a sewer line and almost drowned in the refuge before being pulled to safety. In the second attempt, the men gave up when they discovered their meager knife and stolen half trowel would not cut through the thick timbers they encountered after digging a few feet.

“Most of the party were now really ill from the foul stench in which they had lived so long,” noted one prisoner. “The visions of liberty that had first lured them to desperate efforts … had at last faded, and one by one they lost heart and hope and frankly told Col. Rose that they could do no more.”

When a few decided to try a third tunnel, others soon rejoined the team. The workers were ingenious in getting the dirt out of the tight confines of the tunnel and hiding it under the straw on the room’s floor. They dug 50 to 60 feet to complete the tunnel, coming up on the other side of a fence out of sight of the guards. Each of the 15 men who had helped in the digging was allowed to tell one friend for the escape on Feb. 9. The tunnel’s entrance was then closed by an officer too weak to make the attempt, and re-opened after one hour to allow others the opportunity to escape.

This is a diary entry from one of the remaining prisoners detailing the efforts of a guard who tried to take roll-call the next morning:
“In various ways the men tried to confuse him. They would dodge in and out, get counted twice, put hats and caps on sticks and try to get them counted as heads. Nearly all the morning was occupied in getting the count. … When he discovered the true state of affairs he turned deathly pale.”

In all, 109 inmates escaped.

Approximately 59 of the escapees reached Union lines, relying on help from Unionist Elizabeth Van Lew and her spies. Two men drowned in the James River and 48 were recaptured. The organizer of the escape, Colonel Rose, was captured and later exchanged. The tunnel, meanwhile, was dubbed the “Great Yankee Wonder” by the Richmond press and placed on exhibition.

This short post does not begin to tell the story of the conditions while digging out of the prison, or the heartbreak of those who almost made it to Union lines before being re-captured.

Colonel Rose, for instance, was within shouting distance of the Federal lines at Williamsburg when captured. His words to his captors were, “Shoot me. I am Colonel Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania Regiment. I have tunnelled out of Libby Prison and have been without food for the past two days, and I won’t be taken back there alive.”

His captors wrestled him out of a clearing and into the woods just as a group of Federal cavalrymen rode by. “He told us of his wife and child he had not seen for so long, and begged us for God sake to let him go,” recounted one of his captors. “There were those among us who felt the eloquence of his appeal more than he ever knew, but war is war… so we took him back to Richmond.”


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