The harrowing, little-known story of the 109 Union officers who escaped from a Richmond prison in 1864—an episode that deserves a higher place in Civil War lore.
Former AP reporter and editor Wheelan (Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, 2008, etc.) fastidiously establishes the circumstances and conditions leading to the desperate actions of Union officers, held separately from enlisted men per conventions of the time, to break out of Libby Prison, a former vast tobacco warehouse on the Richmond riverfront. As the war moved through the fall of 1863, the Confederate economy was fast unraveling, with civilian privation the norm, particularly in cities. Yankee prisoners, even officers, were at the end of the line for the South's rapidly shrinking food supply. (Conditions were far better for Rebel captives held in the North—the author suggests that many were better fed and cared for than they had been in their own ranks.) An ornate system of parole and exchanges had prevailed at the war's outset, offering hope of a short internment for captives of both sides. But with the Emancipation Proclamation from a politically rejuvenated Lincoln, the South rejected leniency. They refused to parole captured black troops, often executing them on the battlefield, and they put white officers on trial for inciting slave revolt, a capital crime. As conditions worsened at Libby, two officers took the lead in finding an ingenious way to get into a cellar through their kitchen fireplace. The first tunnel was scraped with makeshift tools but descended too far and was flooded by a nearby canal. Three others were dug, amid hordes of rats, filth and sewage, before breakout was achieved in February 1864. Some were killed and recaptured, but 52 escapees made it back to Union lines, all with tales to tell.
A true-adventure story that also documents how prisoner abuse and recriminations spurred the federal commitment to the “total war” that ravaged the South.