Fridays with Fred: A Civil War-era prison break

Charles Warrington Earle’s bold escape from Libby Prison.

“It may interest you to know that one of the Preparatory students here was a Lieut. in the army, and one of the number who escaped from Libby prison during the war by digging that famous tunnel. He sits at my table in the club. He is quite a hearty eater, and one of the students said he thought that must be the reason why the rebels let him go.” – James Demarest Eaton, class of 1869, to his brother, Edward Dwight Eaton, May 5, 1866.

Who was our escapee? A search through Beloit College Civil War records yielded a few alumni soldiers who experienced the infamous Confederate prison first hand. All had left Libby in exchange for rebel prisoners. A combination of online sleuthing and a much deeper peek into the Beloit College Archives revealed the answer.

In 1861, 16-year-old Charles Warrington Earle enlisted in the Fifteenth Illinois Infantry. After a disability discharge, Earle enlisted again in 1862, serving as second lieutenant in the 96th Illinois Infantry and witnessing action at Chickamauga in September 1863 as commander of his regiment’s color company. Col. George Hicks later described Earle as an “intrepid boy-lieutenant, lion-hearted, fearless, unflinching.” Those attributes would serve him well.

At Chickamauga, Lt. Earle, along with the battered remains of his company, reinforced the pickets on the summit of Missionary Ridge. Their exposed position and a tardy relief force led to his capture, along with 14 of his men. Nine would later perish in Confederate prisons.

Earle recalled the famous Libby Prison escape in Military Essays and Recollections, a two-volume compendium of Illinois military history, published in 1891. He recounted his 1,000-mile journey by flatcar to Richmond, Va., remembering the “kindness and consideration” of the Confederate troops, but also the distressing conditions and scant rations.

They disembarked at midnight on Oct. 1, and Earle and his fellow officers marched to the prison, a massive former tobacco warehouse featuring extremely thick, solid walls.

“I see the dimly lighted streets of the Capitol,” Earle wrote, “the lines of determined yet dejected men, - those heroes of Chickamauga, now prisoners of war, anxious and solicitous as to the future. I hear the measured step of the soldiers at that midnight hour, and their quiet yet earnest conversation, as the possible fate of the morrow is discussed.”

After registering, guards conducted them through six rooms crammed with over 1,100 Union officers sleeping on hardwood floors. Somehow the exhausted newcomers squeezed in. The following day Earle began a routine he would follow for the next four months – daily roll call, prayer meetings, card playing, improvised checkers and chess, and even “sword exercise in the cooking-room carried on with wooden weapons.” Other prisoners busied themselves “manufacturing ornaments from the bones of our beef,” while still others performed odd jobs for Confederate cash. Food was an obsession: “The [daily] ration consisted of one loaf of brown bread, about the size and density of a Calumet brick, a piece of meat about half the size of a man’s hand (a small hand), and a gill of rice; and this for dinner, supper, and breakfast.”

There were no cots or mattresses and few blankets that winter. “We were in the habit of lying down in rows; the first row with heads toward the wall, then two rows in the center of the building, with heads next to each other, leaving a short alley between the feet of different rows.”

Earle described the restlessness of the younger officers, their constant debate about escaping, the “innate love one has to be free.” Breaking free of Libby seemed out of the question. “We were surrounded by a strong guard at every point, and should we escape from the building we would be in the midst of an enemy’s country, without food or money or allies, and withal weak from insufficient food and improper clothing,” Earle wrote. A few bribes worked. Most attempts failed. Prisoners quietly discussed the possibility of digging out, but access to the cellar seemed impossible. Eventually an officer came up with a plan, set in motion by a select few sworn to secrecy. They chose a cramped space in between three stoves and a fireplace. The seldom-used cellar below was pitch-black and rat-infested. “During the day this opening was kept closed,” Earle recalled, “and so ingeniously were the bricks and stones replaced, aided by a few ashes and one or two worn-out skillets, thrown carelessly in, that one would never notice that anything had been disturbed…Every possibility of detection was minutely guarded.”

They finished the tunnel in three weeks. The exodus began on Feb. 9, 1864. Earle joined the men “rapidly lowering themselves into the cellar…There was very little order, but it was quiet…Everything was conducted with terrible earnestness,” he wrote. “Only one man was allowed in the tunnel at a time, - on account, I suppose of the bad air…This was no light and airy opening, but a narrow, dark, damp hole, just large enough for one to pull himself through; and the noise and racket produced by one man kicking and floundering against the walls of this cavern were simply indescribable.”

It took just a few minutes to reach the opening leading to a yard beyond a guarded fence. Earle felt a hand, grasped it, and emerged to freedom. In the carriageway fronting the canal, Earle found himself 300 feet from six armed men. “From our shadowed position…we could look up and down the street, and choosing a moment when it was comparatively clear, we passed out and walked slowly and deliberately down the canal, - in full view of the guards, - but, assuming the manners of those walking in the streets who had the right to do so.”

Earle and a companion traveled by night through swamps and briar thickets, avoiding baying dogs and Confederate scouts, suffering from the cold and damp and lack of food. Sympathetic slaves occasionally fed and sheltered them, guarding them as they slept. After six days, Earle found what he’d yearned for: “About nine o’clock there suddenly appeared, at a curve in the road, a squad of cavalry…we recognized them at once as our own men, and knew that we were safe.”

Earle found out later that Confederate troops recaptured many of Libby’s escapees, but 55 out of 109 officers made it to Union lines. Earle continued his service and when the war ended, he was, according to a history of Cook County, “brevetted Captain of the United States Volunteers for gallant and meritorious conduct at the battles of Chickamauga, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Franklin and Nashville, and was mustered out of service.”

In 1865, he entered Beloit College Preparatory Department, eventually attended the college proper and then earned a degree from Chicago Medical College. He became a prominent doctor and professor of medicine in Chicago, where he passed away on Nov. 19, 1894.

Fred Burwell ’86
October 06, 2011

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