This Civil War ballad tells the true story of one of the greatest prison escapes in US history. The infamous Libby Prison was near the James River in Richmond, Virginia and held a thousand Union prisoners under absolutely horrific conditions.
By mid-1863 the prison was overflowing and rations were reduced to a helping of stale corn bread and river water, and that’s if they were lucky.
To make matters worse, the 21-year old prison commander, Lieutenant Thomas Pratt Turner, was described as “possessed of a vindictive, depraved and fiendish nature.” The second-in-command was just as bad and rarely missed the chance to inflict physical punishment on sick and weakened prisoners.
By late September 1863, when conditions had reached a true peak of hopelessness, two new prison arrivals, Thomas Ellwood Rose, and A.G. Hamilton, devised a daring escape plan.
Rose and Hamilton decided that a tunnel from the lower cellar known as “Rat Hell” would be the best way to break-out. They worked alone for two weeks after lights out, carefully chiseling through the brick wall of a fireplace behind one of the stoves. They used pen knives to dig out the bricks and at the end of each night they covered their work with ash and soot from the stove.
Rat Hell held several feet of straw and in the straw lived thousands of rats. This made for good cover for the dirt removed while digging but at the same time it was an insanely torturous environment to work in. The guards avoided Rat Hell like the plague, looking inside occasionally but never going into the room itself.
Once Rose and Hamilton successfully made an entry path into Rat Hell, they recruited 12 to 15 other prisoners to help dig. Three shifts of 3 or 4 men were organized to dig round the clock. One man would dig in the tunnel, putting the dirt into a wooden container that a second man pulled from the tunnel. A third man dispersed the dirt under the rat infested straw while a fourth prisoner fanned air into the tunnel using a rubber sheet. Others kept watch and then took their turns digging, pulling, spreading and fanning.
The work was brutal but they were truly motivated. It was suffocating and exhausting in the tunnel, and to add to their overall misery, hundreds of rats ran squealing over and under them.
They dug for six weeks. Three tunnels failed until the fourth one surfaced in a tobacco shed 50-feet outside the prison walls. On the night of February 9th 1864, 109 prisoners escaped through the narrow tunnel heading for the federal lines, 50 miles away in Williamsburg. Some had prepared themselves for the escape, but all were undernourished, ill-clothed, and unprepared for the winter weather. They had escaped prison but freedom was still a long, cold journey away.
It was 1864,
Richmond Virginia in the Civil War,
by the River James…
The Libby Prison held a thousand men,
it was a –
mean ole rat infested pen,
so the tale begins…
Stale corn bread, water for food,
we were misery walking under iron boots.
it was desparate times – and the days dragged on…
the winter winds were blowing down the river to our home –
and we would be,
I say –
we would be free!
…well you know-
it was a man named Rose, and Hamilton too,
that hatched the scheme,
to get us through, to the Federal lines…
To dig a tunnel was a little insane,
but we were game for anyway,
to get us outta there…
Open the wall behind the stove,
to Rat Hell,
where no one goes..
we’ll dig on down,
we’ll dig on down and thru,
with luck we’ll make the long bridge,
before the snow’s let loose,
and we will be,
I say –
we will be free!
…Dontcha know that we –
Dug all night,
well we dug all day,
scrapping dirt as the Rat minions played –
we were motivated!
two foot wide,
no room to breath,
for six weeks we dug tenaciously –
to get us free..
Three tunnels failed,
men almost died,
the forth hit home February 9th…
A hundred escaped-
to freedom that day,
and the winter snows were blowing,
as we made our break-away,
with the river winds we were running,
running all night and day…
Go quick and low –
keep pace but out of sight.
no rest my friends –
till we cross the federal lines…
So best of luck –
we’ll meet up in two days time,
we will be,
we will be Free!