Piedmont Passages: Prison escape plot

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 19, 2011

Editor’s note: The late George Raynor was managing editor of the Salisbury Post for 30 years and editor for eight years before retiring in 1982. This essay appeared in the Post on Nov. 11, 1984.
It was an unusually cold November day. The wind, slipping through the palisade, sent shivers through the ragged blue-clad prisoners. On the whole it was not a good day for a prison break. But many, perhaps most, of the Yankee prisoners in Salisbury’s Confederate Prison Camp felt they had little choice. If they didn’t get to safety beyond the wooden fences, they would die, and soon.
The groans and the creeks of the carts that carried the stacked bodies of prisoners to their graves a few hundred yards away were constant and cruel reminders that their choices were limited. Disease and hunger, inadequate clothing and makeshift, damp housing were claiming an ever increasing toll among the 8,000 or more crammed behind the gates at the old cotton factory south of the railroad tracks. Death might come — and that day it did — from a Confederate bullet or it might come from starvation or one of many diseases that were afflicting them. The end result was the same — an anonymous body dumped into a long trench hastily dug to receive and hide the overflow of death.
The alternatives to these fates were limited. Perhaps, in fact, only two: escape, by any means, and try to take the long, hazardous underground route through hostile country to the North Carolina mountains and the freedom offered in Tennessee; or to become a “galvanized Yankee,” a Confederate soldier. Escape attempts were many, and many were successful. The methods were varied; trickery probably accounted for most of the individual escapes. A large number, upwards of 100, left the prison in January 1865 by way of a tunnel that 100 years later to the month was rediscovered off East Horah Street by grading work.
Conditions worsen
Conditions at the prison camp were chaotic, and ripe for the revolt. The arrival of thousands of Yankee prisoners in the last three months at an unprepared prison was tantamount to a death sentence. But the Northern troops were threatening to overrun the prison camps around Richmond, and Salisbury seemed far distant from the battlefronts. Not only was the Salisbury prison unprepared to feed, shelter and clothe these new arrivals but it was poorly prepared to guard them. The guards largely consisted of uncertain and even frightened youngsters and men too old for active service.
While the number of prisoners and the poor quality of security augured well for a mass breakout, there were factors that advised against it. The prisoners were well aware that the plight of the South was desperate, and that Northern troops were advancing on all fronts. If they could hold on, their chances of being freed in a few months were good. Another factor that argued against a breakout was the distance escapees would have to go to reach the safety of Yankee lines. While there was a smoothly functioning underground that could escort individuals or small groups through Confederate territory, it could not hide and guide hundreds of escapees if the breakout were successful. There were enough home guards and troops in the area to recapture or kill the unarmed escapees.
The plot to stage a mass breakout was not favored by all. In fact, Louis A. Brown believes a majority opposed this course of action. News of the plot caused “much excitement and discord,” one report said, and many thought the plot “very unwise” because it lacked a “concert of action.” Yet a newspaperman, J. Henri Browne of the New York Tribune (a prisoner) wrote in 1864: “In prison the inmates talk of little besides escape. To them freedom is everything; all else nothing. By day they resolve one plan and another in their mind; hope and despond; try and are frustrated; attempt and are punished; yet they return to their favorite idea and endeavor, though failure ever follows. Dungeon and bayonettes have little restraining influence.” This was written before the conditions became so desperate.
It took the despair of starvation, the frustration of miserable living conditions to prod the Yankee prisoners to that last resort — the mass breakout — with all its likelihood of death, countless hardships for those who escaped the walls and cruel punishment for those who failed. In retrospect, no one can seriously blame the prisoners for their violence that broke out on the afternoon of Nov. 25, 1864. Not only had prison conditions seriously worsened with the influx of thousands of new prisoners that fall but it was a severe autumn. The ground was “froze solid,” one prisoner wrote, and he said he saw “starvation, anxiety and suffering … on every face.”
Food runs short
Compounding the desperate conditions at the time was bad timing in the issuing of rations. Thursday, Nov. 24, was Thanksgiving Day, newly proclaimed by President Lincoln. The prisoners had nothing to be thankful for; no rations were issued that day. Nor did they receive any food the next morning. Their ration for the last two days had consisted of one pound of cornmeal. The time to revolt was indeed ripe, inspired by the neglect of their captors.
The attempted breakout wasn’t as spontaneous as events made it seem later. The Yankee sergeants who led the enlisted men had been circulating an optimistic plan for days. The prisoners, on signal, would rush a gate, break it down and then arm themselves at the Salisbury arsenal. Instead of heading toward the Union sympathizers in the mountains or towards Grant’s army still engaged around Richmond, the prisoners would fight their way eastward to the welcoming ranks of General Sherman’s army working its way north to North Carolina. The chances of this plan being crowned with success were so slight that it is little wonder that skepticism was commonplace. The fact that the prisoners acted against the high odds shows the extent of their desperation.
No doubt most of the prisoners were aware that an uprising was in the offing. But probably only a lesser number — perhaps 1,000 — were to be used for the immediate attack. Others were told to respond when called on. The appropriate password was to be “Strike for Liberty.” Those selected for the assault on the main gate (the Bank Street entrance just beyond the railroad cut) drifted into the compound near the gate. Selected groups were assigned for the initial assault on the gates. Until the signal was sounded, the prisoners were to mill aimlessly about as prisoners were wont to do.
Revolt begins
The signal was sounded at 2 p.m. Whether by accident or intent — but certainly unfortunately — it was given at a moment when a detail of 10 to 15 guards was entering the compound to relieve the interior guards. Richard A. Dempsey, a prisoner, later described the action: “Weak and emaciated as the prisoners were, they performed their work well. They wrenched the guns from the soldiers, and those who resisted were bayoneted on the spot. Every gun was taken from them, and they (the guards) made for their camp outside, where being reinforced by a rebel regiment on its way to Wilmington, together with the citizens, who turned out with shotguns, pistols, or whatever weapons were nearest at hand, we were overpowered though we had captured one of the field pieces.
“There was no organized action; several thousand prisoners rushing to one point only, instead of making attempts to break down the fence in different places, thus confusing the guards on the fence. The attempt was futile as we had neither hammers or axes with which to make an opening in the fence. At once every musket in the garrison was turned upon us, and two field pieces opened with grape and canister. The insurrection, which had not occupied more than a few minutes, was a failure and the uninjured returned to their quarters.”
As in most cases where action is brief, fiery and confused, the reporting of the details of the insurrection is also confused although there is agreement in the main on the outline of action. The prisoners were armed with clubs, some sharpened, and had the advantage of surprise. They added muskets with bayonettes taken from the relief unit, rocks and brickbats to their armaments. They killed two guards, fatally wounded a third and wounded 10 more before stopped. Maj. John Gee, prison commandant, later reported that the prisoners attacked the guards on the parapet and 1,000 rushed for the water gate and a section of the fence where no guards were located.
The guards, he reported, were “with difficulty” persuaded to fire upon the prisoners. “By great exertion, however, a few were induced to fire which with three discharges from two 6 pounders was sufficient to quell the revolt,” he wrote in the Official Report. These field pieces had been loaded with grape shot and canister, and the effect of this close range fire was murderous. Thirteen prisoners were killed, three mortally wounded and at least 60 wounded. One of the cannon shells failed to explode and skipped beyond the prison camp and into town where it struck a hotel.
Guards fight back
The mayhem wasn’t confined to cannon fire. Although some guards fled in face of the howling mob — a townsman said the uprising was accompanied by a “tremendous yell” — others quickly fought back and opened fire. Among the most effective defenders were five prisoners of the most despised classes — Federal deserters and ordinary Southern convicts. The two convicts, Northwood and Wilson, obtained muskets and opened fire on the onrushing Yankee prisoners. Wilson killed one. The three Yankee deserters, Victor Gent, James Murphy and County Manano, joined the defenders of the main gate, and Manano killed one and wounded a second attacker.
This unexpected assistance was helpful to the guards. It gave them a few minutes to rally themselves and bring up the cannons. While the first shot did more damage to the nerves of the townspeople than to the prisoners, the second aimed at the gate where the prisoners were using a timber to batter the gate was immediately effective. It dropped many of the prisoners and, combined with musket fire, discouraged the attempt on the gate. The several hundred prisoners milling about made a compact target. Although some prisoners fired back with their captured guns, the Confederate musket fire and a second blast of canister ended any chance the uprising might have had.
The guards continued to fire into the mob of prisoners and they began running for whatever cover was available. Although the resistance and uprising was over, the excited guards continued to fire for a few minutes, even spraying the hospital. The Confederate officers finally silenced the guns. One accounts lists the time of action as “several minutes,” another “five minutes” and a third the more likely 15 minutes. The number of casualties, to this day, remains an uncertain figure. One New York artilleryman estimated 300 of his comrades were shot down. Another estimated 100 to 200. Even Louis A. Brown, the careful contemporary historian of the prison, offers no firm figures of deaths and woundings, but he suggests they were heavier than officially stated.
Livingstone killed
One of these official 16 deaths was an exceptional prisoner, Rupert Vincent. Vincent was the name under which the Englishman, Rupert Moffat Livingstone, had enlisted in the Union Army. Born in Africa, he was the son of Dr. David Livingstone, the famous British explorer, missionary and doctor. The Livingstone name, of course, has remained attached to local history as the name of the Salisbury college. His father later was quoted as saying of his son, “I am proud of the boy and if I had been there, I should have gone to fight for the North myself.”
Attempts to escape the prison by violent means were not repeated. In the four months before the prison was abandoned more than 500 prisoners reportedly escaped the bounds of the prison by one means or another. But a far greater number — 3,500 or more — escaped in a far more tragic if less dramatic way — by death. Their bodies only went a few hundred yards outside the hated prison, to the trenches on the east side of the National Cemetery in southwest Salisbury.