Today, the Prisoner of War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the ingenuity and persistence of Colonel Rose and his daring tunnel escape from Libby prison 154 years ago.
From Historical Sketches of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars by James Madison Drake, published in 1908:
Unparalleled Feat of Tunneling.
The death recently at Washington of Colonel Thomas El-wood Rose of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, who greatly distinguished himself in the Civil War by the performance of an unparalleled feat, brings to my mind an incident that made him famous and attracted great attention throughout the country at the time — about which much has since been said and written.
It was in February, 1864, shortly before General Charles A. Heckman and myself, captured in battle at Drewry’s Bluff, just below the Confederate capital, were committed to the tender mercies of “Dick” Turner, the inhospitable and surly keeper of Libby Prison, in Richmond, that the country was startled by the daring escape from that closely-guarded institution of Colonel Rose, projector of the enterprise, and more than one hundred of his fellow-captives.
There has ever been a great fascination in the escape of prisoners, and considerable romantic literature furnished, from De Saintine’s “Piccola” to Baron Trenck’s memoirs, as well as from Dumas’s “Monte Christo” to the story of Colonel Rose, whose escape from Libby prison is considered as remarkable as any ever performed.
Colonel’s Rose’s death, a few days ago, is a forcible reminder of what large human passions are concerned in the simple escape from durance vile, the insatiable love of freedom and liberty of action, the inherent dislike of mean and depressing conditions, the spirit of action and the hope of results which are involved to make men undergo dangers more terrible than those encountered on the battle-field, and engage in toil of the widest and most painful nature, that they may again breathe the free air of Heaven.
Can the reader imagine the manifold dangers, difficulties and mountain of labor that beset Colonel Rose and his fifteen co-laborers as they burrowed night and day for more than two weeks under the gloomy and forbidding-looking structure, in which more than one thousand men of intrepid minds were so crowded that they were compelled to sleep spoon-fashion, head to head, and feet to feet?
Having had a somewhat similar experience in tunnel operations in various prison-pens a little later in the same year, I can readily picture Colonel Rose and his devoted followers working with fever-like haste under the most unfavorable circumstances, amid foul and oppressive odors, in danger of suffocation, with hands bleeding and strength exhausted.
Beneath the massive brick and heavily-timbered building, whose great iron-barred cellars were often flooded by the waters of the Kanawha Canal, ever flowing on the south side, Colonel Rose and his fellow-workers began to dig for the liberty they had panted during long and dreary months.
Operations were commenced in the easternmost apartment of the cellar, which soon became known as “Rat’s hell,” owing to the multitude of wharf rodents of immense size that had long held high revel and complete sway therein.
Before engaging in his perilous undertaking, however, Colonel Rose, in an eloquent and impassioned speech, with his miserable and dejected fellow-sufferers gathered closely about him, begged all to be true and steadfast in keeping the faith, as on the successful accomplishment of the scheme secrecy was absolutely necessary.
He concluded his stirring appeal by administering a solemn obligation to all to guard well the greatest secret that could be imparted to men in their condition, whose lives, I might add, hung by a thread.
All solemnly swore to be faithful to the trust so generously reposed in them.
With every plan thoroughly matured, Colonel Rose and the fifteen noble fellows he had selected for the dangerous and fatiguing duty, after procuring a stout rope to be used as a means of descending and ascending from their apartment on the first floor to the uninviting cellar below, with the aid of an old and rusty chisel surreptitiously furnished by an old darky employed in the hospital, knocked a hole in the open fire-place, removing the bricks one by one with scrupulous care.
When the work of the day or night had ended, the bricks were replaced and dexterously covered with chimney soot, the better to hide all trace of having been tampered with.
Colonel Rose had rightly guessed that the Confederates who made daily “rounds” of inspection would never look at the breast of the chimney, in plain view, and they never did, although they sometimes stopped before the fireplace to toast their feet.
Colonel Rose, who had for a long time previously studied the prison and its surroundings from an iron-barred window in the east room (which I shortly afterwards occupied for a fort night), planned to dig a tunnel from the building to a vacant wooden shed on the left bank of the canal, which although but seventy-five feet distant, yet required the performance of herculean and distressingly painful labor in the accomplishment of the self-imposed task.
Colonel Rose, first to disappear through the limited space in the chimney, by means of the improvised ladder of rope, had no sooner landed in the cellar, veiled in Stygian darkness, than he was fiercely assailed by the army of ravenous rats of immense proportions that had held undisputed possession of the death-looking place.
The colonel had considerable difficulty in defending himself from the obstinate attacks of the rodents, who sprang upon his person, frequently tearing flesh from his unprotected neck and face, until those who followed succeeded in reaching his side, and taking part in the desperate struggle, aided him in driving the voracious animals away.
It was almost a superhuman task to force a passage through the heavy foundation wall with the chisel, the only means for the purpose to be had for love or money, but this task having at length been accomplished, much remained to be done if the liberty these brave men passionately sought was to be secured.
Fortunately, it was seldom, if ever, that any of the prison- guards had occasion to visit or explore the hidden depths of the dark and hideous cellar in which the colonel and his fellows were delving to secure freedom and liberty, hence the immunity felt by the diggers.
The mountain of earth, removed by degrees in making this underground passage to the outer and brighter world — to liberty or death — was scattered among the filth and debris in the cellar. The tunnel having at last been finished, Rose and his fifteen close friends, early in the evening of February 9, 1864, lowered themselves into the cellar for the last time, and passing through the narrow, damp and airless aperture, emerged from the circumscribed exit under the rickety shed on the canal bank, where, bidding each other farewell, the party separated, each following the bent of his own inclination, as had previously been agreed upon.
When Aurora began to gild the following morn with bright and beautiful rays of promise, Colonel Rose was far down the York River Railroad, congratulating himself upon the fulfillment of his cherished plans.
Barred from crossing the Chickahominy bridge, at all times strongly guarded, he plunged into adjacent swamps, dodged the enemy’s pickets, and after many lesser adventures, fell into the hands of three Confederate soldiers, wearing blue uniforms, whom he mistook for friends.
During the afternoon, when within sight of Richmond, he managed to give the slip to his captors, but before the sun went down behind the great pine woods through which he was laboriously making his way, he was again captured, this time by a squad of cavalry that came suddenly upon him.
Two hours after Colonel Rose was returned to Libby, where he remained in close confinement until July 8, when he was specially exchanged.
The Prisoner of War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s drawing of Libby prison and the escape tunnel dug by Colonel Rose and his fellow inmates.