On the rainy night of November 27, 1863, General John Hunt Morgan and six of his officers, of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, made a ‘great escape’ from the Ohio State Penitentiary, after 4 months of total captivity in several prisons.
These resourceful and determined confederate raiders were no ordinary prisoners of war, as their Federal captors would sadly learn, after their daring and cunning escape.
A few months earlier, on July 8, 1863, General John Hunt Morgan, and his command of approximately 2,200 officers and men, which he often referred to as ‘alligator horses,’ crossed the Ohio River from Brandenburg, KY, into Indiana at Mauckport, on two commandeered river boats. (An ‘alligator horse’ was an old complimentary description of the boatmen who served on the Mississippi river, and were originally from Kentucky.
It was intended to provide a positive description of a, ‘half-horse/half-alligator,’ known for its cunning, strength and aquatic skill. A description aptly applied to the raiders who rode with General John Hunt Morgan.)
General Morgan’s overall strategy with this raid, was to relieve pressure on the Confederate General Bragg, by causing the Federal General Rosecrans to divert troops against the Morgan raid and thus weaken Rosecrans Tennessee campaign. A secondary strategy was to obtain possible assistance from northerners with Confederate sympathies.
However, much to the dismay of General Morgan, it would be proven that no assistance was found north of the Ohio, and Rosecrans did not take the bait to immediately divert a large number of troops.
Thirteen days after exiting Indiana and eluding Federals in Ohio, General John Hunt Morgan surrendered on July 26, on the Crubaugh farm south of Lisbon in Columbiana County.
The dashing, electrifying raid, along with General Morgan’s hopeful strategies, had come to a quick end.
The enlisted men were taken by train to Camp Morton in Indianapolis, and would later be transferred to Camp Douglas in Chicago. Most of the officers, including General Morgan, were initially sent to Cincinnati, and then to the the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. Here he would meet with the rest of his officers, including his brother-in-law, Basil Duke, who had surrendered at Buffington Island.
Gov. Todd of Ohio petitioned General Burnside that the Confederate prisoners be turned over to the State of Ohio for incarceration, as opposed to the Military, due to the fact that his state and its citizen’s property, had been harmed. General Burnside agreed and General Morgan and his fellow captured officers, sixty-eight in all, were sent to the state prison, as opposed to a prisoner of war camp. This would prove to be advantageous as the treatment received in the Ohio prison was considerably better than they would had obtained in a prisoner of war camp. In addition, the opportunities to plan and execute an escape were infinitely better.
Upon arrival, the prisoners were ordered to bathe in hogsheads filled with water, similar to large barrels, and afterwards were given hair cuts and shaves. Even those such as Colonel Smith who possessed a beard that reached his waist, and which he was most proud, had to submit to be shorn.
After this, the officers were taken to their respective cells. The wing that General Morgan and his men were incarcerated was four-hundred feet in length by forty-odd feet in width and having a ceiling of forty-odd feet high. Each individual cell was about three and a half feet wide by seven feet long. The prisoners were allowed to roam the halls curing the day, but were confined inside their tiny cells from seven p.m. until breakfast the next day. For men who were used to living from the land, riding their horses and sleeping in woods and fields, this confinement was at first, almost intolerable. They made the most of their time during the day
by walking in the hallway and doing ‘gymnastics’ on a ladder that was left there. Eventually, they turned to more quiet pursuits such as chess, marbles and reading.
Just as these men were reaching a minimal tolerance of their circumstance, the conditions lapsed back into an almost unendurable state. The food they were served was barely digestible and reading material was removed. As a form of devious torture, when the men were given letters from their wives and sweethearts, they only received empty envelopes. In addition, for the slightest transgression of the rules, a man could be placed inside the ‘dungeon.’ This was a cell sealed on the inside with sheet iron and all light and air were prevented from entering. In the summer heat, this ‘dungeon’ became an oven. In most cases, the incarcerated of the ‘dungeon’ only received two slices of bread and one cup of water per day. Major McCreary, sentenced to the ‘dungeon’ for being in possession of a knife, referred to his experience as ,“this living death, this hell on earth.” He was forced to spend his entire time in total darkness while being nauseated from the putrid stench of his night bucket.
It was at this time that plans for escape were seriously discussed, with all of them rejected for one or more reasons. At last, after Captain Hines had endured unjustified discipline by one of the deputy wardens, he proposed the solution. His inspiration for a tunnel came from his reading of ‘Les Miserables.’ Captain Hines had noticed that the lower level cell floors were always dry, and deduced that an air chamber must be under them. After a seemingly innocent conversation with the kindly Mr. Heavy, another deputy warden, his theory of the air chamber was proven to be correct.
After hearing this proposal, General Morgan laughingly referred to Captain Hines as, “Count of Monte Cristo.” However, it was decided to pursue this path of escape. A few table knives were obtained from the dinning room and were sharpened for use against the concrete in the floor of Captain Hines cell. Lookouts were assigned and Captain Hines was to begin digging on November 4th. This digging was primarily to ascertain if the floor could be removed and to scout the air chamber that was under. The concrete was six inches thick with a six layered arch of bricks immediately below. Captain Hines and those who would also eventually dig, would initially hide the removed debris inside handkerchiefs. Then, the larger pieces would be put inside Captain Hines mattress and the dust and mortar pieces would be placed inside the coal stove inside the hallway. Captain Hines used a carpet bag that contained some clothes, to hide the opening in the floor. When the diggers made it inside the four foot air chamber, a system of rapping signals was developed to alert them to approaching guards near their cells. One knock meant to stop work immediately, two to begin, three to come out of the air chamber. It was at this time, that Captain Hines, under the guise of wanting to police his cell, obtained permission from the warden to receive a broom. This proved to be quite helpful in hiding the effects of the digging.
All was proceeding efficiently until they were nearly discovered. Those on the first tier were called for dinner, but Captain Hockersmith, a prisoner on the first tier or floor, was digging and was absent from the mess. Sometime later the deputy warden came by to investigate the reason for his absence. General Morgan, thinking quickly, engaged the deputy warden by asking his opinion of a communication of protest of their treatment that the General was to send to the Union General Burnside. The deputy warden was quite flattered that General Morgan wanted his opinion on this subject. While this was taking place, Captain Hockersmith was able to enter into his cell without observation and feign illness, which the deputy warden accepted as legitimate.
About this time, those digging in the air chamber had come to its end, and needed some sort of shovel or spade to penetrate the final section of hard-packed earth and grout. Someone remembered seeing a rusted spade with a broken handle near the coal heap in the outer yard. A discussion ensued as to how to obtain this tool without detection. It was agreed that Captain Jake Bennett would wear his long coat and engage in horse play with a fellow officer while being marched through the yard to breakfast. When this occurred, Captain Bennett fell near the rusted, broken spade, and placed it inside his long loose coat prior to getting up. The plan worked exceptionally well, and Captain Bennett kept the spade with him through breakfast and carried it to the cells afterward.
It was agreed, after some debate and conversation, that General Morgan and six officers would be allowed to make the escape. Additional members would quite possibly jeopardize the entire plan. The following captains were selected to make the escape with General Morgan; Tom Hines, Ralph Sheldon, Sam Taylor, L.D. Hockersmith, Jacob Bennett and J.S. Magee.
Everyone would separate upon escape and General Morgan and Captain Hines would go by train to Cincinnati. The others would move in different directions. The escape would take place at night after each man was locked in his cell. The holes up to the cells, with the exception of Captain Hines, had been dug from the bottom upwards, within an inch or so. Captain Hines had determined where each man’s cell floor would be located after a seemingly innocent discussion with the deputy warden, of the overall length and dimensions of the air chamber and hall. The digging to each cell from the underneath would be done to prevent the chance of detection prior to the time of escape. When the time arrived, each man would quietly knock out the thin layer and enter the air chamber. The bed of each man would have clothes and padding to make it look as if they were in their cells during the nightly inspections.
To provide light while the men dug in the air chamber, candles and matches and been acquired from the hospital.
Regarding money that would be needed during the travels on the escape, General Morgan was able to retain some currency that was not detected during the initial search. Captain Hines, as resourceful as ever, was able to send a letter to his sister in Kentucky through a trusted civilian convict. She was instructed to insert some money in a hidden portion of a book he named, then, reseal the book to hide the secret section which contained the currency. This book was then sent to Captain Hines, and, was able to make its way to him.
A final reconnoitering of the outside wall was still required to determine the easiest location where the escaping prisoners could scale down the outside wall. To obtain this view without arousing suspicion, a conversation was entered with the prison warden, regarding the great strength of Captain Samuel B. Taylor. It was stated that the captain, who was physically not large, yet, very strong, could go hand over hand up a ladder, which ascended to the top of the hall, then, return the same way.
The warden naively agreed to personally view a demonstration of the captain’s physical ability, not realizing the true nature of the display. The captain climbed all the way to the top, took what appeared to be a slight rest, all the while secretly studying the best section of the wall for his fellows to descend, then return has he had began, while very much impressing the warden. Unwittingly, the warden had greatly assisted General Morgan and his men with their final gathering of intelligence.
To determine the local train schedules, General Morgan paid a guard Fifteen dollars to obtain a train time table of the Little Miami Railroad. Through this document, he acquired the time when a train would arrive in Cincinnati. Also, civilian clothes were obtained as well. These would be worn under a loose outer garment that would prevent the soiling of the civilian attire.
On November 24, the tunnel was completed. They now just had to wait for suitable weather. Ideally, they needed a rainy night so that the dogs which normally patrolled in the yard, would stay in their kennels. Two days later, on November 26, it was learned, through the prison rumor mill, that there was a change in the Federal military commanders. This would lead to an inspection within the next day or two. It was determined to push through with the escape the next day, November 27, at midnight. Clouds were forming in the sky and along with them, the hope of a successful escape. Prayers for rain were fervently said. Without rain, the dogs would be in the yard and not in the kennels, and the chances of an undetected escape would be nearly impossible.
The evening of November 27 arrived, and with it the anxiety of the long awaited plan finally coming to fruition. Coal dust was sprinkled outside the cells of the men who would be escaping to detect the footfalls of the sly guard who had the habit of incorporating Indian rubber soled shoes during the course of his rounds to avoid detection. General Morgan was housed in a lower tiered cell, and his absence, if observed, would be noted first. It was decided that his brother, Colonel Dick Morgan, would exchange cells, with him, as they possessed a close physical resemblance. This was accomplished prior to the nightly lock down. It was fervently hoped this ruse would be successful.
The time crawled as the entire sixty eight confederate prisoners, especially the seven that would attempt the actual escape, waited until midnight. When the time to escape arrived, those who were to go, finished the last scraping of their cell floor into the air chamber, placed ‘dummies’ comprised of old shirts, into their cots, and entered the air chamber while concealing the opening the best they could from below. The guard had made his midnight patrol and would not do so again for about two hours. Now was the time to proceed. The line was crossed and they had to complete their escape. A candle was lit, and the seven determined men quietly made their way to the end of the air chamber. With them were knives to be used as weapons if discovered. As experienced soldiers, a fight or die resolve was manifested among themselves. They were to leave the prison, one way or another.
They exited the air chamber, and to their relief, it was discovered that the night was dark, cold and rainy. With this weather, the dogs had retreated to their kennels. The weather also helped by keeping the guards inside their sentry boxes. The plan was executing perfectly. The men used a rope with a modified fireplace iron as a hook to scale up the inner wall. It would be used again to descend the outer wall. They then crept low and quiet to a wooden gate near the female prison. The grappling hook was attached to the gate, and the men climbed down. They made their way to the top of the outside wall and entered an empty guard house. This was used during the day by the guards, but they were transferred to the inside at night. Unfortunately, they were unable to disentangle the grappling hook after they had made their decent to the ground. It was decided to simply leave it in the hopes it would not be discovered for sometime. An attempt to re-climb and undo the knot would take too much precious time and could cause undo noise that would arouse an investigation.
The outer protective garments were removed, and the men separated, with General Morgan and Captain Hines going to the local railroad depot.
Captain Hines had taken the liberty of leaving a note in his cell addressed to the prison warden which read;
“Castle Merion, Cell No. 20, November 27, 1863: Commencement, November 4, 1863; conclusion November 24, 1863, number of hours for labor per day, five; tools, two small knives. La patience est amere, mais son fruit est doux. By order of my six honorable Confederates./ s / Thomas H. Hines, Captain, C.S.A.”About one quarter of a mile from the prison at the local train depot of the Little Miami Railroad, Captain Hines and General Morgan purchased their tickets and boarded the train. General Morgan took an available seat next to a Union Major while Captain Hines sat toward the rear of the passenger car. The Union Major offered General Morgan a sip of French brandy and engaged in small talk. As they passed the prison, the Major alluded to the fact that General Morgan and some of his officers were there for ‘safe keeping.’ General Morgan replied, “I hope they will keep him as safe as he is now.”
As the train passed through Dayton, it was stopped for one hour for some unknown reason. This would make it very dangerous to go to the depot in Cincinnati, since the train would arrive after the escape had been discovered, and with the news having been telegraphed.
This delay, along with having to have left the escape rope hanging on the outer wall, which would surely be seen soon, caused General Morgan and Captain Hines to leave the train immediately.
As the train slowed while moving on the outskirts of the city near Ludlow Ferry on the Ohio River, the two escapees jumped the train and then paid a slave to be taken across the river in a skiff, which was a common occurrence at that time.
They made their way to the residence of a Mrs. Ludlow, where their arrival was announced by a servant, and where they were warmly received. They took coffee with the family, were given a guide, and made their way about three miles into the country side where they were furnished with horses.
General Morgan and Captain Hines would make a few more stops at friendly residences and eventually make their way to the Confederate lines at Dalton, Georgia.
Although considered a hero by most who learned of this escape, the Confederate General Bragg, now in the War Department in Richmond, did not agree with the reason for the disobedience of his orders by General Morgan. Contrary with the view of General Bragg, many modern historians, including Shelby Foote, feel that the raid incurred by General Morgan, allowed Bragg’s army to escape Middle Tennessee un-harassed. Through creative cunning, a determined resolve and inspirational esprit de corps, the officers of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry, proved that they were indeed the ‘alligator-horses’ that the union had come to respect and fear.
Through their daring great escape, they would ride and raid again.