A Confederate Prison Escape: Fact or Fiction?

Stories of prison escapes vary wildly and fascinate the general public. Tales of how convicted criminals plan and execute their breakouts occasionally grow taller in the telling and it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when those who escaped have the opportunity to report their version of events. I uncovered one such story while writing reviews of two Civil War era markers about a small Confederate raid on June 17-19, 1863 in Crawford and Perry Counties. This particular escape, notable for the fear it inspired at the time, presents us a fascinating glimpse at how Civil War-era escape stories built reputations and helped the development of the Lost Cause.

The Raid and Capture

In early July 1863, Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan led about 2,400 men across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana. For three weeks, he and his men raided and terrorized southern Indiana and Ohio. Union cavalry finally captured Morgan and the remainder of his forces in Salineville, Ohio and Morgan and some of his officers were sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. One of those officers, Captain Thomas H. Hines, developed an ingenious escape plan that he, Morgan, and several other men successfully carried out. After the end of the war, he published his version of events; this fascinating account bears some further scrutiny.

The Escape Plan

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Capt. Thos. H. Hines at twenty-three. William Elsey Connelley and E. M. Coulter, Charles Kerr (ed.), History of Kentucky (Chicago, IL: The American Historical Society, 1922), II: 1146, accessed House Divided.

Morgan and his men were housed on the first and second floor of the prison’s east wing. Hines quickly noticed that his cell walls were dry and free of mold and surmised that there must be an some sort of underground air chamber that prevented the spread of damp in the walls. Hines thought that if he could tunnel from his cell to this air chamber, and then from the chamber to the yard, some of the Confederates might be able to affect an escape after then scaling the outer wall. He claimed that some of his inspiration came from the fact that he had recently finished reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He also firmly stated that the prisoners never resorted to bribery to assist their escape because they were watched by two sets of guards – bribing them both would prove too difficult. Hines outlined his plan to General Morgan, who agreed to its soundness; Morgan pointed out that they would need to limit the number of men escaping because of the time required to tunnel from each man’s cell on the first floor into the air tunnel. It was agreed that the five men in cells closest to Hines’ would accompany Hines and Morgan. Hines obtained some table knives and candles from other prisoners who were granted such luxuries while in the prison hospital. They thus began the laborious task of chipping away at the cement, brick, and mortar. In order to prevent detection, Hines requested permission to sweep his own cell, so prison guards had no cause to enter his cell regularly. Those involved also developed a set of signals so that those digging would be aware if they needed to pause to avoid discovery. In one such instance, General Morgan had to call a warden aside and ask for his opinion on a complaint the general was writing to Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside so that the man in the tunnel could desist working and be seen during roll call. The men started digging on November 4, 1863 and worked one at a time in hour-long shifts. They started the tunnel under Captain Hines’ fold-up iron cot; they concealed the hole by covering it with a canvas bag full of Hines’ spare set of clothes. The men dug through six inches of cement and six layers of bricks before reaching the air chamber. Until that point, they stored the bricks and masonry in Hines’ bed tick; after reaching the chamber, they deposited the debris there. Once in the chamber, the rebels began a second tunnel that cut through the five-foot foundation wall of the cell block, twelve feet of grouting to reach the outer wall of the prison’s east wing, six feet of outer wall, and four feet up to a usually deserted corner of the yard. In the meantime, Colonel R.C. Morgan, the general’s brother (who was not among the escape party), created a 35 foot rope out of bed ticking with an iron hook fashioned from a stove poker for the escapees to scale the final wall.

Hines now had to determine how to tunnel from the air chamber into the cells of the other six men who would escape with him. Since he did not know the distances involved, he devised a plan to convince the deputy warden to unwitting assist them. Hines debated the warden over the length of the cell block’s hallway, so the warden called for a measuring line in order to settle the matter. General Morgan then distracted the man while Hines appropriated the measuring line to mark out the length between the cells on a stick in his room. The men then began to dig from the air chamber into the other cells, leaving the floor of each cell intact so as to avoid detection.

The rebels completed digging on November 24. Hines and his comrades now had to gather some funds and decide where to go after escaping the prison itself. General Morgan had successfully saved some cash from the initial prison search. Hines also wrote to his sister in Kentucky, instructing her to conceal some Federal money in a book from his library and mail it to him. They enlisted the aid of another convict, who was permitted to go into Columbus to run errands, to purchase a newspaper with a train timetable and some French brandy. They had originally planned to go north to Canada and return to the Confederacy that way, but decided that since they could not make the trip to Canada before their escape was discovered, that plan was impracticable. They therefore decided to travel south, taking the 1:15 AM train to Cincinnati, which should arrive in that city before the alarm was raised, and then make their way across Confederate lines. Hines again engaged the warden in a debate so a comrade could glimpse the outer wall in order to determine the best place to scale it. This task complete, the men waited only for a dark night. While they were waiting, both Hines and Morgan received letters imploring them not to make an escape attempt.

That night came on November 27. General Morgan, whose cell was on the second floor, exchanged places with his brother. After the guards made their midnight rounds, Hines left the warden a mocking note and the seven men broke through the thin layer of cement in their cells, met in the air chamber, climbed through the tunnels, and successfully scaled the outer wall. They rid themselves of their dirty outer clothing and split up. General Morgan and Captain Hines departed for the Columbus train station and purchased tickets to Cincinnati. The general sat next to a Union major and plied him with some of the brandy. As the train passed the Ohio Penitentiary, the major remarked that the facility currently housed rebel General Morgan and his officers. The train was delayed in Dayton, Ohio and Hines and Morgan jumped off the train before it reached Cincinnati. They crossed the Ohio River and made their way through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, finally reaching Confederate lines near Dalton on December 27, 1863.

Hines’ Retelling. the Lost Cause, and Morgan’s Reputation

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Gen. Morgan the raider. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed Library of Congress.

Hines first published his account of the escape in the June 1885 edition of the Southern Bivouac, a magazine published by the Southern Historical Association of Louisville. The magazine was an early proponent of the Lost Cause, an ideology that downplayed slavery as a cause of the war, romanticized the antebellum South, and emphasized the Confederacy’s valiant struggle against increasing odds as the Civil War dragged on by glorifying the South’s leaders as well as enlisted men. Hines’ account of the escape feeds into this mythology. The story displays the honor and intelligence of these Confederate cavalry officers: they developed and executed their escape plan without the use of bribes and almost entirely without outside assistance. Those not escaping willingly abetted their comrades in digging the tunnel, making a rope out of donated bedding, and surreptitiously swapping cells. It also stresses the ignorance of the Union wardens and guards: Morgan and Hines maneuvered the warden into assisting them more than once. Overall, the tale paints the picture of gallant and honorable Confederate officers skillfully outwitting their dim Union jailers. Seven men, including the prized prisoner, escape a heavily fortified and guarded state penitentiary and get away to safety in spite of the enormous odds stacked against them. Hines’ tale frames the planning and carrying out of this plan as a daring escape rather than a chance to avoid justice, a choice that both legitimized secession and the Confederacy and augmented John Hunt Morgan’s reputation. After Morgan died in battle on September 4, 1864, proponents of the Lost Cause chose to remember him as an honorable and courageous soldier instead of a partisan guerrilla cavalry officer.

Portions of Hines’ story sound too good to be true: how Hines deduced the existence of the air chamber;  that Hines’ sister sent him money concealed in books from his home library; that Hines and Morgan tricked the deputy warden on three separate occasions in order to further their plans; and that both men received letters days before their intended escape urging them not to make any attempts to do just that, among other things. Other Confederates who were imprisoned with Hines and Morgan report slightly different versions of events. Some mention that Hines and his men stole a shovel that assisted the digging, bought the candles they used, and that Morgan paid $15 for the train timetable and purchased civilian clothes for the escapees (this action would not have raised suspicions, as the prison had no convict uniform at the time).  Historians argue that some amount of bribery must have played a role in the escape. Some claim that the escape was accomplished entirely through bribery, and that Hines and his men never dug any tunnels. That report appears to be unfounded.

Hines’ account, romanticized as it is, does hold some truth: Morgan and six men did escape from the Ohio Penitentiary on November 27, 1863 and Morgan and Hines did cross Confederate lines a month later. This story, along with others told of Morgan’s escapades, served to both increase the Confederate cavalryman’s reputation and feed into the development of the Lost Cause ideology after the war.