Confederate Veteran, Vol. VI, No. 3 Nashville, Tenn., March, 1898.
EFFORTS TO ESCAPE FROM CAMP CHASE
W. H. Richardson
Col. W. H. Knauss, of Columbus, Ohio, has had much of interesting correspondence because of his noble service in caring for Confederate graves at Camp Chase. He sends a letter from W. H. Richardson, of Austin, Tex. Extracts are copied from the letter:
Now, to tell an unvarnished tale, the story as it was written in hunger and suffering, might bring to the surface bitter memories, and be considered unseemly and out of place. Therefore I will only deal in a general way. After thirty-three years, my memory is as fresh as if it was yesterday. Arriving at Camp Chase early in August, 1864, we found an order curtailing rations to the lowest minimum possible to sustain life. Therefore, a constant want of the necessary healthy food to sustain life fast filled those graves-with the weak first, those who contracted disease next, while the strong men, inured to hardship and rations, wore on. During this time the sutler was not allowed to sell anything, not even pepper. You can imagine the rest.
No wonder, then, any scheme to escape was readily entered into. Our mess, composed of officers only, mostly border men, organized for the purpose of escaping. There were twenty-four of us in a room twenty-four feet square. The barrack shanty was built on posts two and one-half to three feet off the ground. In one end was a pine plank, one contract blanket, one suit of clothes. Cold and hungry, we dug and worked for eight long months, only to be disappointed again and again. Silent, scant tunnels, grand charging combinations, all failed.
I will give you an account of one of the many efforts which failed, through spies or "weak-kneed" brothers. Nine of us formed a secret organization pledged to one another by all we held sacred, to get away. The wall of No. I, on the side next to Columbus, was moved farther out, making more room, and a new sink, about 8 x 16 feet, eight feet deep, was dug. We conceived the idea of getting into it as soon as opened for use and tunneling out, as we had only about twenty feet to go. I volunteered to take up the planks and let down a detail to dig. Mine was the post of honor. Immediately in front was a street lamp; on the wall, a sentinel; a trusty, five feet away. I worked long and hard. The planks were double nailed and the tools were not numerous. The faintest shadow hid the form of the Confederate soldier from the aim of the sentinel, only too willing to fire; but the boldness of the thing was its strong point. No one suspected; not even the "spy" saw the dark line of that desperate, hungry soldier, working for life and liberty. The first night the planks were raised, and the work progressed rapidly; two or three shifts were pressed rapidly, and the work stopped for another night. The ground was not frozen solid enough where the new sewer led off, and when the tunnel struck it caved in, and daylight revealed the plot.
Then a howl went up. Under the very feet of the sentinel, in the light of a street lamp, a bold, daring attempt to escape was planned. The excitement in the Federal camp was great. It was ration day-rations were issued every two days. Instead of rations, an order was posted, which read: "Until the men concerned in the attempt to escape come forward or are brought forward, no more rations will be issued."
"Razorbacks," or weak-kneed Confederates, were ready to sell us for a mess of pottage. But little we cared. We, the "picked nine," were known only to ourselves, and were not giving a circus. That we would be betrayed, and probably shot, bothered us but little. We found that hungry men Soon lose human feeling. Col. Hawkins, preacher and soldier, volunteered to go before the commandant, and eloquently presented the case, saying that "old men, innocent hundreds were being punished for the attempt of others." So rations were issued, and that job ended.
Colonel, thirty odd years is a long time. You and I are through fighting, and after these long years are past we can look back on the scenes of long ago without bitterness. We can appreciate true manhood as we find it and can commend a noble act or condemn the reverse. We prisoners of war at Camp Chase were captured on the battle-field, fighting as best we knew how the battles of our section. We struck no dishonorable blows; we treated prisoners as true soldiers. Then for a great government-strong in all that made an army, blessed as Ohio was with the rich fruits of earth~to pen such men up and starve them till the silent testimonials within that tottering wall-out of all proportion to the number confined-tell the tale is a sad record. When the vast throng of spirits mustered under the white banner of peace on that far-off shore shall shout praises before the throne of peace, great will be the reward of the man whom God raised up to honor the resting-place of those who died in those prison-walls.
Colonel, in our Texas home is a hearty welcome; a Virginia wife and a lot of Texas children will welcome you. Our rations are yours, and this old cavalryman of J. E. B. Stuart will swap yarns with you till the bugle calls us home.
Excuse this scrawl; I write as I fought: at will. May the God of battles and the white-winged Messenger of Peace keep you always!
P. S.-The chief of our mess was Col. Abuer, brother-in-law to Brownlow, of Tennessee. Col. Hawkins, author of several poems, among others the "Bonnie White Flag"---now misplaced---was from Tennessee. The writer, a Marylander, served under Stuart in Virginia, and came to Texas in 1866.
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