The Following Account of Company B's Sgt. William Morehead Gibson's Escape from Confederate Prison in Danville, VA was taken from a September 29, 1916 Grove City, PA newspaper (possibly the Grove City Reporter). The article was transcribed by Tami McConahy.
WHEN THE GATES OF HELL PREVAILED IN OUR LAND - ESCAPE FROM DIXIE
The following is a clipping from the “Courant” a weekly newspaper published in New Castle. The article was written by Morehead Gibson who was the husband of Mrs. Elizabeth Gibson a former resident of Grove City and now visiting friends here. The Civil War was still in progress when Mr. Gibson gave the account of his escape from the Rebel Prison to the newspaper. The writer has long since gone to his eternal home:
We promised our readers last week, a statement from Sergt. Gibson, relative to the hardships and sufferings endured by the intrepid band of men who escaped from Danville, Va., on the 10th of October last. He has furnished us with the following facts, which will be found highly interesting. We are glad to learn by this (Tuesday) morning’s mail that Sergt. Crow has arrived at Knoxville, and feel encouraged to hope that all the rest, who so nobly earned their lives, have by this time got safely within our lines:
Dear Sir - In compliance with your request and in the hope that it may prove interesting to your many readers. I send you the following item connected with our capture, imprisonment and escape from Dixie. Those who have friends in the army, and especially those whose friends are prisoners feel anxious to know how they fare, and what they must undergo to rejoin their comrades or meet their loved ones at home Without further apology for the length of this communication, I proceed.
All who read the newspapers, understand as much about the blowing up of the fort, near Petersburg, on the 30th of July last, as we can tell them. It was my fortune to be among the unfortunate ones captured on that occasion. You remember that the 9th corps occupied a warm place in the engagement, and some 80 of its men were captured; among them twenty-three of our regiment, (the 100th.) Many of our brave men were wantonly murdered, after they had surrendered, but so far as I know, none of our regiment. A Sergeant for the 31st Maine, who was a prisoner with us, informed me that his Captain was shot down by his side, after he had surrendered.
We were taken to Petersburg, and marched through the streets of that city, for the amusement of its citizens and with the design of humiliating us as much as possible, in the following order: At the head of the procession, a squad of negroes next a squad of Yankee officers then negroes then more officers and so on till the list of officers were exhausted, and then the privates, in the same order. And in this way we were paraded through the city; being obliged to travel twice as far as necessary to reach the place of our destination. Here we were kept that night and the next day. We had gone into the fight about three o’clock in the morning without breakfast and being ordered to leave our haversacks, had nothing to eat all day. No rations were given to us that night, nor the next day until evening and then we drew six crackers apiece, which was all we had to eat until we reached Danville to which place we were transferred by rail road, the next day, arriving their near night. We were imprisoned in an old tobacco ware house, called Prison No. 4 where we remained two months and nine days.
Much has been said in regard to the treatment of our prisoners and I mention it here, more for the purpose of corroborating what has been said, than with a view of telling anything new. In the first place, we were robbed of our blankets, canteens, pocket books, watches, knives and in many cases shoes and hats; in short everything that could be made useful to the rebels without regard to our comfort. Our rations in this place, consisted of what was called a pound of corn bread per day, to each man, with water. The bread was of the coarsest meal unsifted and many of the boys declared it was ground cob and all together. But bad as it was, most of the men ate it at a single meal and then had nothing else till the next morning, except once a day, a pint of what they called bean soup. This was made about equal parts of black peas (each of which contained a bug and rat dung.) Disgusting as it may seem, I have seen men take out of their pint of soup a spoonful of rat dung and then eat the soup, to the very dregs. This story may seem incredible to those who never suffered from hunger, but starvation is not ever scrupulous about specks in the food. The soup was made of the river water, without salt and sometimes we had a couple of spoonfuls of the black peas to a pint of soup and sometimes not one spoonful to a quart. The corn bread was about half baked.
The guards had very strict orders and seemed to tax their ingenuity to make us miserable, frequently firing at our men, for no other offense than looking out of the window for a glance of sun light. In this manner one man was shot through the head and killed and several shots were fired at us for the same offense. We were searched three times and everything of value no matter how hidden, taken from us. The sick could get no medicine of any consequence and many badly wounded never had their wounds dressed by a surgeon, and not even cloth to tie them up. It was with difficulty that I persuaded a rebel surgeon to cut a ball out of my neck, where it had been for three days, and then he took his jack knife, rubbed it on his boot and hacked it out.
Rebel officers frequently came into the prison, and tried to persuade the men to enlist in their army by telling them that the Yankee Government cared more for a nigger than a white man. Special appeals were made to foreigners, who were always addressed in their own language and all who would enlist were offered a large bounty and a new suit of clothes with a promise that they should never be sent to the front, but be put in forts in the far South to do garrison duty. By lying to and starving our men, they succeeded in inducing a few to enlist in order to save their lives. The negro prisoners were forced to work every day on the fortifications. They were very hard worked and shamefully beaten on the slightest pretense. Efforts were made to induce other prisoners to work on the fortifications by the offer of an extra ration of bread and meat. In this way a few were induced to go; but the majority declared they would starve dead before they would assist in building fortifications for the enemies of their country and those who did go were roughly used when they came back. Frequently being roughly handled and then their extra food taken from them. But the extra rations was so big a thing in the eyes of hungry men, that some would still persist in going out saying they would rather build earthworks than starve. One morning when they came for men and not one would go, Major Moffit, commanding the fort, swore he would starve the Yankee cusses, till they would be glad to come out and work. And he is just the man to carry out such a threat for nothing seems to do him so much good, as to see a Yankee suffer. Finally, we concluded to send out a spy, to see how many guards there were and what the chances would be for making a break. Accordingly Henry Watson, of Co. C was sent out to work on Saturday, and he came back with a favorable report.
On Sunday we organized a squad of about thirty men and on Monday morning went to work, with the understanding that at the first signal given by one of our party appointed for that purpose “How are you Corn Dodger?” we were to work as closely to our man as possible and at the second repetition of the same, seize and disarm the guard and make tracks. About 4 o’clock the first signal was given, and with hearts palpitating with hope, fear, and determination, we made preparation for the second, each man selecting his man. The second signal was given and in less time that I can tell it, all the guards we could get at were minus their shooting irons and we were “changing our base”, as rapidly as all the surrounding circumstances prompted, which was by no means slow. We had a mile to run before reaching the woods. What few guards had their guns followed and fired at us wounding three of our number, and capturing 25 or 30 who were so weak they could not make good time. Although over ninety went out to work, only about 30 knew any thing of the plan; but when the break was made, all who were able to run started along. Although about 70 started I only know of four who have as yet got through our lines.
After reaching the woods we found the guns so heavy as to impede our progress and they were all broken and left. How many of the original thirty reached the wood, I never knew, for on gaining that shelter we separated, part going west and part north. Of the party starting north, there were about forty. We traveled all night, as rapidly as possible changing our direction several times to baffle pursuit and in the morning separated into two squads twenty in one and ten in the other all bound for Knoxville, Tennessee; but traveling by different routes for greater security. I was with the smaller squad. Their names are Sergt. Allen, Co. M, Sergt. Crow, Joseph Nelson, John Munnel, Silas Alford, all Co. F., Henry Watson Co. C., Joseph Johnston Co. B. and myself of the last named company, all of the 100th P.V.V. and Charles Porter, 11th Connecticut, and Thomas Lother, of the 13th Ohio Cavalry. Two others of the 100th Regiment, John Hoge and Weyman of Co. C. are known to have started from the fortifications but whether they reached the woods or were recaptured, or what became of them, we never knew.
Our squad traveled most of the time at night, and hid in the woods in daylight, subsisting on hard corn, which we roasted at night, when we thought it safe to do so, and at other times ate it raw. Our mode of cooking was quite primitive we made a fire and threw the corn into it, and after letting it burn a short time took it out and gnawed it off the cob. Sometimes we got a pumpkin, which we roasted and ate in the same way. For fifteen days and nights we never stopped at a house, nor had anything to eat, except what we could forage off the country. We “drew” one sheep, which was eaten raw.
Our route lay across the blue ridge mountains, as we deemed that the safest though by no means the pleasantest to travel. When three or four nights out, young Lother took sick. He was quite young - not over 17 or 18 years of age and small. We did everything in our power for him; but the poor fellow was unable to walk, and we could not carry him. To take him to a house was to risk the safety of all, and hard as it was to part form a comrade, young and brave as he, and who had suffered so much with us we were obliged to leave him there in the mountain alone, with no friend to minister to his wants, and not certainty that if he found a house in the morning, he would meet with sufficient humanity to give him relief from suffering. Poor fellow, we left him in tears and many tears have been shed on his account as we have talked of him since. I hope he has joined his friends ere this.
As we had no guide but the friendly stars we were often confused in our wanderings in cloudy nights. On one occasion, after we had got into the State of North Carolina, we were nearing a town called Dobson, where we knew Rebel soldiers were quartered. It was dark and raining, when we came to a river, which looked deep and not knowing its name, or where we were we feared to cross. - Seeing a house, it was determined to send two of our number to make inquiries and well for us we did, for the information came that we were within one mile of the dreaded Dobson. We took a course to flank the town and get round it. It remained dark and wet, no stars to be seen for three nights, and all that time we traveled as we supposed, away from Dobson; but what was our mortification, when upon inquiry of a boy we chanced to see we learned that after traveling three nights and part of a day, we were only ten miles from Dobson and had crossed the river, which was called “Big Fish,” fourteen times. We had probably “surrounded Dobson about as often. Our discouragement may be imagined, but it is useless for me to undertake to describe it. We looked at each other in silent astonishment; being in the situation of the burly alderman who had dined, or the heroine of some ten cent novel, “too full for utterance.” It seemed as though we were doomed to hover on the flanks of Dobson for all time. The next night, however the stars came out, and we left the village behind us without regret, and to this day if one of our band should meet a man by the name of Dobson we should be very apt to knock him down. Our peregrinations around Dobson have afforded us many a laugh since; but at that particular time they did not strike us as being excessively funny.
After fifteen days (or nights rather) of hard travel, we found ourselves in Wilkes county North Carolina. We were coming round the base of a mountain that ran to a peak, and suddenly came upon a party consisting of four men and half a dozen women, fantastically dressed in “butter nut” and homespun short dresses, and each one carrying a pine torch. Making a virtue of necessity we spoke to them and found it was a wedding party. One of the couples was going to the squire’s to get married, which was the occasion of the singular torch light procession. To our surprise and delight we found them quite communicative and very friendly. They assured us that we were in a Union settlement and the men of their party were all deserters from the rebel army. We were a little afraid to trust them at first; but their friendly frankness reassured us, and we confided in them. They showed us a good hiding place, and after the wedding several of them visited us, bringing bread and meat and remained with us two or three hours, giving us direction as to our route.
In a few days we reached Jonston county, Tennessee, where we found many good Union people and rebel deserters. In this county we stopped at the house of a Union man, and knowing that at a certain point in the road a guard was stationed tried to get information from him how to flank it. The poor man had been deceived by rebels in the guise of Union men, who betrayed him, and had him condemned to death; but he had escaped and feared to put his life in jeopardy again. We left the house without gaining the desired information and had proceeded about half a mile when a low whistle was heard in our rear, and upon turning to ascertain the cause, found the man’s daughter, who informed us why her father had been so reticent and proceeded with us as guide about five miles, until we were out of danger. She was a young lady about 18 years of age and you may be sure, Mr. Editor, though we had neither silver nor gold to reward her for her self-sacrificing kindness, she left us on her return through the darkness, with many and heartfelt blessings.
We still kept up our traveling at night, and hiding in daytime, and in a day or two after the occurrence narrated above, found an old log cabin, apparently deserted, of which we took possession. Soon after daylight and before we had gone to bed, or made a fire, a man was seen coming towards the cabin. Two of our men were sent out to meet him. He appeared very friendly and assured us we were perfectly safe in the cabin that day. We thanked him, and pretended to believe; but as soon as he was out of sight, we made tracks from the place as rapidly as possible and learned afterwards that he had gone immediately and procured a guard of soldiers, who surrounded the cabin and ordered the yankees to surrender. Getting no response, they reconnoitered a little more closely, and learned the reason why the yankees had not answered the call. A hot pursuit was immediately made, and so closely were they upon our tracks that at one time, when Johnston and Alford were sitting in a Union house, where they had just entered, the lady of the house saw them coming and closed the door. Quick as thought she pulled away a bed which stood against the other door and let them out. But the rebels had seen them and called to them to halt, which they didn’t. Thinking them rebel deserters, the fellow did not fire. He was after yankees, and he didn’t care about bagging any smaller game. At another time when Joe Nelson was seated in a Union house, mending as well he could a damaged boot. A rebel appeared so close to the door that in response to the lady’s alarm, he had just time to get under the bed. The fellow came in and inquired if she had seen any yankees. The lady hadn’t. He said there were ten of them and wanted to know if she had seen any strangers. Since he mentioned it, she did remember of seeing some ten such fellows that very day. He wanted to know which direction they had taken. Well, she said, they had scattered about her premises. The fellow thanked her for the information and went his way, and so did we, but our way was not his. We had business of importance in another direction.
A few mornings after this we saw a squad of 22 men unarmed, and judging them to be Union refugees, or deserters hailed them. We found them to be recruits for our army, which two intrepid sergeants had gathered up and that they were on the way to our lines at Greenville, Tenn. We joined them and all traveled together for some days, when we learned that our forces had fallen back from Greenville to Bull’s gap. We took round to try to make them at the latter place and when near there and in great glee, thinking we should certainly reach the Union lines before morning, we found ourselves close upon the rebel commands of Vaughn and Breckenridge and learned that our forces had fallen back to Morristown on Strawberry plains.
Concluding then that it was impossible to reach the Union lines in that the other party thought it best to turn of strategy, to determine what course was best to pursue. The guides of the other party thought it best to turn around and go back about 15 miles and cross the Chucky river to get into a little range of mountains. Six of our band, Crowe, Munnel, Nelson, Alford, Porter and a man belonging to the 4th Tennessee cavalry, who had escaped from Salisbury, N.C., and joined us, went with them. The remaining four, Allen, Watson, Johnson and myself determined to try for a shorter route and we separated.
Four days afterward, the 18th of November, we reached Knoxville and have never seen or heard of our companions since.
We reported to General Carter, who received us in the kindest manner, treating us as we would expect a father to treat a lost son, who had suddenly turned up. Four more grateful men than we. I suppose you never saw. We were overjoyed in fact, on realizing that we were actually safe, that though worn out with privation and fatigue, we could neither eat nor sleep. It seemed enough to us that we were among friends and to partake of food or rest under such circumstances looked like an extravagant waste of the blessings of a kind Providence.
Oh, how we longed to have those who had been our companions in the weary march, and who had suffered more that I have undertaken to tell, participate with us in our new delight. We looked for them anxiously during the three days of our stay; but no word came of them and we do not yet know how they fared, or where they went after leaving us. We still have hopes that they may have come into our lines; but not unmixed with fears lest they may have been overtaken.
We left Knoxville with passes from General Carter, on Monday, Nov. 21st, and arrived at New Castle on Wednesday, the 29th, all except Allen, whose home is in Monongahela City, where he is now probably, enjoying himself, as we are, among friends.
Many of our experiences, which might have interested the reader, have been omitted, for fear of making the article too lengthy. Pages might be filled in truthful narration’s of our sufferings and narrow escapes; but I will only tax your patience to say that among other things, at the time of leaving the fortifications at Danville. Porter had no shoes, and that he traveled with us, barefooted, through those rough mountains in the night with no chance to pick his steps and through acres of briars, for about a hundred and sixty miles, to Wikes county, N.C. when a man gave him a pair of shoes. His feet were lacerated in a terrible manner, much swollen and many of the toe nails knocked off. Poor fellow, he has earned his liberty, and I hope has achieved it before this time.
Wm. M. Gibson
Serg’t. Co. B. 100th P.V.V.
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