Out of a Frozen Hell - February 1998 Civil War Times Feature | HistoryNet MENU

Out of a Frozen Hell – February 1998 Civil War Times Feature

9/23/1998 • Civil War Times

Out of a Frozen Hell
Out of a Frozen Hell

The wind was howling, snow was falling sideways, and the temperature was dangerously low. What better time to escape from Johnson’s Island?


Part two of this article from Civil War Times Illustrated will appear on TheHistoryNet the week of March 30.

Editor’s Note: As 1863 gave way to 1864, a group of Confederate officers hatched a plan to escape from Johnson’s Island, the infamous Union prison on Lake Erie, just north of Sandusky, Ohio. The following story, the first of two parts, is based on the accounts of the prisoners themselves.

New Year’s Day 1864 blew in inhospitably for the prisoners and guards on Johnson’s Island, Ohio. As midnight struck, a heavy rain began to patter hard against the windows of the prisoners’ barracks, replacing the gray drizzle that had enveloped the camp for the past day. Soon a sharp wind arose from the north, layering bitter cold onto the island from icy Sandusky Bay, a small inlet on the southern part of Lake Erie. In minutes the rain turned to a rattling sleet, then a heavy snow. By dawn the mercury had dipped to 10 degrees below zero and continued to plummet. It looked like a long day–and a rough year–was dawning.

As day broke, snow poured almost horizontally off Lake Erie, drifting in deep folds along the stockade fence and around the 13 barracks that held prisoners on Johnson’s Island. A storm like this was something new, and it caught everyone by surprise. Through December 1863 the weather had been moderate, and as a result, not all the prisoners had been given firewood. Fuel inside the “bull pen”–the contemptuous name the prisoners had given their barracks–was in short supply, and one by one the stoves went cold. To go outside, even for an hour, to haul in more wood was to risk frostbite or perhaps even death.

Sandusky Bay, which surrounded the 300-acre island, was frozen, and the slightly warmer water below caused a vapor cloud to rise eerily over the icy surface. Ripples of ice covered window panes and plugged cracks in the walls. Ink froze in stoneware bottles, and the black slush pushed up corks and oozed onto papers. The Southern inmates, wearing every stitch of clothing they owned, huddled under blankets, cursing the Yankees for this bitter day.

Standing watch on the fence, the Hoffman Battalion guards (named after Colonel William Hoffman, the Federal commissary general of prisoners) were scarcely less miserable. In less vicious weather they would pace back and forth on a catwalk 12 feet above the bull pen and call out the hours. But in this weather they were forced to seek shelter from the piercing winds by remaining hunched in unheated sentry boxes along the walkway.

All day the gale raged. By dusk on January 1, the temperature had fallen to 20 degrees below zero, and the wind made it seem like 40 below. Atop the ice-rimmed fence, the number of guards had been reduced, and those who patrolled were replaced frequently to prevent them from freezing stiff. If nothing else, the guards knew no Rebel would try to escape on a night like this. But Lieutenant Colonel William S. Pierson, the prison commandant, had not reckoned on the desire of a handful of Southern officers to be free.

Captain Waller M. Boyd of the 19th Virginia Infantry was the first to go. Somehow, amid the blowing snow, he managed to scale the fence unnoticed, but before going far he was recaptured. Returned to Block 10 blue with cold, he told his roommates that escape was possible, but only if they had enough warm clothing and the will to continue. The sentinels, he explained, were not watching carefully–they were more concerned with keeping warm–and the wind made it impossible to light the large reflector lamps inside the plank fence. According to one of the guards Boyd met, the temperature had fallen to 27 degrees below zero. His aborted escape apparently reinforced to the Federals that no Rebel could make it off the island; no guards were put on alert for more attempts.

Boyd’s discovery reassured Major John R. Winston of the 45th North Carolina Infantry. The 23-year-old officer had been a teacher before the war, a man without military training, but he had found in war the perfect outlet for his talents. Described by a fellow Rebel as “a man of deep piety, of stern integrity and the coolest courage in battle,” Winston was wounded twice at Gettysburg before being captured there on July 3, 1863. Arriving at the prison from a Baltimore hospital late in September, the major had fretted more than most prisoners and had tried several times to escape. In this snowstorm he saw an opportunity that might never recur, for opportunities on Johnson’s Island were few and far between.

Since the prison’s opening in February 1862, only one prisoner had fled successfully–Captain Charles H. Cole of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Cole had been brought to the island in September 1863. Days after his arrival, he and other prisoners were sent into the hold of a steamer to retrieve straw for bunks. Their task completed, the others left the ship, but Cole hid in the straw, remaining behind as the guards lost count of the prisoners. He stayed under the straw as the ship steamed into Sandusky that night. Posing as a civilian worker, Cole cautiously left the ship and escaped into Canada.

Cole’s attempt certainly was not the only one. Many others had tried to tunnel under the wall from the barracks. In one memorable case, a portly South Carolina lieutenant had become so tightly wedged in the hole that he had to be shoveled out by laughing Federals when rain poured in and threatened to drown him.

Just before Christmas 1863, Confederate Brigadier General James J. Archer realized the ground was too frozen for tunneling to succeed. So, he bribed a guard with $200 and a gold watch to let him and a few fellow officers through the gate. Once outside, however, Archer found the ice far too thin to hold them for the three miles to Sandusky. Furious, Archer returned to the prison and demanded that his money and watch be returned. The guard, he said, knew the condition of the ice all along and had let the general out as “a Yankee trick” to get his money. The guard, of course, ignored the demand.

Talk of escape, always a whispered topic among the prisoners on Johnson’s Island, grew in the days after Archer’s failed attempt, but contemplating escape and actually trying it, especially on such a frigid night as January 1, 1864, were quite different. Many of the prisoners considered a go at the fence after hearing from Boyd that day, but in the end only five would try: Winston and Captains Charles C. Robinson of the 9th Virginia Cavalry, Thomas H. Davis of the 1st Virginia Infantry, John E. Stakes of the 40th Virginia Infantry, and N.W. McConnell of the 11th Kentucky Infantry. Had they known what lay ahead, perhaps none would have agreed to leave the comparative comfort of the prison.

The five officers donned all the civilian clothing they possessed and everything else they could borrow. Each wore several pairs of cast-off trousers and an assortment of shirts, socks, and gloves–so many clothes the men could scarcely move. Still, they feared they were underdressed for such bitter cold.

As night arrived and the storm continued, the five men waited anxiously in Block 10. When the drum sounded “lights out” at 9:00 p.m., the beat could scarcely be heard over the howling wind. Hushed in their cell block, the would-be escapees continued to wait until they were sure the Federals had settled in for the night. The sentinel’s hourly call–“Ten o’clock and all’s well”–was, like the nine o’clock drum, muted by the storm.

Finally, Winston and Davis emerged from the barracks dragging a mess hall bench. Nailed along the surface of the bench’s seat were cleats that converted it into a crude ladder. Moving as quickly as their thick clothing and the drifting snow would allow, they struggled through the yard and crossed the deadline, bracing themselves for musket shots that never came. They gently leaned the bench against the fence and prepared to climb. Back inside the cell block, the other prisoners had scraped the ice from the windows and crowded around to watch.

By drawing lots earlier, the men had decided Winston would be the first up the ladder. “Hold, Davis. Lie low. Don’t breathe,” he whispered. “The new relief is coming.” They heard the Union guards outside, double-quicking along the fence, then climbing the ladders to relieve those above. Soon all was quiet again.

Davis, a Richmond attorney before the war, held the bench as Winston quickly mounted the slats. Suddenly a muffled cry of pain arose from Davis. “What’s the matter?” Winston whispered. “Get off my thumb!” Davis answered.

Winston climbed to the top of the ladder only to find it was four feet too short, but he was able to reach the top of the stockade and pull himself up. Seeing no guards, he stepped over the catwalk and slid down a fence brace, onto a stump, and into a soft bank of snow. Then the three other prisoners rushed to the wall.

Davis soon joined Winston on the other side, followed by Robinson and then McConnell. The four gathered among the trees to wait for Stakes, whose brother Edward had built the ladder but declined to escape for lack of sufficient clothing. With no one left to hold the ladder, it scraped against the fence as Stakes tried to climb. Just as he dropped to the snow outside the wall, the guard, hearing a muffled noise, emerged from the sentry box. Seeing a dim figure in the blowing snow, he cried out “Halt!”

Thinking quickly, Stakes waved to him, pretending to be a guard who had just been relieved, and started off briskly toward the Federal barracks. The guard returned to the warm sentry box. Meanwhile, the other four Confederates retreated deep into the woods.

Prisoners inside Block 10 peered out their frosted windows, expecting gunfire at any second. After several anxious minutes passed, Captain Thomas H. White of the 17th Tennessee went out as arranged to retrieve the bench, which had fallen beside the fence. When White rounded a corner, he banged the bench against the barracks and imagined that he heard a musket hammer click on the fence, but no shot came. No guards had seen him, and White made it back “in triumph,” as one prisoner wrote in his diary.

Soon the falling snow and gusting wind erased the fugitives’ footprints, and with them every sign of the escape. All that remained was snow, wind, and frigid night.

The four Confederates waited a reasonable time for Stakes but finally could wait no longer. For all they knew he was in custody and giving information. They hurried north, away from the Federal barracks, past the prison cemetery, and toward the narrow channel between Johnson’s Island and Marblehead Peninsula.

The prisoners preferred this northern escape route for several reasons. It was only a half a mile to Marblehead, much closer than the three miles south to Sandusky. Moreover, the thickness of the bay ice to the south was uncertain, while the calmer water to the north was most likely safer. Lastly, the distance to neutral Canada was considerably shorter than any direct route to the Confederacy. Of course, they realized, the chance of reaching either was remote.

Earlier the storm had broken up the ice and piled huge slabs on the island before the bay froze again. Climbing over this frozen barrier, the four escapees skated out onto the snowy bay. A thin layer of snow whitened the ice, making any cracks or holes that led directly to the frigid water below stand out as dark spots. The men ran, slipped, slid, and tumbled across the frozen surface. Finally, breathless but still together, they reached the far shore. The men paused only for a moment to catch their breath. Across the windswept bay the could hear the Federal sentries at their posts shouting, “All’s well!” The four men climbed over a rail fence and ran across a snowy field to the west. Winston, with his teacher’s knowledge of geography, had mapped out the route carefully in his mind. They could not go east–that would lead to the end of the peninsula and almost certain capture.

Cold, hungry, and exhausted, the Confederates dared not stop at any of the farmhouses they passed, even though they could see the enticingly warm glow of fireplaces through the frosted windows. Instead, they hastened along the road to Port Clinton, some 10 miles away. Two hours before dawn, they sought refuge in a haystack, where they hoped to get warm and hide for a while. Unfortunately, the rains from previous days had frozen, turning the stack into an almost impenetrable iceberg.

The prisoners’ anxiety mounted. Afraid to keep going, yet even more afraid to stop, the four entered a farmer’s stable to “borrow” a pair of plow horses and bridles. In Winston’s mind this was not exactly theft, though he knew the local constable would not agree. But this was no time for legalities. Two men to each horse, the escapees mounted and rode off. There was never a slower getaway. The draft horses refused to go at any pace beyond a slow walk. Exhaustion, however, gave the men no choice but to continue this way.

As the sun was just graying the sky behind them, McConnell slipped off his horse, groaning like a dying man. He was freezing, he said, too cold to remain motionless atop a horse. Winston tried rubbing the warmth back into him only to find that McConnell’s thick clothes made this impossible. Winston knew there was no choice but to send the horses back toward their stable. When the Confederates last saw them, the animals were trotting at a brisk pace, now that there were no riders to slow them.

Shivering, McConnell pushed on with the others and managed to keep up until daylight. The Confederates knocked on the door of a nearby farmhouse and introduced themselves as land speculators who had been out prospecting when they were caught by the storm. The farmer invited them in to get warm near his iron stove. All the while, he kept studying their well-worn clothing.

After they were warm again, the men talked cheerfully yet cautiously with the farmer. While the other two rested, Davis and Robinson did most of the speaking; they were almost Yankees themselves. Davis had graduated from Norwich University, a military academy in Vermont, and Robinson had worked for a time as seaman out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The farmer prepared a breakfast of bread, bacon, and strong coffee for them. As far as the Confederates were concerned, it was food of the gods, and the last they might see for a long, long time.

The Southerners excused themselves at the earliest opportunity and departed without paying the farmer. All they had was $3 in gold, and Winston insisted on hoarding it as long as possible. If some Yankee felt cheated, the major could live with it.

Even as the escapees made their way across northwestern Ohio toward Toledo on the morning of January 2, Union guards held roll call back on Johnson’s Island, and the remaining prisoners answered for the five who were absent. Federal authorities still had no hint that anything was amiss. Word of the escape, however, had quickly spread through the bull pen after roll call, and a host of prisoners tracked over to Block 10 to learn more: if five could escape, surely others could as well. So the prisoners began planning another escape for that night; they would use the same method. But by then it would be too late to try.

Meanwhile, Commandant Pierson remained oblivious to the absence of the five men until that morning, when Captain Stakes was hauled into his office. After becoming separated from Winston and the others, Stakes had made his way north and crossed Sandusky Bay far to the west, where the bay was wider. All alone on the ice, he had fallen several times. The wind and water claimed his hat and a glove. By the time he reached the peninsula, he had no feeling in his hand, feet, or ears. To make matters worse, he could find no sign of his friends.

Lacking the proper clothing, Stakes had no choice but to seek shelter, so he knocked on the door of the first house he saw. Posing as a Canadian sailor who had gotten drunk and had been left behind at Sandusky when his ship sailed, he said he was trying to work his way home. The farmer’s wife and daughters fed Stakes while the farmer, a retired seaman himself, questioned him. Stakes, with a modest knowledge of the sea, managed to answer the farmer’s barrage and was finally given a place to sleep. The next morning, Federal soldiers on patrol happened upon Stakes at the farmhouse. Identified as a Rebel prisoner, he was returned to Johnson’s Island.

Back in Pierson’s office, scarcely able to stand, the captain refused to give any information about his escape or about others who might have escaped with him. The angry Pierson ordered Stakes thrown into a cold cell for the rest of that day and most of the next. Shivering and in great pain from frostbite, Stakes divulged the truth only after he was certain that the other four had gotten away. He was half-carried to his room inside the prison, where Confederate doctors took charge of his recovery. In the weeks that followed, Stakes would lose several fingers and toes, one by one, to gangrene.

Meanwhile, the miles between Winston’s group and the prison grew. The men skirted south of Port Clinton and crossed the frozen Portage River south of Oak Harbor, avoiding roadways and the Union soldiers likely to be patrolling them. At times, Winston heard the ominous sound of huge trees snapping in the sub-zero cold. It was like the sound of breaking bones, or gunfire.

On the afternoon of January 2, the four fugitives stopped at an Irishman’s house and slept briefly by his hearth. Exhausted but still alert, they departed before wearing out their welcome. At sundown they knocked on the door of what one of the men called a “troubled-looking Dutchman’s” house and asked for supper, but the farmer’s dour wife refused to let them enter. Not daring to draw attention to themselves, the Confederates left quietly through the woods. They were now in marsh country, an all but trackless tangle of frozen ponds, forest, and streams. The locals called it “the Black Swamp.”

Winston and the three other prisoners trudged through the swamp. At about 10:00 p.m. they entered a village, probably Oak Harbor, where they stopped at a tavern to get warm. They posed as woodcutters on their way back to Michigan, some 30 miles away. Certainly, it was an occupation more in keeping with their attire than was land speculating–and one less likely to attract attention.

As they warmed themselves by a fire, a Union soldier came in and joined the general conversation. Immediately the Confederates were on guard. But the soldier was on furlough and far too concerned with his own affairs to be on the lookout for escaped Rebels. The conversation turned to the cold weather, and Davis casually mentioned that “those old Rebs on Johnson’s Island must be enjoying the cool lake breezes.” The tavern filled with laughter, and Winston realized that no word of the escape was out yet.

The four Southerners soon departed and marched west again. The cold tormented them all, but McConnell suffered the most. His chest was filled with pain, and an ache settled in his stomach. By sunrise he begged to be left at the next house so he could surrender and go back to prison. Anywhere, he said, was better than where he was. The other three decided to give him his share of the money if he agreed to wait until the others were out of sight before he knocked at any door. McConnell agreed.

After the others were gone, however, the Kentucky captain decided to make one last effort to get away. He knocked on the door of a house and stayed with that family for a day or so before moving on to the nearest railroad depot, where he sold his pocket watch and bought a ticket to Detroit. On the train, however, he was eyed suspiciously by an alert detective looking to collect a bounty on the escapees, who by this time were marked men. McConnell decided to get off at the next stop, but it was too late. He was arrested and returned to the island.

Only three remained–Winston, Davis, and Robinson, all seasoned veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia. They were accustomed to long marches and short rations. Since fleeing Johnson’s Island they had eaten only one meal–the farmer’s breakfast–and that was a day earlier. The three men were cold and hungry, but the potential reward of freedom drove them on.

The Southerners continued walking until they reached a tiny, one-room house near Toledo in which a man and his wife lived with nine children. Asking for food there seemed hopeless, but the kindly woman fed the strangers on cornbread, pork, and gravy. It was all she could scrape together, and this time Winston paid for the meal; he did not have the heart to accept food from such generous people without offering something in return. Perhaps not all Yankees were heartless, he thought.

Leaving the little house, the fugitives followed railroad tracks toward Toledo. The wind had quieted, and the temperature, though still below freezing, had risen slightly. Before night the men stopped at a hovel occupied by a little boy and his Irish grandfather, who refused to help them. Pushing onward doggedly, they sought refuge at every house, but most of the residents were recent German immigrants who spoke little English and seemed frightened by these ragged Americans with their frost-covered beards.

Rebuffed at every turn, the weary escapees sat by the road to rest and think. The oaks in the forest behind them groaned in the rising wind. After coming so far, the threesome’s prospects appeared hopeless. The men were spent, chilled, and feverish. Winston’s legs were swollen, and every bone ached as if the marrow were frozen solid. The Confederates had been on the move for two days and had not enjoyed a decent night of sleep in more than four. Still, Winston resolved, they would not simply die there by the road in this god-forsaken landscape.

At about midnight they knocked at yet another door and were invited to the fire by “a shrewd Down-Easter” who was suspicious of their every gesture. When the Yankee asked where his visitors were from, Robinson responded, “New Bedford, Massachusetts.” The host brightened, and Winston sank. By sheer chance the man had lived there and mentioned the names of several men in the fishing town. Fortunately, Robinson was able to make satisfactory responses, and the “Down-Easter” seemed satisfied and led all three upstairs to a bedroom.

There was little sleep that night. The New Englander made Winston nervous. Such Yankees were not to be trusted. So the Confederates slept only briefly and left after just a few hours, telling their host they had to reach Toledo in time to catch an early train.

Just as morning broke on January 4, the three crossed the Maumee River into Toledo and mingled with workmen on their way to foundries and shops. In three nights and two days, the escapees had traveled a little more than 60 miles. Fortunately, it was easier for ragged men to pass without notice in the city. Toledo was a bustling industrial port at the far western end of Lake Erie, far from the ravages of war. Turning north again, the Rebels made their way toward the city limits and the Michigan state line. At noon Davis, the group’s unofficial treasurer, entered a store and bought a lunch of soda crackers and cheese for the strange-looking trio, and they walked onward, taking in the city and its inhabitants.

Winston was especially struck by the sight of several boys ice-skating down an old canal near the lake shore. In the South he had departed the previous June–the South to which he was trying to return–boys like these wore the lean and hungry look of soldiers, aged beyond their years by the sight of corpses, fields laid waste, and charred houses. He was reminded that there was a world beyond the war, where battles, prisons, and destruction were unknown.

But there was little time for philosophical rumination. The sky was roiling with clouds, and by the time the Confederates reached Monroe, a small town on Lake Erie about a dozen miles north of Ohio, snow was falling. There, Winston observed happy people coming from church, hurrying through the snow to waiting sleighs that would take them to warm homes. None of these people had to worry about the sudden heavy hand of a Federal soldier on their shoulders. Nor did they have to fear flying lead that could rip their flesh at any moment. The Confederates did not pause. Winston, at least, knew they were still far from free.

About 10:00 p.m. they found a “hospitable roof” and slept together on a pallet. Their host, a genial French-Canadian man himself new to Monroe, offered shelter but provided no supper, and his guests departed hastily before breakfast. A half-mile down the road, Robinson stopped suddenly in a panic. His pocketbook was missing. It must have fallen from his clothing while he was sleeping, he deduced. It contained all the papers that identified him as a Virginian and a prisoner at Johnson’s Island. Winston and Davis grew anxious; both of them had left all such documents back at the prison. If the French-Canadian were to open that pocketbook….

Roger Long is a writer from Port Clinton, Ohio.

Part two of this article from Civil War Times Illustrated will appear on TheHistoryNet the week of March 30.

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