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Out of a Frozen Hell part 2

A misplaced pocketbook jeopardizes the escape of three Rebel prisoners struggling to reach Canada.


Editor’s Note: In our last issue, we followed four Confederate officers on their daring escape from Johnson’s Island Prison, on Ohio’s Sandusky Bay. Going over the wall on New Year’s Day 1864, Thomas H. Davis, N.W. McConnell, Charles C. Robinson, and John R. Winston struggled north through blizzards and bitter cold toward Canada and freedom. McConnell was recaptured in a few days. The same fate appeared imminent for the other three when Robinson accidentally left his pocketbook, containing papers that identified him as a prisoner of war, at a French Canadian man’s home in Monroe, Michigan. Would the Canadian open the pocketbook, learn the truth, and lead Union authorities to the fugitives?

There was no other choice–Major Winston would have to go back and recover the pocketbook Captain Robinson had lost. It was a tense moment for the three men; after all they had endured, this one critical lapse of judgment could foil their escape.

While Robinson waited with Captain Davis just out of sight of the house, Winston tramped slowly through the snow toward the French Canadian’s door and knocked. The door opened, and, without hesitation, the man handed the pocketbook to Winston. The French Canadian knew that his visitors from the night before had forgotten it and assumed they would return for it. Out of courtesy, he had not opened it; at least that was what he said. Winston thanked the man and, after he rejoined his comrades, the three Confederates fled as quickly as their exhausted legs would allow.

They headed north toward Detroit, about 35 miles away, but that was not where Winston had wanted to go. At the border crossing there, Federal officials were sure to be checking identifications, and by now word of the escape must have reached the city. Winston had laid his plans carefully, and he refused to slip up now. He and his comrades would have to cross into Canada elsewhere, somewhere more remote.

Hungry and tired, the men stopped at a house for food about noon on January 5. A woman with what one of the escapees described as the “sweetest expression we had almost ever seen” cordially invited them in. The kind woman carried on a polite conversation with her visitors. They never learned her name, but she offered them bread and a brief respite from the bitter cold. Again Winston was reminded of that quiet, peaceful world he had once known as a teacher, when his most dangerous concern was disciplining mischievous boys.

Time was passing. The fugitives hesitated to leave the warmth of the woman’s home, but knew they had to go, so they left the house and continued north. Some two miles south of Trenton, on the Detroit River, they made one final stop in the United States. There, they visited another house, this time to ask an 80-year-old man for directions–and to get warm. Subzero cold, after all, can wreak havoc on exhausted men. With what one of the Southerners called a New England “nasal twang,” the old gentleman told them that he had never seen such a cold snap, and the escapees agreed. Hearing the Confederates talk, the Yankee asked if they were from the South, but Davis, thinking quickly, named a town in the East as their home and removed any suspicions the old man might have been developing.

Soon, the men were on the move again, heading toward the Detroit River–the last barrier between them and Canada. They passed on into Trenton, cold again and hungry still. It was well into the afternoon, and there were signs that children had recently taken this route on their way home from school. The three hungry men made a meal out of a piece of biscuit thrown away by one of the pupils. Then, searching along the street, the escapees dug out more food from the snow bank until they had accumulated what they considered “quite a little snack.”

Darkness soon fell, and most of the city’s residents were already snug in their warm homes, sitting down to good suppers. The Confederates kept walking until they reached the frozen river. Even with the old man’s directions, Winston was still unsure of his exact location. He looked out across the icy Detroit. Grosse Ile sat in the middle of the river, opposite Trenton. Winston incorrectly believed he and his comrades were looking at Fighting Island, a considerably smaller piece of land just north of Grosse Ile but out of the fugitives’ view. Because both islands belonged to the United States, however, the miscalculation was unimportant. In either case, safety lay on the other side of the river, and the darkness offered the ideal cover for their crossing.

The men edged slowly toward the river’s frozen surface. This western channel of the river was narrow and slow moving. As a result, the ice was thick enough to sustain their weight, so the men began to move quickly over it. In his haste to cross, Robinson fell headfirst to the ice almost immediately. He was stunned, and he would not completely recover his faculties for the rest of the night, but he and his comrades continued their crossing and reached Grosse Ile easily. Still, Winston knew the real test would come in the eastern channel, the shipping channel.

Back on land again, the three men picked their way through two miles of briars and near-frozen marshes toward the far side of the island. Lamps from a few dwellings on the distant shore were all they saw of civilization in the blackness of the night. No matter how cold and hungry they were, none of them was tempted to stop and rest.

Soon they reached water again. This part of the icy Detroit was wider and rougher than the channel they had already crossed, and getting over it, the prisoners realized, was going to be “exceedingly troublesome.” Storms over the past month had pushed broken cakes of ice against the island and had “blown [them] about in waves.” The Confederates clambered over the great blocks, slipping and sliding. To make matters worse, they could feel the frozen wedges move beneath their feet.

Surprisingly, the ice remained stable enough to carry them most of the way across. Finally, they reached open water–the shipping lane, a wide expanse of water near the Canadian shore. The ice shifted beneath the Confederates’ numb feet, forcing them to leap from one floe to another, each time hoping the new footing would be firmer. Still dazed from his fall, Robinson stepped onto a block that began to move quickly. He tried to step back, but it was too late. Both his legs plunged into the frigid water. He threw himself forward, clutching at the floating ice in front of him. Davis and Winston dropped to their knees to pull him up before the swift current could wash him away. They yanked him from the river onto an ice floe; almost instantly his trousers froze stiff and crackled whenever he moved.

All three men took slow and steady breaths. They had come too far to turn back now; retreating to Grosse Ile would be even more perilous than continuing. So they pressed on. It was easy to avoid open water, which appeared as dark patches. The trick was to find ice stable enough to sustain a man’s weight long enough for him to move on to the next floe. Davis placed himself about 10 feet in front of his partners. Robinson, by this time thoroughly worn out, leaned on Winston’s shoulder. Clouds shut out all the stars, and only the dim lamps on the shore lit the night. “If we ever get there,” Davis called back to the others, “I’ll kiss the ground.”

They began to walk, unsteadily at first but more quickly with each passing step. Then, near the shore, they came upon a terrible sight: a large expanse of open water that threatened to keep them from reaching the Canadian bank. The three men worked their way north, then south, trying to find some route over the water, some firm wedge of ice to support them. The ice they finally found was a frail bridge, at best. Each floe seemed to give way when any weight was placed on it. But there was no other option; these bobbing chunks of ice were the only way to safety now.

The men began to panic. If one of them fell in, rescue there in the swift-moving shipping channel was unlikely. They had no choice but to make a run for it, one at a time, and trust to God.

Davis went first. The ice cracked and wobbled as his weight came down ever so briefly and passed forward. He reached the shore with a final leap and with the shivering Robinson right behind him. Moments later, Winston leaped onto the firm soil of Ontario. “We were safe!” he wrote some 20 years later.

Exultant but still cold and hungry, the trio walked to the door of a nearby house. A half-French, half-Indian woman who went by the name Mrs. Warrior answered. She offered them pies and a soft pallet in front of a warm stove. It was 10 p.m. on January 5, four days after they had scaled the fence on Johnson’s Island. In that time, Winston estimated, they had had perhaps six hours of sleep. They had traveled 125 miles, much of it in subzero cold, and had eaten only two meals and three snacks. Winston’s limbs ached from the exertion; his body, after all, had spent six months “rusting” (as he put it) since he was captured on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg. But now he and his compatriots were safe, even if only momentarily, under a British flag.

The night passed quietly, and Winston felt refreshed in the morning. After a hearty breakfast, he walked back to the river bank with Davis and Mrs. Warrior while Robinson recovered from his ordeal. “That was a bad-looking place for people to cross,” Davis said, as he stared across the mass of moving ice toward the distant island. Mrs. Warrior shook her head incredulously. “People never cross there,” she said.

Winston shuddered as he gazed at what he termed the “tangled ice” and shuddered. In later years, he would claim that of the many tests he had endured in the war, crossing this river was “the severest of my experience.” Even combat paled in comparison. “In the pitched battle we are generally in action; there is an enthusiasm and sometimes exhilaration,” he recalled. But on the bobbing ice that desperate night, “the warmth of our very nature was chilled. No sight or sound cheered us, dark clouds obscured the stars, and all was death-like stillness, save the whisking of the freezing winds among the sharply broken ice….”

After resting at Mrs. Warrior’s home, the three men borrowed a sleigh and rode 13 miles north to Windsor, a Canadian city just across the river from Detroit. There, the owner of a hotel, hearing their escape story, offered the fugitives free rooms. A guest at the hotel, Clement L. Vallandigham, a former U.S. congressman whose antiwar activities had prompted authorities to arrest him for treason and exile him from the United States the previous May, was equally impressed by their story. Winston considered Vallandigham a pleasant companion, even though the Northerner declined to toast Southern victory. “No, no,” Vallandigham said. “In that event the Union is gone forever.”

The three Confederates were still far from home, and they were anxious to resume their journey. Winston contacted a friend of his in New York who sent the former prisoners $200. A few days after arriving in Windsor they were on their way again. Over the next few days they traveled more than 550 miles east to Montreal. There, Winston sent a letter to Captain Waller M. Boyd, his former roommate back at Johnson’s Island, to report that he, Davis, and Robinson had made it to Canada. After all, he believed, it was Boyd’s unsuccessful escape that had inspired his own attempt. The letter was probably coded to pass Federal censors, who certainly would not have allowed a prisoner of war to receive a letter signed openly by a successful escapee. Whatever the case, the prisoners back in Block 10 received the news with satisfaction.

The Southern escapees became minor celebrities in Montreal, being invited to tea every day and receiving many visitors. Several so-called Confederates Winston met in Canada were shirkers, men who had come north to avoid the war. The escapees had little time to waste on them. Others, however, were escaped prisoners themselves, members of Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s command who were bound for Richmond. All things considered, it was a most pleasant stay, certainly better than a night on a frozen river–or six months on a frozen island.

But at last it was time to move on. After 10 days in Montreal, the Confederates traveled by rail along the St. Lawrence River, through New Brunswick, and finally to the seaport of Halifax, Nova Scotia, carefully skirting U.S. territory. The distance was about 500 miles, the last leg of it covered by sleigh. In Halifax, the trio boarded the mail steamer Alpha, bound for St. George, Bermuda. As the ship left port, the Confederates looked back at the Canadian land white with snow. Just a few days later, they stepped ashore in a place where the only ice to be found was floating in drinks. “Here, early spring greeted us in all her loveliness, children were picnicking on the green sward, and lambs and calves nibbled about on the grassy hills,” Winston recalled. Nevertheless, Bermuda was not home, and duty beckoned.

Two days later, the Advance, a blockade-runner flying the colors of the South, entered the harbor. When she sailed again, the three escapees were aboard–more rested and certainly much warmer. One last trial lay between them and the Confederacy: the Union’s naval blockade of Southern ports. The Advance steamed toward Wilmington, North Carolina, slipping easily past the Union’s blockaders. The voyage was uneventful until the Advance stopped suddenly within range of the Federal warships. The pilot, miscalculating the tides, had driven the vessel onto a sand bar. Hung up and unarmed, she would be little more than target practice for the Union ships. The captain of the Advance signaled distress to nearby Fort Fisher, and lifeboats were lowered to carry passengers ashore. Before help could arrive, however, the vessel floated free from the bar and continued toward the fort. “Now we were safe!” Winston wrote.

Winston, Davis, and Robinson were home at last, but the war was far from over. It would not end for another year, and an eventful year it would be for everyone associated with the prison break. Lieutenant Colonel William S. Pierson was soon replaced as commandant at Johnson’s Island, partly as a result of the escape. Later, after receiving brevets as colonel and brigadier general, Pierson returned to his native Connecticut, taking with him the prison account books–and, according to a friend, a great deal of cash. Pierson died a few years later during a business trip in New York. Captain John E. Stakes remained at Johnson’s Island–often in great pain from his frostbite–for much of the next year before he was finally sent home to northern Virginia. After his capture on a train in Ohio, Captain McConnell was returned to Johnson’s Island, where he remained for the rest of the war. His brief absence was not even noted in the prison roll books.

The three Confederates who escaped all returned to battle. Robinson went back to his cavalry regiment, but his subsequent fate is unknown. Davis returned to the 1st Virginia and remained in service until the final days of the war. During the retreat from Petersburg, Virginia, in April 1865, he was captured again at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek. Taken first to Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., Davis was transferred to Johnson’s Island. When he arrived on April 19, a clerk penciled the word “back” over his name on the prison ledger. Davis remained there until he took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States on June 19. Then, the 29-year-old lawyer went west. He was killed two years later in San Antonio, Texas.

Meanwhile, Winston, who throughout his escape thought he was a major, returned to his home state of North Carolina to find he had been promoted to colonel during his absence. He led his regiment from the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia in May 1864 until the end of the war, suffering several wounds. During the summer and fall of 1864, Winston served under Lieutenant General Jubal Early in the Shenandoah Valley, accompanying Early on his raid to the outskirts of Washington in July. Transferred back to Petersburg for the winter, Winston fought all the way to Appomattox Court House and surrendered there with a mere fragment of his 45th North Carolina.

Winston returned home, married, fathered several children, resumed his teaching duties, and died in 1888, a faithful citizen of a united country. Later, his descendants published his recollections of his escape and his remarkable journey back to North Carolina. Only a few copies of the rare pamphlet survive.

Roger Long is a writer from Port Clinton, Ohio.