February 10, 2014

Lt. Col. David Miles' Escape from Libby Prison (and his recapture, use as a human shield, and parole)

Location: Richmond, VA, USA
Libby Prison in Richmond, 1865 (Source)
In this post, I republish an exciting account of David Miles' eleven months in Southern prisons that Miles gave to the editors of the Daily Evening Express upon his parole and return to Lancaster.  See the full account here, which was published on August 11, 1864.

Lieut. Col. David Miles
(D. Scott Hartzell Collection, USAMHI)
David Miles, the future lieutenant colonel of the 79th Pennsylvania, was born in Franklin County in 1831.  By 1860, he had moved to Lancaster's Northwest Ward to work as a tinsmith with wife Mary and four children.  Before the war, he was involved with the Lancaster Fencibles militia and apparently also worked to promote Lincoln's election, as William McCaskey mentions Miles as the marshal of "the great Lincoln Mass Meeting" (as a reference point for a type of hat McCaskey wished to have sent from Lancaster, 2/5/1865).  Upon the organization of the Lancaster County Regiment, Miles would take the position of first lieutenant of Company B, 79th Pennsylvania.  The departures in 1862 of Captains Kendrick, Duchman, and Druckenmiller opened the path for Miles to become lieutenant colonel, and he led the regiment's left wing with distinction at the Battle of Perryville.

Just after the dark on September 19, 1863 -- the first day of the Battle of Chickamauga -- the 79th Pennsylvania advanced through dense woods to plug a hole in the Union line.  Commanding the left wing was Lt. Col. David Miles, who was mounted on horseback after breaking his leg in a fall from his horse back in May.  As the Lancaster County Regiment moved forward, a combination of friendly and enemy fire caused the situation to rapidly deteriorate.  The line broke and the regiment hastily retreated.

The hobbled Miles found himself dismounted in no man's land with his horse's reins in his hands.  He lay on the ground to escape the bullets and eventually remounted after finding a stump to stand on.  Due to a faulty sense of direction or the shifting battle lines, Miles rode into what he thought were friendly soldiers, only to be surrounded by Confederate soldiers who demanded his surrender.

For the next month, his fate was a mystery to the remaining soldiers in the 79th Pa, who feared the worst for him and his family.  Capt. William G. Kendrick wrote his wife of the situation, "[Miles'] wife has five children and she is not able to walk and has nothing to live on, a terrible condition to be left in, no life insurance."  (10/14/1863, emphasis in original)  Miles' self-described protege, Capt. William McCaskey, thought it a good idea for his brother to send his sister on a visit to Mrs. Miles to comfort her, but felt confident that Miles would turn up based on reports of another regiment nearby thinking that they saw him on the night of September 19.

By the time news of Miles' capture reached Lancaster and the 79th Pennsylvania, Miles had already spent two weeks as a resident of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.  Immediately after his capture on September 19, the Confederates had him and other prisoners march to a rendezvous point ten miles distant.  Fellow captives John Shirk of Company E, 79th Pa, and Lieut. John W. Thomas of the 2nd Ohio Infantry* provided the injured Miles with badly needed shoulders to lean on during this march.  Miles and other Union soldiers made a journey by train and arrived at Libby prison -- an old tobacco warehouse -- on September 29, 1863.

Diagram of Libby Prison Escape Tunnel, Century Magazine, March 1888

The escape took place on the night of February 9-10, 1864, after weeks of tunneling by imprisoned Union officers.  The total number of prisoners to escape was 109, of whom 59 succeeded in reaching Union lines.  Miles joined Captain Hardy of the 79th Illinois and broke east for Union lines.  The traveled an estimated 60 miles in a circuitous route, aided by local African Americans.  While trying to pass the very last line of Confederate pickets, they were recaptured five days after they escaped.  Miles was taken back to Libby prison and was confined in a hole for two days, but was spared further punishment due to his illness and rejoined the general prison population.

O'Conner House, Charleston, South Carolina
Stereoview by John P. Soule (1865)
The next chapter in Miles' prison saga involved getting sent to Charleston, South Carolina, as a human shield, which was an upgrade from prisoner in Richmond as far as Miles was concerned.  Upset about the bombardment of Charleston by Union forces, the Confederates placed the fifty highest ranking prisoners (which included Miles) in a jail and subsequently a relatively comfortable house in range of the Union shells.  Miles claimed not to have felt any great danger but rather enjoyed the ability to purchase from market wagons and even to "play ball and exercise themselves" in a space set aside for that purpose.

Tombstone of David Miles
Lancaster Cemetery
Eventually, the controversy over the bombardment of Charleston and use of human shields came to a resolution, and a special exception to the no prisoner exchange policy allowed the Union officers in Charleston to be exchanged.  Miles arrived home in Lancaster in early August 1864.  Besides spending time with the editors of the Express to get a full account that was published on August 11, the Lancaster Fencibles -- his old militia unit -- treated him to a supper on August 18.  Miles made a celebrated return to the Lancaster County Regiment on the evening of October 29, 1864.  Sgt. William T. Clark reported in his diary, "Lieut. Col. Miles looks very well. Crowds are continually around him, hearing of the suffering of Rebel Prisons."          

Miles would lead the 79th Pennsylvania or its brigade for most of the rest of the war, most notably commanding a brigade at the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, where he was wounded.  Overall, he seems to have been a courageous, competent, and highly-esteemed officer.  The escape in which he participated gained national attention and provided another welcome positive distraction in what could have been a long winter of 1864 for Northern civilians and soldiers.

* Both Shirk and Thomas have their own escape stories.  Shirk went off to Danville prison and was part of a similar escape later in February 1864.  He left his own account (and is mentioned in an account by John Obreiter of the 77th Pennsylvania), which I will feature in a future post.  Thomas successfully reached Union lines in the escape from Libby prison.  He was killed in battle on July 20, 1864, near Atlanta.    

February 9, 2014

Living History Prep: Researching Pennsylvania in May 1864

Location: Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, 2 Mark Bird Lane, Elverson, PA 19520, USA
My wife and I beside French Creek at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, June 2013 (Tintype by Jim Pfeiffer)
Once or twice a year, my wife and I have the opportunity to participate in a living history event in which reenactors partner with a historical site to interpret a specific historical event.  My wife savors the opportunity to assemble a high-quality wardrobe, and I generally enjoy doing some of the background research about a particular person, place, and time.  Neither of us are big fans of "first-person" portrayals where we pretend to be a person in the 1860s, but we're happy to do it if it enables us to do something special with costumes, material culture, biography, and history.

This year, we are planning to return to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site on May 16-18, 2014, in Elverson, Pennsylvania (~20 miles east of New Holland).  The theme of the event is "Enduring the Storm: Hopewell 1864," which excites me as an opportunity to research how Northern communities fared in 1864 -- a time of the war that I've read much less about in newspapers.  So, I recently had the Daily Evening Express microfilm sent out to Pittsburgh to do some research.  I scanned the editions of the newspaper covering May 16-18, 1864, to share with other reenactors and to spark ideas about what to interpret at the event.  Here are links to the PDFs:

Going over these newspapers, a few themes emerge that might be worthwhile pursuing as topics to research further and possibly incorporate into the event:
  1.  Emancipation as a moral imperative.  Instead of talking about emancipation as a military necessity, the possibility of an antislavery amendment brought moral arguments against slavery into pages of the Daily Evening Express, a Republican newspaper.  The Express ran an essay entitled "The Demon of Slavery" by Henry Ward Beecher on its front page, and editorialized that the war's objective was now "the merciless mandated, 'Slavery must die!'"  Among Lancaster's mainstream Republican community, emancipation was pretty much an afterthought in the rush to war, and then really came up in the context of confusing policy situations in which military found itself in 1862.  By 1864, we see that ending slavery went hand-in-hand with winning the war.
  2. Details from the Battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania.  Initial reports had indicated a victory with heavy losses in these first meetings between Grant and Lee, with more clashes expected.  More local news -- casualty lists from the Lancaster companies and accounts of the Pennsylvania Reserves in battle -- began to trickle in a couple days after the national news.  The five Pennsylvania Reserves companies or two 45th Pennsylvania companies suffered moderate casualties.  
  3. Soldiers fairs.  News about local soldiers fairs and support for an upcoming fair in Philadelphia filled newspapers for much of the first half of 1864.  In addition to raising the morale of and materially aiding local soldiers, they seem to have served to re-energize the Northern populace and provided a welcome distraction as the war dragged on.  
  4. Inflation and prices.  Trade organizations for hotel keepers and shoemakers made attempts to publish suggested prices as the war raised prices of materials.
  5. Veterans home on furlough.  Most had already come home and were back in the field, but a few had their furlough in May.  Company G, 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry, was home during this time.  Sadly, one of its veterans was killed when jumping off a train at Elizabethtown. 
  6. Administration of veterans' bounties. Veterans who reenlisted were promised bounties from municipalities (that received credit for their reenlistment against their draft quota).  Families were slow to receive that money, much to the indignation of soldiers who wrote letters of protest.  
  7. Preparing for the election of 1864. Newspaper editors talked about the Virginia campaigns and military strategy in the context of campaign strategy.  The Union Party (Lincoln's party) would have its convention in the first week of June.  With its editorial, "The President and the War," the Express made clear its unwavering support for Lincoln saying, "The country may rely, with unfaltering trust, upon the supreme devotion of the President to the defence of the Government and the suppression of the rebellion.  He has never, in a single instance, given the slightest ground for the imputation of being governed by personal ambition, or by any other motive than devotion to the public good."

We'll see how these themes develop over the upcoming weeks and if any would be amenable to interpretation at Hopewell.  One of the next steps will be to portray a historical persona.  Last year, I portrayed Lancasterian William A. Heitshu, who married Mary Geiger, daughter of an iron master with operations in the region.  Geigertown, a crossroads two miles west of Hopewell Furnace, was named after their ancestors, and my wife and I pretended to be visiting the village on our respective business and personal matters.  The completion of the Reading and Columbia Railroad gave an excuse to talk about pig iron markets and the pig iron supply chain with some of the other reenactors.  Like I said, pretending to be historical persons is silly on some level, but it often gives an excuse for a fun train of research questions.  We'll see how our impressions develop this year, and I'll try to give an occasional update as I research the issues facing residents of Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties in May 1864.    

February 8, 2014

Catching up with the 79th Pa: 'Veteran Fever' on Lookout Mountain

Location: Lookout Mountain, Georgia 30738, USA
View from Lookout Mountain by George N. Bernard in February 1864 (Source)
Catching up with the 79th Pennsylvania as 1863 turned to 1864, we find them celebrating Christmas and New Years on the summit of Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Although the food was more or less limited to sauerkraut and mess pork, the officers of the Lancaster County Regiment were invited to enjoy balls thrown by the 78th Pennsylvania and 21st Wisconsin while the 79th Pa's celebrated regimental band provided the music.  In his diary entry for Christmas, Sgt. William T. Clark of Company B recorded, "Tonight there are several balls, a colored one at Gen. Starkweather’s Hd. Qrs. The soldiers on Lookout have won & citizens on Missionary Ridge giving one to soldiers."

The regiment spent most of its time drilling on frozen ground and enduring winter storms.  Gen. John C. Starkweather inspected the regiment, and the regiment drilled to the compliments of an agent of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin to look after the Keystone State soldiers' comfort.  On January 15, the regiment exchanged its muskets for new and used Enfield rifles.  The most excitement occurred when Capt. McBride led a force of over 100 men from the regiment on a two-day expedition over January 6-8 to move a local Union-sympathizing woman, Mrs. Wilson, and her possessions from her residence somewhere near the Chickamauga battlefield to safety with a friend.  Here are Clark's diary entries from that expedition:
Wed., Jan. 6th
100 men, 8 Corps., 5 Sergts., Lieuts. (Hubley) Benson & Nixdorf & Capt. McBride in charge, leave at 6½ A.M. with two days rations. Went to Brigade, then to Corps Hd. Qrs., waited in town untill 8½ A.M., then started with Mrs. Wilson as guide to go within 4 miles of Ringgold to bring her family & personal property to live with a friend on the east side of & near Chickamauga Creek. Guide didn’t know the road we took wrong one. Came to Chickamauga Creek at Mill where Bragg burned bridge on road to C. Station—tis noon we must go three miles down stream to next bridge where 85th Ills. is doing picket duty. As these are our last pickets it was not prudent to go outside with our small force, therefore we camped untill the morning of
Thurs., Jan. 7th
when we start at 7½ A.M., pass the ruins of C. Station, keep the road over which Bragg retreated. The trail could be easily followed. Broken artillery & wagon wheels, artillery ammunition as well as that for small arms is scattered in profusion along the road. Several unfinished Forts beyond station, also at Graysville a newly graded R.R. intersects the Atlanta Road. Here we take road up creek, march 2 miles to Mrs. Wilson’s house load her things & are returning at 2 P.M. Two cows & calves with colt are the amount of live stock & are brought along. Roads are very bad, heavy mist falling. Mrs. Wilson don’t know where that friend lives to whom she wants to go. When within ½ mile of place let her out to hunt it. We go to camp at 9 P.M., same place as last night. Snowing.
Fri., Jan. 8th
Capt. McBride, Sergt. Carr & forty men take wagons, unload them & return when we start for camp on direct road, pass Orchard Knob and arrive at quarters at 2 P.M. to find that John Bowker who had not been sick more that one week had died (Thurs. Jan 7th) this morning at 1 o’ clock at Regimental Hospital & buried this afternoon at 3 P.M. Received letter of Dec. 29th from Cousin Hugh R. Fulton. Sat., Jan. 9th. Morning very cold. No rations today. There will be none untill a boat comes up.
Soldiers of the 78th Pa
on Lookout Mountain, 1864
(Library of Congress)
Some soldiers took advantage of their time in winter camp on a picturesque mountain to visually document their time in Uncle Sam's army.  The Lancaster Daily Evening Express even reported about this in their February 19, 1864, issue:
ENTERPRISING: A Chattanooga letter writer tells of two members of the 78th Pennsylvania who have taken possession of Lookout summit, erected a shed, hoisted up materials over a couple of ladders, and are now reaping an abundant harvest of greenbacks by taking pictures in this elevated  locality.  The soldiers crowd here in scores to cut hickory canes and grub the gnarled roots of the laurel for pipes and, attracted by the novelty of the matter, cannot resist the temptation to have a picture of themselves.  Accordingly they "strike an attitude" on the extreme verge of a cliff, twenty two hundred feet above the level of the Tennessee, either defiant and warlike or amusing and abstracted, as their genius prompts, and the man of chemicals does them in "melainotype" for three dollars, and sells them a fraim to put it in for five, and all in the short space of about ten minutes.
At least one of those pictures -- of Pvt. Henry McCollum, Company B, 78th Pa, and friends -- exists today as part of the Library of Congress's collection.

The most pressing issue was their reenlistment as veterans, an issue that the army hoped to resolve during the winter lull rather than at a critical moment in the middle of a campaign.  If three-fourths of the regiment reenlisted, the 79th Pennsylvania would continue to exist, and the veterans would receive special "veteran status" (designated by a chevron the sleeve), a bonus, and a 30-day furlough.  The initial response was muted, with some other regiments already headed home on furlough before a significant number of men in the 79th Pennsylvania reenlisted.  Colonel Hambright addressed the regiment on January 25, and acting regimental commander Capt. Jacob Gompf continued to promote it.  By January 27, Clark noted, "Interest on the increase relating to the Veteran Service. 22 members of Co. B upon the list this evening."  Despite his father's objections owing to his not being "able to attend to the affairs at home," Clark put his own name on the list on February 5, which then had 233 names.  By February 8, the regiment surpassed the three-quarters threshold and was sworn is as veterans.  A hard-earned furlough in Lancaster would be in the regiment's future.

Two letters, presumably by Hospital Steward John B. Chamberlain, appeared in the Express and elaborate on these events: