The “Great Escape Stories”: Federal prisoners picked up on the South Carolina coast

From a “150 years ago” perspective, there are lots of threads to follow concerning prisoners – the Charleston-Savannah sector of the war in particular.  Reviewing my notes last month, I figured that was a good topic to highlight in contrast to the Third Major Bombardment (as it becomes monotonous to see titles like “200 more shells fired at Fort Sumter!!!”).  As I weighed out the different threads – human shields, civilian prisoners, prisoner exchanges, and others – it dawned on me there was an angle which I’d not seen before.  That would be escaped Federal prisoners picked up on the coast of South Carolina.

Captain Joseph F. Green, commanding the blockade off Charleston, related one of the first such occurrences that summer on July 9, 1864:

On the night of the 7th instant, two men, representing that they belong to the Sixty-fourth New York Regiment, one to Company A and the other to Company F, were picked up by the Daffodil from a boat.

They state that they were captured before Petersburg. [Va.], on the 19th ultimo and escaped from the rail cars about 105 miles from Charleston, while in transit to some place of confinement in Georgia. They are desirous of returning to their regiment.

The Confederates could not afford to keep prisoners around Richmond, as they presented lucrative targets for Federal raids and were additional mouths to feed.  Such were the driving factors behind establishment of Andersonville prison.  Most of those prisoners went south on rail cars.  And with the poor state of Confederate railroads, likely those prisoners had several opportunities to slip away.

Several escaped prisoners came through Federal lines in the first days of August.  On August 1, the bark USS Ethan Allen posted in St. Helena Sound picked up three officers, as Acting Master Isaac A. Pennell reported:

They escaped from a train of cars, on the night of the 28th ultimo, while on the way from the prison at Macon, Ga., to Charleston S.C.

They gave their names as follows: First Lieutenants P.W. Houlihan and Walter Clifford, Sixteenth Regiment, U.S. Infantry, and First Lieutenant James Butler, Second Regiment, U.S. Infantry.

They inform me there were 600 United States officers in the train.  Among them was Lieutenant-Commander Pendergrast and about thirty other naval officers; also they inform me there was to be an attempt to capture the train the night they escaped. On learning of it I immediately sent the launch up Horn Creek, and went myself in the schooner Wild Cat up the Ashepoo River, 17 miles to the mainland, to rescue any of them that might have escaped, but saw no one.

Lieutenant-Commander Austin Pendergrast was captured on the USS Water Witch in June.

Though Pennell failed to locate any more escaped prisoners that day, a couple more found their way to Federal lines further up the coast.  Brigadier-General Alexander Schimmelfennig noted this in an August 3 report:

Last night 2 persons in a boat coming out from Charleston were picked up by our picket-boats. They represented themselves as officers of the Third Ohio Volunteers, lately brought to Charleston and now escaped.  They give their names as B.C.G. Reed, Captain Third Ohio Volunteer Infantry; T.B. Stevenson, first lieutenant.  They state that there were 650 U.S. officers now confined in the jail at Charleston, lately brought there from Macon, Ga. Two other parties of prisoners, amounting to about 1,000, were starting for Charleston, but were, for some reason, not sent through.  My fire on the city will continue as before until I receive orders for the contrary.  These officers report that communication between Charleston and Atlanta has been interrupted since the 29th ultimo. They also state that a party of 60 U.S. officers effected their escape somewhere near Charleston, and will try to get through to our lines. I shall do everything possible on my front to meet and assist them, sending out parties on the Kiawah, Seabrook, and John’s Islands.

On the basis of these reports, Major-General John Foster and Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren urged their respective commands to search for more escaped Federals. But no more were reported through the middle of the month.  On August 6, the officers gave detailed statements of their experiences.

Houlihan and Clifford were captured at Chickamauga the previous fall. Butler was captured at Catlett’s Station in April 1864.  All three jumped from the train near the Combahee River. They described the conditions of Andersonville Prison:

 We were treated badly. No bedding, not enough to eat, only 2 quarts corn meal for five days, with 10 pounds bacon and ½ pint of sirup, 1 ½ pounds salt, and ½ gill rice, and same quantity of wormy beans. We built our own sheds from lumber given to us. We had to do our policing. We hear from 3 surgeons, who attended the men at Andersonville, that there are over 27,000 men at Andersonville in an inclosure of twenty-five acres; a portion is swamp. That 75 to 100 die per day. Saw 160 taken out and buried in one day. They have no shelter of any kind. They take away their blankets, overcoats, &c. One corner of the open field is the hospital with about 600 men in it. At present they have no medical attendance. In exchange they gave us $4.50 for $1 greenbacks. This was done officially.

Reed and Stevenson, of the Third Ohio, were captured in May 1863 near Rome, Georgia, in Colonel Abel Streight’s ill-fated raid.  They escaped in the train yards at Charleston, with the aid of negroes working there.  And the negroes arranged a boat to get them to Federal lines.

The negroes gave us good and reliable information. Although they are almost starving themselves, yet they would always give us enough. An old negro woman got us something to eat. I told her we had no money. She said, “The Lord God will pay me, massa, if you only get through.” Those who will depend on the darkies will be safe in attempting to escape.

There’s a couple of stories worth a movie script if you ask me.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part I, Serial 65, pages 69-70; Part II, Serial 66, pages 220-1; ORN, Series I, Volume 15, pages 563 and 615.)


Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

4 thoughts on “The “Great Escape Stories”: Federal prisoners picked up on the South Carolina coast

  1. Yes! There should be a movie. So many great, heroic, amazing Civil War stories out there and Hollywood seems afraid to go beyond a stereotypical view of war in most of their films.

    Thanks for sharing these escape stories; they were fun to read.

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