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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library -
Personal Information:
J.P. Putegnat and Fellow Confederates Daring Tunnel Escape by Clay Holmes

[The following document comes from Joe Putegnat, a descendent of an Elmira prisoner.]

This article is reproduced from the Clay Holmes work on the Elmira Prison Camp.

It had been pretty rough campaigning in Captain J.T.Montgomery's company, the "Jeff Davis" Artillery, of the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia, but in May 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia, his battery and several others were caught at a salient in the Confederate lines called the "Bloody Angle." John Pierre Putegnat was captured on May 12 when his battery's position was overrun by charging troops of the Federal Army of the Potomac. The Rebel salient collapsed and along with a horde of other Confederates, the young gunner was marched off to the nearest railhead for a long ride north.

This is a true story of survival as told by the one of the prisoners in J.P. Putegnat's group.

John Peter Putegnat was the son of Jean Pierre Putegnat who first arrived in the US around 1820. The family resided in Brownsville, Texas at the time of the war.

It had started as something of a mistake. General Robert E. Lee had said that "This army cannot stand a siege. We must end this business on the battlefield, not in a fortified place." So he ordered his artillery pulled back from a point called the Mule Shoe. In the middle of the night when John Peter and his fellows were surprised to hear that they were to pull back because he could hear the Union troops getting ready for a charge and it was no time for moving. Most of the cannons were still being rolled to the rear when the order came down to stop and reset at the Mule Shoe. But it was too late. Gen. Winfield Hancock's Fifth Corp. started their assault before dawn. Sixty thousand federals followed. It was back and forth from the start. They fought at such close quarters that they would bayonet one another through gaps in the lines.

John Peter was captured along with the rest of his battery when the Union troops overran them. Christopher Nelson writes, "The focus of the fight became known as the "Bloody Angle"; trees were felled by musket fire. In one part of the Angle measuring twelve by fifteen feet, 150 bodies where found after the battle. That night, bands in each army took turns playing mournful songs, then patriotic airs. In the two days of bloodshed at Spotsylvania, Grant had lost 11,000, Lee 10,000. The men and commanders were equally stunned."

Captured but somehow alive, Putegnat and his fellows began now a struggle to survive in an disease ridden prison camp called Elmira. What follows is a true, first hand account given by members of the group who escaped.

Very soon the tunnel plan was organized. The first essential was to get the exact distance from the tent to the fence so as to know how far to dig. We pitched rocks at the fence, and as there was a sentinel twelve feet from the fence on the inside, we had to be very careful not to arouse his suspicion. After watching us for a while he became careless, and then Putegnat tied a thread to a stone, and by cautiously throwing it, hit the fence. The thread was slowly drawn back, and upon measuring it we found the distance to be 68 feet. We then began the tunnel as told in Maull's account.

[Maull's account] We planned our course of procedure, deciding to dig with a spade at night. We stole a spade from a contractor's outfit then employed in ditching the streets, and at 9 o'clock that night, August 24th, the first shovelful of dirt was thrown into the street in front of the tent. We were all young and ambitious; and we soon discovered it was no easy task, and settled down to hard work and thoughtful planning. The spade striking hard against the stones made so much noise we were fearful it might be heard by our neighbors, so we decided to cover the hole, which we did with planks taken from the walk in front of the hospital.

We did considerable work that night, depositing the dirt on the pile in the street. Imagine our surprise next morning when we discovered that our dirt was of a different color from that in the road. Fortunately, it did not seem to be noticed by the contractors or others, but we were wise enough not to put any more on the street pile. We decided that a knife would be better to dig, being less likely to attract the attention of the guards. Traweek borrowed from Bulger, a jolly Irishman of our company, a knife made from a twelve-inch file, with which we completed the digging.

First, we cut a round hole about three feet in diameter, carefully removing the sod, and went down about four feet, keeping the tent closed all the time till we got down low enough to hide the digger's head when sitting down. Then we put the planks across, and one man would lie on the plank to hide the hole and to lift the dirt to be carried away. At night we would put the planks down over the hole, having left a shelf in the dirt a little way down from the top for them to rest on, and put the sod in place, so no one would notice anything wrong.

Putegnat was the only man who had an extra shirt, and he let us have it to make bags from, in which to take away the dirt. These bags held about a pint. The man who carried the dirt wore a jacket and cape. The lining on the inside was slit, so two or three sacks of dirt could be stowed on each side and carried away without attracting notice. IT was thought that we could work faster and finish quicker by digging a hole just big enough for a man to crawl through. The digger would pull the dirt down to his knees, and the man behind him would pull it back to the outlet, fill the little bags and hand them to the man lying on the plank. He in turn would give them tot he carriers to dispose of at the sinks or the pool. When we had completed our shaft we started on the tunnel proper, taking a beeline for the fence, and digging a hole just large enough to crawl through. Our work being much harder than we thought for, we decided to take in another man. Putegnat suggested Cecrops Malone, one of his friends, of the 9th Alabama regiment, so we elected him, and we found him to be an excellent and willing worker.

One day there came a sudden and unexpected call for inspection of quarters. Two of the men were in the tunnel working. The others quickly planked and covered the hole, cleaned everything up nicely, and struck tent for inspection. We were badly frightened by this sudden move and decided it would be safer if we had our orderly sergeant on our side to keep us posted. He was a good man, from South Carolina, named Brawley. We took him in, and he did us good service by keeping us advised about everything, but he did no work on the tunnel on account of a sore arm, through bad vaccination. He suggested that addition of the "sick sergeant," because our work was beginning to tell on us. We needed more food to sustain our strength. We took him in, J. P. Sruggs, a South Carolinian, and we never regretted it. By virtue of his office as "sick sergeant" he could procure food for us, which he did, claiming it was for sick prisoners in the tents. He brought us two water buckets of soup and plenty of fresh bread every day, which gave us renewed strength and put us in fine shape for hard work. By advice of our orderly we also added to our ranks Shelton, Webster, and Glenn. We did not work at the tunnel all the time, but had set time for all to come; the balance of the time we spent was we pleased.

Saurine beginning to shirk work, the boys decided to drop him. I still had faith in Saurine, and told him I would keep him posted, and I did. I learned from him shortly why he did not come to work. He had discovered another tunnel under way, and was watching it to find out which would finish first, and then tell us, so we could go too.

... as Traweek was emptying rocks, a young fellow came up and said, "You'd better take care of yourself." Traweek asked him what he meant. He replied, "I know what you are doing; you are tunnelling, and I want to work with you." Traweek answered that as he had discovered us we would have to let him in, and so the man, whom we came to know as Berry Benson, a sergeant in a South Carolina regiment, took the oath, and became one of us. He proved to be one of the best men we had, ready to work at all times, his head full of excellant ideas, which immediately began to crop out. One of this first suggestions was that there was too much crawling to get out a little dirt, which could be saved by getting a box with a cord in each end, so it could be pulled in to the digger, and pulled back when full. We got the box, attached two long cords to it, and put it into use. It was a great success, saving much time in crawling back and forth. ...

While Traweek was in the guard-house he occupied a cell in company with J. W. Crawford of the 6th Virginia Cavalry, who was admitted and took the oath after they were released. About this time I got sick from lack of air in the tunnel, which became so foul every day before the ventilator was opened, that a candle would not burn. It was torture to all, and it used me up completely, so that I could do no work inside. The dust crated in the digging, and the lack of air, had so affected my lungs that I was useless for inside work, and I suggested taking in two fresh men from our artillery company, George Jackson, and William Templin, both good and tried men. They were accepted and took the oath. From this time I did little but carry away dirt and rocks.

We had been fortunate in striking firm ground to work on, composed mostly of clay and rock, and there had been no caving of consequence. With few exceptions the rocks were from grape to canister in size. One was come upon so big it was removed with great difficulty. After getting it out, I put on the cape, had the boys lift it up in my arms, and walked off, hugging it for dear life, and having no idea as to how I was to get rid of it. I soon gave out, and thought I must let it drop, but, seeing some men sitting in a group talking, I went up and sat down in the circle, placing my legs tailor fashion. The rock soon became so heavey, I let it slip quietly to the ground, then I edged up carefully and sat on the stone, all the while talking with the men as if I knew them. When the last man was gone, I got up and left the rock, and it was not noticed.

We became anxious to know just where we were, and how much farther we had to dig. We had already measured inside with a string, and knew its length, but we could not lay the string down outside and measure toward the fence; that would at once betray us. So we tried to guess, but we disagreed. Then Benson devised this plan. Let one man, said he, go into the tunnel as far as completed, while another strikes together two stones at the spot where we think it ends. We deceive the guards we got a piece of tin and hammered on it, talking about making a spoon so the sentry could hear. He looked on awhile, grinned, and walked away. The man in the tunnel gave the signal to the man in the shaft, and he to the one standing at the door; he signalled to the spoonmakers, too far to the left. The spoonmakers moved as directed, till at last the signal came, Overhead. The spot was far tot he right; we were astonished, and refused to believe it. Benson said, " I understand it; we are all right-handed; we lie on our left sides and dig with our right hands, and so dig too much in front. So the tunnel swerves to the right, and describes a long curve. To prove where we are, without guesswork, let us run a small hole up in the grass and see where it comes out." At this the rest of us demurred, but when he urged the need of it to supply fresh air to the diggers, he won us over. In ten minutes he had procured an army ramrod, which Traweek took into the tunnel. Three men stood over the spot while Traweek slowly worked the ramrod up. It came out in the midst of the group. A foot came down on it, the signal to stop. Sure enough, we had curved away tot he right, and were still eighteen feet from the fence. This blunder on our part was called by the Advertiser "artful engineering." We now had to change the course of the tunnel. To ascertain the exact direction it was suggested that a stick, having a slit in both ends running the same way, be run up through the hole and turned till the slit pointed directly toward the fence. This was done and we found our course easily. The tunnel was enlarged at this point to give more air and provide space so the box filler could work more conveniently. This enlarged chamber we called the Ventilator. In the daytime a stone was kept over the hole in the grass to prevent its discovery, being constantly watched by some of the party, but at dark it was removed to let in fresh air.

On the morning of October 6th, we were told by the diggers that the tunnel was very nearly completed. This created an immediate excitement. None but ourselves might know what thoughts came to the anxious minds of the little group that had labored so long and so faithfully to be free. ...Traweek and I drew lots to see who should go first. Traweek was the lucky man, and he chose Crawford to go with him. We had decided to go in pairs, as far as possible. All were to meet at a certain barn we could see north of the prison. We arranged to go out in the following order: Traweek, Crawford, Maull, Scruggs, Malone, Putegnat, Shelton, Glenn, Benson, Jackson, Templin, Webster was too sick to come, Sergeant Brawley, with his bad arm, thought his chance of exchange was good, so he decided not to come, and Shelton lost his nerve and remained behind.

It was agreed that we should open the tunnel that night, at twelve o'clock. The diggers began work early, sending back word of their progress. Twelve o'clock came, and still the tunnel was not finished. The work went on, the diggers plying the knife vigorously, while we piled the dirt in the tent. Time went on, the hours seeming long to all of us, and we grew more anxious every minute. Finally came the word, "We have struck a post in the fence! Get ready!" ...

[Trakweek] I broke the dirt on the outside, and the sentinel called, "Half past three o'clock and all's well" as I crawled out of the hole. Crawford followed me. We had all agreed to meet at the barn which we had seen from the prison, and from there to separate in pairs, but as it was so near daylight we did not wait long. We waded across the Chemung river and made for the hills on the south. When we got on top of the first hill it was time for roll-call in camp. With a little spyglass we looked down on the confusion which was created when they missed us. We could also see the cavalry rushing around through the valley in search of us.

[Maull] Traweek went first to break the crust, Crawford followed, and I came next. I had a severe headache, and lay with my head on Crawford's foot while Traweek was opening the hole. The hot air nearly suffocated me, and I became exhausted and fell asleep. The next thing I knew a refreshing breeze swept through the tunnel from the front. I woke with a start and felt for Crawford's foot, but it was gone. I crawled forward. When I got to the post I raised up, and the first thing I saw was six Yankee soldiers around a fire just across the road. Then the sentry on the wall called out "Four o'clock, and all's well!" I looked for Traweek, but saw nothing of him. He was gone. The sentry was right over my head, six Yanks a few steps away, and I saw guards both ways. My first idea was to walk under the platform down to the end of the prison, where there was a creek, and crawl through, under the bridge, to the other side of the road, but I reckoned Traweek and Crawford had gone that way, and if the sentries saw others doing so, it might cause suspicion, so I decided to cross the road right there, and if the sentinels halted me to go toward the six Yanks and take my chance of outheeling them, thinking that if halted I would not be shot at while in line with them.

I stepped out as leisurely as my grit would allow expecting every instant to hear the word "Halt!" and ready to spring as close to the Yanks as I could on hearing the command, but none came. I walked up close to the soldiers and turned to my right, as if going to the city. I passed the observatory, and went on in the direction of the town. I saw three soldiers coming toward me on my side of the street [Gray St.] then I struck out in the direction of the barn. I passed through a grove in which was a camp of soldiers. The soldiers were all asleep, and I went on to the barn. I found no one there, and waited, looking for the boys till it began to grow light.

As I was about to leave, I saw Jackson and Templin sneaking along. It was then so light we must move at once. Hurriedly consulting, we decided to go west and then cross the river above the prison.

[Sruggs] Sruggs went out alone, and apparently wandered around the upper part of the city till nearly morning. About daylight he says he "reached the battery on the hill and passed over to a cloverfield back of the hill." While in the clover field a stockdriver ran me with a dog, but I passed them, running westward to the hill, where I spent the day. While sitting on the side of the hill I heard something coming down behind me. I thought it was the "Yanks" coming, but I sat still, when up come a wild-cat of the largest kind. He stopped and looked at me, then passed on. I sat there till night, then went down to the river near a mill, and crossed by hard and deep wading. He then mounted the hill back of Rorick's Glen, where he could see the prison camp.

[Malone] We worked all night, till about 3:30 A. M. As I walked out I expected every step to hear a shot. We crossed the bridge [over Hoffman creek] at the east end of the prison, and jumped over a fence on the north side of Water street into a potato patch. Just as we got half-way through the patch we saw two U. S. soldiers in there "flanking" potatoes. They raised up as we passed within twenty feet of them, and looked at us as we jumped the fence. We went in a northeasterly direction, and came to a railroad [Erie]. As a train from the city came in sight we lay down, and after it passed we crossed the track and soon came to a river [Newtown creek]. We followed down the bank about 100 feet before we came to an old unused bridge, which we crossed. It was now getting light, and we saw that we were in an old unused wagon road, and gradually ascending the hill. Weeds and bushes had grown up in the old road. As we reached a point half-way up the hill we looked over our right shoulders and saw lights shining in the prison camp. we doffed our hats at the old prison and said good-by.

[Benson] I called to Shelton to come on, and straightway I was at the exit of the tunnel, above me the sentry's platform. I raised my head and looked out. Across the street stood three guards with rifles, by a fire. I crawled on my stomach, under the platform, close to the fence, toward the town. Then I got on my hands and knees and went faster, the sentry trampling over my head. When I got a tree between me and the three guards I rose to my feet and walked rapidly down, under the platform, to the corner of the prison. Then I stopped a few moments. What I had now to do was big with risk. I had to come from under the platform in full view of the sentries. At a quick pace, but not with haste, I came out, crossing the street, not turning my head. I nerved myself for the cry of "Halt!" and a shot, and to feel a bullet lay me low. But there came no shot-no challenge- I reached the farther side of the street and walked quickly down the pavement. Before reaching the first corner I leaped the fence into a front yard, ran through the back yard, and into the garden. A dog rushed at me. I raced him to the back fence, scrambled over that, and found myself in a lane. Then I fled to the mountain. I ran till I was tired. Then I stopped and looked back.

[Jackson] When I emerged from the tunnel I saw a big fire across the street, with several Yankee soldiers standing around it. This was a surprise which fairly made my hair stand on end. Just then I heard Templin calling, "Hickory, don't leave me, for God's sake!" I crept along the wall under the sentinel's walk until I reached the corner, when I crossed the street, still watching the soldiers standing by the fire. I saw Templin run across the street, between me and the fire, and ran to catch him, but could not, so I cried out "Halt!" He stopped at once, his heart beating like a triphammer. We then went to the barn, but Maull was the only one there. We crossed the street near a bridge, but were afraid to cross the bridge, when we saw a gang of hucksters coming across. We hid in a thicket till they passed by, and then waded the stream. By this time the sun was up, so we went up the mountainside a little way and hid in a large chestnut tree top. The tree had fallen while green, and the thick brush made a splendid hiding place. We covered ourselves with leaves and remained there all day, in sight of the prison.

When the evening gun was fired, we went up the mountain to a road, which was directly south of the prison.