Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[A young Alabamian, Washington Brown Traweek, enlisted in Captain J.T. Montgomery's company -- the "Jeff Davis" Artillery -- at the onset of the Civil War. He stuck with it, campaigning with the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia through good times and bad until it went head to head with the Federal Army of the Potomac in May 1864 at the Battle of Spotsylvania in Virginia. There, Traweek's battery and several others were caught at a salient in the Confederate lines called the "Bloody Angle." Traweek was captured on May 12 when his battery's position was overrun by charging Union troops. The Rebel salient collapsed and along with a horte of other Confederates, the young gunner was marched off to the nearest railhead for a long ride north. Early on Traweek decided his would be a round trip. After first being sent to the Federal prison at Point Lookout, Maryland, he was transferred to an equally tough lock-up, the Union prisoner of war camp at Elmira, New York. Years later, when he wrote the following memoir of his prison experience, he seemed to want to make the implicit point that from the time he was transferred he always believed it was his duty to escape or at least try to escape. And escape he did. What follows is a transcription of Traweek's original memoir recounting his breakout from the Elmira prison and his flight south. It appears here courtesy of his great nephew Mr. R. Brooks Traweek of Richmond, Virginia.]
About the 1st of July the prisoners were being transferred to Elmira, N.Y., and Zeke Melton and I were among the first to be transported to Baltimore, where we took a train for Elmira.
We were placed in boxcars, with three sentinels at each door. About eleven o'clock that night, it being very dark, Zeke Melton tapped me on the shoulder and said: "Wash, let's go." I said to him that it was impossible then. The train was going at forty miles an hour, and I told him to look at the guards. He took me by the hand, bid me good-bye, and said: "Watch me."
As I turned he squared himself and rushed through the door knocking two of the guards off into the darkness, and made his escape. The train had gone about fifty yards before it could be stopped, and when it backed to the place of escape no one was found but one crippled guard. Melton made his escape, and went back to his company.
A few days after reaching the prison at Elmira, N.Y., Sergeant John Fox Maull, John P. Putegnat and I, all of whom were members of the Jeff Davis Artillery, held a consultation and determined to dig a tunnel from the second row of tents, on the north side of the prison next to the city streets. The tunneling was actually begun in a vacant tent next to ours ... (missing text) ... decided to tunnel from that. The ground within the prison walls was covered with a thick sod of grass. Our first work was to remove this sod in a solid mass that it might be used to conceal our work, during its progress, when needed. A circle about three feet in diameter was cut in the sod, and the latter was removed in a solid sheet and laid aside for future use.
To prosecute our work it was necessary to know the distance from the tent to the wall. To ascertain this without arousing the suspicion of the guard whose beat was twelve feet inside the wall, we threw stones at the wall, apparently as a pastime. After watching us for three hours the guard became careless, and Putegnat attached a stone to a thread and threw the stone to the wall. It was then drawn to the tent and the thread measured, when the distance to be tunneled was found to be sixty-eight feet.
Having no tools, we began the work with pocket knives, working at night. Finding we could not do much work after "Tatoo", we decided to work during the day. The dirt could not be carried away and concealed at night.
To carry away the dirt, during the day without arousing suspicion, little sacks, holding about a quart, were made from an extra shirt owned by Putegnat. These filled with dirt could be easily secreted about the person. The prison walls extended sufficiently out to enclose a part of the river nearby. Over this enclosed water (actually a pond which stretched the length of the enclosure) were prison privies, and into this part of the water, from the privies, the little sacks of dirt were emptied.
After working at the tunnel for a few days we decided that we needed more help, and so took in a man by the name of Frank E. Saurine of the Third Alabama Infantry, and not long after another man named S.C. "Cyclops" Malone of the Ninth Alabama Infantry. These additions, with the first three names, made five. Each of these five men took a solemn oath, with his right hand on the Bible, pledging not to reveal the character of the work going on, and to aid in putting to death any one guilty of revealing the existence of the tunnel. To this number others were added at different times in the following order: Gilmer G. Jackson and William H. Templin, members of the Jeff Davis Artillery; J.P. Scruggs, South Carolina; Glenn Shelton, Mississippi; Barry Benson, First South Carolina; and James W. Crawford, Sixth Virginia Cavalry. Every man who joined the party took the solemn oath not to divulge the scheme, under penalty of death.
After removal the circle of sod (ground originally broken on August 24th, nine days after their arrival) we dug straight downward for six feet, and at this depth we dug the tunnel, horizontally, in direct line toward a stairway on the outside of the wall, in use by the prison guard. Receiving information that there would be an inspection the succeeding day, when we would be required to stack tents, we prepared for it be taking pieces of plank from the sidewalk and placing them over the hole three feet below the surface, filling the vacancy with dirt, and placing the circle of sod over the fresh dirt, and pressing it down so that there were no signs indicating the work being done. We passed the inspection safely.
We found, after doing our work for a short time, that our clothing was beginning to show the color of the dirt clay, that we were working in, and consequently would like arouse the suspicion of the prison authorities. To prevent this, after working in the tunnel, each would turn his clothing, the stained side in, and the inside out, before leaving the tent for roll call.
The food we received, not being sufficient to sustain us to perform the work we were doing, we took in Parson Scruggs, sick sergeant of our ward. As he had free access to the cook room, he supplied us with the necessary additional food.
I owned a large Confederate overcoat, and could carry two of the quart sacks of dirt in each tail pocket. That these sacks of dirt might not attract attention by their bulk, when we carried them off to empty them in the pool, I walked so that the coat tails would swing from side to side, which caused me to be called a "dude."
About this time the prison authorities began building seventeen new hospitals, for sick prisoners near the prison wall in another part of the prison. They were designated by numbers from 1 to 17.
After discussing and considering the matter, Putegnat and I concluded we could dig out in a shorter time under one of these hospitals. Accordingly we began work under hospital No. 2. We secured a spade, and by its use succeeded in digging out on the second night after beginning the work. As the others in our party, who were engaged with us digging the first tunnel, knew nothing of the work being done by Putegnat and me, under the hospital, we decided not to go out that night, that we might inform our associates of our success and give them an opportunity to get out with us.
After notifying our associates in my tent the next morning, we prepared ourselves and went down in front of hospital No. 1. About twilight we saw a man pass and go under hospital No. 1. It proved to be James W. Crawford (not yet a member of Traweek's tunnel organization). The prison authorities threw a guard around the hospitals, 17 in number, and captured Crawford, took him out and court-martialed him, sentenced him to a dungeon during his imprisonment.
Afterwards our tunnel was also discovered and we went back to work at our first tunnel. Putegnat and I worked in the back of the tunnel, the others carrying the dirt off. About four o'clock in the afternoon I became tired, and came out to the mouth of the tunnel and changed my clothes by turning them wrong side out. About this time five Yankee guards, with bayonets and guns, asked if my name was Traweek. I said it was and they said Major (Henry V.) Colt wanted to see me at his headquarters. I became very uneasy and asked if there was a letter for me. One of the Yankees winked at the other and replied that the major would explain that to me, come on, and I was marched down to Major colt's headquarters.
After we arrived Colt greeted me by saying, "Good morning, my young tunneler, they tell me you are engaged in tunneling." I replied that I didn't know what a tunnel was.
He replied by stating, "We have a way here of making you know what a tunnel is."
At this time the members of my tent not knowing where I had gone, made inquiry, and Maull and one or two of others came to where I was at headquarters and stood around to ascertain what I was carried there for. In the meantime Major Colt ordered me to a sweatbox. I was placed in it and the crank turned on me, and had my breath squeezed out. They claimed to have kept me there three quarters of a minute, but it seemed to me to be three hours and a half.
After I got my breath Major Colt said, "Now you have to state where you are tunneling and who was with you." I still told him I didn't know, and he ordered me back to the sweatbox and carried me through the same process.
After the second time...I saw it was my death anyway, and pointed my finger at Colt I told him I would see him in hell as far as a blue bird could fly in a year before I would tell him and that I would rather he would kill me; that he and his comrades were too damn cowardly to do it. He ordered his guards to come around, which they did, and I told him that no brave soldier would treat a man as he had me, with my hands behind my back.
At this time Fox Maull pushed me two or three times and showed me his pocket knife in his sleeve. At about the same instant a man came up, who was afterward known to me as Captain (Bennett) Munger, the officer of the day, and said, "Major Colt, I know this boy, and if you will turn him over to me, he will tell me all about this tunneling, etc." Major Colt replied: "All right Captain, but he is a sassy son of a bitch and ought to be shot."
Following the headquarters episode, Captain Munger took me to the front of the Federal tents, and said to me, "Wash, they have you, and you might as well tell it all." I said to him: "Who are you?" He responded by saying, "I am Captain Munger, the officer of the day here, and I heard you lie to Colt about the tunnel, saying that you didn't know what a tunnel is, and I know that you do know what a tunnel is, because you went to school to me. You remember I taught school, at Summerfield, near Selma, Alabama, before this war began, ...and what I have said to you, Wash, is for your own good."
I said, "Thank you Captain Munger, I know who you are, and I thank you for your kind intercession, but do not know what tunnel you are talking about."
He said, "You know, Wash, that you are engaged in tunneling under hospital No. 2," and pulled out a list of names who were engaged in that effort. I then acknowledged to tunneling under No. 2, then realizing that he had not discovered the one under the tent. He said, "You should have told Colt this," and I said: "This was not a tunnel but a ditch."
After confessing that I had been a participant, the captain marched me back to Major Colt's headquarters, and told Colt that I had acknowledged, and showed me the list of tunnellers. Major Colt asked me who was engaged in this tunneling with me, and I replied that it was done at night, and I could not tell who they were, except that I knew I was there myself. Then he ordered Captain Munger to take me before the court, which was composed of several Federal officers, who, after making some inquiries, sentenced me to the dungeon, which was in an old military barracks.
Munger carried me, and on reaching it, some twenty or thirty yards off, Captain Munger ordered the diamond holes to the cells opened so that I might see faces of the prisoners, as he had agreed to allow me to go in with some of the other prisoners. As I went down the line I asked each man what he was in there for. Some said for stealing rations, others for fighting, and asked me what I was in for. I told them for tunneling, and a man from the extreme end calling, "I am a tunneler on No. 1, come in with me." I told him I would take a look at him, and if his face looked all right I would go in with him. The cell door was opened, and I was placed in with him. Captain Munger then ordered all the diamond holes closed. He left my hole open, and in talking with me said they were going to have a general inspection and break up all the tunneling. He further stated that he would be off the next day, but would see me the day following.
In the meantime, no one in my tent knew what I was imprisoned for, but suspected it. After getting the information from Munger that there was going to be an inspection, about dark they sent my rations to be by Scruggs, one of my tent mates. He handed it to me through the hole. It consisted of soup and light bread. I took a piece of candle out of my pocket, that I had used in tunneling and lighted it, and took a memorandum out of my pocket and wrote on it that Captain Munger informed me that an inspection would be made the next day to ascertain who was tunneling, and to close down the tunnel. I folded this up, and put it down in the bottom of the soup, crumbled my bread in it and handed it back to the guard, explaining that I was sick and wished either Scruggs or Maull to have my rations, that I knew they were hearty eaters and would want it. The guard gave Scruggs the rations, who soon found the note and delivered it to Maull. They immediately proceeded to close down work on the tunnel.
The next morning, when my ration came in, I received a note from Maull saying that everything had been closed down. I ate about half of the soup and sent Maull another note, saying that I would let him know the next day how everything went.
The next day, when Captain Munger came in, he stated to me that they had gotten them corralled at last, and that they had found 28 tunnels. I asked him how No. 2, my tent, had come out, and he replied that they had been complemented on being kept so clean. I then wrote Maull a note that he could proceed with the work.
They went on with it for about a week. By this time Crawford became very inquisitive, wanting to know what I was writing so much about. In holding the candle for me he had seen the work tunnel, and told me he knew we were tunneling somewhere, and wanted to know about it. I told him I would let him know in due time.
About this time Maull wrote me that he was making fine progress with the tunnel, and it would be only a few days before it would be completed. I then wrote Maull of Crawford's suspicions, and explained that I could not make my escape without his assistance, and wanted to know if I could swear him into the organization individually. He replied that it would be all right, and knowing that I could not swear Crawford in without a Bible, I asked Captain Munger if he could get me one. He said: "My God, boy, what use have you for a Bible there, where you can't see your hands before your face, and particularly after giving Major Colt the cussing you gave him." I replied that if he was in my fix he would be glad to have a Bible to put his head to sleep on. He said "Well, as there is no harm in the Bible, I will step out and try to get you one." He brought in a small gilt-edged Bible. I then swore Crawford in, and made him a member of the tunnel organization.
After examining the cell overhead, I found two rods with taps on the ends, and in order to get the taps off I had to have a file. I notified Maull of this, and he went out to where the prisoners were making rings of buttons and bones, and sat around awhile, and slipped one of the files and sent this to me in a loaf of bread, at the same time telling the guard that inasmuch as I had divided my rations with him when I was sick, he would divide his with me now that he was sick.
About that time a downpour of rain fell, which was in our favor. I got astride Crawford's neck and filed off the taps. About eleven o'clock I got one of the rods loose, and filed on until four o'clock, when I finished the other rod. After taking the rods loose, I raised the trap door and went into the upper story. On that floor there were glass windows through which I could see the tunnelers at work on the tunnel. Maull also looked and saw me, and I notified him that I was ready, and he replied that he was also ready.
As this was Captain Munger's day on duty, I told Crawford that I would make one more effort through him to get out. I told Captain Munger to see Major Colt and tell that I thought he had punished me enough for what he would have done under similar circumstances. Captain Munger took the message to Major Colt, and about a half hour after returned saying that he would take us to Major Colt's headquarters. I insisted on Crawford's talking to Coly when we arrived there as I thought Colt would be prejudiced against me for the way I had spoken to him before sent to the dungeon. Crawford refused and I had to talk to Colt myself.
I commenced by apologizing to him, as what I said was in the heat of passion, and told him I thought I out to be released as I did not consider myself any more dangerous than the other 45,000 men in prison, not even having a pocket knife. He studied awhile and finally agreed to release us, but wanted to give advice. I told him if ever a man needed advice, I needed it then, and would appreciate any advice he could give me. He began by saying, "My lad, you were too hasty. If you had been more cautious and taken more time, you would have made your escape. Next time don't be so hasty and you may get out." I told him that at that time I felt too despondent to undertake tunneling again, that I had enough of it. I thanked him for the advice and bid him good-bye, and went to my tent. We had been confined three weeks in the dungeon before being released.
On reaching the tent and making a careful inspection of the tunnel, I discovered that a bend had been made in it. We went to work and corrected this. That part of the tunnel already dug, which could not be used for depositing the newly dug dirt resulting from further work to complete the tunnel. This relieved us from having to carry the dirt so far, in small quantities, to conceal it. In two nights after I got out of the dungeon, our tunnel was ready to be opened outside the wall.
A question arose as to who should go out first. I volunteered to go out first, with J.W. Crawford, my cellmate in the dungeon, and J.F. Maull agreed to go next. As I broke the dirt on the outside the sentinel called, "Half past three o'clock and all is well." As I crawled out and stepped into the streets of Elmira, Crawford followed immediately.
Before leaving the prison, we had all agreed to meet at a church in the city, whose steeple we had seen from the prison, and there it separate into pairs. But as it was almost daylight, Crawford and I did not wait long. We waded across the river and went into the mountains. From our elevated position we could see inside the prison walls. Our vision was aided by a little glass. We saw the confusion in the camp resulting from the discovery of the tunnel and the escape. We also saw the cavalry in its movements clearly indicating that it was searching for the escapees.
We traveled about nine miles the first day, sleeping in a barn at night. The next morning we went to a house nearby and asked the lady for food and directions. She gave us both but accused us of being escaped Confederates. We, in turn. acknowledged that we were. She then showed us the morning paper telling of the escape of the others. This is the first information we had received concerning the others.
We traveled in the mountains along the Harrisburg and Pennsylvania Railroad until our feet were sore and tired. We then stole a skiff and floated down the river. After getting in the boat and floating for about four miles, we heard what we thought to be a storm coming, but it proved to be a roar of water falling over a factory dam. To our right was a small village. We got over the dam with the loss of one oar. We then traveled down the Susquehanna River and came in contact with several dams, going through the mill race of each of these. After going about 75 miles down the river, we left the skiff and went up into the mountains and rested that day.
While resting we discovered a little village of about two or three hundred people at the foot of the mountain. About twilight we saw two men leave the village and come up to a house at the foot of the mountain. We moved up close to this house and camped for the night. Next morning the men went back down to the village. Two ladies from the same house, went to their right, about two hundred yards to a cow lot and went to milking cows. We then went back down by the back way to the house, and went in and found two suits of clothes. One was a fine dress suit with a velvet cap and a pair of shoes. In a dresser drawer I found a pistol, what is known as a pepper-box revolving pistol. We took these and went back to the mountains the route we came. There we took off our Confederate uniforms, and I put on my suit. We traveled some five or six miles and concluded to stop for the night.
After dark, we found a large horse and a good buggy and harnessed it up and drove out on the turnpike. We continued to drive until the horse gave out, when we left him standing in the road and returned to the mountains, where we lay over all that day.
We discovered another house next morning and entered it as we had done before, and secured an overcoat apiece. Walking about eight or nine miles, we came to a barn where we found a pair of horses and a double buggy, but could only find one bridle, and I was harnessing the horses, Crawford was attached by a bull dog, which tore off the entire tail of his overcoat. We went on down the road on foot, and I laughed at Crawford until he got mad.
Next we came to a lot where there were two or three horses. I took the bridle I still held in my hands and bridled one of the horses. We both mounted this horse and rode him as far as he could go and left him standing in the road. We traveled from here on foot for about a mile, when we took another turn in the turnpike road and soon came to another house where we found a pair of horses and an apparently new buggy. We took these and traveled about seventy-five miles before they both gave out, and we left them standing in the road as we had left the others. We then went back into the mountains and traveled about a mile.
We had gone some distance and still did not find anything else to ride, but just after the point of discouragement, we came upon a hut where we found a horse tied to a tree. We mounted this horse and rode about two or three miles when we met two old citizens who asked, "What in the name of God are you boys doing with old Blaze?" I replied, "Blaze, hell, you get out of the way," and at the same moment pointed my old pepper-box pistol at them.
They took to their heels. After proceeding about half a mile the old men called from our rear and at the same time were ordered by Federal guards to halt. We jumped off old Blaze, and ran across a small steam wading, over which a railroad crossed. As we ran they fired and killed old Blaze. We went into the mountains, built a fire, dried our clothes, and remained there for the night.
The next morning it commended snowing a little before daylight. We moved on for a mile or so and discovered a nice farm, and concluded to stay in the barn. We went into the wheat loft and slept all night until about nine o'clock next morning, when we were aroused by voices below.
The father was telling the sons that they had better thrash the wheat that morning. They came up and commenced throwing out the wheat, and I cautioned Crawford if they stepped on us not to speak/ However, when they stuck us with their pitch forks we decided to get out. I got up and pointed my pepper-box pistol at them. The old man wanted to know if we intended to murder them, and I replied that we did not, but were citizens traveling from Canada to join Grant's army. We claimed to have formerly lived in Berlin, Md., but had been in Canada, and were on our way back to join Grant's army. He gave us our dinner and a full supply of rations, and laid out a diagram in the yard of the position of both Grant's and Lee's armies and stated that we could have to hurry or grant would have captured Lee's army and we would miss the fun.
We traveled only a short distance in the mountains, and got a two horse buggy and traveled some seventy-five miles. We then went back unto the mountains and lay over until night when we got another horse and went another twenty-five miles.
We went again in the mountains, and next morning walked some eight or ten miles when we arrived at Mr. Rodes' place, to which we had been directed by his brother-in-law. When we arrived there Rodes gave us dinner and a drink of whiskey and told us the way was clear as his son had come from Edward's Ferry that day, and said there were no Yankees there. We went on towards the Ferry as he had directed us.
That evening, about sundown, we met several federal cavalry men at the mouth of the lane, and as we passed them, one of the cavalry men said, "Damned if those are not rebels." Crawford and I ran when the commended firing at us. We ran unto the ravine and escaped. We then went on and finally saw a light described to us by Rodes as being at the ferry. There we looked through the window and saw a man waiting on someone apparently sick. We called, and he came to the door, and I asked him if his name was Edwards. He replied, "No, are you Edwards' sons?" I replied that we were, and he said, "Your father's yard is heavily guarded by Yankees; don't go there." He then wanted to know how we got across the river, and we replied that we didn't know as it was so dark when we crossed. He then directed us back to the river, and we struck out.
We hadn't gone more than half a mile when I fell over a sleeping Yankee. When I realized that we had gotten into a Yankee camp, I said, "Hello, where is the water?" The sleeping man mumbled something in his sleep, and we crawled from there about fifty yards where we butted up against some saddles, and also were some horses were picketed. There I found, on one of the saddles, two army pistols. I appropriated one and handed the other to Crawford. We then turned and crawled about one hundred yards and struck a corn field. We went out in the field about seventy-five yards and nestled up in a corn shock.
At daylight the bugle sounded the feed call and the Yankees came pouring over the fence into the corn field and got their corn from all around us without disturbing us. While they were getting the corn, I told Crawford if they disturbed us to fire into them and we would run into the briar thicket. As they crossed the fence with the corn, we got out of our shock and ran into a ravine and escaped. We lay over all day in that ravine, climbed up a tree, and with our spy glass located their lines of pickets on the canal and their canal boats.
We came near the canal where the boats were passing about every five minutes. The two path was picketed to that as each boat passes, a picket would follow the boar, talking to the boatman until he met the next boat, when he would follow it. Thus we discovered that to make it across the canal we must proceed cautiously. At the proper time we approached the canal and I said to Crawford, "We must swim this." He said, "I can't swim." I replied by saying, "You must swim or be captured." I swam it and Crawford joined in, and the splash was so great that the boatman hollered "Man overboard!"
While this was going on, Crawford and I, having reach the opposite side of the canal, ran down the river bank of the Potomac, Crawford hiding in the brush at the river's edge. I took to the river, swimming and watching. They were standing all around Crawford, and I heard someone say, "That's some of Mosby's men, hungry devils, hunting something to eat." I swam across the river, a mile distant. After getting across the river, Crawford gave me a distress whistle which meant that I must help him. I answered his whistle, and succeeded in finding a log on the river bank. I got the log over the river to where Crawford was waiting, and we got astride it and paddled across. We were now on Jenkin's Island.
After getting back to the island with Crawford, we built a fire out of some river weeds with some matches we had in a bottle. As the fire began to burn, a squadron of Federal cavalry begin firing on us, supposing us to be Mosby's men. We moved off some 250 yards, and scratched a hold in the sand and made another fire. We were entirely without clothing, and the weather was intensely cold, as it had been sleeting this afternoon. Crawford then took off a little jersey jacket he had on and gave it to me.
We remained there all night until daylight, when we crossed the other prong of the river a mile in width, wading across waist deep, and went up to Jenkins' house. Crawford insisted that I stay behind and let him go ahead. I told him that I would freeze if I remained at the gate. We met two young ladies and I told them I was an escaped prisoner, to give way to me. They broke and ran, and I went on to the house, and the old man came out and said , "Come on boys." I ran into the house, where there was a bog log fire. The old man handed us his brandy bottle and told us to drink.
In fifteen minutes I had another $75.00 cloth suit, which was presented to me by one of the young ladies, Miss Jenkins, stating that it belonged to a brother of hers, a captain in the Confederate army, who had been killed and that she was satisfied for me to wear it. They also gave Crawford a suit of clothes. Then two of Mosby's men came in and we joined them and succeeded in getting to Winchester, Virginia, our main Confederate lines. Herte Crawford and I seperated, he going to his Virginia home, and I to Greenville, Alabama.
With these words, Washington Traweek concluded his memoir about prison and his experience as a fugitive. Following the war, he apparently settled easily into civilian life. Then to his old age he retired to the home for Confederate Soldiers and Sailors at Biloxi, Mississippi, "Beauvoir." When he died there in 1923, he was the last remaining member of his old Elmira tunnel organization.