It was not much more difficult to dig fifty feet than it had been to dig
thirty feet. Davis soon realized this, and put the Dead Line back to
twenty feet. His next device was a much more sensible one. A crowd of
one hundred and fifty negros dug a trench twenty feet wide and five feet
deep around the whole prison on the outside, and this ditch was filled
with water from the City Water Works. No one could cross this without
attracting the attention of the guards.
Still we were not discouraged, and Andrews and I joined a crowd that was
constructing a large tunnel from near our quarters on the east side of
the pen. We finished the burrow to within a few inches of the edge of
the ditch, and then ceased operations, to await some stormy night, when
we could hope to get across the ditch unnoticed.
Orders were issued to guards to fire without warning on men who were
observed to be digging or carrying out dirt after nightfall. They
occasionally did so, but the risk did not keep anyone from tunneling.
Our tunnel ran directly under a sentry box. When carrying dirt away the
bearer of the bucket had to turn his back on the guard and walk directly
down the street in front of him, two hundred or three hundred feet, to
the center of the camp, where he scattered the sand around–so as to give
no indication of where it came from. Though we always waited till the
moon went down, it seemed as if, unless the guard were a fool, both by
nature and training, he could not help taking notice of what was going on
under his eyes. I do not recall any more nervous promenades in my life,
than those when, taking my turn, I received my bucket of sand at the
mouth of the tunnel, and walked slowly away with it. The most
disagreeable part was in turning my back to the guard. Could I have
faced him, I had sufficient confidence in my quickness of perception,
and talents as a dodger, to imagine that I could make it difficult for
him to hit me. But in walling with my back to him I was wholly at his
mercy. Fortune, however, favored us, and we were allowed to go on with
our work–night after night–without a shot.
In the meanwhile another happy thought slowly gestated in Davis’s alleged
intellect. How he came to give birth to two ideas with no more than a
week between them, puzzled all who knew him, and still more that he
survived this extraordinary strain upon the gray matter of the cerebrum.
His new idea was to have driven a heavily-laden mule cart around the
inside of the Dead Line at least once a day. The wheels or the mule’s
feet broke through the thin sod covering the tunnels and exposed them.
Our tunnel went with the rest, and those of our crowd who wore shoes had
humiliation added to sorrow by being compelled to go in and spade the
hole full of dirt. This put an end to subterranean engineering.
One day one of the boys watched his opportunity, got under the ration
wagon, and clinging close to the coupling pole with hands and feet, was
carried outside. He was detected, however, as he came from under the
wagon, and brought back.
FRANK REVERSTOCK’S ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE–PASSING OFF AS REBEL BOY HE REACHES
GRISWOLDVILLE BY RAIL, AND THEN STRIKES ACROSS THE COUNTRY FOR SHERMAN,
BUT IS CAUGHT WITHIN TWENTY MILES OF OUR LINES.
One of the shrewdest and nearest successful attempts to escape that came
under my notice was that of my friend Sergeant Frank Reverstock, of the
Third West Virginia Cavalry, of whom I have before spoken. Frank, who
was quite small, with a smooth boyish face, had converted to his own use
a citizen’s coat, belonging to a young boy, a Sutler’s assistant, who had
died in Andersonville. He had made himself a pair of bag pantaloons and
a shirt from pieces of meal sacks which he had appropriated from day to
day. He had also the Sutler’s assistant’s shoes, and, to crown all, he
wore on his head one of those hideous looking hats of quilted calico
which the Rebels had taken to wearing in the lack of felt hats, which
they could neither make nor buy. Altogether Frank looked enough like a
Rebel to be dangerous to trust near a country store or a stable full of
horses. When we first arrived in the prison quite a crowd of the
Savannahians rushed in to inspect us. The guards had some difficulty in
keeping them and us separate. While perplexed with this annoyance, one
of them saw Frank standing in our crowd, and, touching him with his
bayonet, said, with some sharpness:
“See heah; you must stand back; you musn’t crowd on them prisoners so.”,
Frank stood back. He did it promptly but calmly, and then, as if his
curiosity as to Yankees was fully satisfied, he walked slowly away up the
street, deliberating as he went on a plan for getting out of the City.
He hit upon an excellent one. Going to the engineer of a freight train
making ready to start back to Macon, he told him that his father was
working in the Confederate machine shops at Griswoldville, near Macon;
that he himself was also one of the machinists employed there, and
desired to go thither but lacked the necessary means to pay his passage.
If the engineer would let him ride up on the engine he would do work
enough to pay the fare. Frank told the story ingeniously, the engineer
and firemen were won over, and gave their consent.
No more zealous assistant ever climbed upon a tender than Frank proved to
be. He loaded wood with a nervous industry, that stood him in place of
great strength. He kept the tender in perfect order, and anticipated,
as far as possible, every want of the engineer and his assistant. They
were delighted with him, and treated him with the greatest kindness,
dividing their food with him, and insisting that he should share their
bed when they “laid by” for the night. Frank would have gladly declined
this latter kindness with thanks, as he was conscious that the quantity
of “graybacks” his clothing contained did not make him a very desirable
sleeping companion for any one, but his friends were so pressing that he
was compelled to accede.
His greatest trouble was a fear of recognition by some one of the
prisoners that were continually passing by the train load, on their way
from Andersonville to other prisons. He was one of the best known of the
prisoners in Andersonville; bright, active, always cheerful, and forever
in motion during waking hours,–every one in the Prison speedily became
familiar with him, and all addressed him as “Sergeant Frankie.” If any
one on the passing trains had caught a glimpse of him, that glimpse would
have been followed almost inevitably with a shout of:
“Hello, Sergeant Frankie! What are you doing there?”
Then the whole game would have been up. Frank escaped this by persistent
watchfulness, and by busying himself on the opposite side of the engine,
with his back turned to the other trains.
At last when nearing Griswoldville, Frank, pointing to a large white
house at some distance across the fields, said:
“Now, right over there is where my uncle lives, and I believe I’ll just
run over and see him, and then walk into Griswoldville.”
He thanked his friends fervently for their kindness, promised to call and
see them frequently, bade them good by, and jumped off the train.
He walked towards the white house as long as he thought he could be seen,
and then entered a large corn field and concealed himself in a thicket in
the center of it until dark, when he made his way to the neighboring
woods, and began journeying northward as fast as his legs could carry
him. When morning broke he had made good progress, but was terribly
tired. It was not prudent to travel by daylight, so he gathered himself
some ears of corn and some berries, of which he made his breakfast, and
finding a suitable thicket he crawled into it, fell asleep, and did not
wake up until late in the afternoon.
After another meal of raw corn and berries he resumed his journey, and
that night made still better progress.
He repeated this for several days and nights–lying in the woods in the
day time, traveling by night through woods, fields, and by-paths avoiding
all the fords, bridges and main roads, and living on what he could glean
from the fields, that he might not take even so much risk as was involved
in going to the negro cabins for food.
But there are always flaws in every man’s armor of caution–even in so
perfect a one as Frank’s. His complete success so far had the natural
effect of inducing a growing carelessness, which wrought his ruin.
One evening he started off briskly, after a refreshing rest and sleep.
He knew that he must be very near Sherman’s lines, and hope cheered him
up with the belief that his freedom would soon be won.
Descending from the hill, in whose dense brushwood he had made his bed
all day, he entered a large field full of standing corn, and made his way
between the rows until he reached, on the other side, the fence that
separated it from the main road, across which was another corn-field,
that Frank intended entering.
But he neglected his usual precautions on approaching a road, and instead
of coming up cautiously and carefully reconnoitering in all directions
before he left cover, he sprang boldly over the fence and strode out for
the other side. As he reached the middle of the road, his ears were
assailed with the sharp click of a musket being cocked, and the harsh
“Halt! halt, dah, I say!”
Turning with a start to his left he saw not ten feet from him, a mounted
patrol, the sound of whose approach had been masked by the deep dust of
the road, into which his horse’s hoofs sank noiselessly.
Frank, of course, yielded without a word, and when sent to the officer in
command he told the old story about his being an employee of the
Griswoldville shops, off on a leave of absence to make a visit to sick
relatives. But, unfortunately, his captors belonged to that section
themselves, and speedily caught him in a maze of cross-questioning from
which he could not extricate himself. It also became apparent from his
language that he was a Yankee, and it was not far from this to the
conclusion that he was a spy–a conclusion to which the proximity of
Sherman’s lines, then less than twenty miles distant-greatly assisted.
By the next morning this belief had become so firmly fixed in the minds
of the Rebels that Frank saw a halter dangling alarmingly near, and he
concluded the wisest plan was to confess who he really was.
It was not the smallest of his griefs to realize by how slight a chance
he had failed. Had he looked down the road before he climbed the fence,
or had he been ten minutes earlier or later, the patrol would not have
been there, he could have gained the next field unperceived, and two more
nights of successful progress would have taken him into Sherman’s lines
at Sand Mountain. The patrol which caught him was on the look-out for
deserters and shirking conscripts, who had become unusually numerous
since the fall of Atlanta.
He was sent back to us at Savannah. As he came into the prison gate
Lieutenant Davis was standing near. He looked sternly at Frank and his
Rebel garments, and muttering,
“By God, I’ll stop this!” caught the coat by the tails, tore it to the
collar, and took it and his hat away from Frank.
There was a strange sequel to this episode. A few weeks afterward a
special exchange for ten thousand was made, and Frank succeeded in being
included in this. He was given the usual furlough from the paroled camp
at Annapolis, and went to his home in a little town near Mansfield, O.
One day while on the cars going–I think to Newark, O., he saw Lieutenant
Davis on the train, in citizens’ clothes. He had been sent by the Rebel
Government to Canada with dispatches relating to some of the raids then
harassing our Northern borders. Davis was the last man in the world to
successfully disguise himself. He had a large, coarse mouth, that made
him remembered by all who had ever seen him. Frank recognized him
instantly and said:
“You are Lieutenant Davis?”
“You are totally mistaken, sah, I am —–”
Frank insisted that he was right. Davis fumed and blustered, but though
Frank was small, he was as game as a bantam rooster, and he gave Davis to
understand that there had been a vast change in their relative positions;
that the one, while still the same insolent swaggerer, had not regiments
of infantry or batteries of artillery to emphasize his insolence, and the
other was no longer embarrassed in the discussion by the immense odds in
favor of his jailor opponent.
After a stormy scene Frank called in the assistance of some other
soldiers in the car, arrested Davis, and took him to Camp Chase–near
Columbus, O.,–where he was fully identified by a number of paroled
prisoners. He was searched, and documents showing the nature of his
mission beyond a doubt, were found upon his person.
A court martial was immediately convened for his trial.
This found him guilty, and sentenced him to be hanged as a spy.
At the conclusion of the trial Frank stepped up to the prisoner and said:
“Mr. Davis, I believe we’re even on that coat, now.”
Davis was sent to Johnson’s Island for execution, but influences were
immediately set at work to secure Executive clemency. What they were
I know not, but I am informed by the Rev. Robert McCune, who was then
Chaplain of the One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Ohio Infantry and the Post
of Johnson’s Island and who was the spiritual adviser appointed to
prepare Davis for execution, that the sentence was hardly pronounced
before Davis was visited by an emissary, who told him to dismiss his
fears, that he should not suffer the punishment.
It is likely that leading Baltimore Unionists were enlisted in his behalf
through family connections, and as the Border State Unionists were then
potent at Washington, they readily secured a commutation of his sentence
to imprisonment during the war.
It seems that the justice of this world is very unevenly dispensed when
so much solicitude is shown for the life of such a man, and none at all
for the much better men whom he assisted to destroy.
The official notice of the commutation of the sentence was not published
until the day set for the execution, but the certain knowledge that it
would be forthcoming enabled Davis to display a great deal of bravado on
approaching what was supposed to be his end. As the reader can readily
imagine, from what I have heretofore said of him, Davis was the man to
improve to the utmost every opportunity to strut his little hour, and he
did it in this instance. He posed, attitudinized and vapored, so that
the camp and the country were filled with stories of the wonderful
coolness with which he contemplated his approaching fate.
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