May 23, 2018
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Enemy prison could not contain Castine’s ‘Harry Houdini’

By Brian Swartz, Special to the BDN

If Charles Tilden could survive the Civil War, he had a promising career as a premiere escape artist, perhaps better than the future Houdini the Great.

Captured at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863 with most of his 16th Maine Infantry Regiment, Tilden walked south to captivity at Libby Prison in Richmond, Va. By that July four Confederate officers had commanded Libby Prison. The first, Maj. J.T.W. Hairston, treated his prisoners well.

Replacing him chronologically were Capt. Henry Wirz, Lt. David Todd, and Richard Turner.

These three sadists badly mistreated their prisoners. Wirz later took south with him the brutal tactics he learned at Libby Prison; by summer 1864 he honed his pain-inflicting skills on the Union prisoners confined at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga.

As Libby Prison filled with captured Union officers by autumn 1863, some prisoners decided to break out. Various attempts took place, but the would-be escape artists finally figured that digging a tunnel made the best sense.

Among the tunneling visionaries was Col. Thomas Ellwood Rose, a 33-year-old schoolteacher from Pittsburgh who arrived at Libby Prison on Thursday, Oct, 1, 1863.

Rose didn’t intend to stay there long. He and Capt. Andrew Hamilton from the 12th Kentucky Cavalry “began the tunnel scheme in the eastern cellar of the prison shortly after my arrival there,” Rose told “National Tribune” readers in that newspaper’s May 14, 1885 issue.

The prisoners sought to begin digging “from the [prison’s] eastern cellar, the only place from which a tunnel could be made with success,” Rose set the stage for his readers. “It was the only place where we could conceal the dirt, and where we could work without interruption for several hours at a time.”

Confederate renovations had eliminated access to the eastern cellar, but Yankee ingenuity soon prevailed. The prisoners could access “the dining-room, which, fortunately, was seldom visited by any one at night,” Rose recalled. In the dining room stood a brick chimney; in its “fireplace … was a large amount of soot and ashes,” and “in front of the fireplace were some stoves.”

Moving the stoves “a little,” the prisoners “removed the soot and ashes from the fireplace and placed them in a gum blanket.” Using “instruments” that Rose described as little better than “pocket-knives,” the prisoners carefully cut through the fireplace’s “back wall just far enough not to make an opening into the [adjacent prison] hospital.”

Then the prisoners cut “straight down through the wall to below the hospital floor, and just wide enough not to make an opening into the carpenter shop,” which was located in the cellar, he wrote.

“Then [the prisoners dug] straight out under the hospital floor into the cellar” beneath it, “making a hole through the entire wall — somewhat in form to the letter S” that was “large enough to admit the passage of a man,” Rose recalled.

Accessing the cellar by “a strong rope” that was later “made into a rope ladder,” prisoners dug three exploratory holes “through the heavy foundation wall on the eastern side of the cellar before a place was found where the dirt was firm enough to support the tunnel,” Rose recalled.

With military precision the prisoners organized three five-man work parties, each of which dug one night and rested the next two nights.

Working in “absolute silence” and in total darkness, the Union boys occasionally “vanished” in the eastern cellar, where “no one must speak above a whisper.” Rose “sometimes had to feel all over the cellar to gather up the men that were lost.”

Tunnelers kept digging, “and in 17 days the tunnel was complete from the cellar” to a shed located “in the yard on the west side of the warehouse, from which the escape of the prisoners was easily made.”

Rose led the first 15 prisoners into the tunnel well after dark on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 1864. “To this band of men, and to no other person or persons, is the credit of the Libby Prison escape due,” Rose praised his tunnelers 21 years later.

The prisoners “found [the tunnel] … a tight fit,” wrote Joseph Whelan in his 2010 “Libby Prison Breakout.” The tunnel’s entrance was “a roomy two and a half to three feet,” but “the tunnel quickly narrowed to an average [width] of 20 to 24 inches, and at one point to just 16 inches.”

Emerging into the cold night air, the prisoners “stepped into the street … two or three at a time” whenever a Confederate sentinel walking a nearby beat turned away from them, Whelan wrote. He quoted Capt. Isaac Johnston of Rose’s escape group as admitting that “‘we did not linger, and soon we were out of sight of the hated place.’”

That night 109 Union officers wriggled through the tunnel and vanished into the glorious air of freedom. Most headed northeast or east toward Union lines near Williamsburg, Va. Some hid with Richmond Unionists; no matter where the escapees fled, Confederate pursuit soon developed.

Although pursuers rounded up escapees, 59 prisoners got clean away. On Friday, Feb. 12, the “Richmond Whig” published a list of recaptured prisoners and a list of “the field officers still at large.” Among the latter names was Col. “C.W. Tilden, 15th Maine.”

Charles Tilden reached Union lines, quickly rejoined his beloved 16th Maine, and returned to the war.

But he had one more date with captivity.

Outside Petersburg, Va., Tilden received orders after dark on Wednesday, Aug, 17, 1864 to move “my regiment, numbering 8 line officers and 231 guns” to help cut the Weldon Railroad. After dark on Thursday, Aug. 18, “we threw up earth-works in our front, extending to the railroad,” Tilden wrote in his report “No. 163,” filed from “camp near Reams Station, Va.” in September.

“This position was held by us until 2 p.m.” on Friday, Aug. 19. Heavy fighting broke out an hour later, and while repulsed “three times,” hard-charging Confederate troops finally curved “around the right of our line.”

Jubilant Confederates captured Tilden “with 3 line officers and 83 men” of the 16th Maine, plus “my state colors,” Tilden admitted. Perhaps recalling that horrid day less than 14 months ago when his men had frantically torn apart a similar flag near the Unfinished Railroad in Gettysburg, he noted that “my national colors were destroyed, thus preventing their falling into his (enemy) hands.”

So Tilden again trudged off into captivity. Confederates prepared a warm welcome for him at Libby Prison.

“The following field officers were captured and taken to Petersburg,” summarized a Sept. 24 field report filed by Col. Thomas F. McCoy; he commanded the 1st Brigade to which the 16th Maine was assigned. The list mentioned “Col. C.W. Tilden, Sixteenth Maine Volunteers.” The captured soldiers were among “thirty-three line officers … and 721 enlisted men” swept up during the recent debacles outside Petersburg.

Tilden passed through that city and proceeded “on his way under guard … to the Libby Prison,” McCoy wrote. But “I would not omit that” Tilden, “a most worthy and esteemed officer” who had “a vivid recollection of a former imprisonment in Richmond… made a most daring and successful escape, and rejoined his regiment the third night after his capture.

“Considering the perils through which he passed in making his escape, it cannot be otherwise regarded than remarkably providential” that Tilden fled unhurt, McCoy stressed.

Successfully escaping with Tilden was “Lieut, E[dward].F. Davis, of the same regiment,” McCoy wrote.

So the 16th Maine’s top escape artist returned to war yet again. He still commanded the 16th Maine at war’s end.

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. He can be reached at or visit his blog at

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