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87th PA officer escaped from prison after being captured at 2nd Winchester: Part 1

Part of the Carter's Woods battlefield off of US 11 north of Winchester, VA (Scott Mingus photo)
Part of the old Carter’s Woods Civil War battlefield off of US 11 north of Winchester, VA (Scott Mingus photo)

William Henry Harrison “Harry” Welsh, according to longtime York-area researcher and historian Dennis W. Brandt, was a Hanover native who spent much of his boyhood hanging around Henry Snyder’s blacksmith shop, which was in a building owned by Harry’s father.

At the age of 20, Welsh enrolled in September 1861 in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, a Union regiment that would serve for a term of three years. He had previously served in the 3-month 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry earlier that summer. Sergeant Welsh received a promotion to lieutenant in May 1863 and held that rank when the 87th Pennsylvania fought at the ill-fated Second Battle of Winchester from June 12-15, 1863. In the disastrous fighting near Carter’s Woods on June 15, Welsh was taken prisoner.

He would spend time in four separate Confederate prisons and would make multiple escae attempts.

Here is Lieutenant Welsh’s interesting story, as told in the July 30, 1907, Reading Eagle.

Wayside marker describing the fighting at Carter's Woods and Stephenson's Depot
Detail from a wayside marker describing the fighting at Carter’s Woods and Stephenson’s Depot. (Scott Mingus photo). The 87th on this day fought under General Washington Elliott and was part of a series of desperate attacks Major General Robert H. Milroy ordered to try to break through the Rebel lines.


Lieut. W. H. H. Welsh, of York, Hides Under Leaves to Escape from Confederates — Confined to Four Prison Pens — A Stirring Story of the Civil War

York: Among the 200 soldiers of the 87th Pennsylvania who were captured near Winchester, Va., in 1863, says George R. Prowell, was Lieut. W. H. H. Welsh, a resident of this city. The story of his capture, imprisonment and final escape reads like one of the romances of the middle ages.

In the early morning of June 15, 1863, in the engagement at Carter’s Woods, near Winchester, Virginia, Lieutenant Welsh was struck by a piece of shell. When the retreat was ordered he escaped with two privates to the mountains and five days later was captured at Cherry Run, near Hancock, Maryland, toward which place a large detachment of Milroy’s forces had gone. Having removed the insignia of his rank, he was marched with 400 other prisoners to Staunton, and from thence he was moved to Belle Isle [a prison in Richmond for enlisted men]. Here he met other members of his regiment, who had been captured at Winchester.

Libby Prison as seen in 1865 (National Archives)
Libby Prison as seen in 1865 (National Archives)

His Identity as an Officer Discovered.

When the prison guards found out that he was a commissioned officer, Lieutenant Welsh was taken back to Libby [an old tobacco warehouse that became a notorious Confederate prison], and placed in a dungeon, where, for six weeks, he was kept in solitary confinement, because he had tried to pass himself off as a private soldier. He was given one small piece of bread each day, just enough to sustain life. A bucket of water was supplied him weekly. The water became foul and unfit to drink before another bucketful came. His clothes had to be removed on account of the mould collecting upon them.

One Sunday morning the guard entered the dungeon, and took him upstairs, where he met Captains [Henry] Morningstar and [John A.] Albright, and Lieutenants [William] Bierbower and [Charles P.] Stroman of his regiment, and Captain Edward L. Schroder of the Fifth Maryland Regiment, who had been taken prisoners near Winchester. His comrades bathed him in a tub and shared with him some of their clothing. Lieutenant Welsh being naturally of a cheerful disposition, soon became one of the jolliest of the Libby prisoners.

Assisted in Organizing Minstrel Troupe.

In order to while away the monotony of prison life, he assisted Captain E. A. Mass, of the 88th Penn’a. Regiment, in organizing a troupe, which they called the “Libby Prison Minstrels.” For the amusement of 1,800 other officers  then in this noted prison pen, they gave two entertainments weekly. This was kept up until Christmas, 1863. They were in Libby 11 months, during which time each officer in the 87th Regiment there, received from home two boxes of supplies, which were allowed to go through the confederate lines.

Camp Oglethorpe was located south Macon, Georgia, on the old fairgrounds. The stockade fencing was 16 feet high. (National Park Service)
Camp Oglethorpe was located south Macon, Georgia, on the old fairgrounds. The stockade fencing was 16 feet high. (National Park Service)

Taken to Macon, Ga.

In May, 1864, most of the Libby prisoners were taken to Danville, Virginia, and from that place were sent to Macon, Georgia,  where a large number of union officers were imprisoned. At this place they were confined in a stockade called Camp Oglethorpe. This prison was 60 miles from Andersonville, where the largest prison in the South for non-commissioned officers and privates was situated. While Lieutenant Welsh and his comrades were here Captain John Fahs, Lieut. Chas. H. Stallman and other officers of the 87th captured in front of Petersburg in June, 1864, arrived.

Caught Digging a Tunnel and Placed Under Fire.

About this time, with comrades, Lieutenant Welsh started a tunnel which was to come to the surface underneath a roundhouse about 300 yards from the stockade. The digging was done at night with knives and a broken canteen. The loose earth was carried in small sacks and placed underneath the hospital buildings in the centre of the prison. After digging the tunnel about 50 yards  the word was discovered by the guard and it was stopped.

Lieutenant Welsh soon afterward was sent with others to Charleston, S. C., where they were placed under the fire of the Federal guns at Morris Island.

The yellow fever broke out in Charleston, when 1,800 were sent to Columbia, S. C., where they were placed in Camp Sorghum in a pine forest two miles from the city.”

Harry Welsh soon sensed another chance to escape Rebel confinement. His adventure continues in Part 2 of this story.

To read more on the Second Battle of Winchester, where so many men of the 87th became prisoners of war, pick up a copy of blogger Scott Mingus’s new book (available at the gift shop of the York County Heritage Trust or through the publisher or on-line book retailers).

Colorized cover art by Wheaton, Illinois-based graphic designer Ivor Janci.
Colorized cover art by Wheaton, Illinois-based graphic designer Ivor Janci.