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Escape! Rebel POW slips across rural York County into Maryland: Part 1

RD ChapmanAt the start of the Civil War in 1861, a 21-year-old Georgia man named Robert D. Chapman was swept up in the patriotic fervor. With several friends, he enlisted in the 112-man “Miller County Wild Cats,” which soon became Company E of the 1st Georgia State Troops, a six-month state regiment. Promoted quickly from private to sergeant major, Chapman and his comrades received their training, battle flag, and arms in Savannah. Upon the completion of their service most of the men re-enrolled in Company E of the 55th Georgia Volunteers, a three-year regiment in the Confederate States Army.

He served initially in the Kentucky Campaign and was promoted to captain. Chapman was captured when his regiment surrendered in September 1863 to Union General Ambrose Burnside at Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Destined for the Camp Douglas prison in Illinois, he and his lieutenant later that same day slipped away from the throng of prisoners under the pretext of finding a private place to bathe in a nearby creek. They hid through the night and headed for safety, only to be captured  by a gang of eight mountain men and notorious robbers/murderers, who had no loyalty to Rebels or Yankees.

“Their long hair and beard, old flopped hats, ragged clothes, bare feet, filthy, savage appearance, all indicated the lowest type of humanity,” Chapman later recalled. He and his comrade assumed fake identities, distracted their menacing hillbilly captors, and managed to escape. Taken in during their perilous flight by a sympathetic farmer, they eventually turned themselves in to Union authorities in Booneville, Kentucky. The pair of Confederate officers ended up in the Johnson’s Island prison in Lake Erie in northern Ohio.

However, Robert Chapman’s adventures, with his penchant for escaping captivity, were far from finished.

Johnson's Island

In February 1864 the energetic Captain Chapman was working on a secret tunnel to escape Johnson’s Island when orders came for he and several other men to be transferred to the Point Lookout prisoner camp in eastern Maryland. Hearing that the new destination was under the command of notorious Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, Chapman was determined to escape somehow during the long train ride. He planned to ride the train as far south as he could before escaping somewhere in southern Pennsylvania or northern Maryland, and then find a Southern sympathizer who would help him make it to Virginia. He stole two small handsaws from the prisoners’ workshop, secreted them in his pants legs, and then on February 9 boarded the ferry for the trip across the icy lake to the railhead at Sandusky.

On the night of the 10th, he ruined one of the saws while cutting through the floor of the railcar. Union guards discovered the unfinished jagged hole and searched for the offending party. Chapman furtively deposited the bent saw in a place where the Yankees would find it, but no one searched him for a second blade.

Detail from a Library of Congress image of the train station in downtown Harrisburg, Pa.
Detail from a Library of Congress image of the train station in downtown Harrisburg, Pa.

Very late on the 11th, the train stopped in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the prisoners of war each drew one day’s rations. This was the last night before the train reached the Point Lookout prison, so Chapman knew he must escape soon else he would likely be a prisoner the rest of the war. “My determination to escape had not abated;” he later wrote, “I had learned ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.'” Despite the numbing cold and the lack of light, he began looking for another convenient place on the car to saw his way to freedom. “This night must settle the issues of liberty or death,” he determined.

He disclosed his intentions to a few close friends, one of whom gave him $5 in gold to help him after he had escaped. Another comrade, a Mississippian named Lieutenant Bowling who knew the area well, gave him a cursory geography lesson. Bowling had been wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and subsequently housed in a temporary field hospital there. A group of charitable women from Emmitsburg, Maryland, frequently visited the wounded prisoners. One of them, a Roman Catholic girl names Miss Annie McBride, had befriended Bowling.

Captain Chapman, armed with Bowling’s useful information, decided to jump from a window when the train passed through York, Pennsylvania. Assuming he survived and was uninjured, he would then walk the 35 miles or so southwest to Emmitsburg, where he would seek out Miss McBride.

The daring plan now in place, Chapman settled back as the train rumbled across the Susquehanna River bridge and headed south on the Northern Central Railway tracks toward York.

Bridges over the Susquehanna River at Harrsburg
Bridges over the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg (Library of Congress)

Once there, the adventurous Chapman believed he had to take the chance, despite the danger of leaping from a moving train.

Liberty or death — the choice to him was very clear.

Watch for Part 2 of Confederate Captain Robert D. Chapman’s adventures in York County, Pa., in an upcoming Cannonball blog post!