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Escape! Rebel POW slips across rural York County into Maryland: Part 2

RD ChapmanPart 1 of this brief series introduced Confederate Captain Robert D. Chapman, a daredevil who was not contented with the prospects of passive captivity as a prisoner of war. He escaped from the Union army at Cumberland Gap, ran off from the notorious Sizemore clan of killer hillbillies, and later tried to tunnel his way out of Johnson’s Island prison on Lake Erie. He is now on his way to the dreaded Point Lookout prison camp in southern Maryland. Realizing his last chance to escape from a prison train is fast approaching, he is planning to leap from a window and race off in the night through rural York County, Pennsylvania, in the hope of finding temporary asylum some 35 miles away in Emmitsburg, Maryland, with an acquaintance of one of his fellow prisoners.

“My escape had to be made through the window of the car while in motion,” Captain Chapman later related. Otherwise, he had no chance. Every time the train stopped, the Union guards on the platform would step down and surround the railcars to prevent anyone from escaping until the train steamed away. He had to get out of the car without being noticed; hence he resolved to leap from the moving train in some remote area. Making it more perilous was the dark night; he had no choice of how or where he would land after the dangerous leap.

Now he was somewhere north of York. It was 10:00 p.m. and most of the prisoners were fast asleep, other than Chapman’s circle of close friends who were aware of his planned escape. As the train slowed to approach York, he put his plan into action. The Union guard was wide awake and alert, so Chapman needed a distraction. His friends would take out their blankets and exaggerate their motions as they shook out the folds and prepared to lay them on the floor. As the whistle blew and the train slowed as it passed through York. Chapman took advantage of the confusion and sudden commotion to open a window and deftly slip his left leg and body out of the wooden car. Holding onto the window will, he prepared for the perilous leap of faith into the dark, cold night air.

It was time for yet another daring escape.

Chapman leaped from the train just south of York, shown in this 1860 Shearer & Lake map. He made his way up what is now called Reservoir Hill.
Captain R. D. Chapman leaped from the train just south of York, shown in this 1860 Shearer & Lake map. He made his way up what is now called Reservoir Hill (off the southern edge of the illustration). The tracks of the Northern Central Railway parallel Codorus Creek in the southwestern part of York.

In the ensuing struggle to keep from tumbling head first to the ground, Chapman’s right foot became stuck inside the bottom of the window. “Thus clinging to the side of the car,” he related, “head in one side of the window and one foot in the other side, I extended my arms, lowered my body.” His foot suddenly came free and he tumbled hard to the track side… “and then, thunder and lightning, earthquake, dirt, dust, and blood — all were in evidence, but my mind was clear and no bones were broken… the fall did not hurt me as much as striking the ground, my feet first, then my head, shoulder, and arms; they were badly lacerated.”

Chapman could see the excitement of his friends in the well lit car, as well as the guard with his uplifted gun glittering in the light. He remained still until all of the cars had passed. Soon the train slowed and came to a stop; the guard had obviously passed the word of the escape. However, another train was also steaming south from York, and now he was caught in between them as the ominous headlamp came closer and closer. He surely soon would be discovered. He rose as rapidly as he could and “retreated rapidly” at right angles from the railroad tracks.

“Dazed, dusty, and bleeding, the headlight from the approaching train so confusing my vision,” the captain later wrote, “that my progress was quite difficult in the dark. I soon found myself on the slope of a mountain, overlooking the town [editor’s note: likely what is now Reservoir Hill, then called Webb’s Hill].”

Looking north toward York from Webb's Hill (YDR's York Town Square blog).
Looking north toward York from Webb’s Hill (1893 photograph from the Art Work of York, published by the W. H. Parish Publishing Co.; courtesy of Jim McClure’s York Towne Square blog).

Luckily, the night was pitch black and Chapman easily evaded detection. As midnight approached, he could see the lanterns of the Federal guards as they futilely searched for him in the broad valley below his resting place. Finally, they gave up the hunt and returned to their train. Soon, it disappeared into the darkness, carrying Lieutenant Bowling and Chapman’s other comrades away to Point Lookout, a prison of “hopeless despair” where they would remain for  the rest of the war.

“Truly I felt, friendless and forsaken,” the Georgian later rued. “It was the lonely hour of a dark, cold night, February 11th, of 1864, a lone Confederate soldier had invaded Pennsylvania, flanked the enemy, and gained an eminence overlooking the city of York, and from that lofty position I surveyed with calm deliberations the surroundings, and finding myself in a dependent position without any rations, or friends to aid, in the enemies’ country, and my physical condition very much impaired, an emergency existed that had to be considered with great caution, to avoid recapture.”

Now, as Chapman surveyed his dire circumstances, he realized he needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and the telltale railroad, knowing that the search would likely continue in the morning. He knew Emmitsburg was well off to the southwest, so using a star as a reference he took off into the night, “traveling an untrodden path through the dark, crossing roads, fields, and woods, surrounding all houses, to avoid personal contact.”

Early 20th century view from York looking south toward Webb’s Hill. Captain R. D. Chapman hid on these heights above the Northern Central Railway after leaping from an open window as the train steamed south from York toward Hanover Junction on the night of February 11, 1864. Under cover of darkness, he descended the low mountain and headed toward Emmitsburg, Maryland.

As the long night wore on, Chapman’s stamina began to wane and his multiple injuries caused him increasing discomfort.  In addition, his bruised and blistered feet had become very painful, but he knew he needed to press onward while it was still dark. Just before daybreak [likely somewhere in southwestern York County] he decided to stop and find a secure place to rest and hide. He was concerned that he would surely stand out as a suspicious character, especially because he did not look like the natives of the region.

He eventually found a suitable resting spot on a remote farm just before dawn, but would soon encounter two talkative Pennsylvania Dutch women, a new experience for the young Georgian.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of Confederate Captain R. D. Chapman’s adventure in south-central Pennsylvania!