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Escape! Rebel POW slips across rural York County into Maryland: Part 3

RD ChapmanConfederate Captain Robert D. Chapman was a determined young man. Taken prisoner at Cumberland Gap when his regiment surrendered to General Burnside’s Yankees, the young Georgian managed to escape only to be captured by the Sizemore gang of thieving mountain men. Escaping from them, he soon turned himself in to Federal troops and wound up in a prison camp on an island in Lake Erie. After digging a tunnel for a few days, he learned he was being transferred to a notorious prison camp in southern Maryland. Chapman daringly leaped off a train near York, Pennsylvania, hid from search parties on Webb’s Hill, and then painfully wandered through the dark, cold February night toward the Mason-Dixon Line. With dawn approaching, he began looking for a barn in which to hide.

Here is the continuation of his fascinating story, as told in his own postwar words…

A typical Pennsylvania German bank barn likely similar in style to that in which Captain Chapman hid. This is the George Grove barn in NW York County.
A typical Pennsylvania German bank barn which dotted the pastoral landscape in York and Adams counties as Chapman traversed the region in his effort to find a hiding place. This is the George Grove barn in NW York County (Scott Mingus photograph).

“This was an old thickly settled country and hiding places were hard to find except in barns of straw, which was also the best protection against the cold weather,” Chapman later wrote. “The houses were very numerous, and it was difficult to tell a barn from other houses in the dark.”

He approached one homestead and was prowling around in the dark for the barn when a barking dog blocked his approach. He quietly retreated and resumed his pre-dawn search for a hiding place.

“At the next settlement I found a barn, the body of which was made of rough logs, the doors were closed but I climbed up the outer wall and found the back of the barn full of straw. I landed over in the hay and made me a bed deep down in the pile. I was not prepared for the exposure and the physical effort the emergency required from train to barn, having languished five months in close confinement on a nice-bound isle in Lake Erie, during which time I was sick, near unto death, of dyptheria [sic] from which I had not fully recovered. But among my afflictions, I felt I had achieved a victory over the enemy, and that satisfied to some extent my patriotic ambition.”

Soon, snug and warm in the pile of hay, he fell sound asleep, casting aside his fears and worries.

Currier and Ives print of a 19th century farm in the winter. Prints such as these can be purchased from
Currier and Ives print of a 19th century farm in the winter. Prints such as these can be purchased from

He awoke to a start. It was morning; the sun was shining; and the farm family was going about their daily chores. “I was aroused from my slumber,” he recounted, “by a confusion of tongues which I recognized as the voice of two women talking in an unknown language. They were raking, scraping and stamping over the barn floor, and talking in an angry tone.” Chapman went on to say, “I listened in breathless silence to catch an intelligible word, but their Dutch [Pennsylvania German] language continued with increasing fury, as I lay in a very cramped-up position, afraid to move.”

He supposed that someone had spotted him entering the barn and had come to search for him. “As I had no excuse for occupancy,” he later penned, “I decided in case they found me to appear deaf, dumb, and crazy, and they speaking Dutch, an explanation would be impossible.” To his great relief, however, the two women soon left the barn, presumably to feed their cattle.

However, the respite proved short-lived.

Victorian farm women with armloads of hay (Library of Congress)
Two sturdy Victorian farm women with armloads of hay (Library of Congress)

The two women soon returned and began pulling hay from the pile in which Chapman had secreted himself. “As every pull would shake the pile, I felt in imminent danger of slipping down among them; they again left the barn and the old creaking lot gate gave notice of their departure; their voices died away in the distance.” He added, “I have ever been thankful that I did not snore in my sleep for if I had been snoring when they entered the barn, the result might have been different.”

Satisfied the angry women would not return and still exhausted from his late night trek, Chapman assumed a more comfortable position “and sweet sleep assumed supremacy over the cares and afflictions of the hour.” He slept the entire day away, awakening only one during the day and then again well after dark.

It was time to move on for another night’s adventure.

“I left my bed of straw and crept cautiously down into the barn-yard,” he recalled about his plans for the night of February 12, 1864. “It was a dark, cold night and I was lost and bewildered, not knowing which direction to go.”Contemporary records indicate that the weather in the region that week was “clear and cold but no wind.” The effects of prolonged exposure must have taken their toll, especially on an injured man such as Captain Chapman who had not brought his blanket off the train and lacked an overcoat.

After rambling around aimlessly for awhile, he discovered a public road and decided to follow it.

“The road was frozen, rough, and rocky and at almost every settlement I passed on the road, I had a dog fight; the dogs were all turned loose and they were very numerous. When I retreated and made a stand they were satisfied to set in the road and bark at me, and their howling would wake the vigilance of the neighbors’ dogs ahead and they challenged my approach as an invading foe.” He mused, “They seemed to recognize me as a Rebel and I concluded that Lee, Jackson or Morgan had passed that way and made an unfavorable impression upon the animal creation in that country, returning from Gettysburg.”

Chapman was wrong in his assessment of his location. He was not in southwestern Adams County on his way to Emmitsburg, as he presumed and hoped. He was not on the same path that Lee’s army had taken in its retreat from Gettysburg

As events would play out, he had traveled deep into rural southern York County and crossed the border into northern Maryland, but he was still a long, long away from his intended destination. He was an escaped prisoner of war — injured, alone, cold, and hungry in the midst of the enemy’s territory.

He needed food, help, and directions.

Chapman would soon have all three.

Click here for Part 4 of this serial adventure of Captain R. D. Chapman of the 55th Georgia Infantry!