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Escape from Alton Prison- 1862


The Confederate's Story                    List of Escaped Prisoners                  Newspaper Articles Concerning the Escape


The Confederate's Story



Deeds of Daring by the American Soldier, North and South: Thrilling Narratives of Personal Adventure ... on Each Side the Line During the Civil War, by D. M. Kelsey, 1903 

(Not in Copyright)


Escaping the Death Penalty At Lexington

A Violated Parole

Alton Penitentiary Solitary Confinement

A Mysterious Door

The Mystery Solved

Difficulties of the Undertaking

The Tunnel

A Friendly Boatman


Puzzled Guards

A Generous Comrade

Final Escape



Colonel Ebenezer Magoffin

Ebenezer Magoffin


          A prisoner of war who had been tried by a court martial, found guilty of one of the gravest offenses known to military law and condemned to death would most certainly be so closely guarded as to prevent all effort at escape. The one with whom our present story deals was confined in an upper room of a strong building through the iron barred windows of which many another prisoner had looked in vain longing at the free air without. To this apartment there was but one mode of access - a door opening upon an outside staircase - and here a sentinel was stationed day and night. This stairway led down into an enclosure surrounded by walls fifteen or eighteen feet high guarded as vigilantly as prison yards usually are. What were the chances of escape for such a man?


          Col Ebenezer Magoffin, a prominent citizen of Pettis County, Missouri, and a brother of Gov Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky, was held at Lexington, Missouri as a prisoner. It became necessary for him to attend to some private business of importance, and as his detention was only a precautionary measure, he was paroled to enable him to do so. During his absence, General Price drew his lines closer and closer around the beautiful eminence on which the Northern forces were entrenched, the besiegers cut the garrison off from the river,  the cisterns within the fortifications went dry, and in September 1861 the famishing Federals surrendered. Colonel Magoffin heard of the capitulation and supposed himself free, since to return to Col Mulligan would be to place himself in the custody of that officer's captor. Acting on this opinion he joined a body of something more than six hundred volunteers from that portion of the State whose purpose it was to report to General Price. But this intention was frustrated by a force of wary Federals who captured the whole regiment at their camp on Blackwater. Col. Magoffin, of course, supposed that he would be treated as the other prisoners were with whom he was taken. Instead of this he was brought before a court martial for breaking his parole. The Federal authorities claimed that when he heard of Mulligan's capture he should have surrendered himself to some official civil or military of the United States Government. Under this interpretation of his duty, he was, of course, guilty and so the court martial decided. The offense was a capital one, and the condemned man was placed in solitary confinement in one of the cells of the Penitentiary at Alton, Illinois, whither the prisoners had been removed after six weeks incarceration in McDowell's Medical College, Gratiot St. Prison in St Louis. So much of explanation is not only due to Col. Magoffin, as showing that he had not intentionally committed the offense esteemed most dishonorable in an officer and a gentleman, but is necessary to the proper understanding of some portions of our story. Then, as always, political influence availed much even for a condemned Rebel, and a respite was secured pending efforts to procure a pardon.


          The Penitentiary building had been abandoned by the State of Illinois on account of the insalubrities of its situation - the dampness of the cells being the cause of much sickness and some deaths among the convicts. Its use as a military prison was open to the same objection as was shown by the mortality among the prisoners. Confinement in the cells was especially injurious, and Col Magoffin's health had suffered seriously. It was represented to the authorities that although they might have a right to execute him for an offense which military law decrees shall be so punished, they had no right to kill him by inches, especially as he had been respited for the express purpose of bringing the matter before the President that he might decide if the parole had really been broken. The prisoner was accordingly removed to another apartment drier than the cell but considered equally secure. In order to understand clearly the difficulties of escape and the means by which they were surmounted some description of the prison grounds will be necessary.


          The Penitentiary was situated on ground gently rising from the left bank of the Mississippi, north of the city of Alton. On the western side rises a high steep hill, almost from the base of the wall only the sentinel's walk close under the masonry being leveled. In the southwestern corner of the prison yard overlooking the river is a two story building intended to serve for the offices of the Penitentiary, at the date of our story used for the headquarters of the regiment on guard duty there. Adjoining this and extending along the western wall of the yard was the higher building containing the cells - in this the ordinary prisoners were quartered during the night, their beds being laid in frame bunks opposite the entrances to the cells along the corridors of the different tiers. These two buildings may be considered as forming a single oblong, with a partition nearer the southern than the northern end. Extending westward from it was another much smaller, two stories in height, which the writer's informant believed had been used as the female prison. This joined the others but extended only a few feet south of the partition wall so that the staircase leading directly south from a door opening from the second story of this smaller building ended very near the entrance to that in which the cells were located. Col Magoffin was confined in the second story of this smaller structure, and as before stated, there was a perpetual guard placed at the only entrance. If as some of his friends in prison surmised he had feigned a greater prostration than his illness had actually produced, he had certainly failed to gain any advantage, thereby It was of course impossible for a man without tools or assistance and closely watched to escape from one of the cells. But was he any better off now.


          As month after month passed on and executive clemency failed to remand him to the general prison, his comrades became exceedingly anxious. They felt that some plan of escape must be devised, but how should they elude the vigilance of the sentinel especially posted to guard him? A peculiarity in the construction of the building, however, made this the easier part of their task.  Two sons of Colonel Magoffin had been captured at Blackwater, and one of them was permitted to visit him in order to attend him in his illness. Being, of course, allowed all the privileges which the other prisoners enjoyed, and free to go back and forth from his father's bedside to the prison yard, subject only to the surveillance of the soldier at the door, he was a most valuable medium of communication with the world without the condemned man's cell.  It was after one of these visits that the young man was observed by an intimate friend intently studying that part of the wall which formed the partition between the cell building and the old female prison. "What's the matter Bee," inquired this friend, using the nickname by which Mr. Magoffin was familiarly known. "It's the strangest thing I ever saw," was the answer in a low tone as the speaker glanced cautiously about him to make sure that his words were heard by no other ear than that for which they were intended. " I never saw a door that did not come through until now."  The other man who was engaged upon some one of those numerous pieces of carving with which many of the prisoners whiled away their time looked up inquiringly. "It's a fact," was the earnest reply to the look.  "I suppose it is," answered the carver dryly, "doors are generally cut clear through the wall."  "Don't speak so loud," said Magoffin, coming nearer to him,  "it is a serious matter, for it may be a chance for father."  The carver dropped his work in his surprise.  "I rolled a big wardrobe in father's room out this morning and found a door that ought to come through just about here, but there's no sign of it on this side. Maybe it opens into the officers quarters," suggested his auditor.  "It cannot," replied young Magoffin decidedly, "you see, I thought of that myself at first, but I have just been making as careful measurements as I dared and I find it ought to open into a passage way ending just about here."  "Then it is not only a door, but a whole passage way that has mysteriously disappeared."  Magoffin nodded and strolled slowly away, for if the door was to be found and opened, not a guard must suspect that any  prisoner knew of its existence. What had become of the other end of that suppositions passage on the other side of the floor so long concealed from view.  There was nothing to conceal any opening here - only a bare, blank, plastered wall where there was no trace of any mode of access to another part of the building. The bit of soft, fine-grained gray stone which the prisoner had been fashioning into a pipe they had cut many such pieces from the walls of McDowell's College until the authorities feared lest they might destroy the building and forbade it, lay untouched by his side as he sat revolving the matter in his mind. It was in the early days of the war, before the ingenuity of scores of men resolved upon freedom, but the cost of any amount of danger or labor had taught prison guards the necessity for constant watchfulness by day as well as by night inside the prison walls, as well as about its bounds.  It is only by remembering that this was the early summer of 1862 that we can understand how they could secure the necessary freedom from observation. The carver seemed deep in a brown study until aroused by the sound of footsteps. It was Magoffin returning.  "Is the coast clear?" was the first question. "It was - to make sure of that, that I went out," was the reply. His companion nodded approval, well knowing that a son of the condemned man would be more liable to suspicion than any one else - not only from his greater interest, but because he was the only one of the prisoners who could possibly know of the existence of the concealed door.  "I don't believe there is any passage way at all," announced the confidante with an air of firm conviction. "Why?" was the brief query in reply.  "It isn't reasonable that there should be. Think of it a moment, and you will be convinced.  There would be no reason whatever for cutting a door from the second story of that building into one of these corridors - this is the level of the second range of cells, and the floor of your father's room is just about half way between the floor of this and that of the range above.  Any door from that building to this would open from the ground floor of this.  See?"  "You mean, I suppose, that there is a staircase leading direct from father's room to this cell building?"  "Exactly, and now let us go down stairs and see if there is any sign of a door in that wall.  Down stairs they accordingly went, although both had seen the wall a hundred times and knew perfectly well that there was no door there.  "I did not think that there was,"  observed Magoffin.  For answer, the carver applied his pocket knife which he still held open in his hand to the blank wall. In a moment, Magoffin came to his assistance with a similar tool.  A very little work served to penetrate the plastering and they saw behind a small network of lath and studding a surface of painted iron.  They had found one of the doors through which the solitary must pass on his way to liberty, if at all.  "True, even if this door were opened, Col Magoffin would be no nearer to freedom than the others were, but it was something to have him as near."  The two men paused from their labors and looked at each other without a word of comment on their success.


          It was now certain that the surmised staircase had an actual existence and that this was the door at its foot as that in Col Magoffin's room was at its head. To penetrate to this door, to unlock this and the other, to find a means of exit from the walled and guarded enclosure surrounding all these different buildings - all without attracting the attention of the Federals on guard - these were the tasks that still lay before them. The prisoners were allowed considerable liberty inside the buildings and in the prison yard, and most, fortunately, they could depend upon any work done in this dark corner of the cell building, being wholly safe from other eyes than their own, for every man attended to his own bed and the buildings were not inspected by the guards the commander of the regiment posted there, relying upon the vigilance of the sentinels. Of course it would be necessary to tunnel underneath walls, but here another difficulty presented itself - the town, intensely loyal as a matter of course, lay to the east; on the northern side there were many dwellings; to the south was the river, plainly visible from the headquarters of the guard, its gently sloping bank wholly devoid of shelter.  What remained then but to make their exit on the west side. But west of the yard rose the hill, while between the wall and the hill a sentry paced his watchful round. The case could hardly be called a promising one, and yet they undertook it cheerfully.  Fortune favors the brave says the proverb, and so it seemed in this case, unless, indeed, their ready wit that could turn every circumstance to account and their willing hands that shrank from no labor as too great were not the chief factors in what the careless observer would call their good luck.


          Adjoining the cell building on the east was a slight frame structure used as a wash house. That it had not been intended for this purpose was shown by the large brick oven which it contained. But since the Penitentiary had been abandoned by the original owner this oven was no longer used - so long had it been neglected that it had fallen into disrepair and become a mere harbor for rubbish of all kinds. A tunnel begun in this oven would be as well concealed from the guards as they could hope to have it, and it had the additional and very necessary advantage of being near to the northern wall. The next question that arose was what shall be done with the dirt? But to this query, so often a puzzling one in similar cases, an answer was ready. An excavation was being made in one corner of the yard preparatory to the erection of another building, and this was a receptacle that would tell no tales, since the men at work on it would never discover how in the intervals of their labor, a portion of what they had already accomplished was undone. Clothes lines were of course a forbidden article in the prison, as any rope might be made to give help in scaling the walls. To supply the place of this necessity of the laundry, the prison authorities had caused racks to be erected in that part of the yard which was best adapted and most available. It was no fault of the colonel or any of his subordinates that this point happened to be just at one side of the excavation mentioned work upon which had been temporarily abandoned, for the racks had been placed first and long before Col Magoffin entered the gates. But the men engaged in tunneling found it extremely convenient - a clean white sack carried from the wash house to the drying ground could excite no suspicion, for that was the way in which they had always carried the wet clothes to the racks, and a judicious system of reliefs prevented any remark upon the quantity of washing that was being done. Matters progressed favorably,  their operations being managed with such care that the guards had not even a suspicion of the work going on beneath their very noses. The plaster was stripped from the door and arrangements made to cover the defaced wall so as to conceal their work in case of a cursory examination, though anything like a thorough one would of course have put a most effectual damper upon all hopes of the condemned man's escape. The tunnel was almost completed - only a thin crust being left over the end that no suspicions might be aroused by a broken sod. The locks and hinges of both doors had been carefully oiled that no grating sound might fall upon a Federal's ear and keys had been with no small labor filed to fit the keyholes. Their preparations were at last completed - the escape must be made at once for every moment added to the danger of detection, and detection meant for them the cells in which some of them had already been confined at various times for trifling offenses, while for the man for whose sake chiefly the work was undertaken, detection meant a total abandonment of hope. In consequence of the heat, the prisoners were allowed a somewhat unusual privilege -  the door of the cell building was left open and they had the freedom of the yard during the early night as well as by day. A prisoner who left the bunk in which he was quartered and went out for a breath of fresh air, then, was violating none of the rules in force, and consequently was unnoticed by the guard.  As it happened, one of these men strolled around by the wash house.  Nobody was looking and he entered the shed known by that name -  he had not been noticed. He entered the old oven and crawled down into the tunnel - the air was stifling - but he no longer felt the same craving for fresh air that he had indulged in, leaving the cell building or else he preferred it fresher and freer than could be found within the prison yard.  At last he reached the point where he felt the earth above him. Breathlessly he listened to the tread of the sentry pacing to and fro outside the wall, waiting until he had passed the point where the tunnel was to end, then he broke the sod which was the one slight barrier between him and liberty, and quickly ascending into the open air, ran up the side of the hill into the deep shadows that lay upon its slope. At the other end of the tunnel there were stationed men who anxiously awaited the result. No news is good news, and so it was esteemed in this case, for when a sufficiently long interval had passed another made the underground trip. But it was not until the entire safety of the effort to reach the outer air was well assured that they would permit the chief prisoner to try it. By some means, friends without had been advised that an escape was contemplated, and Col Magoffin found a skiff awaiting him at the river bank, where as the oarsman informed him it had been in readiness several nights, as no exact time could be fixed in the secret communication. And here we would say that there was no collusion on the part of any Federal soldier, officer, or private.  How the fact that an escape was being planned was made known to friends outside is something which the writer certainly cannot say.  There were many ingenious devices for sending forbidden news in letters which passed under the eyes of Federal officers - for instance, one lady in the guise of an innocent bit of family gossip, informed her husband that General Price was expected to invade Missouri again, and it may have been in some such way that the tidings were conveyed. 


          More than forty five had passed safely through the tunnel and had gained the sheltering shadows of the hill. At last Dr F., a large stout man, essayed the passage but returned.  A Southern Underground Route. "They've found it out boys,"  he said in a whisper to the little group of men waiting anxiously in the wash house,  "the Feds have found it out and are busy stopping up the tunnel."  Nothing could be done - they could only return to their quarters resolved to give no sign of anything unusual going on.  Not only were their own hopes of escape effectually quenched but they were in great anxiety as to the fate of those who had passed through the tunnel - how many of them would be brought back?  And if any were captured, would Col Magoffin be among them?  So they waited for morning to come, and morning showed them that the alarm had been a false one. The Federal officials had no suspicion that anything was wrong. Only one guard gave any token of a disturbed state of mind - the sergeant stationed on that outside staircase, which we have described as the only apparent means of reaching the room where Col Magoffin had been confined.  "I wonder if he has discovered that his bird has flown," said one prisoner to another, noticing the sergeant's uneasiness. "Looks mightily like it," was the reply,  "but don't let him see you looking at him, we must play ignorance if we don't want to be questioned. The longer they are asking about it, the better start the boys will have."


          Whether or not the sergeant had discovered the flight of his charge, the extent of the escape, was not known until late in the forenoon. The prisoners had been divided into squads - the chief of each one of which was required to report to the adjutant every morning the number of his men who were fit for duty, the number sick in quarters, and the number in the hospital. Nine o'clock came and the report could be delayed no longer. The chiefs, what there were left of them, presented themselves in somewhat straggling order at headquarters. With much surprise the blue coated adjutant heard the reports. It was no unusual thing for a man to be reported as missing when the chief had failed to find him before making up his report, and in such cases the man so reported was immediately hunted up by the guards. But he did not know what to make of the reports this morning - three, four, or even more men missing from a single squad, and some of the chiefs not presenting themselves at all,  but suddenly the truth flashed upon him. The alarm was at once given and the whole regiment turned out to hunt up the missing men. To the bewildered Federals, it seemed that the Confederates must have flown over the wall, so well had the starting point for the tunnel been chosen and so carefully had all traces of work been removed. The ground outside the walls was carefully examined and at last the exit of the tunnel was discovered, but they could only find the other end by starting a soldier through from the hillside and looking to see where he came out. Of course the prisoners were overjoyed at this perplexity of the Federals, for every moment which the prison authorities lost was gained to those who had escaped.  "How came you to give the alarm last night when the Feds didn't know anything about it until this morning?" was asked of Dr F.  "Well you see," he answered, "some of the boys had intended to take their baggage with them but found the tunnel a tighter fit than they had expected it would be, so they had to leave their carpet bags behind them - these things blocked the way so that some of the others had to leave their boots and hats behind them. When I got there the tunnel was pretty full and as I was pulling myself through I just thought that some fellows wouldn't have any more sense then to raise a row if they happened to get stuck, and that would mean a recapture of Magoffin, so I thought I'd stand Uncle Sam's boarding house a little while longer. But mind you, this is in confidence - it might make some of the boys mad."


          Some few of the prisoners were recaptured - one of them was found in a blackberry patch without shoes or hat, having discarded those useful articles in his eagerness to escape, and being arrested on suspicion was identified at the prison. As for the man of most consequence, the prisoners still at the Penitentiary heard of him by the grape vine telegraph at various points in St. Louis County in Southern Missouri, and finally at Little Rock, where being within the Confederate lines they knew he was safe from the vengeance of Uncle Sam.


          The preparation of the present volume has involved an examination of all books and articles on the subject to be found in the well stocked public libraries of large cities, together with many newspapers and other periodicals not to be found in such accumulations, but the writer is not aware of the foregoing story ever having been in print before the present time. Thanks for the information on which the article is based are due to a former citizen of Saline County, Missouri, himself one of the Confederates confined in the military prison at Alton at the time of the escape. The writer believes all statements of fact accurate and reliable and without in any way impugning the credibility of the other stories would present this as substantially the narrative of an eye witness. But there were no more escapes from Alton.  It had cost the guards nearly fifty prisoners to learn that a watch over the outer walls was not sufficient, but they had learned it.  At the time at which the Magoffin escape was planned, the fact that a man was a prisoner showed that he was worthy of confidence but the introduction of detectives in Confederate uniform effectually put an end to all such enterprises that were to benefit more than a very limited number of individuals who were able to keep their own secrets even from their friends.



List of Escaped Prisoners                    (Submitted by Chuck Chandler)

Source:  Letter dated July 28, 1862, from F. F. Flint to Colonel B. G.  Farras(?)

To: Colonel B. G. Farras, Provost Marshal General, Saint Louis, Mo.


I herewith enclose a List of Prisoners who escaped from the prison at this place during the night of the 25th inst - also, copy of my letter to Col. Hoffman, Com. General of Prisons. One of the escaped prisoners returned on the morning of the 26th and delivered himself up at the prison. The parties sent out in pursuit have retaken three of them, and also captured two who say they escaped from Camp Butler on the 16th inst. Their names are George T. Biddle and John J. Herring. It is thought that the Magoffins have gone to a Doct. Magoffin's, a brother of the Col., at or near Saint Louis. I am told that suspicious persons are sometimes admitted to the hospital by the "Sisters," and taken care of by them, thus escaping the authorities. I know nothing of the truth of such statement, but speak of it as I have heard of it. One of the "Sisters" in hospital on 4th Street once asked a gentleman who happened to be there, a resident of this place, to take a message to Col. Magoffin, and said she would send for his brother, who was in the city, to have some conversation with him if he would deliver the message to the prisoner. He declined having anything to do with the affair, telling her he was a Union man, and then the matter stopped. I mention this as being rather suspicious, though it may be of no importance. You can best judge. Col. Magoffin and one of his sons were in no condition to travel far when they escaped. I have learned from one of the returned prisoners that the digging of the trench has been going on since about the middle of May.   I am, Sir, Very Respectfully Your Obedient Servant, F. F. Flint, May 16th, inst., Comdg.


List of 29 Prisoners Escaped from Military Prison, Alton, Illinois, July 25th, 1862:

Andreese, Adolpheous Private 1st Missouri Regiment June 13 Corinth, Mississippi
Blevins, William T. citizen Henry County, Missouri March 28 At home
Berryhill, George W. Private Buchanan County, Missouri March 8 Pea Ridge, Missouri
Dewitt, Andrew J. Private Scotland County, Missouri June 28 Novelty, Missouri
Dofie, James E. Private St. Louis County, Missouri December 30 Calloway County, Missouri
Dyer, William S. Private Warren County, Missouri March 8 Pea Ridge, Missouri
Dyer, Cave(?) Private Warren County, Missouri March 8 Pea Ridge, Missouri
Dye, Avery citizen Henry County, Missouri March 23 At home
Hood, Amos H. citizen Greene County, Missouri March 5 Huntsville, Arkansas
Jones, Oscar J. Private Mississippi County, Missouri December 28 At home
Martin, Richard J. Private Cooper County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri
Miller, George C. Private Saline County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri
Magoffin, Beniah Private Pettis County, Missouri December 7 Pettis County, Missouri
Magoffin, Eben Colonel Pettis County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri
Magoffin, Elijah H. Captain Pettis County, Missouri June 3 Pettis County, Missouri
McClusky, John O. Private Saline County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri
Mabie, Edward M. citizen St. Louis, Missouri November 20 At home
Murrill, Richard K. Lt. Colonel 2nd M. S. G. April 3 Henry County, Missouri
Navo, Errendle Private Livingston County, Missouri March 8 Pea Ridge, Missouri
Newcomb, James T. Private Green's Regiment May 10 Knox County, Missouri
Page, Francis M. citizen Newton County, Missouri January 26 Washington, Missouri
Robinson, James R. Private Dallas County, Missouri March 8 Pea Ridge, Missouri
Stephenson, Smith Private Morgan County, Missouri November 6 Versailles, Missouri
Stores, William Private Pettis County, Missouri November 15 Georgetown, Missouri
Sweny, Robert W. Captain 3rd Devis M. S. G. July 2 Reynolds County, Missouri
Tipton, John T. citizen Randolph County, Missouri December 23 At home
Thomas, Charles Private 49th Tenn. Regiment July 2 Fort Henry
Watson, Joseph Drillmaster Saline County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri
Woodward, Charles E. Private Saline County, Missouri December 19 Milford, Missouri




Newspaper Articles Concerning the Escape:


Source: Albany, New York Evening Journal, March 26, 1862
Ebenezer Magoffin, of Missouri, a brother of Gov. Magoffin, of Kentucky, and formerly an officer in the Rebel army, taken prisoner some months ago, released on parole, which he violated, and subsequently recaptured, has been tried by court martial for "violation of parole," and for "killing in violation of the ethics of war," found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Gen. Halleck has approved the sentence, and it will be carried into effect at a time and place hereafter to be designated. In the meantime, the prisoner will be confined in a cell of the Military Prison at Alton.




Source: The Ripon Weekly Times, Wisconsin, April 4, 1862

Ebenezer Magoffin, of Missouri, brother of Gov. Magoffin of Kentucky and formerly an officer in the rebel army, taken prisoner some months ago, released on parole which he violated and subsequently recaptured, has been tried by court-martial for violation of parole and for "killing in violation of the rules of war," found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Gen. Halleck has approved the sentence, and it will be carried into effect at a time and place hereafter to be designated. In the meantime, the prisoner will be confined in the military prison at Alton.




Source: The Berkshire County Eagle, Massachusetts, April 10, 1862

Col. Ebenezer Magoffin, who was condemned in St. Louis to be shot for violating his parole and killing Unionists last Fall in Pettis County, is a brother of Gov. Magoffin of Kentucky. Gen. Halleck approved the sentence, but by some hocus-pocus he has been pardoned.




Source: The Richland County Observer, Wisconsin, April 11, 1862

Col. Ebenezer Magoffin, a Missouri rebel whose brother is Governor of Kentucky, and who was convicted of violating his parole and sentenced to be shot, has been reprieved by the President.



ESCAPE OF 35 PRISONERS OF WAR AT ALTON   (Submitted by Chuck Chandler)

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, July 31, 1862

From the Alton (Ill.) Telegraph of Saturday evening, we learn that thirty-five prisoners escaped on Friday night from the military prison in that city. It is supposed that numbers had been for several days digging the tunnel through which it appears thirty-five found egress. The Telegraph says: "They commenced digging in a shed containing a bake oven and wash house. The oven not being used, they made a hole from the top of the oven through the earth beneath, and going some seven feet below the surface, dug a trench or tunnel under the wall, making the place of exit some six feet from the end of the sentinel's beat. It is supposed that the most of the dirt was carried in buckets and thrown into the sinks during the night, although a large quantity of the earth is filled upon and around the oven. The prisoners have been in the habit of hanging their clothes all around the wash house, and they were thus enable to work with comparative security from observation.  Charles H. Fulcher, one of the number who escaped, returned this morning and gave himself up. He states that after reaching the outside of the prison, they scattered like sheep throughout the vicinity. He, with two others, went about two miles below the city, when he determined to come back and give himself up. Among those who escaped is Colonel Magoffin, who has been confined in a cell, having been sentenced to death for breaking his parole. It is supposed that, with outside assistance, the lock on the door of his room was picked, and thus he gained access to a flight of steps leading to the yard. He had to pass a sentinel in going toward the sinks, but the prisoners always pass without hindrance, and the sentinel, not knowing but what Magoffin was safely locked in his cell, doubtless supposed he was one of the privileged ones, and for that reason did not stop him. How thirty-five men could pass out of a hole in the ground only six or seven feet from a sentinel, and not be discovered by him, is certainly a mystery. Capt. Washington, we understand, has sent out squads to make search for the runaways, and we hope they may all be safely locked up again in a few days.



ESCAPE OF PRISONERS OF WAR           (Submitted by Chuck Chandler)

Source: Baltimore Sun, August 1 ,1862

On the night of July 25th, thirty-five prisoners escaped from the prison at Alton, Ill., by digging a tunnel fifty feet in length, which furnished them an exit six feet beyond the sentinel's beat. Col. Magoffin, who had been sentenced to death for breaking his parole, was lucky enough to get away with the rest.




Source: The Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye, August 2, 1862

Thirty-five prisoners of war made their escape from the military prison at Alton, Illinois last Friday night. They dug their way out, and with the true instinct of the chivalry - "skedaddled".  The notorious Col. Magoffin, the brother of the Governor of Kentucky, was among them.



Source: Oswego New York Commercial Times, August 5, 1862
On the night of July 25th, thirty-five prisoners escaped from the prison at Alton, Ill., by digging a tunnel 50 feet in length, which furnished them an exit six feet beyond the sentinel's beat. Col. Magoffin, who had been sentenced to death for breaking his parole, was lucky enough to get away with the rest.



WONDERFUL ESCAPE                   (Submitted by Chuck Chandler)

Source: Augusta, Georgia Chronicle, August 19, 1862

From Mr. Charles L. Thomas of Marshall County, Mississippi - who was one of the fortunate - we learn the particulars of the escape of a number of Confederates from the Federal Military Prison at Alton, Illinois. The party consisted of about fifty, including Col. Magoffin - brother of Governor Magoffin of Kentucky. A few were retaken, but several escaped and have reached our lines. It appears there was a bake oven in one corner of the penitentiary yard not in use, thirty five or forty feet from the wall, with a shed over it. The prisoners climbed up on the oven, dug through into the ground some eight feet, and then to the wall, a distance of thirty-five or forty feet. Here they found the wall eight feet through, and the rocks so large that they had to drill holes in them and split them off. This was a serious impediment in their way, as the work had to be done while laying in the narrow trench, two feet square, with scarcely room to breathe, but they persevered. After getting through the wall, they had to dig up some twenty five or thirty feet before they could get fresh air. The tunnel being completed, a night was set for their departure, which was accomplished in good order. Among the escaped were a few who had been sentenced to be shot for being guerrillas and bridge burners. Our informant describes the fare allowed the Confederates in the prison as intolerable - infinitely inferior to that furnished the convicts. He was taken at Fort Donelson, and has languished in prison ever since. - Grenada Appeal.




Source: Alton Evening Telegraph, January 15, 1936 (Centennial Edition) by Doris McDow
Escape! The first attempted and accomplished by the secesh prisoners occurred Aug. 1, 1862, when 35 men escaped and only two were apprehended. Among those escaping was the dashing Col. Magoffin who was under sentence of death for murder of a Union man, and for breaking his parole. Magoffin had been in solitary confinement since his arrival in Alton. During the night, the 35 men escaped through a 50 foot long tunnel they had excavated. They started the passageway in the wash house, which contained a bake oven that was not in use. Making a hole from the top of the oven to the earth below, they dug seven feet down, then continued the tunnel under the west wall and made the exit some six feet from the end of the sentinel's beat. How the men carried out their plan without detection was a mystery, but it was thought they carried the dirt in buckets and threw it into the sinks during the night, although a large quantity of the earth was piled upon and around the oven. To hide that quantity of dirt, the prisoners acquired the habit of hanging their clothes all around the wash house, and this hid them from view as they worked. When the men were missed in the morning, a further checkup disclosed that Col. Magoffin was among the missing, and it was determined that he must have had outside assistance, as his death sentence had caused the prison officials to lock him in a room. He would have had to pick the lock on the door to gain access to a flight of steps that led into the yard, after which it would have been necessary for him to pass a sentinel in going toward the wash house - however, the colonel accomplished all that and made his escape. Only one of the escapers was found by posses sent out in the morning, but another, Charles H. Fulcher, returned and gave himself up. According to him the ringleader and man who planned the tunnel was John O. McClusky. Col. Magoffin was heard of later, but never was recaptured to have his death sentence carried out. He returned to his home in Kentucky and continued to be active in the confederate army throughout the war, living to a ripe old age and chuckling over his escape from the Alton military prison.


Source: Alton Telegraph, July 2, 1976
This rare letter, belonging to Maurice Estes, is from Jas. C. Scott, dated August 30, 1883, tells of his experience as a prisoner in the Alton Penitentiary during the Civil War. He gives an account of Col. Magoffin, brother of the Governor of Kentucky, who was a fellow prisoner, and how he escaped with two other Confederate soldiers. Martin Golden, Manager of the Golden Troup, was the famous leader of the "Golden Band," which played the river boats and river towns in the 1870s and 1880s. There are few accounts existing of prisoners of the Alton Military Prison. Most of them died of smallpox. The letter:

My Dear Sir: Your favor 24th came in due time. I called Dr. Wallerich's attention to it. He told me yesterday he had written. He can give good security. I would be very glad indeed if you would keep the money that will be paid in Oct. of which you spoke, until you reach Texas. I can make very safe loan for you, as from one to five years. It will be of much advantage to me if I do so. While in Alton, take a look at the old State Penitentiary, the great, high walls, the bare ground. That was my "Bastile" during the early part of the war. O, I shudder now when I think of the long, long, dreary weeks I was contained there, a prisoner boy! Sick too, nigh unto death. I have no desire to see the place. Col. Ben Magoffin, a brother of the Gov. of Ky., as commencement of the war, as a prisoner at the same time. I have seen him around in his cell several times. Owing to my youth and sickness, I was given more privileges after a while. Col. Magoffin was finally allowed the privileges of the prison yard - he and two Confederates, removed a large paving stone in a cell, and dug a passage way down under the prison to the river bank, carrying the loose dirt in their pockets to the privy vaults, thus avoiding detection. When they got out in the night, they purloined a skiff, crossed the river into Mo., procured horses and escaped. Oh! If you want to hear real misery, suffering, anguish, sorrow - and hours of strategy, bold daring energy, hair breadth escapes, go to the old folding iron gates that opened out towards the river, and the Old Tower of London can tell no more. Well, I am away off to business. If it was not for having to slap mosquitoes from my face, I don't know where I would go in my writing. Our best wishes to you and Mrs. Golden. Very Truly Yours, Jas. C. Scott. P.S. Laura left Monday night for Fulton. Hope to hear tomorrow morning of her safe arrival.



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