Throwback Thursday – The Libby Prison Break

In 1895, two young men, Alfred Belcher and Sam Spencer, both of whom were drunk, got into an argument with two older men as they walked down Bowling Green Road in Morgantown. Spencer fired his pistol and hit one of the older men in the chest. That man, Major Andrew Graff Hamilton, fell dead, and newspapers across the nation covered his murder. This week’s Throwback Thursday tells the story that made Major Hamilton famous, the Libby Prison break.

Andrew Hamilton was living in Woodbury when the War Between the States broke out. He joined the Union’s 12th Kentucky cavalry and was captured in Jonesboro, Tenn. Sent to Libby Prison in Virginia, he was to spend the rest of the war behind bars. At least, that was the idea.

Libby held 1200 soldiers, all of whom dreamed of escape. When the basement was closed off because of rats, Colonel Thomas Rose and Hamilton began their plans. In a chimney, they loosened bricks until they could slip through the smoky passage and down to “rat hell” as they called it. The first tunnel to a sewer was abandoned when they found it flooded. Their second was blocked by a foundation. They started a third tunnel with three shifts of five men digging as rats crawled over them in the darkness.  

Thinking they were close to the prison’s fence, they dug a slender hole to the surface and pushed a shoe up, only to find, when daylight came, they were only halfway there. On the 58th night, the tunnel finally emerged behind the fence. They slipped out, two by two, until 109 had escaped, the largest prison break of the Civil War.  

Hamilton’s grave and historical marker can be found in Reedyville.