My Escape From A Rebel Prison, Part One

By Capt. Mahlon S. Ludwig, 53rd PVI Co. “A”, Meadville PA.

submitted by Joel Peterson

(ed. note: During the Civil War many soldiers were taken prisoner and put into prison camps. There were a lucky few who escaped and lived to tell about it. We have an account of an officer from Company A, 53rd PVI who had such an experience. Part One (March 2000 Newsletter told of his capture by Rebel forces outside Petersburg.Part Two (May 2000 Newsletter) describe his internment in Macon Ga and Charleston S.C., where the prisoners were stricken with Yellow Fever. Finally, they arrived at Camp Oglethorpe in Columbia Soutch Carolina. Part Three decribed their escape and ordeals on the road to freedom. This comes to us from the National Tribune Scrap Book. Maholon Ludwig is buried in Pottstown Cemetery.)

On June 22, 1864, my brigade, the Fourth, First Division, Second Corps, commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, was ordered to make a Flank movement on the Weldon Railroad to the left of Petersburg, Va. After marching all day we came toa halt to ascertain where we were to connect with the Sixth (Wright’s) Corp. While halting a woman came along on horseback, with a bag of grain and stated that she was going to the mill to have it ground. The road led thru an extensive swamp, and after giving this plausible excuse she was permitted to go on her way.

The “Forward–March” was then sounded, and we again moved forward. We passed off to the right of the road, and after marching several miles we bivouacked for the night. The next morning it fell to me to go on picket duty. I was quite ill, but I would not shirk my duty. Part of the detail was from my regiment, and part from the 68th N.Y. –altogether 100 men and two officers, a Captain from the N.Y. regiment and myself as First Lieutenant. The Captain marched us out about half a mile and then brot us to a halt, while he went forward to see where we were to make connection with the night detail. The topography of the country was rolling and covered with a thick growth of brush which made it almost impossible to see far ahead of us in any direction.

Our Captain never came back. Firing had begun on the pickets whom we were to relieve and in less time than it takes to tell it we were surrounded by the 11th Va. I was using my sword as a cane, but when I found there was no possible means of escape, I threw it into the bushes. I was then marched to the rear and taken to the Gen. Robert E. Lee, near Petersburg. He asked what corps I belonged. I gave him an evasive answer, simply saying that they would soon find out, if they proceeded much farther. This ended my interview with the famous rebel General. He at once ordered the guard to take us to Petersburg. Some of the guard made various attempts to relieve me of my regulation hat, but appealing to one of the officers in charge I was permitted to retain it. At Petersburg we were marched n old tobacco warehouse, where we found about 200 other Union soldiers, some of whom were Berdan’s Sharpshooters.

Early next morning we were taken down the Appomattox River to an island, where they took our names, rank, regiment and army corps. To my surprise as well as regret, I found about 1,500 more of my own corps, and many of my own brigade, who were also prisoners. Meeting with other men who had been detailed for duty the preceding day, we learned the cause of our capture. The woman whom we had met on horseback was one of Gen. Lee’s spies. She knew that the Sixth Corps could not connect with us for some time, thus giving Gen. Mahone an opportunity of getting around to our rear and cutting us off.

The following day, we were put onto old cotton cars and taken to Richmond, Va, and lodged in Libby Prison. As we passed Castle Thunder, another prison, we saw a woman looking down at us from a second story window. She was recognized by some of us as Dr. Mary Walker. At Libby Prison the rules were very strict. It was worth a man’s life to walk up to a window and look out, and many who did so were shot. Libby Prison, as everyone knows, was an old tobacco warehouse owned by Libby & son and was in the most filthy condition. The food given us consisted of Cornbread and bacon. This was dumped onto the floor. The bacon was often alive with the maggots.

About July 1, we were hustled out of Libby and marched to the railroad station and entered rickety old cars which threatened to go to pieces at every turn of the wheels. At Burkville Junction the train came to an abrupt stop. Gen. Stoneman’s cavalry, then on a raid around Richmond had burned bridges and tore up a good deal of track. We were ordered out and marched into Lynchburg, and bivouacked in a vacant lot like so many sheep–some 500 men all told.

The following morning, which proved to be July 4, we were again on the march, this time for Danville Va. While going thru the woods, frequent shots were fired at those who attempted to escape. Whenever we attempted to sing our good old National airs, we were promptly ordered to “Shut up.” It was a sad day to me, owing to the fact that just one year previous I had assisted in marching 2500 rebel prisoners from Gettysburg, Pa., to Westminster Md., while today I, myself was a prisoner.