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Lt. John Blue meets his cousin, Monroe, in prison.

May 28, 2012

In a recent post I spoke of the battle and injuries that landed Lt. John Blue in a Prisoner of War Camp.

Old Capitol Prison during the Civil War era.

He spent some weeks in the military hospital recuperating and then was put into the general population in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. The Old Capitol Prison building had been the temporary capitol for the United States from 1815 – 1819. The building no longer exists and the grounds now hold the Supreme Court Building. It was not long before he was transferred from Washington D.C., via train, to the POW camp on Johnson Island in Lake Erie, outside of Sandusky City, Ohio. It was here he discovered his cousin, Monroe Blue, was also imprisoned. In Hanging Rock Rebel, by Lt. John Blue and edited by Dan Oates (Burd Street Press, 1994), John Blue described his encounter:

On entering the gate [of Johnson Island POW Camp] the usual warning was given and the echo ran from division to division. “Fresh fish, fresh fish!” this cry brought forth from the door of each room a stream of prisoners anxious to see for themselves if a friend or acquaintance were in the last batch of fresh fish (as every fresh lot was called).  I found several acquaintances here whom I did not know were prisoners. The first man I recognized was Monroe Blue, a cousin and a Lieutenant in the 18th Va. Cav. . . . The division in which Monroe Blue was quartered was full, but in the next division a vacant bunk was found of which I was told I could occupy, and my name was placed on the roll of division No.8.

Lt. John Blue described several prison escape attempts—some successful and some not; a few in which he unsuccessfully participated—while on Johnson Island. On February 7, 1864, the prisoners were told there would be a prisoner exchange and that 400 prisoners would be taken in alphabetical order. Monroe and John both determined they would likely go in this exchange because of their last names starting with “B” and, indeed, their names were called. Monroe did not believe that it was really a prisoner exchange. It turns out he was correct—they were being moved to one of the most difficult POW camps in the North at Point Lookout, Maryland. It was in the train ride from Sandusky City, Ohio to Point Lookout, Maryland that the cousins decided to attempt their escape. Here is Lt. John Blue’s portrayal of what became Monroe’s escape:

About 4 p.m. Monroe and I had succeeded in getting seats together. . . . Our plan was to saw a square through the floor of the car large enough for a man to drop through on the outside of the wheels of the car when the engine was taking water at some point east of the Allegheny mountains, where we calculated we would be some time that night. Monroe did the carpenter work while I kept guard. Whenever a Yankee officer entered the car I touched Monroe with my foot, when he would cease work and commence snoring in a frightful manner. When the danger had passed I reached down and gave him a pinch, then he would proceed to business again. In much less time than I had anticipated Monroe pronounced the job complete except about an inch or so at two of the corners, which had been left to hold the floor in place until the time came, when only a moment would be required to remove the square of flooring and the opening would be clear. All things were now ready for us to take our departure, when the time had come. We reached Pittsburgh about midnight, as near as we could tell, where the train stopped until next morning, when we were transferred to another train and did not leave Pittsburgh until sometime in the evening. We were very much disappointed at what we called bad luck, but determined to renew our effort.

The train they were transferred to was set up differently and they were not able to use the same tactic to escape. Winter snows had also been coming down for about twelve hours and John estimated that the snow was 12 – 15 inches deep. He did not have adequate clothing for the cold, but Monroe had recently gotten a package from home that included “a good warm suit of clothes; also a heavy over coat and socks, all home made.” Monroe devised an alternative escape plan in which he would go for a cup of water from the water bucket which was next to the door. Only one prisoner at a time was allowed to go there.

Lt. John Blue in Fort Delaware Prison
(National Archives)

As John continued the story:

I asked Monroe if he thought he could locate the north star. I said keep the star to your back by night and the Allegheny range of mountains on your right by day, in less than 125 miles, if you have good luck you will strike the North Branch somewhere between Cumberland and Green Spring Run.

He said, “I don’t believe in this exchange talk, and I don’t see how I will make my condition much worse;
. . . cut that bell rope if you can.” He pressed my hand a last good bye, arose and walked to the bucket, took the cup from the nail and as he stooped to dip the water placed his left hand on the knob of the car door. As he arose to an upright position threw open the door, stepped to the platform and without an instants hesitation took a flying leap for liberty, not knowing where he would land. The Yankees were quickly on their feet, but the bird had flown. In an instant Monroe Blue had gone from my sight. We never met again.

The rest of the story as John Blue wrote of it is very similar to that reported in my earlier post. John did arrive at Point Lookout, Maryland and then was transferred to a fourth prisoner of war camp at Fort Delaware. He was there when he heard of the end of the war and President Lincoln’s assassination.

From → Aderman/Bates

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