The greatest jailbreak in American history
Steubenville native authors book on a true Civil War adventure
Douglas Miller’s continued interest in his hometown of Steubenville was apparent from the moment he answered his telephone.
“How is the weather there?” Miller asked while speaking from the Los Angeles suburb of Studio City.
When told that we were experiencing below-normal temperatures, had about 6 inches of snow on the ground and were looking at a forecast that at the time called for as much as 18 additional inches of snow in the following week, he said he remembered that type of weather well.
“That’s what makes Southern California such an attractive place to be during the last couple of weeks in February,” he said while enjoying abundant sunshine and a temperature that would climb into the upper 60s.
Miller was excited to talk about his new book, “The Greatest Escape: A True American Civil War Adventure,” that was published on Feb. 1.
The book chronicles what remains the greatest jailbreak in American history, and it happened on Feb. 9, 1864, when 109 Union soldiers who were prisoners of war managed to tunnel out of the Libby Prison in Richmond, Va., a facility that sat not too far from the Capitol of the Confederacy. Once they got out, they had to navigate 40 miles to reach Union territory. Sixty-one of the escapees successfully made that journey.
It’s no surprise that Miller, the son of Janet and the late Andrew Miller, chose the Civil War for the topic of a book. He said that he developed a fascination with the conflict from his father, who was a local attorney and served as mayor of Steubenville in the 1960s. The book, in fact, is dedicated to his parents.
“I definitely got that from him,” Miller said. “He always was a big fan of the Civil War. He liked to read about it, and he got me involved in it.”
He became hooked for good, Miller explained, after his father took him and his brother, Greg, to Gettysburg in the mid-1960s.
Telling stories comes easily to Miller, whose other brothers are Jeff and Dan. He is an award-winning writer, producer, photographer and filmmaker with more than 20 documentaries to his credit. His work includes programs for the Independent Film Channel, Showtime and the History Channel, notably the series “The Color of War,” “Modern Marvels” and “Boneyards.”
That background helped to spur his interest in the Libby escape.
“I have read about the Civil War all my life,” Miller explained. “Being a filmmaker and a person who makes documentaries, I’m always looking for a good story. I read an account in a magazine, and it was perfect — the story had a beginning, a middle and an end.”
He added that the project really began to take shape about 20 years ago, when he accompanied his wife of 35 years, Carol Ramsey, a costume designer with more than 50 movies and television shows on her resume, and their daughter, Maren, to Virginia.
“I said I would go along and do some research in Richmond,” Miller said. “I found out there were all of these accounts from all of these guys. That started the campaign and for decades I gathered notes while working around other projects.
“After a while, I would pick it up again, and then, a couple of years ago, I decided to write it as a book. I liked all of the participants, and I decided that they should tell the story,” he explained. “The people involved were very articulate, and by letting them tell the story you have the difference between ‘I heard this’ and ‘I saw this.'”
Just about everyone who has taken a class or done a little bit of research into the Civil War knows about the Confederate prisons in Danville and Andersonville, where tens of thousands of captured Union soldiers were held in terrible conditions. Not as much, however, has been written about Libby, which housed officers who had been captured, and was considered to be escape-proof.
“No, people are not as familiar with Libby as they are with other Confederate prisons,” Miller said. “It’s been lost to history. It wasn’t decisive and it didn’t affect the outcome of the war and it fell into obscurity.”
It was, however, a big deal at the time and for many years after, and that meant Miller had plenty of material to work with.
The escape and the following drama played out in all of the major newspapers of the day — in the North and the South. And later, more than four dozen of those who had escaped shared their stories in newspaper articles, in the popular magazines of the period, in books — some self-published — and through lectures.
Miller weaves all of those separate accounts into his book.
“Libby was a prison for officers, and that’s what made it unique,” he said. “They could all read and write — at the time, if you were an officer, you had to be able to read and write. These guys were good writers, at least in the sense of clarity. They knew what they had seen and they wanted to talk about it. Back then, if you couldn’t write, you couldn’t communicate.”
An interesting part of the book deals with how the slaves encountered by the escapees reacted. They were more than willing to help the Union soldiers make their way back North, by opening their cabins, sharing their food and their clothing, offering a warm fire and helping show routes that would allow the escapees to safely navigate their way around Confederate troops — and the locals who would have been all too willing to turn them in.
“It’s amazing to think that they would be willing to help,” Miller said. “The slaves didn’t have a whole lot of time to think about the situations they found themselves in. All of a sudden there was a guy standing there, and they had to make an instant decision that could have cost them their lives.”
The story includes insights into the work of the underground movement in the South that was loyal to the North — and was able to operate in a very efficient manner in Richmond, the seat of the Confederate government.
“The South actually was very divided, “Miller explained. “The stories that came out after the Civil War left you with the impression that it was very united, but it was not.”
Helping to lead that resistance was Elizabeth Van Lew, a reclusive spinster whose estate overlooked Libby and who would become, as Miller describes her, the most effective spymaster of the Civil War. She was among those “lifelong Richmonders who refused to give up their faith in the United States. They lived among slavery, and they hated it,” Miller writes.
Also involved in the underground was Erasmus Ross, the prison clerk who was responsible for doing the inmate count each day.
Having a book published in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges, said Miller, who attended Wintersville High School and would have been a member of the Class of 1971, adding that authors are not able to do book-signings and readings that always have been a part of the promotion process.
A few staff members at Wintersville made a lasting impact on his life and helped set the stage for his career, Miller said.
“There were a couple of legendary English teachers at WHS — Pete Caleodis and the late Glenda Dunlope,” Miller said. “They did a great job of exposing me to literature and showing me how to enjoy it.”
Miller explained that in the process of researching and writing the book, he became especially interested in the stories of a couple of those involved in the escape, Col. Thomas E. Rose and Capt. Isaac N. Johnston. The book tells their stories, and those of many others, well, and even though the subject is an incident from the Civil War, the narrative has a much wider appeal.
“It was meant to be a good read,” Miller said. “I wanted it to be for general audiences.”
Rose was the commander of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry who was captured in September 1863 during the battle of Chickamauga, Ga. He would be the mastermind of the escape, which involved digging a tunnel more than 60 feet in length under a Richmond street. Johnston, who served with the 6th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry and who also was captured at Chickamauga, helped with the digging.
Their words make the story powerful.
“They were a couple of the main guys,” Miller said. “You really start to pull for them. You feel you are almost channeling with these guys when you are writing.
“I wanted these guys to tell their own story.”
(Gallabrese can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)