Lake County History Chapter 85: Rat Hell

Godwin Scudamore, Captain of Company A, 80th Illinois Volunteers, was another veteran of the American Civil War. He is buried in Hartley Cemetery, and his family has roots in Lake County since before 1900.

Scudamore’s father owned a general merchandise store in Lakeport, and he operated ranches on Cow Mountain and in Scotts Valley. Captain Scudamore escaped from a Richmond Confederate prison near the end of the war. That remarkable adventure is told here as it was related to his daughter, Mary Scudamore Akers.

“My Company was surrendered to the Rebels by my Commander, Col. Strait. We had been fighting near Rome, Georgia, during the first part of 1863. For a short time after our capture, we were kept in Rome. Then, for another short period, we were marched to Atlanta. After this, we were taken to the large Confederate building where Union prisoners were kept. After being held for more than a year in Libby Prison, I made my escape on February 9, 1864.”

“Libby Prison encompassed an entire city block in Richmond. On the north side lay Clay Street. On the south was the James River. The stories were three stories high with a basement exposed on the riverside.”

“The basement had three sections. The western end was a storage cellar. The middle section was a carpenter’s shop used by civilians. The eastern end was an abandoned kitchen. Most of the guards avoided the eastern basement. They called it Rat Hell.”

“The floor of Rat Hell was covered with two feet of straw. When the tunnels were dug, and escapes were made, the straw provided a perfect hiding place for the dirt taken from the tunnels.

A Union officer asked one of the escaped prisoners, ‘How you were able to hide all the dirt?

He answered, ‘I have been asked a thousand times how we contrived to hide such a quantity of earth on the floor as the digging of the tunnel of that size would dislodge. We made a wide and deep opening. In this opening, the loose earth was closely packed and nicely covered with straw. The tunnel opening was concealed by day, and during the night, the diggers hid beneath the straw.”

“No tongue can tell how we poor fellows passed among the squealing rats, enduring the sickening air, the deathly chill, the horrible interminable darkness. The only difficulties experienced were a lack of tools and the unpleasant feature of having to hear hundreds of rats squeal all the time, while they ran over the diggers without a sign of fear. The profound darkness caused some to be bewildered when they attempted to move about. I sometimes had to feel all over the cellar to gather up the men that were lost. Fortunately, only on rare occasions did the guards enter the basement rooms. This was so uninviting a place that the Confederates made their visit as brief as nominal compliance with their orders permitted.”

Scudamore writes, “The tunnel, we dug under the street in Richmond, during last days of the Rebellion, became famous in Richmond. No one escaped that way before. As we were making our escape through the tunnel, the men I had to leave behind made so much noise, I was told afterward, the Confederate guards threatened to bayonet the lot of them.”

“When we heard the noise coming from the prison yard, we were sure our plan of escape had been discovered.”

Next Episode: The Tunnel

For more on Civil War History, read Paleno’s ‘The Porter Conspiracy’

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Pal Publishing, PO Box 6, Upper Lake, Ca 95485

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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