Escape of Captain Henry H. Alban of the 21st Ohio Infantry

Captain Henry H. Alban was among the dozen officers of the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry who were captured on September 20, 1863 at the Battle of Chickamauga. The regiment had held its position atop Snodgrass Hill against repeated Confederate assaults and now battered and without ammunition, with the darkness of evening enveloping the hill, the remainder of that gallant band found themselves at the mercy of the 54th Virginia. A total of 12 officers and 121 enlisted men surrendered; the regiment’s colors were taken, and the men marched off the field into captivity.
Captain Henry Harvey Alban, Co. F, 21st O.V.I.

Captain Alban along with the rest went through a series of Confederate prison camps before arriving at Columbia, South Carolina in October 1864. Determined to make an escape, he watched for his chance and one night made his leap for freedom, successfully eluding the local camp guard and setting out along the railroad to head for the mountains of eastern Tennessee and freedom.

Traveling at night and with the active help of a number of slaves and freedmen, Alban had walked from Columbia to Greenwood, South Carolina when a voice from out of the darkness called “How d’ye do?” Alban cautiously responded but the voice soon proved to be none other than another escaped Federal officer: First Lieutenant Alonzo Cooper of Co. I, 12th New York Volunteer Cavalry. A quick friendship developed between the two men (they had been in several prison camps together but had never met) and they set out for east Tennessee as a team. Cooper suffered intensively from rheumatism in his legs, but with determination and an unquenchable thirst for freedom, they walked over 150 miles into the mountains of northern Georgia.

Once they were in the mountains, they chose to travel in the daylight, telling the story that they were Confederate soldiers on furlough to anyone they met. One discovery they made was that even members of the home guard proved more Unionist in sentiment than not, but ultimately they were captured by a ardent Confederate cavalryman named Dick Hancock. They had reached within 20 miles of Federal lines when captured near Fort Emory, Georgia.

First Lt. Alonzo Cooper, Co. I, 12th N.Y. Cavalry
The balance of Alban’s narrative describes the two men being marched back into the interior of the Confederacy, making a stop at Franklin, North Carolina before being placed in prison in Asheville along with a number of Confederate deserters and draft dodgers. Asheville was a hell hole, the men crowded into a small room with a bucket in the corner as a privy. Alban and Cooper tried to escape once, but were foiled.

A larger escape attempt a few days later faltered when the escapee’s courage failed; in the course of hatching their plan, they gave the job of restraining the guard sergeant to an imprisoned slave. The slave did his job, but was given 75 lashes in the hallway of the jail in full view of the prisoners for his trouble. This is one of the most heart-rending scenes in Alban’s narrative. “It was truly pitiful to hear the shrieks, groans, and pleadings of the Negro as the inhuman wretch put on the lash,” Alban wrote. “After he had given him 50 lashes, being exhausted, he gave the whip into the hands of another ruffian to administer the next 25. He ordered him to stop his howling or he would kill him. The punishment was administered in the hall of the jail that all the prisoners might hear and take warning.”

Lieutenant Cooper, who wrote an extensive account of his experiences in the Confederate prison system as well as his escape attempt with Captain Alban in a book entitled In and Out of Rebel Prisons published in 1888, recalled that he screamed at the jailors to spare the slave, castigating the poltroonery of the deserters “whose lack of sand had got this poor fellow into a scrape and then basely deserted him.” The jailors paid him no heed, and “I turned away and by holding my hands to my ears tried to shut out the sound of his pitiful cries for mercy.”

Soon after, Alban and Cooper were transferred to Danville, Virginia, to be imprisoned in an old tobacco house, arriving on November 27, 1864. Danville was a cold nasty place in winter. Rations were scant and even the meat was barely edible. “The beef consisted of the refuse of the slaughterhouse,” Alban recounted. “Heads, livers, and the like were all thrown together untrimmed into a large kettle and boiled. I remember very distinctly receiving for my ration the gristly piece off the end of the nose. I was not hungry for meat that day, so I gave mine away.”

Many of the officers found ways to secure some money which allowed them to purchase food to supplement the scanty rations. Lieutenant Cooper remembered that Alban “was not adapted to buying and selling,” but earned his money through hard labor. “He would go with the water detail once in a while and when he came back he would bring along on his shoulder a good straight stick of cord wood. Then with a case knife he had made into a saw, he would cut it up into pieces about eight inches long and with the wooden wedges he had whittled out, would these up fine to about a half inch thick and tie them into bundles for cooking rations. These bundles would be about six inches in diameter and eight inches long which he would sell for two dollars each.”
Captain Alban on police duty at Danville Prison Camp. From Cooper's In and Out of Rebel Prisons.

In mid February 1865, Alban received word that he would be exchanged. Ragged and sickly, Alban needed assistance to climb aboard the train cars for Richmond. “We reached Richmond at 8 o’clock that night and were kept waiting three hours in the cars and in the streets before we were taken to the hospital and by that time I was nearly frozen. On the next day we were paroled preparatory to going to our lines. On the 21st we were taken by a steamer down the James River and in a few hours were on board the New York and under the protection of my country with the glorious old flag of the Union floating proudly in the breeze. My feelings, dear reader, can better be imagined than described, therefore I decline the task.” Alban was taken to Camp Parole in Annapolis, Maryland to recover his health and was discharged March 8, 1865.

Prison Life in the South by Captain Henry H. Alban, Co. F, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry:

In and Out of Rebel Prisons by Alonzo Cooper:


  1. Very interesting accounts and now I am going to read Lieut. Cooper's book.


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