Sunday, November 19, 2017

How 'Captain Tim' & Co. miraculously escaped from Rebels

1894 image of 16th Connecticut Captain Timothy Robinson. (Connecticut State Library)
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On Halloween Night 1905, more than a dozen 16th Connecticut veterans gathered at the Bristol, Conn., home of Timothy and Sophia Robinson to celebrate the couple's golden wedding anniversary. It was a grand occasion, one befitting for the old soldier and his wife, among the most respected members of the community.

This inscribed silver loving cup was given
 to the  Robinsons by 16th Connecticut vets
 in 1905. (Courtesy Garth Gustafson)
While the Robinsons stood in the front parlor where they had been married in 1855, Colonel Frank W. Cheney gave a short speech and then handed the couple an inscribed silver loving cup. "Presented to Captain Timothy B. Robinson, by his old comrades of the Sixteenth C.V., 1855-1905," the words on it read.

In a wonderful gesture, Cheney -- one of the 16th Connecticut's most beloved figures -- also presented Timothy and Sophia each a $20 gold coin. As long as they had the shiny gifts in the house, the 73-year-old veteran told them, perhaps tongue in cheek, neither of them would be out of money. Robinson thanked Cheney, according to a newspaper account, and then "everybody joined in a sort of old time reunion."

The gray-haired 16th Connecticut veterans, each of whom had suffered significant hardships during the war, had plenty to discuss. Many of them had been captured at Plymouth, N.C., in April 1864 and imprisoned at Andersonville, the deadliest of all Civil War POW camps. The captain's own brother, 19-year-old Henry, died there in the summer of 1864.

Henry Robinson, Timothy's 19-year-old 
brother, was captured at Plymouth, N.C.,
 on April 20, 1864. He died at Andersonville.
(Courtesy Garth Gustafson)
In brutal fighting at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, the hard-luck 16th Connecticut's first battle, Cheney had been seriously wounded in the arm, knocking him out of the war for good. Eighty-three-year-old Charles Dixon, the 16th Connecticut's chaplain, had been briefly imprisoned at Andersonville and then in Macon, Ga., where he defiantly disobeyed the Confederate commander's demand that he not pray aloud for President Lincoln. Sixty-one year-old William Nott had survived Antietam, Andersonville and a little-known collision of ships on the Potomac River days after the war had effectively ended-- an accident that claimed the lives of seven other soldiers in the regiment.

But perhaps no man in the frame house on Wolcott Street that Tuesday night had a greater war story to tell than 71-year-old Timothy Robinson himself. His was a story of derring-do and survival behind enemy lines -- a tale that included a goat, the kindness and bravery of black men, a failed attempt in a rowboat to reach a Union blockader off the coast of South Carolina and, ultimately, a successful escape from a Rebel POW camp.

Sadly, by 1905, the two 16th Connecticut officers who shared in Robinson's amazing story had long since gone to their graves.
PRESENT DAY: Robinson's house on Wolcott Street, where the vets gathered Halloween Night 1905.

Inscribed scabbard for sword presented in 1862 to Timothy Robinson.
(Courtesy Garth Gustafson)
When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Timothy Boardman Robinson was employed as a machinist at the E.N. Welch Clock Company in the Forestville section of Bristol -- an area that for decades had been hub of clockmaking in Western Connecticut. In August 1862, he enlisted in the Union army, mustering into Company K of the 16th Connecticut as a 2nd lieutenant under the command of Captain Newton Manross, a Bristol native and an assistant professor at a college in Massachusetts. Before they marched off to war together, Robinson and Manross were each presented an inscribed sword and scabbard from friends in Bristol.

A war-time image of Timothy Robinson, who
twice escaped from Rebel POW camps.
Barely a month after they were mustered in, 16th Connecticut soldiers found themselves on the front lines at Antietam as part of the IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Smashed in the left flank in the 40-acre Cornfield by veteran troops under A.P. Hill that Wednesday afternoon, the green Nutmeggers were routed, suffering more than 200 casualties on the bloodiest single day of the war. Struck by Confederate artillery, Manross was killed, one of three soldiers in his company who did not survive the battle; Robinson survived without any physical wounds.

Ushered to the war's backstage, the 16th Connecticut never saw major action again. And then came April 20, 1864 -- another tragic day that defined the 16th Connecticut's Civil War experience. Nearly surrounded,  the regiment and the rest of the Union garrison in Plymouth, N.C., surrendered to Confederate forces under General Robert F. Hoke.
Forced by a Confederate to give up his prized sword and scabbard, Robinson -- who had been promoted to captain in April 1863 -- and other officers were inititally imprisoned at Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, Ga. Enlisted men -- including Timothy's brother Henry, who was wounded at the Battle of Plymouth -- were sent to Andersonville.

When the advance of Union troops under William Sherman through Georgia in the fall of 1864 made prison camps in the state untenable for the Confederates, Robinson and other Federal POWs were transferred to a camp in Charleston, S.C. During a trip in early October from Charleston to Camp Sorghum in Columbia, S.C., aboard a heavily guarded train, Robinson and 16th Connecticut captains Thomas Burke of Hartford and Charles Morse of  New Hartford leaped from a boxcar and escaped. Subsisting on parched corn, the exhausted men were captured asleep in the woods six days later by a hunter, whose dogs guarded the escapees while he went for help.

"Here again commenced a course of treatment which was made none the less revolting by the five months experience they had already endured," an account noted, "and thoughts of escape did not die out among them."

A late-19th century illustration of Camp Sorghum in Columbia, S.C. Robinson and two
fellow 16th Connecticut POWs fled the camp in the fall of 1864.

Returned to Camp Sorghum, Robinson, Burke and Alfred Dickerson, a 16th Connecticut captain from Hartford, didn't stay put for long. After collecting wood with many other officers while on parole near the lightly guarded camp, the three malnourished soldiers snuck into the woods, beyond reach of their captors. The date was Nov. 3, 1864. The escapees' audacious plan was to somehow follow the Congaree and Santee rivers downstream to the Atlantic Coast, a staggering distance of more than 175 miles. From there, well, who knew?

"The night was dreary and rainy and the roads were very muddy," an account of the escape noted, "but, emaciated as they were by over six months confinement and exhausted with the labors of the day and with anxiety, they resolutely pushed on all night and the next day, carefully avoiding the habitations of men, and finding their subsistence in the fields they passed through."

A war-time image of 16th Connecticut
Captain Alfred Dickerson, who died in 1868.

He was only 27. 
In a surprising twist on Nov. 4, Robinson, Burke and Dickerson connected with five other Federal soldiers from Camp Sorghum, who had escaped by bribing a guard and survived for two days in a swamp. Luckily for the Connecticut men, the Western soldiers had met local blacks, probably slaves, who furnished them with two rowboats as well as sweet potatoes, turnips and cornbread.

Sleeping and cooking by day and traveling mostly at night to avoid detection by the enemy, the bedraggled band slowly made its way down the Congaree and Santee rivers. Camped near the river bank one day, the men heard loud voices. "... we discovered a boat below us upon the river, being poled up the river by negroes," Dickerson recalled. "One of our party posted himself upon the bank of the river where he could hail the boat without discovering the presence of the rest of the party, and hailing down the negro in charge of the boat informed him that he was in want of provisions."

Continuing downriver, the man refused to stop.

When a Union officer informed the black man that he was an escapee from a Rebel prison, he "immediately landed," Dickerson recalled, and stayed with the soldiers all day, "cooking rations and giving very valuable information." Directed by their newly-made black friend, the soldiers stopped downriver that night at a farm, where they captured and killed a goat that supplied them with meat for the rest of their journey. Robinson and Burke each kept one of the animal's horns as a souvenir.

Several days later, the escapees met four other black men, who gave the group "a large quantity of sweet potatoes, salt and meat." Upon parting with them, Dickerson remembered, "they bade us God speed and a safe journey. Elated and happy with our success, we kept steadily forward and soon after we landed to again consult the negroes who told us we were but five miles from a battery mounting two pieces, upon the right bank of the river, guarded by rebel soldiers.

16th Connecticut Captain Thomas Burke,
 shown in a war-time image, 
died in 1887. He was 50.
"After receiving other information and provisions," Dickerson added, "we parted company with the last of our negro friends, and proceeded down the river, passed the battery in safety, and landing waited for darkness of the night to finish our journey to the coast. Thursday night, full of hope, we again took to our boats and meeting no interference, reached the coast safely."

More than a week after their journey had begun, the escapees finally had reached the mouth of the Santee River, which empties into the Atlantic. Miraculously undetected by the enemy, the group had passed two guarded bridges, two guarded ferrys and Battery Warren during their adventure.

But a huge challenge remained.

Way off on the horizon, they spotted the spars of a ship, undoubtedly a Union blockader. Taking their best boat, three of the men rowed about eight miles from shore before they were forced to turn around because of a fast-approaching storm.

Undaunted, Robinson, Dickerson and another fugitive made a second attempt at sunrise the next day, rowing their ramshackle vessel miles into the Atlantic. They finally were spotted by the Union blockader Canandaigua, whose crew was stunned to see them.  According to an account written years later:
"To the officers and men it seemed as if the thunder of their own guns must have startled these fugitives from the caverns of the deep, so incredibly daring was the voyage upon the foaming sea with a boat so leaky and so frail, as hardly to withstand a zephyr, and orders were at once given to take it aboard and keep it as a token of what men would dare to do."
Another boat was sent ashore to rescue the remaining five escapees. All eight former POWs were given new uniforms, and their tattered camp rags were tossed into the ocean.

"... When all were safe upon the deck of the ship and under the protection of the Star-Spangled Banner," Dickerson wrote, "our hardships ended and pleasure took the sway. Our feeling of joy when safe in the protection of our Government can be conceived only by those who have been called upon to undergo similar privations and hardship, and who beheld the dawn of Freedom upon their toilsome efforts."

With their stunning great escape complete, Robinson, Burke and Dickerson were given furloughs to return home.

Timothy Robinson, believed to be second from left in the front row, and other 16th Connecticut vets
at the Bristol, Conn., grave of  Newton Manross, the Company K captain who was killed at Antietam.
 The photograph was taken in June 1885. (Courtesy Bristol Public Library)

Each of the Connecticut escapees survived the war, but neither Thomas Burke nor Alfred Dickerson lived to see the end of the century.

Only 27, Dickerson died on Oct. 24, 1868, of a "very malignant type of erysipelas." His death "brought deep sorrow not only into the circle of his own family friends," an account noted, "but also into a much larger circle of those who knew and loved him." He left behind a wife named Mary and a three-month old daughter named Alfreda.

Nearly 17 years later, on April 17, 1885, Burke -- "a man of warm heart and unquestioned courage" -- died of pneumonia at a hospital in Hartford, Conn. At the end of his life, he had suffered from financial hardship. "He had not the business turn that would give him success," the local newspaper reported in a front-page obituary, "and he saw hard days which he took quietly and without complaint."

A widower who had lost his wife in a boarding house in 1872, Burke was buried with military honors in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. He was only 50 years old.

Robinson lived well into the 20th century. Active in veterans' organizations, he served as president of the 16th Connecticut's regimental association for many years. Crippled by a cerebral hemmorhage, he died in Bristol on Feb. 6, 1918. He was 83.

In an obituary in the Hartford newspaper the day after his death, Robinson -- best known as "Captain Tim" to family and friends -- was referred to as "the survivor of one of the remarkable escapes of the war."

A war-time image of
O.P. Mills.
POSTSCRIPT: After the war, Burke gave Robinson, an avid collector of Civil War relics, his horn from the goat the escapees had killed in November 1864. Along with his own horn, Captain Tim displayed the strange souvenirs in his den in Bristol.

According to a descendant, Robinson's personal papers, including many of his war-time letters and his map of the successful 1864 escape route, were destroyed in a house fire in Winsted, Conn., in the early 1970s.

After the Civil War, the scabbard from the sword given to Robinson by friends in Bristol in 1862 was returned to him. But the sword, snatched by a Confederate at Plymouth, N.C., in the spring of 1864, remained missing,

By accident, a 16th Connecticut veteran learned Robinson's sword was in possession of  O.P. Mills, a former Confederate infantry officer and successful cotton mill entrepreneur in Greenville, S.C. Robinson's friends attempted to acquire the sword from Mills, who refused to return it, keeping it as a war prize. When Mills died in 1915, the sword was still in his family's possession.

The current whereabouts of the prized weapon are unknown.

Timothy Robinson's grave in West Cemetery in Bristol., Conn., is yards from the town's
Civil War memorial and the Robinson family memorial (background and below)

Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Blakeslee, B.F, History of the Sixteenth Connecticut Volunteers, Hartford, Conn., The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., Printers, 1875.
-- Bristol (Conn.) Press, June 7, 1872.
-- Hartford Courant, April 18, 1885, Nov. 1, 1905, Feb. 8, 1918.
-- The Connecticut War Record, December 1864, Page 6. The letter writer signed his account of the escape "One of the Party." The man was undoubtedly Alfred Dickerson.
-- The Soldiers' Record, Oct. 31, 1868.
-- Timothy Robinson descendant Garth Gustafson supplied terrific information from his family's archives for this story.


  1. Great research and storytelling John. You really make these stories real. Thanks for keeping our history alive!

  2. What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing and reminding us of the bravery of men during the Civil War.