• Kendrick Gibbs

Lieutenant Isaiah Conley’s daring escape from Rebeldom


Over 200,000 US Army soldiers were captured and became prisoners of war in Southern prison camps with notorious names such as Salisbury, Belle Isle, Libby, Florence Stockade, and the widely known, Andersonville. Very few were able to successfully escape their Confederate captors. On a dark October night in 1864, three officers made a daring escape. Among them was Bedford County native, 1st Lt. Isaiah Conley. [1]


Conley was born in Schellsburg on June 20, 1830 and by 1860 was a dry goods merchant. Due to his higher economic status in the community, Conley enlisted and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Company G,101st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on February 20, 1862.[2]


The 101st Pennsylvania spent the spring of 1864 as a garrison unit defending Plymouth, North Carolina along with the 103rd Pennsylvania, two loyal North Carolina units, and three regiments of United States Colored Troops. The Union garrison at Plymouth had been established during the Burnside Expedition in North Carolina in 1862. With its location near the Roanoke River, the capture of the town was vital for the Confederate effort to retake eastern North Carolina.


Confederate General Robert F. Hoke devised a plan with 10,000 men and naval support to take back the town of Plymouth from the garrison of 3,000 Union troops under the command of General Henry Wessels. The initial ground assault by Hoke's troops began on April 17th, but with the lack of naval artillery support, they were held in check by the Union garrison at Fort Gray and Battery Worth. The Confederate naval forces slipped past the forts on the early morning hours of April 19th and were able to defeat the Union navy on the Roanoke River. By April 20th, Wessel's men were surrounded by a superior force accompanied by complete naval support and were forced to surrender on April 20, 1864. [3]

The officers of Company G. 1st Lt. Isaiah Conley is pictured seated on the far left. (Edward Boots, 101st PA Historian)

Months after being captured, Conley found himself back in Bedford County, PA leaving many of his comrades still in camps in down in Georgia and South Carolina. Conley and a few other men found an opportunity, in the dead of night, to make a daring escape and make his way north. He reported what he saw and experienced to The Bedford Inquirer at the beginning of December 1864.


Lt. Conley was able to verify the rumor that there were nearly 200 African American troops massacred by rebel soldiers. He recalled hearing the rebel captors bragging about how many they shot as they returned from the slaughter.


Conley and other prisoners were sent and detained at Andersonville. He had the opportunity to inspect in detail the layout of the camp which he described as “a field of sixteen acres, surrounded by a high board fence, made in such manner as to prevent the passage of a man through or over it. There were no trees, awning or shelter of any description in enclosure. The rations, were one pint of corn meal a day. The recital of the suffering of the prisoners, in this pen, fit only for the hardiest dumb beasts, has already to often excited the horror and indignation of the civilized world, to be enlarged upon here.”[4]


From Andersonville, Lt. Conley was held at Macon, Georgia for two months, and then to Charleston, South Carolina on July 20, 1864. On October 5, Conley was to be sent to Columbia, South Carolina by train, riding in freight cars. There were more men than space available within each car that a large number of men were placed on the roof of the train cars.


Lt. Conley and two other officers waited for the opportune time to make their escape. They patiently waited for the train to stop at a watering station near the Congaree River. In the dark of the night, the three officers eluded the guards and stowed themselves under the cars. As they made their desperate run for the nearby woods, the guard on the rear of the train sighted them and fired his gun and Lt. Conley’s clothes were pierced by the bullet.


For the next thirty-nine days, the escapees traveled west through the night and hid during the day most likely to hide in the mountains or due eastern Tennessee, being a union stronghold in the south. The escaped trio sought help from the local enslaved populations and were supplied food such as corn bread and sweet potatoes. Lt. Conley arrived in Knoxville, TN on Sunday November 13th and eventually made it back home by Wednesday November 23rd.[5]

5 escaped officers from the 101st Pennsylvania, 24th New York Battery, and 1st/2nd North Carolina. Conley is supposedly pictured standing on the left. (Civil War Plymouth Pilgrims Descendants Society)

Lt. Isaiah Conley was one of the lucky men compared the fate of many from the 101st Pennsylvania. 40% of the men captured from the 101st would end up in buried in southern graves due to the conditions of places like Andersonville Prison. An additional 10% would perish shortly after being paroled or arriving home after their release.


With the arrival of Lt. Conley back to Bedford County, he was able to report on the condition of his neighbors and friends that he left behind on their way to the Florence Stockade or Andersonville. After spending time at home, he returned to the Army and helped organize the second organization of the 101st Pennsylvania as Captain of Company G. Upon mustering out of the Union Army on June 25, 1865, Conley returned to his job as a dry good merchant. In 1896, he became an Associate Judge for Bedford County; a position he held until his death on January 23, 1904. He is buried in Schellsburg (Old Log Church) Cemetery just west of the town of Schellsburg.[6]



[1] "Civil War Soldiers." Historynet. https://www.historynet.com/civil-war-soldiers


[1] Genealogical information via Ancestry.com


[2] "Battle of Plymouth (1864)." North Carolina History Project. https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/battle-of-plymouth-1864/


[3] "The Escape of Lieut. Conley." The Bedford Inquirer, December 2, 1864. Pg. 3.


[4] "An Escaped Prisoner Returned." The Bedford Inquirer, November 25, 1864. Pg. 3.


[5] "101st Pennsylvania Infantry Roster." 101st PA. http://101stpa.com/index.php/roster/101st-pa-roster-c/

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