The Capture and Escape of Captain John A. Kellogg of the Iron Brigade’s 6th Wisconsin Infantry
John A. Kellogg was born in Pennsylvania in 1828 and was the grandson of a soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War. Kellogg’s family moved to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin Territory, in 1840. Kellogg became a lawyer in Mauston, Wisconsin and was elected district attorney of Juneau County in November 1860. But when the Civil War broke out, Kellogg resigned his position to join the Union Army in April 1861.
Kellogg and 22 year old Rufus Dawes organized a company of men from the Mauston area that would become Company K of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry. Kellogg was 33 and married, and Dawes wrote that he “argued with Kellogg…that young men without families, could crush the Rebellion, but he could not brook the thought of being deprived of sharing in the satisfaction and glory of that service … he joined in the work of making up the company with the utmost zeal.” Kellogg was commissioned 1st Lieutenant of Company K, and was promoted to Captain of the 6th Wisconsin’s Company I later in 1861.
The 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin infantry regiments were brigaded with the 19th Indiana, to form what would eventually be called the Iron Brigade. The 24th Michigan Infantry joined the brigade in 1862. Kellogg and the Iron Brigade fought at Gainesville, Virginia, at South Mountain and Antietam in Maryland, and at Gettysburg.
In May of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant began his Overland Campaign in Virginia. On May 5th, while on skirmish duty at the opening of the Battle of the Wilderness, Kellogg was knocked unconscious, probably from an artillery shell explosion. Disoriented when he regained consciousness, he wandered through the densely wooded battlefield and was captured by members of the 13th Georgia Infantry.
Prisoner of War
Kellogg and other prisoners captured at the Wilderness were marched to Gordonsville, Virginia, where they boarded freight cars and went by rail to Lynchburg, Virginia.
At the prison in Lynchburg, Kellogg and about 200 other officers were housed in a 20 by 50 foot room. “The floors of the building were filthy, and the ceilings swarmed with vermin,” Kellogg recalled, adding “the building was only a fit habitation for the rats that infested it”. Other than the prison building itself, Kellogg regarded the treatment at Lynchburg as being relatively decent with a camp commander who was “humane” and with food that was of good quality but limited in quantity. The prisoners had begun construction of a tunnel to escape, but before it could be completed, they were taken to Danville, Virginia.
Kellogg described the two story brick building at the Danville prison as being “filthy beyond description”. Food consisted of pea soup and cornbread, of such poor quality that “the very recollection is nauseating”.
The stay in Danville was brief, and once again the prisoners were loaded in freight cars and shipped out, this time to Macon, Georgia. Conditions were worse here than in the first two places. Kellogg was shocked at the appearance of the prisoners in the camp. “Who were these gaunt skeletons, clothed in rags, covered with dirt … wild, eager eyes were peering into our faces — eyes from which had departed all expression except that of hopeless misery.”
The approximately five acre camp held 1500 prisoners, many of whom were without shelter. Prisoners were issued a pint of corn meal and a teaspoon of salt per day, with a slice of bacon or some peas every second or third day. With prisoner exchanges suspended by the Federal government, the incarcerated faced two choices: they could stay in the camp and face death by starvation and exposure, or they could try to escape. Kellogg discovered that construction of a tunnel had already begun, and joined in the excavation.
The tunnel had been dug about 90 feet, with about 30 feet left to go, when one of the Union prisoners told the Confederate guards about the tunnel. The betrayer was removed before the prisoners could exact revenge.
The situation was becoming desperate, with starvation a very real possibility. At one point, Kellogg caught a rat and made a soup with some wormy peas, a beef bone, and onion peelings. Another tunnel was started, but before it got very far, the Macon prisoners were sent by rail to Charleston, South Carolina.
A few miles outside of Charleston, Kellogg and five others jumped off the train under cover of darkness, in the hope of reaching Union lines at Port Royal, South Carolina. Without map or compass, the six made their way through alligator infested swamps only to be recaptured by a slave catcher with bloodhounds. They were taken to Charleston and imprisoned there.
After spending some weeks confined in the Charleston prison, the prisoners were offered a deal. They would be provided better quarters within the city in exchange for a pledge not to escape. Realizing that escape from their current location was unlikely, almost all, including Kellogg, accepted the offer. They were quartered comfortably in a hospital building and grounds, and were well fed. The one downside to this location was that Union forces had been shelling Charleston for some time, and the occasional mortar or artillery round would land nearby.
Kellogg might have stayed in Charleston for the rest of the war, but a Yellow Fever outbreak had the Confederate authorities emptying out the prisons to help prevent the disease from spreading. About the first of October, the prisoners were ordered to Columbia, South Carolina. Kellogg and four companions agreed to make an escape attempt while en route to Columbia. This time, they had a map and a compass to aid them. They departed on October 5th for Columbia.
The plan was to jump from the train at night and head for Union lines between Chattanooga, Tennessee and Atlanta. With four armed guards stationed near the doors of the freight cars, escape might prove fatal unless the guards were disarmed. A plan was devised for that.
The guards relaxed as the trip continued into the night, and after getting tired of standing, sat down in the doorway with their feet hanging down, and with their muskets beside them. Kellogg’s group removed the percussion caps from the muskets, disarming them. Kellogg gave a signal, and the men jumped from the rapidly moving train.
The group traveled mostly at night, resting well off the roads during the day. Two became separated early in the trek, and unable to find them, Kellogg and the other two continued on without them. They traveled for several days, at one point eluding pursuit by bloodhounds, until they arrived at the Savannah River. They would need help getting across the river, since one man couldn’t swim. Kellogg decided to take a chance and approached a slave cabin on a nearby plantation. Would they help or turn them in?
They were more than willing to help. They fed the men and gave them five days worth of food to take along, secured a boat and ferried them across the river, and gave them information on the movements and positions of Union forces. “They were faithful to every trust imposed upon them by us, even to the imperiling of their lives. They were not only willing to divide their final crust with us, but to give us the last morsel of food in their possession” wrote a grateful John Kellogg.
They continued on into Georgia, finally encountering some Georgia Unionists who gave them shelter and escorted them to General William T. Sherman’s lines near Calhoun, Georgia. Encountering a Union army outpost guard, Kellogg asked what regiment he was from. “The First Wisconsin Cavalry” was the reply and Kellogg and his men went wild with celebration. They had successfully crossed three hundred miles to safety. And the two men that had gotten separated from the group early on had made it out too, taking a more northern route and reaching Union lines at Chattanooga.
John Kellogg returned to the 6th Wisconsin and was promoted to Colonel late in 1864. He was elevated to a brigade command in February 1865. He led this brigade–consisting of the 6th and 7th Wisconsin and 91st New York Infantry regiments–in the final battles of the war in Virginia. After the war, Kellogg returned to Wisconsin where he practiced law and served a term as a state senator. He died in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1883.
Capture and Escape: A Narrative of Army and Prison Life by John A. Kellogg. Madison, WI: Wisconsin History Commission, 1908.
Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers by Rufus Dawes. 1890. Reprint: Dayton, Ohio: Press of Morningside Bookshop,1991.
The Iron Brigade: A Military History by Alan T. Nolan. 1961. Bloomington, Indiana: First Indiana University Press edition, 1994.