Robert Ford: Union Spy Responsible for Civil War Prison Break in Richmond, VA


Union Spy; Civil War; Prison Break; Richmond, VA


Robert Ford, a Northern free Black, served as a teamster in the quartermaster’s department of the Union army in the Shenandoah Valley. Ford was an instrumental channel of information between the prisoners and Union loyalists in Richmond. He assisted in the prisoner’s escape.

Early Life

Robert Ford was born in 1828 in Frederick, Maryland. There is scanty information about his early life. In 1860, at 32 years old, Ford lived in Frederick City with Martha (20) and William (2).


On May 1, 1862, Ford worked for the local Union Army’s quartermaster as a teamster. He only worked for a short period, as they captured him on May 22, 1862. The strategic capture occurred in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia when Ford was in the company of Nathaniel Banks, the General of the army of Union. Ford also secured employment as a laborer in the Treasury Department. 

Capture to Prison

After his capture, they took Ford to Libby Prison and forced him to become a hostler for Dick Turner. This position allowed him to experience freedom of movement compared to other prisoners.

In March 1862, the number of Union prisoners of war increased beyond expectation. As a result, they formed Libby Prison out of an old tobacco factory in Richmond, VA. In June 1862, the prison earned a notorious reputation. It became overcrowded and deplorable, with disease widespread. In early 1864, the Confederate officials realized the need to transfer Libby’s prisoners to other prisons in the south. 

Great Escape

A significant prison escape occurred at Libby Prison before the officials could realize their transfer plans for the inmates. Robert Ford spearheaded this exodus. He was an invaluable figure in aiding inmates in this major prison escape. The massive breakout from Libby Prison occurred in February 1864, earning Ford five hundred lashes that gave him a near-lethal experience. Later, Robert Ford also escaped to Richmond.

Role at Libby Prison

Robert Ford became the spirited link between the prisoners and the outside world. The Union loyalists formed a secret network in Richmond during the civil war. Women (Abigail Green and Elizabeth Van Lew) supported the escape of Union prisoners in the city’s prisons. Robert Ford was featured as the chief contact in Libby Prison. Green, born and educated in New Hampshire, settled in Richmond before the war. She put her black servant in touch with Ford, making her aware of everything in Libby Prison.

In 1864, the Union officers in Libby devised a scheme to tunnel their way out of the prison. Ford was the central figure in organizing the escape. He facilitated effective communication between the Libby prison officers and Green and Van Lew on the outside. Ford gave detailed instructions on the distance between the prison walls and where tunnelers could surface, safe landing after the escape, and the exact times for the escape.

On the night of February 9, 1864, the number of Union prisoners who crawled through the tunnel to freedom totaled 109. In Richmond, the underground network of Union loyalists and several African Americans in the region assisted the prisoners in finding safety.

The escapees who reached Union lines totaled 59, while they recaptured 48. Two escapees drowned as they attempted to escape. The massive breakout from Libby Prison occurred in February 1864, earning Ford five hundred lashes that gave him a near-lethal experience. Ford endured the punishment without exposing the others who aided in the escape of the prisoners. Robert Ford never recovered from this severe flogging. In July 1864, he escaped to Richmond.


In 1868, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to reward Ford’s heroic actions with $814 (compensation he would have received). They acknowledged him for offering undeniable service to the Union prisoners and facilitating their escape.


The beating Robert Ford received at Libby contributed towards his death in April 1869. In his tribute to Ford, an Indiana Congressman said, “the nation owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Robert Ford, an indispensable figure in the life of the Libby prisoners, undertook heroic measures on their behalf to ease their great escape from prison. His steadfastness, courage, and ability to take risks made it possible for many Union inmates to attain freedom.


The Black Male Archives Team


  1. Black Spies in Confederate Richmond
  2. Civil War Stories: The Great Escape
  3. The Making of the Richmond underground


Preservation Media


Libby Prison (Public Domain)