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Civil War Era History

Libby Prison

Libby Prison

Kankakee County Museum Photo Archive

Libby Prison, in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, housed Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861–1865). A three-building complex that had been a tobacco factory and then a shipping supply and grocery store, Libby became a prison in March 1862. It was later converted into an officers-only facility, while also serving as a processing center for all Union prisoners. (Union enlisted men were often routed to Belle Isle on the James River.) The officers who stayed at Libby were crowded inside a three-story former tobacco factory in sparsely furnished rooms that exposed them to the elements; they often also suffered from severe food shortages. Their guards, in turn, struggled with controlling a large prison population. In February 1864, 109 prisoners escaped by tunnel, with 59 eventually reaching Union lines. A few weeks later, Union cavalry general H. Judson Kilpatrick and his one-legged protégé Colonel Ulric Dahlgren mounted an ambitious but disastrous rescue attempt, prompting Libby officials to dig a mine, fill it with explosives, and threaten to destroy the facility if any prisoners attempted to escape. Shortly thereafter, Confederate officials began transferring Libby's population to Georgia, with the facility being used as a place of temporary confinement for the next year. After Richmond fell on April 2, 1865, former Confederate officials became Libby's newest inmates.

Living Conditions

Enders's buildings were, in certain respects, ideal for a prison. They had running water and easy access to rail and water transportation and were located in an isolated neighborhood. Still, living conditions at Libby were substandard. In addition to being exposed to the elements, prisoners often went without furniture, blankets, and eating implements. Throughout the war, they were plagued by overcrowding, disease, and hunger, with conditions worsening beginning at the end of 1862, when prisoner exchanges between the Union and Confederate armies slowed and sometimes halted. By the winter of 1863, an initial population of 700—which meant more than a hundred men crammed into each of the prison's six rooms—had increased to 1,000, the prison's capacity. As the number of inmates increased, so did hunger and disease. Prisoners were supposed to receive the same rations as Confederate soldiers in the field, but by 1863, rampant inflation and food shortages in the Confederacy made that impossible.

The conditions at Libby became fodder for outrage and propaganda in the North. On November 28, 1863, the New York Times published a story headlined "Horrors of Richmond Prisons" that contained a statement released by a group of surgeons who, until recently, had been confined at the prison. "The prevailing diseases [at Libby] are diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid pneumonia," they reported. "Of late the percentage of deaths has greatly increased, the result of causes that have been long at work—such as insufficient food, clothing and shelter, combined with that depression of spirits brought on so often by long confinement." Such propaganda was often used by Northern opponents of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, who accused him of abandoning Union prisoners to their fates in Confederate prisons.

The U.S. War Department sent provisions to Libby in order to supplement Confederate supplies, but one federal official complained, on the word of an inmate, "that at least one half of the pork sent by the United States Government for distribution among the Union prisoners at Richmond had been taken by the Confederate Government to be forwarded to 'General Lee's army.'" The Richmond Enquirer, on December 7, called such charges "insolent imputation" and the next day announced an upcoming "splendid dinner" by which the inmates would "celebrate their captivity." According to the paper, the feast—paid for by the North and sure to "aggravate the feelings" of hungry Confederate soldiers and prisoners "when they compare this sumptuous living with their own poor and scanty fare"—would be "served up on the table d'hôte of the prison, and embracing a bill of fare unequaled in Richmond or the South since this cruel war commenced."

What Libby inmates remembered after the war, however, tended not to focus on gastronomic plentitude, but rather the opposite. Dante's Inferno was alluded to in at least two inmate memoirs. Citing the "wasting away of body and mind" he experienced at the prison, Charles Carleton Coffin wrote in The Boys of '61 (1881) that Libby "was the Inferno of the slave Confederacy. Well might have been written over its portal, 'All hope abandon, ye who enter here.'" Such memoirs should be read in context, however. After the war, former Union prisoners were not granted pensions unless they had also sustained injuries or suffered from disease during their service. To muster support for their plight, the veterans mounted a public-relations campaign that included wildly sensationalistic "recollections" owing much to the dime novels of the "Wild West." When the United States government granted universal pensions beginning in 1890, these memoirs virtually disappeared.

Despite the hardships, prisoners published for a brief time an eclectic and sometimes irreverent newsletter called the Libby Chronicle. Written by inmates during the summer of 1863, the Chronicle advertised itself as "Devoted to Facts and Fun" and was read aloud each Friday morning by its editor, Louis N. Beaudry, chaplain of the 5th New York Cavalry. The publication often interspersed humorous limericks with writing that addressed the prison's harsh conditions. An ironic ode to lice, printed in the Chronicle's first issue, was titled "Homer Modernized": "Of Libby's rebel lice, to us the direful spring / Of woes and pains unnumbered, O ye muses, sing." The third issue, meanwhile, featured "To My Wife," a more poignant composition by Beaudry: I think of thee when noon-tide bells
Resound o'er wood and lea,
Sore pining in these prison cells,
I think of thee, I think of thee …

Escape and Punishment

Libby Prison's commandant, Major Thomas Pratt Turner, had been a student at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington and then at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He left West Point in 1860, refusing to "swear allegiance to, a Government I despise and abhor." He was described by one inmate as a man whose "utter depravity seems to have gained a full and complete expression in every lineament of his countenance." Inmates, however, often confused Turner with another Libby official, Richard R. "Dick" Turner, no relation, who was universally despised and singled out by U.S. secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton, in November 1865, for investigation into the criminal treatment of prisoners.

At Libby, prisoners were quickly punished for any violation of regulations, including standing too close to the windows, and some were shot by guards. Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond socialite who lived six blocks from the prison and directed the city's Unionist spy network, monitored conditions there. "To 'lose prisoners' was an expression much in vogue," Van Lew wrote, "and we all understood that it meant cold blooded murder." It is not at all clear, however, that prisoners were deliberately killed at Libby. Those who were shot at for violating rules, while resentful, did not seem to categorize the treatment as illegal.

Richmond's provost marshal, John H. Winder, had limited options for dealing with the capital's overcrowded prisons. The Confederacy had no centralized prison system, and at the beginning of the war, Richmond, with its five railroads, seemed an ideal location for inmates. Circumstances changed, however, and Winder came to understand that a growing population at Libby, combined with a shortage of staff and provisions, created an ideal environment for a prisoner revolt. In particular, Confederate authorities worried about the safety of civilians and the security of government officials.

Unfortunately for Winder, few prisons existed outside the capital to which he could ship his captured Union soldiers, and those that did—by virtue of being outside the capital—were at a distance from the Confederacy's ever-more-scarce resources. Early in 1864, Winder began to make plans to transfer a portion of the inmate population to Georgia but was forced to wait while a new prison was built in Macon. In the meantime, he received permission from the local military authority to supplement his guard rotation with civilians and disabled Confederate soldiers.

Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that one of the largest of a number of escapes from Libby Prison occurred in February 1864, when 109 inmates tunneled their way to freedom. After three failed attempts, a small group of officers, working in three five-man shifts, labored for several weeks to dig the fifty-to-sixty-foot-long passageway out from the cellar. They used chisels and a wooden spittoon, all the while fighting, in the words of the one of the prisoners, the "sickening air, the deathly chill, [and] the horrible, interminable darkness." They also fought rats. The kitchen area was infested with them—its nickname was "rat hell"—and the rodents made tunneling an especially harrowing task, as they crawled over the prisoners in the pitch dark, squealing in their ears.

After reaching a tobacco shed out of the sight lines of Confederate sentries on February 8, the large group of Union officers escaped the prison on February 9. In the end, fifty-nine reached Union lines, possibly relying on some help from Van Lew and her spies. Two men drowned in the James River and forty-eight were recaptured. The organizer of the escape, Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was captured and later exchanged.

Another escape attempt was initiated just a few weeks later, this time from outside the prison. On February 28, 1864, a small force of Union cavalry embarked on an ambitious mission to infiltrate the Confederate capital and free prisoners from Libby and Belle Isle. Led by the flamboyant H. Judson Kilpatrick—known to his men by the double-edged nickname "Kill Cavalry"—and his one-legged, twenty-one-year-old protégé Ulric Dahlgren, the raiders were routed by Confederate cavalry. Dahlgren was killed, and papers found on his body suggested that his orders might have extended to assassinating Confederate president Jefferson Davis and torching the city. A scandal erupted, but no prisoners were freed.

Even as the Union raiders approached the capital, Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon ordered Winder to secure Richmond's prisoners by any means necessary. Winder, in turn, authorized Turner to dig a mine in the prison's basement, fill it with 200 pounds of gunpowder, and threaten to blow up the prison if any inmates attempted to escape. A joint committee appointed by the Confederate Congress to investigate the condition and treatment of prisoners of war approved of this tactic in a March 3, 1865, report, citing the raid's potential threat to civilians. "Had the prisoners escaped, the women and children of the city, as well as their homes, would have been at the mercy of 5,000 outlaws," the report states. "Humanity required that the most summary measures should be used to deter them from any attempt at escape."

Contributed by Angela M. Zombek