Early in the War
The complex was converted to a prison in March 1862 in response to problems at a prisoner depot in central Richmond. Located at Main and 25th streets, this facility had been established in 1861 after the first Union prisoners began pouring into Richmond following the First Battle of Manassas on July 21. Its location made it difficult to secure, however; Confederate officials favored the Libby buildings because they were more isolated. As the number of Union prisoners increased after the Seven Days' Battles in June 1862, Libby Prison was designated an officers-only facility. Some accounts claim that Luther Libby was accused of being a Northern sympathizer and ordered to vacate his store. In fact, he likely continued to do business in a portion of one of the buildings while it was used as a prison.
Connected by inner doors, the three Libby buildings came to be known as East, Middle, and West. Prisoners were confined to the upper two floors, which contained six sparsely furnished rooms—there were no bunks and few benches—each measuring approximately 105 by 45 feet. Wooden bars covered small windows that were otherwise open to the elements. They contributed to overheating in the summer and frigid drafts in the winter and admitted little light, even during the daytime. The kitchen was located in the first floor Middle and was the only room to which Confederate officials granted inmates free access. The hospital was on the first floor East, with offices and guardrooms on first floor West. The cellar was reserved for a carpenter shop and for housing slaves. The center cellar had four cells reserved for particularly dangerous inmates.
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 diarrhoea, 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."
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
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.
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."
End of the War
1845–1852 - John Enders Sr. builds three structures near the southeast corner of Cary and 20th streets in Richmond, designed for use as a tobacco factory. He is killed during construction of one of his warehouses.
1854 - The family of John Enders Sr. leases three buildings near the southeast corner of Cary and 20th streets to Luther Libby, a Maine native. Enders had envisioned a tobacco factory but was killed during construction. Libby opens a shipping supply and grocery store.
July 21, 1861 - Following the First Battle of Manassas, Union prisoners begin to flood the Confederate capital at Richmond. They are held in a prison depot at Main and 25th streets, but its location in central Richmond makes it difficult to secure.
June 1862 - The three buildings at 20th and Cary streets in Richmond, once leased by Luther Libby, who sold shipping supplies, are designated an officers-only prisoner-of-war facility.
December 7, 1863 - The Richmond Enquirer, responding to charges of overcrowding and rampant disease at Libby Prison in Richmond, runs a story proclaiming a holiday feast by which the prisoners will "celebrate their captivity." The dinner is paid for with funds from the North.
March 1864 - Confederate authorities begin sending Union prisoners held at Libby Prison to prisons outside Richmond.
April 3, 1865 - After the fall of Richmond, Union authorities convert Libby Prison into a facility designed to hold former Confederate officials.
August 3, 1868 - Libby Prison in the former Confederate capital of Richmond is shut down after the last of its prisoners—previously Union officers and now former Confederate officials—is freed or transferred.
1889–1895 - Libby Prison, once an officers-only prisoner of war facility in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, is dismantled, moved to Chicago, Illinois, and operated as the Libby Prison War Museum.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: May 14, 2009 | Last modified: January 23, 2014