Early in the War
Located on the James River, southeast of Cary and 20th streets, Libby Prison consisted of three separate structures built between 1845 and 1852 for use as a tobacco factory. After the owner, John Enders Sr., was killed during the construction of one of his warehouses, his family leased the buildings to Luther Libby beginning in 1854. Libby, a Maine native, opened L. Libby & Sons and sold shipping supplies and groceries.
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.
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 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.”
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.”
End of the War
In March 1864, worries about the safety of the capital, the security of the prisons, and the scarcity of resources peaked, and Winder ordered the evacuation of most prisoners of war in Richmond to Georgia. Enlisted men would go to Andersonville while the officers housed at Libby would transfer to the new prison in Macon. For the next year, Libby continued to be used, mostly as a place for temporary confinement of a small number of prisoners. From April 3, 1865, until August 3, 1868, U.S. authorities used the prison to house former Confederates. The West Building was sold to the Southern Fertilizing Company, while the Enders family continued to own the other two buildings. In the 1880s, the facility was dismantled, moved to Chicago, Illinois, and operated as the Libby Prison War Museum from 1889 until 1895. Today, the site is bisected by the Richmond Flood Wall; a plaque and an interpretive marker commemorate the prison.