Libby Prison was located in Richmond, Va., often considered one of the key cities of the Confederacy, and this Southern stronghold soon became famous for its absolutely horrendous conditions. The prisoners of war held there died often from starvation and disease, as more than 1,000 prisoners were forced into a former warehouse.
The warehouse was located on Tobacco Row (where there was a large grouping of tobacco warehouses and cigarette factories), right on the James River. It occupied an entire city block, flanked by the street on one side and the river on the other. The walls were whitewashed to reveal any lurking prisoners along the exterior. The first floor held offices for the Confederacy, while the two floors above were completely open and held all prisoners. A basement was not used, as it became infested with rats and had a tendency to flood, causing it to become known as Rat Hell.
In 1861, the Confederacy decided to take the warehouse from father-and-son team Capt. Luther Libby and George Libby, who were using it as a chandlery and grocery storage; at first, the Confederacy used the space as both a hospital and a prison. However, the next year, the high number of prisoners made it necessary to convert the warehouse into a prison only, and the hospital was moved to a building next door. The open windows on both floors were then barred, leaving prisoners exposed to elements and temperature changes.
In 1862, the prison had 700 inmates, which grew to 1,000 by the next year. Mortality rates grew with the numbers, until the prison became infamous and only second to the notorious Andersonville Prison located in Georgia.
Union surgeons, who were held at the prison and also used for their skills at the attached hospital, wrote of their experiences in their memoirs. They reported that more than 10 percent of all prisoners were ill and in dire need of medical help. The prisoners were living on a diet of corn bread and sweet potatoes, and protein was only given to prisoners of higher ranking who were also incapacitated at the hospital. Other high-ranking officers would occasionally receive wheat bread instead of corn bread. This poor diet often resulted in dysentery and diarrhea, in addition to malnutrition.
Any prisoner who was already ill upon arrival was more likely to perish within their first few days. When the prisoners were captured during battle, they often were not given much, if anything, to eat during the journey from the battlefield to Libby, no matter how far away it might be, and then often had to wait days after arriving to receive any medical attention or rations. Prisoners were not given clothing.
The sleeping conditions were described as an “improbable box of nocturnal sardines,” with every inch of floor space being used by sleeping prisoners.
The inmates did manage to keep themselves entertained. They wrote their own newsletter, which would be read aloud by its editor once weekly. Called The Libby Chronicle, it offered up dry, witty and irreverent takes on daily life, as well as poetry. The most popular sections of each newsletter would be repeated in the next, so as to let everyone hear it again, and introduce it to newcomers. Political beliefs were also expressed, with many surprisingly holding a hostile view toward Abraham Lincoln, as they felt he was the primary reason that their fellow Union soldiers had not managed to save them from their plight.
Occasionally, men managed to get letters out to relatives. When permitted to send mail, inmates were forced to keep their messages to six lines.
Escape attempts did, of course, occur. The Libby Prison Escape soon became known as the most successful prison break to take place during the war. As the Confederates thought the building already absolutely impenetrable and unescapable, their guard was down when it came to escape attempts, making it easier for one particular plot to succeed.
The escape was led by Colonel Thomas E. Rose, and was largely possible thanks to the existence of the previously noted “Rat Hell.” Chipping their way through a chimney, officers were able to create a small passage through the wall that would allow them access to the basement. Once in Rat Hell, they began digging, hiding dirt underneath the two feet of straw covering the floor. Reports say those working on the escape were forced to deal with hundreds of squealing rats continuously running over them as they dug. However, after 17 days, they created a tunnel out of the basement and into a tobacco shed on the other side of the prison. They then escaped in groups of two and three at a time, going through the tunnel, out the tobacco shed and casually onto the city streets. A total of 109 men were able to escape in this manner.
After the War
In 1864, the Union prisoners of war were all moved to Georgia, and the prison was filled with military criminals instead. After the Union took Richmond, Va., in 1865, they used Libby Prison as a detention center for former Confederate officers. Conditions, however, were improved when the facility was used by the Union.
After the war was completely over, a fertilizer company bought the building. This was directly in contrast to Abraham Lincoln’s wishes before his death, as he had originally wanted the prison to remain a monument to the Civil War. However, it remained in private hands, rather than government control, and a candy maker bought it in 1889, deciding it would be an interesting attraction. He transported the structure to Chicago, where it became a Civil War museum. Just 10 years later, it was dismantled, as it was failing to draw in crowds, and pieces of the building were sold for souvenirs.
Now, the remains of Libby Prison can be seen in the form of the Pokahuntas Bell, which was created from melted nails from the prison walls, and the prison’s front door is on display at the American Civil War Center in Richmond.