109 Union Officers Escape from Richmond's Libby Prison

 
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109 Union Officers Escape from Richmond's Libby Prison

Photograph of Libby Prison, Richmond VA, by Alexander Gardner, April, 1865
Note the James River in the right background
From the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 9, 1864

It has been a while (November, actually) since I posted an event concerning our nation's "Great Unpleasantness" – which is celebrating its 150th anniversary (2011-2015). Therefore, I will devote today's post to an event which not only raised Union morale, but exposed the horrid conditions in which prisoners of war were being held by the Confederates.

Background

The building which became the prison was originally a large loft-style tenement built between 1845 and 1852. Captain Luther Libby, a native of Maine, leased the building in 1854, turning it into a warehouse and running a chandler's shop in the west building (the right portion of the warehouse in the above photograph). With the start of the Civil War, most of Libby's business dried up, as he mainly dealt with Northern ships.

Shortly after the battle of First Manassas (Bull Run), so many Northern prisoners were taken that the Confederate government began confiscating appropriate "housing." Captain Libby was given 48 hours to vacate the premises (he was likely accused of Union sympathies, despite the fact that one of his sons had enlisted in the Rebel forces). Because of the rapidity with which the Rebel government flipped the property, the business sign L. LIBBY & SON, SHIP CHANDLERS on the building was left intact. This sign gave the prison its name.

The top two of the three floors were where the many prisoners were held, while the first floor was the guard quarters. The basement floor was used as a storage cellar, a jail, a carpenter shop, and an abandoned kitchen. [Once used by the inmates, this kitchen became so badly infested with rats, it was shut down and was given the name "Rat Hell."] The windows were barred, but otherwise allowed the weather in. At some point, the prison's capacity was reported as 1200 men, but probably exceeded that figure.

Overcrowding, a lack of proper sanitation, and short rations were the order of the day. Any sick Union prisoner placed in Libby Prison would usually die within days. The prisoners ate the same rations as their Rebel guards, sometimes receiving "beef, bread, and soup in the early days of captivity. As the war progressed and the Confederate cause began to flounder, the prisoners more usually were given sweet potatoes and cornbread. An estimated 25,000 to 50,000 Federal prisoners passed through Libby.

'Libby Prison,' oil on canvas by David Gilmour Blythe (1863); Currently located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA [Blythe never saw the prison, painting details from newspaper accounts]
"Libby Prison," oil on canvas by David Gilmour Blythe (1863)
Currently located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA
[Blythe never saw the prison, painting details from newspaper accounts]

Escape from Libby Prison

In late 1863, a group of Union officers began preliminary plans for an escape from the Confederate hellhole. By removing a stove on the first floor and chipping their way into the adjoining chimney, the officers constructed a cramped but effective passage for access to the eastern basement. After gaining access to the basement, it was determined that a tunnel could be dug from the basement of the prison to Kerr's Warehouse to the east.

The plotters organized themselves into 3 five-man digging squads, using a broken shovel and two knives for tools. Most of their work took place at night, as the Confederate guards were more aware of absent prisoners during daylight hours. The men dug in almost complete darkness, and had to put up with the lack of oxygen in the diggings and the squealing of the many rats. Fortunately, Rat Hell was covered with a two-foot layer of straw, which provided a hiding place for the dirt, as well as a hiding place for the Union diggers if a Rebel guard unexpectedly came into the basement.

The first tunneling attempt struck the timber foundation of the building; the second tunnel came out short of the warehouse – and within touching distance of a Confederate sentry. This mistake fortunately was down a slope not readily seen by the sentries, and was quickly covered up. After 38 days of digging, the men broke through to the surface, coming out in a storage shed of Kerr's Warehouse.

'Section of Interior of Libby Prison and Tunnel,' author unknown [Image courtesy of http://library.blog.wku.edu/2013/06/20/a-daring-escape]
"Section of Interior of Libby Prison and Tunnel," author unknown
[Image courtesy of http://library.blog.wku.edu/2013/06/20/a-daring-escape/]

Colonel Thomas E. Rose, the escape leader, surveyed the location of the tunnel exit, and proclaimed to his diggers, "The Underground Railroad to God's country is open!" Sometime after sundown on the night of February 9, 1864 Union officers began emerging from the tunnel in groups of two or three. They then began casually strolling out the front gate of the warehouse and began heading North.

In all, 109 Federal officers emerged from the tunnel. It was not until late in the day of February 10 that continued roll calls failed to account for the missing men. Frantic messages went out to local Confederate forces to apprehend the escapees. Nonetheless, over twelve hours passed before any Rebel response occurred.

Aftermath

Once the Confederates were made aware of the escape, search parties managed to recapture 48 of the prisoners, returning them to the prison. Two men tried to swim the James River and drowned. That left 59 Union officers who escaped back to Union lines. The event was a tremendous morale boost for the Union Army.

Footnote #1: In April 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond and toured the city on foot. When he came across Libby Prison, a crowd of onlookers stated, "We will tear it down", to which Lincoln replied, "No, leave it as a monument."

Footnote #2: In 1889, Libby Prison was bought by Charles F. Gunther, a candymaker. The building was disassembled and moved to Chicago. There it was rebuilt and renovated to serve as a war museum (1889-1895). After the museum failed to draw enough crowds, the building was dismantled and sold in pieces as souvenirs. Some artifacts of the prison are in the Chicago History Museum.

Footnote #3: Currently, the original site of Libby Prison in Richmond is occupied by a salvage company. An historical marker indicates Libby's former location.

Site of Libby Prison, Richmond VA (photo taken in 2002) [Image courtesy of http://civilwartalk.com]
Site of Libby Prison, Richmond VA (photo taken in 2002)
[Image courtesy of http://civilwartalk.com]

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