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A photo of Libby Prison (1865)
A photo of Libby Prison (1865)

Libby Prison was a Confederate prison at Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War. It gained an infamous reputation for the overcrowded and harsh conditions under which officer prisoners from the Union Army were kept. Prisoners suffered from disease, malnutrition and a high mortality rate. By 1863, one thousand prisoners were crowded into large open rooms on two floors, with open, barred windows leaving them exposed to weather and temperature extremes.

The building was built before the war as a food warehouse. The structure was moved to Chicago in 1889 to serve as a war museum. It was dismantled in 1899, with its pieces sold as souvenirs.[1]

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  • ✪ Libby Prison Window
  • ✪ Libby Prison (Site in Richmond Virginia)
  • ✪ Libby Prison


We're here in the "Becoming Confederates" gallery of "The Story of Virginia," and this barred window frame behind me serves as a good reminder that not all Civil War casualties were killed or wounded on the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were captured and shipped to open-air camps, factories, and warehouses that had been converted into makeshift prisons. On January 17, 1863, the Richmond Dispatch reported that 1600 prisoners had just arrived in Richmond. 700 of them were transferred to Libby Prison. Located at the southeast corner of 20th and Cary streets, Luther Libby's three-story warehouse was converted to a prison for Union officers in March of 1862. As many as a thousand prisoners were crowded into the building at one time, and after each heavy rain, heavy flooding sent scores of rats scampering among the prisoners, which gave rise to the nickname "Rat Hell." When the war began, federal refusal to acknowledge the Confederacy as an independent government confused the traditional exchange system for prisoners of war. By the time they worked it out in July 1862, it was agreed that no prisoner would be held for more than 10 days before they were to be exchanged. Excess prisoners who could not be exchanged were released on parole, which essentially meant that they could return to their homes but couldn't perform any military duty until they had been notified that they had been officially exchanged. According to the system of exchange, a captain was worth 6 privates; a colonel, worth 15; and a general, worth 46. This system wasn't perfect, but it worked tolerably well until mid-1863, when the Confederate government refused to treat African American soldiers fighting for the Union army as prisoners of war, and instead promised to return them to slavery. The breakdown of this system, which lasted almost until the end of the war, caused shortages and overcrowding in prison camps throughout the North and the South.



The prison was located in a three-story brick warehouse on two levels on Tobacco Row at the waterfront of the James River. Prior to use as a jail, the warehouse had been leased by Capt. Luther Libby and his son George W. Libby. They operated a ship's chandlery and grocery business.[2]

The Confederate government started to use the facility as a hospital and prison in 1861, reserving it for Union officers in 1862 because of the influx of prisoners.[3] It contained eight low-ceilinged rooms, each 103 by 42 feet (31.4 by 12.5 metres). The second and third floors were used to house prisoners. Windows were barred and open to the elements, increasing the discomfort.[2] Lack of sanitation and overcrowding caused diseases. From 700 prisoners in 1862, the facility had a total of 1,000 by 1863.[2] Mortality rates were high in 1863 and 1864, aggravated by shortages of food and supplies. Because of the high death toll, Libby Prison is generally regarded as only second in notoriety to Andersonville Prison in Georgia.

"The building is of brick, with a front of near one hundred and forty feet, and one hundred feet deep. It is divided into nine rooms; the ceilings are low, and ventilation imperfect; the windows are barred, through which the windings of James River and the tents of Belle Isle may be seen."[citation needed]

In 1864, the Confederacy moved Union prisoners to Macon, Georgia. The Confederate Army then used the prison for military criminals.

After the occupation of Richmond in 1865, Union authorities used the prison for detention of former Confederate officers. They reportedly improved conditions over those for Union officers or prisoners of war on both sides generally during the war.

In April 1865, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln visited Richmond, Virginia 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."[4]

In 1880, the building was purchased by Southern Fertilizer Company. Nine years later, it was bought by Charles F. Gunther, a candymaker, disassembled, and moved to Chicago, Illinois. There it was rebuilt and renovated to serve as a war museum (1889-1899).[5] After the museum failed to draw enough crowds, the building was dismantled and was sold in pieces as souvenirs.

Prisoner conditions

Depiction by David Gilmour Blythe, 1863
Depiction by David Gilmour Blythe, 1863

Upon their release from Libby a group of Union surgeons published an account in 1863 of their experiences treating Libby inmates in the attached hospital:

Thus we have over ten per cent of the whole number of prisoners held classed as sick men, who need the most assiduous and skilful attention; yet, in the essential matter of rations, they are receiving nothing but corn bread and sweet potatoes. Meat is no longer furnished to any class of our prisoners except to the few officers in Libby hospital, and all sick or well officers or privates are now furnished with a very poor article of corn bread in place of wheat bread, unsuitable diet for hospital patients prostrated with diarrhea, dysentery and fever, to say nothing of the balance of startling instances of individual suffering and horrid pictures of death from protracted sickness and semi-starvation we have had thrust upon our observation.[6]

They said that prisoners were always asking for more food and that many were only half clad. Newly arriving prisoners who were already ill often died quickly, even in one night. Due to the "systematic abuse, neglect and semi-starvation," the surgeons believed that thousands of men would be left "permanently broken down in their constitutions" if they survived. In one story they noted that 200 wounded prisoners brought in from the battle of Chickamauga had been given only a few hard crackers during their three days' journey, but suffered two more days in the prison without medical attention or food.[6]

An article in the Daily Richmond Enquirer vividly described prison conditions in 1864:

Libby takes in the captured Federals by scores, but lets none out; they are huddled up and jammed into every nook and corner; at the bathing troughs, around the cooking stoves, everywhere there is a wrangling, jostling crowd; at night the floor of every room they occupy in the building is covered, every square inch of it, by uneasy slumberers, lying side by side, and heel to head, as tightly packed as if the prison were a huge, improbable box of nocturnal sardines.[7]

"LIBBY LIFE" by Lieut. Col. Federico Fernández Cavada
"LIBBY LIFE" by Lieut. Col. Federico Fernández Cavada

Lieut. Colonel Federico Fernández Cavada, who belonged to the Hot Air Balloon Unit of the Union Army, was captured during the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to Libby. Released in 1864, Fernandez Cavada later that year published a book titled LIBBY LIFE: Experiences of A Prisoner of War in Richmond, VA, 1863-64, in which he told of the cruel treatment in the Confederate prison.[8]

In the introduction, Cavada wrote:

It was a beautiful country through which we had just passed, but it had presented no charms to weary eyes that were compelled to view it through a line of hostile bayonets; we felt but little sympathy for the beautiful; on our haggard countenances only this was written: "Give us rest, and food."[9]

Many memoirs published after the war described harrowing conditions.

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.[10]

The Libby Chronicle

(The Libby Chronicle, edited by Louis Beaudry, Albany, NY)

The Libby Chronicle was a newsletter written by the inmates of Libby during the summer of 1863; it was read aloud by the editor every Friday morning. Composed in the midst of hardship and brutality, the newsletter expressed irreverent humor.

Issue number two included a poem entitled "Castle Thunder," with a "dryly witty perspective" on prison life:[citation needed]

We have eighteen kinds of food, though 'twill stagger your belief,
Because we have bread, beef and soup, then bread, soup and beef;
Then we sep'rate around with'bout twenty in a group,
And thus we get beef, soup and bread, and beef, bread and soup;
For dessert we obtain, though it costs us nary red,
Soup, bread and beef, (count it well) and beef and soup and bread.

Such poems helped keep up morale among the prisoners. The following week's issue begins with a segment called "Encore," which reads, "Yielding to pressing demand from those who heard and from many who did not hear the poem entitled 'Castle Thunder,' we reproduce it this week. We are certain that the uproarious laughter caused by this facetious article . . . has done more good in Libby than cartloads of Confederate medicine."[citation needed]

Commonly expressed was hostility toward President Abraham Lincoln, whom they considered responsible for their being held so long in prison. The editors of The Chronicle rebuked such sentiments, saying, "these officers evince more the spirit of spoiled children than that of manly courage and intelligence which should characterize the actions of the American soldier."[citation needed]

Men made independent efforts to secure their release. For instance, one young surgeon wrote a letter to the editor of the Richmond Sentinel, promising that if he were released he would find the editor's "Rebel son" and look after him until he could be returned home. Chronicle editors reported that "this same officer was poltroon enough to offer to leave the Federal army if the Confederates would do something for him. But the Rebels didn't want the poor Judas, and he finds he has eaten dirt without advantage."[citation needed]

Escape from Libby

Libby Prison, 1865, from the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration.

During the second week of February 1864, 109 Union officers took part in what was later dubbed by the press as the Libby Prison Escape. Captain Morton Tower of Company B, 13th Mass. Infantry, wrote in his published memoirs about his successful escape: "On the night of February 9th, as soon as it was sufficiently dark, the exodus from the prison commenced. Major Hamilton, Col. Rose, and some of the projectors were the first to pass through. Col. Davis of the 4th Maine and myself had passed through the tunnel to the yard just as the clocks of Richmond were striking twelve. Near daybreak we reached a thicket of woods where we stopped to rest." Capt. Tower and Col. Davis eluded recapture and soon joined 57 other escapees who also made it to the Union lines.("Army Experience of Morton Tower- his escape from Libby Prison", "Memoirs of Capt. Morton Tower", June 1870)

The Charleston Mercury carried the story:

At the base of the east wall, and about twenty feet from the Cary street front, was discovered a tunnel, the entrance to which was hidden by a large rock, which fitted the aperture exactly. This stone, rolled away from the mouth of the sepulcher, revealed an avenue, which it was at once conjectured led to the outer world beyond. A small negro boy was sent into the tunnel on a tour of exploration, and by the time Major Turner and Lieutenant LaTouche gained the outside of the building, a shout from the negro announced his arrival at the terminus of the subterranean route. Its passage lay directly beneath the tread of three sentinels, who walked the breadth of the east end of the prison, across a paved alley way, a distance of more than fifty feet, breaking up inside of the enclosure in the rear of Carr warehouse.

So nicely was the distance gauged, that the inside of the enclosure was struck precisely, which hints strongly of outside measurement and assistance. Through connection once opened, the prisoners were enabled to worm themselves through the tunnel, one by one, and emerging at least sixty feet distant from any sentinel post, to retake themselves off, singly, through an arched gateway, to some appointed rendezvous. To reach the entrance of the tunnel it was necessary for the prisoners to cut through the hospital room and the closed stairway leading into the basement. All the labor must have been performed at night, and all traces of the work accomplished at night was closed up or cleared away before the morning light. The tunnel itself is a work of several months, being about three feet in diameter and at least sixty feet in length, with curvatures worked around rock.

("Particulars of the Escape of the Yankee Officers from the Libby Prison", The Charleston Mercury, February 16, 1864)

Three tunnels were built: the first ran into water and was abandoned. The second hit the building's log foundation. The third reached a small carriage shed 15 m (50 ft) away.[11] Escapes were regular occurrences at both Federal and Confederate prisons.

Letters from Libby

The Christian Recorder and other papers sometimes included letters from prisoners. The rules of Libby Prison limited men to six lines for their letters to family and friends. Here is an example:

"My Dear Wife. - Yours received - no hopes of exchange - send corn starch - want socks - no money - rheumatism in left shoulder - pickles very good - send sausages - God bless you - kiss the baby - Hail Columbia! - Your devoted husband."[12]

After the war

In 1907, nails from Libby prison were melted down and used to cast the Pokahuntas Bell for the Jamestown Exposition.[13] The front door of Libby Prison is currently on display in the museum at The American Civil War Center, located at the former Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond.

In popular culture

In the television miniseries North and South, General George Hazard (James Read) was taken prisoner and sent to Libby Prison, which was under temporary command of the sadistic Captain Turner (Wayne Newton), only to be rescued by his best friend, General Orry Main (Patrick Swayze), and Main's cousin, Confederate officer Charles Main (Lewis Smith). However, in the original novel, Love and War by John Jakes, it is George's brother, Billy Hazard, who is imprisoned at Libby and rescued by Charles Main.

See also


  1. ^ David Heidler et al, eds. (2002). Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. W.W. Norton. p. 1180. Archived from the original on 2013-12-31. Retrieved 2016-10-25.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ a b c "Libby Prison", Encyclopedia Virginia, accessed 21 April 2012
  3. ^ Byrne, Frank L., "Libby Prison: A Study in Emotions", Journal of Southern History 1958 24(4): 430-444 JSTOR, accessed 21 April 2012
  4. ^ Porter, David Dixon (1885). Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War (PDF). p. 299. Retrieved January 26, 2014.
  5. ^ Bridge, Jennifer R. (2003). "A Shrine of Patriotic Memories". Chicago History. 32 (1): 4–23.
  6. ^ a b "The Richmond Prisoners," The New York Herald, November 28, 1863
  7. ^ "City Intelligence. The Libby Prison and its Contents", Richmond Enquirer, February 2, 1864
  8. ^ Lieut. Col. Federico Fernández Cavada, LIBBY LIFE: Experiences of A Prisoner of War in Richmond, VA, 1863-64, Philadelphia: Roger & Baird, 1864
  9. ^ Fernandez Cavada, Libby Life, pp. 19-20
  10. ^ "Libby Prison", Encyclopedia Virginia, accessed 21 April 2012
  11. ^ Swanson, Diane (2003). "Escape from Libby". Tunnels!. True Stories from the Edge. Annick Press. p. 76. ISBN 1-55037-780-9.
  12. ^ "A Prisoner's Letter", The Christian Recorder11 February 1865, Philadelphia, PA
  13. ^ Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Pokahuntas Bell for Exposition", April 13, 1907

Further reading

  • Byrne, Frank L. "Libby Prison: A Study in Emotions," Journal of Southern History (1958) 24#4 pp 430–444. in JSTOR
  • Byrne, Frank L., ed. "A General Behind Bars: Neal Dow in Libby Prison," Civil War History 1962 8(2): pp. 164–183.
  • Chesson, Michael B. "Prison Camps and Prisoners of War," in Steven E. Woodworth, ed. The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Hartford, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996, 466-78
  • Pickenpaugh, Roger. Captives in Blue: The Civil War Prisons of the Confederacy (2013) pp 74–90
  • Silkenat, David. Raising the White Flag: How Surrender Defined the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-4696-4972-6.

External links

This page was last edited on 22 September 2019, at 14:38
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