Bidwell - Libby Prison

Home
Written Accounts
Photographs
Maps
Hospitals
Prisons
Other Sites
Events
Search
Links

 


Bidwell, Frederick David; History of the 49th New York Volunteers. 1916. Account of Sgt. Alexander H. McKelvy. pp. 114-117

On the second evening I was placed in a fine ambulance car on the train for Richmond, with a few other prisoners, and on arriving at the Confederate capital about eleven P. M. I was removed and placed in another old “avalanch” then over the cobblestone pavements thru a fog that might have been cut in chunks and sold for ice, to the magnificent Hotel de Libby, where I was put up for a week.

I was carried in on a stretcher and placed on a cot, and made as comfortable as circumstances would permit. Our nurses were able bodied Union soldiers detailed for that purpose, and they were kind and faithful and showed much interest in our care. The old place was full of vermin, the beds were literally black with body lice, and every morning the floor was mopped and flooded to try and drown the brutes.

The food supplied was not well suited to the appetite of a wounded man, who was very feverish. It consisted of good wheat loaf bread, a soup made of meat and rice, with stewed dried peaches sadly in need of a worm specific, for dessert.

I rather think I might have starved but for the advent of a dear matronly black mammie, who came in the hospital every day with a wooden bucket on her turbaned head with new fresh buttermilk churned, she said, by her young mistress in the city. As I was a farmer boy and very fond of buttermilk, I gladly bought this delightful food beverage and paid fifty cents a quart, Confederate money, of which I had a fair supply, as I had exchanged with Puckett at a ratio of twenty to one. Breaking the bread in the milk I fared sumptuously, and the milk was very cooling and soothing to my feverish blood and nerves.

One morning a lot of doctors came in to look me over and get the bullet out of my leg, and among the young army surgeons was an old citizen doctor of the city whom I learned was always brought in when they had a particularly difficult case of Yankee carving on the board. Well, they went at me with a full case of “carpenter “ tools, and they were in a shamefully dull condition, and no anesthetics to give me, so I may say I had a very bad half hour. They made an incision thru the bullet hole some five or six inches in length, then the old butcher inserted three fingers and explored to the right and then reversed and fingered to the left, evidently thinking the ball had gone between the bones of the leg.

I think if I had had a silver dollar between my teeth during that torture, I could easily have changed it into quarter dollars, but I didn’t break down before those Johnnies and I was thankful for that. Two days later the boss carver came back and tackled the other side of my leg and laid open the calf to the bone as if he had thought the ball had passed thru or around the bone.

This operation did not hurt quite so much, and I was getting so I rather enjoyed it by this time, but I did not forget the sensation caused by those dull knives on the rolling muscles of the calf, as he forced his way by main strength to the bone. I was told by our boys that the old doctor was making a collection of Yankee relics, so I imagine he was disappointed when he did not find the ball.

One night the welcome news came floating in that a flag of truce boat had arrived at City Point, and an exchange of prisoners of war would be made; and we all felt gay at the prospect of “ Johnny marching home,” but alas! for our hopes, for I was told that I was too badly wounded to be sent to our lines, and a captain with a thigh amputation was to be left with me, both to be eaten up of vermin and the dreaded gangrene, if we remained in that pest house long, not to speak of possible death resulting from our serious wounds.

So I lay the victim of dark despair as I thought I could see my finish far from home and friends, but just as the last man had been carried out at about two P.  M. in rushed our nurses saying “The orders are that every man must go and the hospital cleaned out.” “Hooray for us,” I cried and I felt like getting up and dancing on one leg. Well, the boys got the poor, almost unconscious, captain ready, and fished out and pulled on to me the bloody blue trousers, put on blouse and hat, picked me up and out again into the James River fog, into the old market wagon once more, the mules were whipped up and and it was goodbye Libby to the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”

I saw Libby just thirty years later in Chicago at the Columbian Exposition, walked all over it with my family and picked out as nearly as I could the spot where my cot had stood, and it was between the picture of Grant and Sherman as they hung on the wall of the old tobacco warehouse. Over the cobblestones to the station where we were placed in box cattle cars, I was laid softly on the floor, and away towards liberty down thru Petersburg to City Point, and as I was carried on a stretcher from car to boat, I caught a glimpse of “Old Glory” floating from the flag staff of the steamer where it lay below the bluff, and the sight was so delicious that my eyes were filled with tears of genuine joy and gladness.

[remainder of memoir not transcribed]

Page last updated on 02/12/2008