by Robert W. Waitt
Official Publication #12, Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee, 1961-
The most famous prison of the Civil War was located in Richmond,
Virginia, on the western half of a block bounded by Cary and Dock Streets at
20th. It consisted of three tenement (loft style) buildings,each 110x44
feet, 4 stories high.
They were built between 1845 and 1852 by John Enders Sr., a founder of
the tobacco industry of Richmond. Enders was killed instantly when he fell
from a ladder thru a hatch in the construction of the central building.
Previously he had been a leader in developing real estate in the dock area
and with his in- laws, the Ege family, owned much property there. Several of
his slaves burned down all the buildings between 21st and 22nd Street when
they found that his will did not set them free as they had expected.
Captain Luther Libby leased the west building on 3 year terms from the
Enders family and erected the now renowned sign, L. LIBBY & SON, SHIP
CHANDLERS. Libby was a native of Maine and with the outbreak of war, since
most of his business was with Northern ships, he closed down the operation.
He continued to maintain the lease which had started in 1854.
Following the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) so many prisoners were
coming into Richmond that these buildings were among a number which were
commandeered for prisoner and hospital use. Ceneral Winder gave Libby only
48 hours to vacate the premises. Some say because he was suspected of Union
sympathy, tho a son served with the Confederacy. At any rate, so rapioly was
the building converted to its new use that the sign was not removed and thus
the name LIBBY PRISON came into use.
It is alleged that the first Union prisoner to enter the prison was Mr.
Philander A. Streator of Holyoke, Massachusetts. More than 50,000 men passed
thru this prison while it was used by the Confederacy. The three buildings
were connected by inner doors, but the different buildings went by the
designations of East, Middle and West.
The prisoners were not kept on the ground floors. The west ground floor
was used as offices and guard-rooms and the middle as the kitchen. There are
prisoner references to rooms called by them, "Streight's Room", "Milroy's
Room", and Chickamauga Room".The cellars contained cells for dangerous
prisoners, spies and slaves under sentence of death, and a carpenter shop.
For most of the time, its commandant was Major "Dick" Turner. Its
capacity was reported as 1, 200, though it is certain that at times this was
Many escapes occurred. The most spectacular was one, led by Colonel
Thomas E. Rose (77th Penna. Vols.) assisted by Major A.G. Hamilton (12th
Kentucky) on 9 February '64, in which 109 officers tunneled thefr way out.
48 were recaptured and 59 were able to reach Union lines, but 2 drowned.
Rose was one of the unlucky, finding himself back in Libby. He was later
exchanged on 30 April 1864. The only tools which they had to use in the long
tunnel digging were an old pocket knife, some chisels, a piece of rope, a
rubber cloth and a wooden spittoon. They constructed the 53' long tunnel, of
which there are no remains, in 17 days.
Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, the Union agent in Richmond, was a frequent
visitor to Libby, bringing food and reading material. It is stated that she
obtained much valuable information from the men there and passed it thru her
efficient agents to the Union. She is also credited with arranging for a
number of men to escape, tho no tunnel existed between the prison and her
Church Hill home, as has been said. In the Van Lew Collection at the New
York Public Library there are several items made by the Libby prisoners and
given to Miss Van Lew. One is a well carved little wooden book with the
inscription "E. V. L. - A Friend In Need."
The best known prisoner housed in Libby was the eccentric Union Cavalry
Commander, General H. Judson Kilpatrick, who led the unsuccessful raid on
Following the occupation of Richmond (3 April 1865), the Federal
authorities used the prison until 3 August 1868 as an incarceratory for
former Confederates. The West Building was sold to the Southern Fertilizing
Company and the other two continued as property of the Enders family, being
owned by Mrs. George S. Palmer.
The buildings were purchased in 1888 by a Chicago syndicate, composed of
W. H. Gray, Josiah Cratty, John A. Crawford and Charles Miller, and the
architectural firm of Burnham & Root, for $23,000. The Richmond firm of
Rawlings & Rose handled the negotiations.
The famous Philadelphia architect, Louis M. Hallowell, came to Richmond
to supervise the removal operations. The work commenced in December 1888,
and as the building was taken apart each board, beam, brick, timber and
stone-cap was numbered and lettered in such a manner that there was not the
least trouble about placing these parts correctly together again. The
removal of Libby from Richmond to Chicago was a project never before equaled
in the history of building moving and one that was not to be surpassed for
many years later.
The contract for hauling the material was given to the Chesapeake & Ohio
Railway Company, which kept box cars on side-tracks of the old York River
Line near the building. As soon as a carload was ready, it was sealed and
sent on its way to Chicago an amazing total of 132 twenty-ton cars.
In the meanwhile massive stone walls of native artesian stone, quarried
within the city limits of Chicago, had been erected on the block of Wabash
Avenue, between 14th and 16th Streets, which had been selected as the famous
old prison's new home. These stones now form part of the wall of the Chicago
Colliseum and probably are the basis for the false story that that structure
is built from Libby Prison remains.
The enterprise was incorporated as the Libby Prison Museum Association,
T/A GREAT LIBBY PRISON WAR MUSEUM, on 4 February 1888, with a capitalization
of $400, 000, to which was added the extensive Civil War collection of
Charles F. Gunther, a wealthy candy manufacturer. The cost of dismantling
and moving was in excess of $200,000. The re~rection was completed in
Altho the Museum was in Chicago during the year of the Columbian
Exposition (1893 World's Fair), it had no connection with that Fair, and was
never considered as a Fair attraction. It was quite some distance from the
Exposition Grounds. The Museum was highly profitable and continued so until
1899. At that time the venture was disbanded and the Collseum erected on the
Many of the bricks were disposed of as souvenirs and to builders. A large
number went to the Chicago Historical Society, along with the collection and
other parts of the building. The Society constructed the north wall of their
Civil War Room from these bricks. This building is located at North Avenue
and Clark St., Chicago.
The beams, timbers and most of the wood were sold to an Indiana farmer
named Davis and he used these to build a massive barn on his farm at Hamlet
(La Porte County) Indiana. The barn still stands and is owned by his
daughters, Miss Ella J. Davis and Mrs. Charles Dowdell of Chicago. Most of
the timbers still show the stenciled words 'Second Floor M" or "Third Floor
E.," together with the pathetic names and initials carved by the men while
in prison. Miss Davis has presented the City of Richmond recently with a
gavel made from this wood.
With the exception of the above mentioned relics, all that is known to
remain of the old prison are: a door and keys in the Confederate Museum,
Richmond; some miscellaneous items in several institutions in Vermont and
Massachusetts; and its major records in the National Archives, Washington,
with some minor records in Vermont.
The. City of Richmond has located an interpretive sign on the Libby
Prison site at 20th and Cary Streets, now occupied by a salvage
* * * * * * * * *
Other CIVIL WAR Prisons in RICHMOND
During the course of the CivilWar, many buildings and areas were places
of internment within Richmond. Some were used for only short periods, others
were recurrent and some were in constant use. It is, therefore, impossible
to enumerate all of them and trace their stories within a short brochure. We
will mention only those whose names figure with some frequency in Civil War
accounts. Due to inadequate records and the fluctuation of usage only
general statements be made about them.
This was probably the City's Lumpkin's Jail, located east of Lumpkin's Alley
and just north of Franklin Street. One of the first lock-ups for war
prisoners, It became used more and more for women suspected, accused and/or
convicted of disloyalty, spy activities or harboring deserters.
A large tobacco warehouse that was located on the northside of Cary Street
between 18th & 19th Streets. Mainly used for civilian prisoners, it was
geneally packed with murderers, cut-throats, thieves and other desperadoes.
Males suspected of disloyalty, spies and Union sympathizers were
incarcerated here. A large number of its inmates were under sentence of
death. A few women were held here, including the famous, Dr. Mary E. Walker.
Used by the Federals for Confederate civilian "war criminals" after the
Directly across the street from Castle Thunder, it also was a former tobacco
warehouse. It was generally well filled with Confederate soldiers who had
committed crimes or were deserters, AWOL, disorderly, drunk, held for any
number of miscellaneous things of which soldiers in war-time are involved.
Thunder Lightning were both seriously threatened by destruction from fire
during the conflagratlon which leveled the Confederate Coffee Factory in
This was a small island at the west end of the City in the James River. Used
as an incarceratory for enlisted men, it had a few shacks and some Sibley
tents. A hospital for prisoners and an iron factory also occupied the
island. The men were allowed to swim in the river and some escaped in this
manner. Cannon and riflepits effectively discouraged many attempts of this
nature. By 1863, almost 10,000 men were imprisoned here. The old Richmond &
Petersburg Railroad bridge to the island was called by the prisoners "Bridge
of Sighs". It has long been a center of dispute. The South claimed a low
death-rate; the North, a very high one.
MILITARY PRISON FOR OFFICERS - Northside of Cary, west of 18th Street.
SEABROOK'S PRISON HOSPITAL (later General Hospital #9) - Northside of Grace
Street, between 17th and 18th Streets.
STATE PENITENTIARY - South end of Adams Street. Still standing with many