The Libby Prison and its Contents

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From the Richmond Enquirer, 2/2/1864 

THE LIBBY PRISON AND ITS CONTENTS. - A shrewd inquirer into the quaint philosophy of human frivolities once asked the startling question: "What becomes of the pins?"- not of the millions which are manufactured, nor of the millions which are used, but of the millions which are lost. Any one might be tempted to ask: "What becomes of the Federal officers who go into the Libby? "During more than six months of active campaigning almost daily have they entered there, squad after squad, and yet that unfathomable reservoir of hapless humanity does not overflow. How is it that the many who go in do not thrust some of the many who are already there, tumbling out of the windows? We are forcibly reminded of the fable of the sick lion, who was visited in his cave by all the beasts of the field, except a cunning old fox, who, coming last of all, refused to call upon his leonine majesty; shrewd Renard noticed that all the foot prints were directed inwards, and that none indicated that those who had gone in had ever come out again. In the same manner the 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. But the authorities who thus pack up the unfortunate prisoners seem to be either heedless or ignorant of these facts. It is truly surprising that some pestilence has not already been the result of this indiscriminate herding together of human beings, who are thus forced constantly to breathe an impure air, and who are allowed no outdoor exercise. They should have an open space outside, however limited, in which to obtain some respite from the unwholesome atmospheric diet; a piece of ground with a little patch of blue sky over it and a gush of fresh air and a sprinkle of sunshine in it, would be no tax upon the Confederate commissariat, and might, at least, render supportable a captivity which has become inevitable. Fresh air and sunlight, all physiologists tell us, are as absolutely essential to the economy of the human body as food and drink. If it should become necessary to reduce the diet of these prisoners to cold corn bread they will not have strength enough in them even to masticate it.

Exercise indoors is but a poor substitute, even provided the crowded condition of the prison would allow of it. The only apartment in the building where they can now walk is one of the lower rooms used as their kitchen. The passerby may hear now and then of a morning the most demoniacal shouts proceeding from the gloomy interior of this room, and might readily be led to believe that a serious set-to at fisticuffs was in progress. He would soon discover, however, that it was only a desperate effort at a game of football. Notwithstanding the almost impenetrable cloud of smoke from the stoves, which constitutes the atmosphere of the room, he might see these haggard players working away with a zeal which proves how much they need, more than how much they enjoy, the exercise; he might act that uncouth black ball sent whirling hither at a thither, and kicked at with an earnestness totally regardless of the proverbial sensibility of the human shin - kicked at as if the poor inanimate thing had done them some foul wrong which they meant fully to avenge, now that so admirable an opportunity presented itself; and he might, now and then, hear a triumphant shout which proclaimed that the mutilated ball, more fortunate than its persecutors, in spite of the alarming vicissitudes of its tempestuous career, has been sent home. There is no ruddy flush of health, however, about the prison faces, as the reward of so well disputed a contest; they look, after it, not invigorated, but pale and exhausted, and their shouts do not sound like the wholesome exuberance of mirth, but seem rather to shriek: "Let us out for a little while in the sunshine!" "Give us a breath of fresh air!" Locked up for many weeks and months, they have endured the suffocating heats of summer, and have felt the keenness of the wintry wind, without enjoying its purity. As soldiers, they may resign themselves silently to the weary tedium and to the unavoidable privations consequent upon captivity; but let it not be said of the Libby that it is, indeed, bourne from which no traveller returns. "These men are kept here against our consent and in direct opposition to the wishes of the Government, by the neglect of the despot for whom they have perilled their lives. Forgetting the ignominious treatment accorded our own brave officers by the Government of which they are the servile tools, it should be our aim to make the contrast in treatment of prisoners so much in our favor that even old Abe Lincolnface would tingle with the blush of shame. We notice that iron bars have been placed in the windows of the Libby prison. This should have been done long ago. Some of the Yankee offices facetiously remarked that the precaution was a wise one, as Colonel Streight had fallen out of a rear window and hurt himself.


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