From the New York Times, 3/1/1891

PRISONERS ON BELLE ISLE
HOW THEY LOOKED TO THE EYES OF A LIBBY MAN.
A VISIT FROM MORGAN, THE FAMOUS RAIDER - THE STORY OF THE INCEPTION F THE TWO TUNNELS OUT OF THE OLD WAREHOUSE.

After the 1st of January, 1864, life in Libby became a daily torture and a nightly horror. In order to force the Government at Washington to exchange prisoners the Confederate authorities refused to receive any more supplies under flag of truce, a decision that compelled us to live - it forced many to die - on the insufficient and innutritious prison rations.

The last supplies that came through were forwarded via Fortress Monroe by the United States Sanitary Commission. The distribution of these supplies, consisting of food and underclothing, was left to a board of Union officers, who, with the concurrence of the other prisoners, agreed to distribute them to our poor fellows, who, in the course of that terrible Winter, died like diseased sheep on Belle Isle. Gen. Neal Dow, Col. Cesnola, Col. Sanderson, and other officers whose names I cannot recall, constituted this board. To assist them in their work they frequently called upon some of their Libby associates to go with them.

Early in January I was one of the fortunates selected for this work, the object of the board being, in addition to securing assistance, to give as many as possible a chance to breath a little fresh air and to stand where God’s sun might shine on them, if only for an hour. The supplies to be distributed were sent ahead of us, and, although each member of this detail had given his parole to Major Turner not to escape, a guard was provided to bar the possibility of our forgetting the obligation.

It was a crisp, cold day, with the wind from the northwest and the sun shining down from an unclouded sky. The canal, immediately under the southern wall of Libby, and the graves, separated from the canal by a narrow strip of bare earth, were frozen over. But after long weeks in the filth and the shadows of that wretched building it was not the landscape nor the grateful sun, set in a sky of liquid amethyst, that most impressed me. The feeling of comparative liberty was subjective. I became suddenly taller and stronger, and I walked with a lighter step than when trying to take exercise by jostling through the dense throngs of pale-faced men in Libby. The bitter feelings left my heart for the time, and for those two hours I enjoyed, at least in imagination, the realization of the dream of liberty that had been with me night and day since my capture.

We passed Castle Thunder, and through the glassless windows we could see the ragged, gaunt figures and lean, ashy faces of political prisoners and men charged with being spies. To those poor fellows no supplies had ever come through, nor were they permitted to communicate with their friends. For them there was no prospect of exchange, and the only way in which the most hopeful could see release was in the sudden capture of the city by our forces, while the many under sentence of death might well look to the grave as a welcome exit from an earthly hell. If the story of Castle Thunder is ever written, it will add to the history of the war its most dramatic and thrilling chapter. Here, “unknown unheeded, and unsung,” some of the most patriotic Union men suffered in silence or went out to death for a principle. Here men rotted into the grave rather than swear allegiance to a Government that was not theirs. Here women suffered as well as men; and from its dingy portals prisoners went to the gallows, who, tempted either by love of country or hope of gain, had been caught within the enemy’s lines under circumstances that warranted their being treated as spies.

Belle Isle may have deserved its name when of old it flashed like an emerald on the breast of the James, but it certainly was a misnomer as I saw it that day. From its low, sandy shores Richmond looked almost queenly as it loomed up to the north and east in the light of the golden sun. The glow from the chimneys of the Tredegar Gun Works looked tantalizingly warm and cheerful to the 15,000 ragged, freezing, and famishing prisoners crowded on the frozen sands of that wretched Belle Isle during that the coldest Winter that had been known for years.

This place had the advantage over Libby in that there was an abundance of fresh air and sunlight, but, these apart, it was infinitely worse. The roof and thick brick walls of Libby kept off the snow and rain and broke the force of the bitter wind; there was no such grateful protection on Belle Isle. Lines of tattered tents, holes dug into the wet sand and covered with roofs of raged canvas, shelters of earth and barrel staves, in which the prisoners crouched together from the cold, and where death kept his headquarters, and yet so crowded was the island that only the fortunate ones had this protection, and many had to sleep out of doors. The men in Libby were bleached for the want of sunlight, but one soon grew accustomed to the white faces and did not notice them. Here on Belle Isle the faces were an ashy brown, and so lean and gaunt, so big-eyed and hollow cheeked, as to touch with tearful pity men, like ourselves, who were not unfamiliar with suffering.

Far be it from me to utter a word that would stir up past bitterness or to fan a spark from the embers of that fire of sectional hat which has happily so nearly died out and soon must be extinguished forever. Certainly such is not my design in giving these reminiscences of my experience in Southern prisons. For the honesty of purpose and the splendid courage of the Confederate veterans no man entertains a higher respect than myself. He was not responsible for the condition of the prisons, nor was he cruel to the men captured in the battle’s front. But it is my object simply to record my own experience and pass over, as foreign to the subject, the question of responsibility.

My main purpose in wishing to go to Belle Isle was to learn the condition of the men captured with me. Twenty-seven unwounded men had been brought to this place. The oldest was not thirty. All were strong, active, and the very flower of physical manhood; yet six had died in less than seven weeks, and out of the whole number twenty were destined to perish on this wretched island or in the pen at Andersonville, to which they were subsequently sent.

At first I did not recognize my old friends, not because of the rags and filth, for on many a trying raid I had seen them in such straits before, but because of the famine in their gaunt faces. They looked better than before - better because so much thinner. Sergt. Edward Burns of Covington - poor fellow, he stood it for a year, and subsequently died in Andersonville - drew me to one side, after he had received his little share of the Sanitary Commission goods, and said:

“It would have been better for us, Captain, if we had fought it out to the last, and every man gone down instead of being captured.”

To cheer the brave fellow rather than because of any hope that was in my heart, I responded:

“Don’t give up, Burns; the Government knows our sufferings and relief will come shortly.”

“It comes every day now,” he said gloomily, “but it’s in the form of death. Look at me; don’t I look as if I’d ought to be in the hospital?” and he drew himself up as if for inspection.

“You certainly do, Burns,” I answered.

“Well, I feel that way, too, yet I’m as strong a prisoner as there is on the island. Every day men stagger into that hospital,” and he pointed to a low frame structure with a canvas annex, “and every day about as many are toted out - to the grave. Night before last a prisoner named Williams of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania, one of the Chickamauga men, swore he couldn’t stand it any longer. He sneaked away from the dug-out and ran up on a guard and was shot dead.”

“Out of his mind?” I suggested.

“No, Sir, it was simply a choice of deaths, and he chose the easiest and quickest. Every man has diarrhea or dysentery. There is no way to keep clean. The very sand is full of disease. I don’t blame them so much about the rations, but, my God! haven’t they got a dry spot to put us on, and isn’t there plenty of wood and coal hereabouts? But no, they set us here in the middle of the river - to save a few guards.” and he threw out his hands, and there was such an expression of despair on his face as I shall never forget.

The prisoners on Belle Isle had not tasted meat or one month before our arrival. Their only food had been corn bread of the poorest quality, black beans, which they had not the means of cooking, and water, of which an abundance could be had from the surrounding river. A few days before my visit to Belle Isle I read in the Richmond Inquirer an article headed, “Watch out for your dogs.” it went on to say that a number of Richmond citizens who went over to Belle Isle “to see the degraded Yankees” took a fine dog with them. The dog was lost, and subsequently it was discovered that the prisoners had killed it and eaten it. The writer, in commenting on this, said: “It is a case of dog eat dog; but the incident serves to illustrate the character of these wretches, who are said to prefer dog to other meat.”

I doubted this story, but the prisoners confirmed its truth. “The truth about the dog,” said one poor fellow who had eaten of it, “was that we didn’t have enough to go very far.”

Among the prisoners there were a few negroes. These unfortunate men were heartily hated by the Confederates, who called them “smoked Yankees,” and, being looked on as the cause of the suspension of the cartel of exchange, they were not popular with many of their fellow captives. After the emancipation proclamation went into effect the Government enlisted colored troops. Many of these were ex-slaves, who had come into our lines. Subsequently some of these men were captured in battle, but instead of being treated as prisoners of war they were punished and sent back to their masters. The Government at Washington insisted that all men who wore the blue, without regard to their race or “previous condition of servitude,” should be treated alike when captured. The Confederates refused to send back ex-slaves in exchange for their own white soldiers, and so the cartel was suspended early in 1863. The result was that nearly 50,000 Union soldiers died in Southern prisons or from the effects of hardships endured there.

Sergt. Helm of the Eleventh Kentucky Cavalry, who had been captured at Campbell’s Station, in East Tennessee, by Longstreet, said to me, in all seriousness and with no notion of being grimly humorous or horribly suggestive: “If ever an exchange does take place of man for man and rank for rank, our Government is going to be pretty badly sold.”

“How is that?” I asked.

“Well,” he responded, “the rebs in our hands are well cared for, and when exchanged they are ready to go to the front at once. Most of our boys have the seeds of death in ‘em, and it’ll take months to fetch the strongest of ‘em round so that they can sit a saddle or carry a musket. So my plan is, instead of exchanging man for man, to do it by the pound - a thousand pounds of Belle Isle or Libby Yankees for a thousand pounds of, say, Fort Delaware rebs. In that way we’d get about two men for one, and kind of even things up.”

As I recall that visit to Belle Isle the whole scene comes as vividly to my mind as if only twenty-seven hours instead of twenty-seven years had passed since it was made, and this impression must remain with me until I, too, have crossed the dark river to the white tents of the silent. On my return to Libby the gloomy structure seemed quite palatial, and even the lower Chickamauga room, into which never a ray of sunlight entered, seemed cozy and comfortable by comparison.

A few days after my trip to Belle Isle Libby Prison was thrown into a state of commotion by a visit from Gen. John Morgan of Kentucky, the famous raider. Morgan was a fine-looking man; he was over six feet in height, straight as the typical Indian, and with the lithe form and ease of carriage that always denote the union of great strength with endurance and activity. His eyes were a grayish blue, the chin firm, and the mouth large and sensual. His beard was reddish and his hair as fair as that of a Viking, but both were unusually short at this time. In his brand-new General’s uniform Morgan - destined to fall with a bullet in his heart before the year went by - was a most imposing figure. From the papers we learned that he was the idol of the hour in Richmond, and his last exploit certainly merited the laudation of a people who have ever been susceptible to manly appearances and brilliant deeds.

It will be remembered by those who can recall the war - old soldiers imagine that everybody must remember what is ever so vivid to themselves - that Morgan crossed the Ohio from Kentucky into Indiana in the Summer of 1863. He wanted to show the Northern people what war, genuine war at their own homes, was like, so he raided with his brigade through Southern Indiana and into Ohio. He burned bridges, took horses without giving a receipt for them, and thoroughly frightened the children and old women, but at the same time he roused the home guard and the furloughed soldier to wrath. The Ohio farmers took down their rifles, mounted their horses, and went gunning in dead earnest for Morgan and his raiders.

This expedition was very fine while it lasted, but it was one of those errors which the Southern Generals invariably made when they left their own territory and became the aggressors. Morgan’s men were whipped whenever brought to a stand, and finally all were killed or captured. It was asserted that Morgan had violated the rules that should govern civilized warfare. The Buckeyes tried him, found him guilty of horse stealing and similar offenses, and sent him as a convict to the Columbus penitentiary, where his tawny hair and beard were cut off. But, unlike Samson, this did not affect his strength of brain or brawn. Morgan at once began to plan for freedom. He bribed one of the guards, and after weeks of hard work he cut a tunnel from his cell through the foundation wall of the prison and succeeded in making his escape.

May of the Kentuckians in prison were old friends of Morgan, and I recall how he gloated over his success in getting away from the Yankees and how he rallied us on our not attempting to rival his brilliant exploit.

After Morgan left the prison I overheard Capt. Johnson of the First Kentucky talking with a friend and commenting on Morgan’s escape. “Let him chuckle,” said the Captain with an oath. “They laugh best who laugh last. Before many weeks go past, we’ll show them what a tunnel is.”

I kept those words in mind, and in a short time I was one of the thirty or forty men out of the 1,300 in Libby who knew that a tunnel was being built and who assisted in digging the same.

The famous Libby tunnel was for a long time credited to Col. Streight of Indiana, but beyond getting through it after it was made, that gallant officer had nothing to do with the plan or construction. The credit of this enterprise, or at least its conception, is entirely due to Col. Rose of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania, who had been captured at Chickamauga. There were really two tunnels cut under Libby, both planned by Rose, but as the first was a failure, its existence is never heard of except among the old prisoners who took part in the work. This tunnel was cut from the cellar under the hospital so as to tap the sewer under Carey Street, the intention being to get into the sewer and work along its foul depths by night till a manhole below the Pemberton Building and out of sight of the guards was reached. This enterprise was successful so far as tapping the sewer was concerned, but the stench of the place was so intolerable as to preclude the possibility of escape by that avenue.

To properly appreciate the difficulty that beset the tunnel enterprise, it may be well to refer again to Libby’s advantages as a prison, from a Confederate standpoint, and to indicate the precautions taken to strengthen its natural position. The building stood alone, with streets on three sides and an open space extending indefinitely to the west. Around the prison and at distances of not more than twenty-five feet apart, a line of vigilant guards was maintained at all hours. These guards were instructed to keep the men in that crowded prison back from the windows and to fire on any man who touched the bars or came to the opening to look out. How faithfully these orders were obeyed I shall presently point out. At night the prisoners were confined on the upper floors, but the ground floor of the middle room was the place in which the cook stoves were kept, and the Confederates never dreamed that the Yankees could have any object in coming into this apartment after the lights were ordered out.

The neglect to keep a guard in this cook room at night was the one weak point in the prison and Col. Rose was quick to see it. By taking up the bricks from the back part of the hearth and from the wall of one of the fireplaces, a hole was made through which a man could crawl feet foremost and drop into the cellar directly under the hospital, which was the most eastern room on the ground floor of the prison.

The tunnel that eventually proved successful was cut through the thick eastern foundation wall of the prison, across a street about 110 feet, coming up behind a high board fence that partly surrounded a warehouse to the east. In this warehouse were stored the thousands of boxes that had been received under flag of truce but never delivered; on these boxes the Confederate guards made nightly raids, and this fact facilitated our escape when the tunnel was completed.

The difficulties in the way were very great and the appliances for surmounting them were very primitive, and in the hands of men less daring and determined they would have been worthless. An iron bar that had been cribbed from the mechanics when strengthening the windows the Fall before, a chisel from the same source, shovels made from cans in which the provisions had come through from the North, two wooden boxes intended to be used as spittoons in the prison, shreds of blankets twisted into the semblance of ropes, and the cape of an overcoat to be used as a fan at the mouth of the tunnel, these were the tools with which the work was carried on night after night for seven weeks, while the guards tramped overhead and shouted at their posts that all was well.

 

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