From the National Tribune, Thursday, 12/19/1889
How the 4th of July, 1863, was Spent in Libby Prison.
EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: That 4th was a
red-letter day for the American people. Loyalty to the Union flag was at a high
tide, and patriotism kindled bight fires upon her altars. This was notably the
case at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, ad Libby Prison. If I put Libby Prison last it is
not because the boys in their confinement displayed any less devotion to the
Union than any of their comrades in the grand army of the red, white and blue.
Many a poet and orator has celebrated the virtues of the
soldier who first mounted a rampart, or first entered the enemy’s lines, or
led a forlorn hope. Let me tell of the heroism of those who have been called to
endure the ordeal of capture, and who dragged out a miserable existence in
prison-pens, choosing rather to starve to death before they would listen to the
overtures of treason.
Let us see how these heroes celebrated the 4th
of July in Libby Prison in 1863. It is certainly the most pathetic celebration
ever recorded in the annals of American history. As the day approached, it was
felt that the occasion must not be allowed to pass without some kind of
demonstration. Consequently, committees were appointed to arrange a program and
select the personae dramatis. As perfectly as possible the Declaration of
Independence was to be recited. Orators were to expatiate on the history and
memories of the day. Chaplain McCabe was charged with the responsibility of the
musical entertainment. Thus far the work of the committees was quite simple and
The great thing wanting, however, was a suitable stand of
colors. “How can a genuine flag be procured?” was on the lips of all. There
were a few Union flags, captured in battle, in the rebel office below. Could not
one of hose be obtained? If love failed, might not money secure one? But where
was the money? All suggestions and plans looking in this direction seemed
futile. At length a happy thought occurred: “Let us make our own flag.” But
where was the bunting or other material for this purpose? All the stores, except
of Yankee ingenuity, were about exhausted. Punch says: “A Yankee baby will
creep or fall out of his cradle, take a survey of it, invent a new style, and
apply for a patent before he is six months old.” This is the time to verify
the saying. After a careful search, or inventory, one of the prisoners
exclaimed: “take the flap of my nether garment.” No sooner said than done.
It was the dernier resort. Threads drawn from the same stuff supplied the
sewing. If more nimble fingers ever manufactured a flag, certain are we that no
more loyal hearts ever guided the operation. Material, such as it was, was
contributed for stars and stripes, and the work went briskly forward.
The glorious day came but too tardily. No jubilant boom of
cannon nor other demonstration of joy in and about Richmond ushered its dawn. In
the midst of the awful stillness in this Sahara of Rebeldom, the only oasis of
loyalty to freedom was Libby Prison. There the day we celebrate received merited
attention. The arrangements for the occasion were duly prepared. This was in the
upper west room, where were quartered Col. Streight and his officers, on this
occasion reinforced by the unfortunate officers of Gen. Milroy’s command, who
occupied the room below At the proper time, ad in the presence of a crowd nearly
frantic with excitement, the newly-made flag was hoisted into position amid
“salvos” of manly voices. The enthusiasm knew no bounds - the cheers and
“tigers,” somewhat suppressed at first, soon broke out into thunderous
applause. Men wept and laughed, and stamped and clapped and shouted. The old
walls echoed and trembled, and for awhile, like those of ancient Jericho, seemed
ready to tumble down.
But the patriotic demonstration was, perhaps, too
boisterous. If not the head, at least the tail of the copperhead treason had
been stepped upon. Just as Chaplain Eberhart was about to open proceedings with
prayer, Dick Turner, accompanied by a guard, strutted into the audience. The
exercises were interrupted. Dick seemed to be bewildered at the sight. Could he
believe his own eyes? Was he indeed in the presence of a Union flag which, in
the rebel Capital, floated triumphantly, defiantly, in the very face of treason?
Had there been a spark of manhood left in him, he would have turned back in
shame to hide, at least for the rest of the day, his rebellious head. But no!
With fiercely-blasphemous words he shouted: “Who put that thing up there? Take
it down at once!” Silence prevailed. The order was repeated, with more oaths
and threats. These were met with gentle remonstrance. It was claimed that such a
celebration was a right of prisoners of war, at least in a civilized country.
By this time Dick was furious. He ordered his guard to tear
down the flag; and, as it had been fastened to a high beam under the roof, the
taking down was attended to with some difficulty. At last the arrant Turner held
in his sacrilegious hands the emblem of a Nation’s pride. He could not wrench
from the hearts of those undaunted prisoners what to them was a priceless boon -
love to God and country. Had not these men in hem the stuff of which heroes are
made? No one, surely, will ever contradict this assertation: that no flag ever
had a more unique history, and that no 4th of July ever witnessed a
more loyal demonstration. - LOUIS N. BEAUDRY. Department Chaplain, G.A.R., State
of New York, Albany, N. Y.
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