From the National Tribune, Thursday, 8/15/1889

LIBBY PRISON.
Lee’s Army Advances into Pennsylvania.
MILROY’S COMPLIMENTS.
Introduction to the Celebrated “Hotel de Libby.”
PRISON AMUSEMENTS.
Grapevine Rumors Regarding Exchange of Prisoners.

BY J. W. CHAMBERLAIN, LATE CAPTAIN, CO. A, 123D OHIO, AND BREVET MAJOR.

I.

[Author describes, at length, the history of the regiment, and his capture, prior to the battle of Gettysburg. This was not transcribed.]

From Staunton we were taken by railroad to Richmond, reaching there Tuesday, June 23, and were immediately introduced to our quarters in “Hotel de Libby,” first being pretty thoroughly searched, ostensibly for money, but really for anything they could use or thought they wanted. Nearly all succeeded, however, in secreting the bulk of the money they had. I remember a rebel officer taking from me several sheets of paper, which, being white, was a great rarity with them, they only having brown paper, and placing it in the rear pocket of a frock coat he was wearing, continued his search. One of our officers noticed it, and adroitly removing it returned it to me.

DESCRIPTION OF LIBBY PRISON.

A brief description of the building may be necessary to a full understanding of some incidents that afterwards occurred there. Before the war it was occupied by Libby & Son, ship chandlers and grocers, from which fact it took the name of Libby Prison. It was of brick, 150 feet front by 105 feet deep, fronting on Cary street and extending back to Canal street, the canal being just beyond, and then the James River. The building was three stories high, with floors but no ceilings, resembling a grain warehouse inside. It had window frames, but no glass, instead of which, at first, there were wooden bars, leaving apertures about the size of common glass, consequently we had plenty of ventilation – especially in the Winter. There were no bunks of any description, and no seats, excepting one or two benches. A small kitchen was partitioned off, in which were three old brokendown cooking stoves, and a few broken kettles. Each story was divided into three rooms. The lower room of the first tier was occupied by the various officers employed about the prison. The lower middle room was only occasionally occupied. The lower third tier was the hospital, and the balance of the building was for the prisoners. The basement was used by a few darkies, who did the rough work of the prison. There were also two or three cells, dungeon-like in the basement. Castle Thunder was about a square distant, and Belle Isle about two miles.

WHEN I ENTERED LIBBY

we found about 500 prisoners there, composed of the officers of Col. A. D. Streight’s command. Before I left the number was increased to more than 1,100. The rebel officials directly in charge of the prison were Capt. Thomas P. Turner, commandant of the prison, subsequently promoted to Major; Adj’t Latouche; R. R. Turner, familiarly called “Dick” Turner, Inspector of Prisons; and A. B. Ross, Clerk. For the first month we were compelled to subsist on the rations doled out to us, as “Milroy’s thieves,” as we were styled, were not permitted to make any purchases outside. We were given about half enough soft bread, small red beans, poor, flabby beef, with an occasional taste of very poor sweet potatoes. Each man’s rations were doled out to him very exactly, and the crumbs that fell to the floor were closely looked after and when found promptly appropriated. As soon as we were put on the same footing as prisoners from other commands, and permitted to purchase articles, we fared better.

The kitchen, in one corner, was about eight by twenty feet in size, and contained three wornout cook-stoves and a few broken utensils. The prisoners were divided into messes of from four to twenty in size, and the cooking for several hundred men was done in this little room. The kitchen, crowded full of occupants about mealtime, was a lively place, I assure you. Green pine wood was used for fuel, and any of you who have ever used it know what a nice fire it makes. Every available spot on he stoves was covered with cooking utensils of every imaginable shape and kind. Each cook was watching his own particular pot or pan, and wo betide the man who stepped out of the room for a moment; on his return he would be sure to find his own pan removed and someone else’s in its place. Then came the fun. Like little children, their angry passions would rise; and although they did not exactly scratch out each other’s eyes, on more than one occasion these disputes came very near having a serious ending, demonstrating thoroughly that starvation would bring to the surface

ALL THE ANIMAL THERE IS IN MAN.

I well remember a Captain in our regiment – a large, powerful man, very slow and deliberate in action – washing the ration of meat for our mess of 20, a piece weighing probably three pounds, at the water-faucet, when a young Lieutenant of the Regular Army suddenly thrust his cup under the faucet, pushing away the meat, when the Captain slowly raised his eyes, and seeing in the Lieutenant’s face a look of contempt, like a flash he raised the meat, and the Lieutenant received a “sockdolager” back of the ear with it that it struck him like a solid shot, and a lively scrimmage followed. In it all, however, you may be sure the meat was carefully looked after and applied to its intended use.

Our wheatbread rations continued for two months, when a change was made to solid cornbread, made out of corn ground cob and all and mixed with cold water, baked solid, which supplied us with a very substantial article of diet.

The supply of meat soon became very uncertain; sometimes a whole week would elapse without any, and on three occasions, to my personal knowledge, mule meat was issued to us, and as a matter of course it was not a very fat mule either, for they did not kill that kind, as they had better use for them; and, in fact, we had serious doubts whether they had been killed or had died a natural death. The officers in hospital at one time were 48 hours without rations. On one occasion meat was issued to us only once in 16 days; at another time once in two weeks. The rations furnished officers were always uncooked, but those given to the enlisted men were cooked, and consisted of weak soup – as it is called; better say

WEAK WATER IN OLD DIRTY PAILS,

and about six ounces of poor bread to a man. When complaint was made to the prison officials as to the quality ad quantity of the food furnished, their reply would be that it was the best they could do, and I presume there was possibly a grain of truth in that. The daily papers were constantly complaining about their Government feeding so many Yankees, and one paper advised the authorities to confiscate boxes of clothing and provisions sent us by our friends in the North. As soon as we became satisfied that immediate exchange was very uncertain, we began to order provisions and clothing from our Northern friends. At first these supplies were delivered to us quite promptly, but they soon suspected us of smuggling in letters and money in this way, and they had good cause to. The many different ways used to conceal these articles exhibited the ingenuity of our friends at home. As all letters sent us in the regular way were read by the rebel officials before delivery to us, we did not know where to look for the concealed articles, and sometimes they were not found for weeks. The writer on one occasion received money which had been placed in a small vial and concealed in a jar of canned fruit; on another occasion in a package of ground coffee, and again in a loaf of bread, where it had been placed before baking. Other parties found such articles in a roll of butter, deftly inserted in a plug of tobacco, or laid between two leaves of a book and the edges pasted together. The result of this suspicion on the part of the officials was that great delay ensued in the delivery of packages, and they were ruthlessly torn open; bread and cakes cut in small pieces, cans of fruit opened, and we received the contents of our boxes

IN A TERRIBLY MANGLED CONDITION.

This continued to grow worse, until it became almost impossible to get the boxes sent you, and finally delivery was often refused in any shape. As soon as we were permitted to do so, we began to send out orders for provisions to be bought in the markets at Richmond. This had to be done through a prison official, and you can rest assured that the commission he retained was no small one. We could only purchase certain articles, and those usually of very inferior quality. I recollect that I had been a prisoner five months before I succeeded in purchasing any butter in this way.

In mentioning the attaches of the prison, I neglected to mention two that we saw more frequently than the others – George ___, a Sergeant, who was used to communicate orders to the prisoners, and “Gen. Johnson,” a gentleman of color, who was a prisoner as well as ourselves. His duty consisted of supplying us with smoke for fumigating purposes, which he did every morning, carrying a large skillet filled with tar and coals through all the rooms of the prison, crying out: “Here is your nice smoke, without money and without price. Only one more smoke.” He also gathered up the dirty clothes, once a week, which he was permitted to take out to be washed, returning them Sunday mornings at the small charge of

THREE PIECES FOR ONE DOLLAR.

He also, for some time, monopolized the shaving and hair-cutting, which operation he performed at the moderate price of 25 cents for the former and 75 for the latter, but he was finally superseded by a German Lieutenant, which compelled him to abandon his calling and turn bootblack. The old man was a regular fixture in Libby, having been in the prison nearly two years. He was also an old soldier, having accompanied a Pennsylvania regiment through the Mexican war. Every morning at 9 o’clock “George” made his appearance, and with a peculiar intonation of voice, called out: “Fall in, sick, and go down!” At this command those who desired to be prescribed for huddled together and went down to the first floor, where they were examined by the rebel Surgeon, who was always spoken of as a kind and attentive physician, who, after making a minute of their cases, sent them back to their rooms, excepting those whom it was deemed necessary to send to the hospital. In the course of two or three hours the medicine would be brought up and distributed to the sick. While speaking of the sick, I wish to say that our enlisted men – prisoners – who were so unfortunate as to become sick, were treated outrageously. They were often allowed to lie on the wet ground on Belle Isle until the last moment, when they would be brought to the hospitals in the city

TO BREATHE THEIR LAST!

Out of 16 brought over in one day, I have known four to be taken out dead the next morning.

The prison guards were usually quartered near by, and when on duty walked their beats on the curbstone of the sidewalks around the building, and during the night called out the hours: “Nine o’clock! Lights out!” “One o’clock! and all’s well!”  sometimes varied to suit the exigencies of he occasion. I remembered one cold morning the cry was  “Six o’clock and cold as ___.” There were usually no guards in the building, except one or two stationed at the foot of the stairways leading to the second floor. The guards employed were city troops, whose treatment of us was in great contrast with that received from Capt. Wingfield’s company, 58th Va., who brought us to Richmond. When with the latter we fared in every respect just as they did. They had been in active service, and knew something of the horrors of war, while the city militia seemed to take delight in adding to our suffering, if possible. On several occasions prisoners were fired at on the slightest provocation, or even none at all. One prisoner, in his anxiety to see what was going on in the street, stuck his head out of the window, and without any warning a guard fired, and a ball whistled very close to the poor fellow’s head. On another occasion, a prisoner, while in the closet, and infringing no rules, had his ear shot off.

Everything in the line of reading matter was eagerly sought after. A portion of the time an old darky was permitted to bring in the Richmond daily papers for sale. They cost 25 cents apiece, and were printed on a very small sheet of inferior quality of wrapping-paper. To get a Northern paper of a late date was a prize indeed. A case of Harper’s Select Library of novels, sent to a prisoner by his Northern friends, had a large circulation. Letter writing was carried on to some extent, until the prison officials got tired of reading so many before starting them North, that an order was issued by Maj. Turner that no federal officer would be permitted to write letters of more than six lines each to the

“SO-CALLED UNITED STATES,”

and not more than one letter per week, and that to be handed to the sergeant on Monday morning. The one universal thought that predominated in a prisoner’s mind from the time he entered “Hotel de Libby,” as the boys facetiously termed it, until his release, was, “How soon will we be exchanged?”

When we first made our advent into that highly popular institution, it was certainly thought that we would not possibly remain longer than ten days or two weeks. At the end of that time we were still there, and remained there for nearly nine months before any officers were exchanged, excepting Chaplains and Surgeons. Who was to blame for this, to us, unaccountable delay we could not tell, situated as we were. The rebels continually said it was the fault of the Federal authorities. Exchange rumors were very abundant. The slightest foundation sufficed for the most extravagant reports. One day our hopes would be raised to the highest point, the next they would be away below zero. The rebel authorities published a statement that they had made a certain proposition to our Government, which was so plausible on its face that we thought it would be immediately accepted as a matter of course; but something intervened to prevent the exchange. And so it continued. First would come the report that the Surgeons and Chaplains were going off on the next boat, and the officers were to follow immediately. That would be at once succeeded by the report that the Commissioners had disagreed, and there would be no more exchanges during the war. The next report would come from the hospital to the effect that a clerk in the War Department had just been in to see a friend there and told him that there was a boat up, and that the Chaplains and some of the officers would go off on it. This was reliable, because it came through Maj. White or Douglas. Next day it was reported that Maj. Norris, who was connected with the Exchange Bureau, had been up and told his friend, Dr. Worthington, that there was no boat up, and that it was probable there would be no exchanges for some time, as our Government would have to back down

ON DR. RUCKER’S CASE FIRST.

As soon as one of these reports was announced it would be followed by bets freely offered on either side as to its correctness, and vociferous cries of “Get ready! Pack up! Pack up!” came from all parts of the prison, and the inmates would gather in crowds to discuss it. One man would give it as his opinion that it was certainly correct, for it came from a reliable gentleman. The next man was a little doubtful, while the third one declared he would hardly believe we were exchanged, even if Maj. Turner was to come up himself and announce the fact. This constant excitement, followed by depression, affected the health of the many, and in at least one or two very plain cases caused the death of officers confined in Libby. To keep the mind off this subject all imaginable plans were devised to employ the time either beneficially or for amusement. Classes were organized in a variety of branches, and capable teachers were readily found.

Those who were skilful with the knife and file employed their time in carving trinkets out of bones taken from the meat furnished us, and some very handsome specimens were the result of their labors. Card-playing was an almost universal pastime, and many became very proficient at it. While the Chaplains remained with us prayer meetings were regularly held. The writer has seen a prayer meeting and two or three faro tables in operation at the same time in one of the large rooms. There were also some very fine chess-players among the prisoners. One Lieutenant I remember became so proficient that he could play two and even three games at the same time, blindfolded. Amateur theatricals were indulged in to some extent. Performers blacked as minstrels went under the name of the

“LIBBY BURLESQUE TROUPE,”

and their entertainments became so interesting on some occasions that even the rebel officials and their friends came in as spectators.

Saturday morning, Oct. 17, they announced in their program that they would appear for the last time that evening, owing to their having an engagement in Washington to fill, for which purpose they expected to leave on next flag-of-truce boat. They exhibited to a crowded house of Yankees, with a few rebels included. The performances were very good, considering the impromptu manner in which they were gotten up. They consisted of songs, dances, imitations of roll-calls and other acts of the prison officials and guards, closing with the reading of the “Libby Ironical,” intended as a burlesque of the “Libby Chronicle,” the weekly issue of which had been read the forenoon previous.

Some things that would be thought ridiculous elsewhere caused a great deal of fun in prison. One evening, attracted by loud laughter in one of the rooms, I rushed to see what was the matter, and found an officer in the center of the crowd, standing bent over, while another held a hat closely under his eyes. Suddenly, someone in the crowd hit him a sounding slap on his posterior with the open palm of his hand, when the other, promptly springing erect, would glance over the spectators, and if he could point out the man who struck him that one would have to take his place, and the same formula would be again gone through with. One of the officers who was most active in this performance I saw next morning with his hand so swollen he could not close it.

DURING THE HOT WEATHER

of July and August, the variety displayed in the costumes of the inmates was decidedly amusing. Here you would see a man with nothing but shirt and drawers on, there one with drawers minus the shirt, while close by was a another one with the shirt minus the drawers, and still another with nothing on but a long linen duster; his clothes were out being washed, no doubt. This kind of dress was no doubt very comfortable during that kind of weather, but when the cold weather of Winter came, it was rather unpleasant to be compelled to go around without socks or drawers and only one shirt, which valuable articles you were obliged to dispose with occasionally for the purpose of having them washed. The supply of blankets was quite sufficient during the warm weather, but when the cold nights set in, it was soon discovered that while some had an abundant supply of them others had only one, and a great many had none at all. Repeated complaints having been made to the rebel officials, Inspector Turner made his appearance one Sunday morning, and proceeded to call for a division of the house, prisoners in one room and blankets in another, and gave to each man as he passed into the room two old U. S. blankets; but the supply not being sufficient for the purpose, the remainder of the men had to do without, and on application afterwards to the authorities, were informed that that they had no more blankets, consequently could give us none. Commissioner Ould, however, stated that he was expecting a supply by the next flag-of-truce boat from our Government. The bedding and clothing furnished for our sick in the hospital was supplied by the United States Sanitary Commission. On the 4th of July an attempt was made to get up a little impromptu celebration. A flag was constructed by tearing up some shirts of the proper colors, and when completed we fastened it up in the ceiling of the third story room, and commenced our speeches. The rebels soon detected what was going on, and sent up an officer with orders to us to take the flag down; but not a prisoner touched it, and he was compelled to take it down himself.

(To be continued.)

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