National Tribune, 8/22/1889

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From the National Tribune, 8/22/1889

LIBBY PRISON.
Ohio Prisoners Hold an Election in Libby Prison.
GREENBACK VS. GRAYBACK.
A Negro Whipped for Attempting to Escape from Libby.
A DRAMATIC SCENE.
The Rebels Did Not Betray the Trust Placed in Them.

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

II.

OCTOBER 13, 1863, the officers from Ohio, 165 in number, held an election, 162 votes being cast for Brough, one for Jewett, two not voting. It was an exciting day, as much so as an election day at home could have been. New prisoners were brought in every few days, until the number in Libby reached nearly 1,200. The new arrivals were designated as “fresh fish,” and a great deal of sport was had at their expense until they became thoroughly naturalized.

Notwithstanding all the privations endured, an unflinching loyalty to the old flag was maintained. One officer, suspected of disloyalty, was arrested, tried by an informally-organized drumhead court-martial, pleaded guilty, was sentenced; but clemency was exercised and sentence suspended. Some 10 or 12 negroes were kept on the first floor to do police work in the different rooms. They were not permitted to go outside the guards around the prison.

During the night of July 24, 1863, those of us on the second floor were aroused by the cries for mercy of a poor darky who was being whipped. As we afterwards learned, a barrel was laid on the floor, he was laid over it, and received on his bare back 250 lashes by actual count. This was done, as we supposed, for exchanging money, but the negroes said it was

FOR ATTEMPTING TO ESCAPE.

Soon after the writer became an inmate of Libby, he found it necessary to exchange greenbacks for Confederate money to enable us to purchase anything. It was a criminal offense for a citizen of the Confederacy to sell anything and take his pay in greenbacks. The blockade runners were very anxious to get the greenbacks to make their purchases, and this led to an exchange system, which was carried on through the rebel guards. My first attempt resulted in an exchange of $2 of Confederate for $1 of Federal money. Succeeding pretty well in my attempts in this line, others brought me their money, as they needed it for use, and I would sometimes have several hundred dollars to exchange at one time.

My plan of operation was to station myself at the head of the stairs leading to the first floor, and when the right man was pacing his beat at the bottom of the stairs, signal to him, and as he walked along with his gun on his shoulder, bayonet fixed, he would move his bayonet along the wall above his head, writing the number of dollars he would give me for one. If satisfactory, I would roll up my money in as small a wad as possible and quietly drop it near his feet, where he could pick it up without stopping in his walk. If he made the exchange speedily, he would toss a little roll up when he came on his beat again. Sometimes it would be a day or two before the trade was consummated, but in not a single instance did they betray the trust we were compelled to place in them.

GREENBACKS SOON BEGAN TO INCREASE IN VALUE,

or, perhaps more properly speaking, Confederate money began to decline, so that before I was released we could get 14 for one. For awhile the exchanges were effected through the sentinel on guard at the stairway; but two or three having been caught at it and arrested, a stop was put to that manner of procuring it, and another but less dangerous plan was adopted.

A hundred dollars would be raised in greenbacks and sent out by one of the negro boys, belonging to the establishment, who would exchange it with some citizen and bring us back the Confederate rags.

We had occasional lectures on different topics - one or two on medicine that I recall; two on temperance, by Brig.-Gen. Neal Dow, which we thoroughly appreciated, for we were then living in the strongest Prohibition locality we had ever been in. Until the Chaplains were exchanged we had frequent religious services. After their departure, several prominent rebel divines officiated for our benefit, but this occasioned one or two mass meetings to decide whether we would have loyal preachers or none. They were finally permitted to continue their services, but the attendance was not very large or enthusiastic. On one occasion, we were all marched into one room, while the other rooms were thoroughly searched for money, hatchets, knives, saws and files, we having accumulated a quantity of the three latter to use in the manufacture of bonework. We had received an intimation of the proposed search some days before and I had concealed a good watch that I then had in the bottom of a large wooden spittoon that was filled with sawdust, where it remained for more than a week. My money at this time I carried concealed between the outside leather and stiffening of a old pair of Government brogans I was wearing.

A DRAMATIC SCENE.

On July 6, 1863, there occurred one of the most dramatic scenes I ever witnessed or participated in. Although more than 20 years have elapsed, I believe that to-day I would rather take the risk of the most sever battle I ever saw than to go through with the same ordeal again. All the Federal Captains in the prison - 75 in number - were ordered to fall in line, were marched down-stairs and into a large vacant room, where we were formed in one rank in a hollow square, and remained there for some moments before e knew what was to take place. A table was brought in and placed in the center, and a box similar to an ordinary ballot-box was placed on it. An order was then read from Gen. Winder, commanding the Department of Richmond, addressed to the Commandant of Prisons, in substance as follows:

“You are ordered to select at once, by lot, from among the Federal Captains in your charge two for immediate execution.”

Seventy-five slips of paper, each having on it the name of one officer, were deposited in the box. We were then informed that we could select one of our own number or one of the Chaplains up-stairs to draw out two of the slips. Father Gray, a Chaplain, was chosen. He made a short prayer, after which he closed his eyes

AND WITH TEARS STREAMINBG DOWN HIS CHEEKS,

he drew out two slips and handed them to the rebel officer in charge, who read the names aloud. The officers selected were Capts. Sawyer, of the 1st N. J. Cav., and Flinn, of the 51st Ind. We were marched back to our quarters and the two Captains were taken to Gen. Winder’s headquarters. The scene was one of the most trying ordeals of my life; the few moments it occupied seemed like years, and I do not think there was a single one of the 75 but what would gladly preferred to have met the enemy face to face in battle a dozen times in preference to once drawing lots in this manner for his life. Fortunately for the two Captains, they were not immediately executed, but were placed in dungeons in the basement of Libby, where they were kept about two weeks. During this delay, our Government being notified of the action of the rebel authorities, at once had Gen. W. H. F. Lee, a nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and Captain Winder, a son of Gen. Winder, placed in close confinement, with instructions to the officer in charge to execute them at once, on receipt of official notification that Capts. Sawyer and Flinn had been executed.  This prompt action on the part of the Federal authorities brought the rebels to time, and after about two weeks close confinement, Sawyer and Flinn were restored to their old quarters with the other prisoners.

Dec. 22, 1863, the New England Captains, 26 in number, were required to draw lots for three persons, to be placed in close confinement at Salisbury, N. C., as hostages for three rebel Captains, at that time confined at Alton, Ill. The unfortunate men selected were Capts. Chase, Litchfield and Kennett. On one occasion a Capt. King was confined two days in a cell for spitting on the floor.

Oct. 28, “George” - a prison policeman - without any provocation, drew a revolver on one of the prisoners, when Lieut. Reed, of the 3d Ohio, a wounded officer, told him he must not attempt that there. For this offense Lieut. Reed was taken down to the cell and kept three days, the first night without a blanket.

At one time a cage, about six feet by ten, was constructed in one of the lower rooms, and four officers -

WHITE MEN OF COLORED REGIMENTS -

were confined in it with several negro soldiers, as an extra punishment for being guilty of commanding negro troops.

Occasionally an officer would escape from the prison. Maj. Huston, who had been in the hospital - then in the lower east room - for some time, and was a tailor by trade, was trade, was employed by a rebel Surgeon, he donned the uniform himself, and about dusk one evening walked out as “The Surgeon,” and succeeded in passing the guards without difficulty. This escape so alarmed the rebels that they took possession of the lower east room, locating the hospital in the room above, nailing up the floor between that and the other upper rooms, and then they gave us the lower middle room, taking the precaution to nail up the windows in the room, and double the guard on the outside of the building. An officer who was in citizen’s dress, while attending “sick call” one morning on the first floor, apparently unconcernedly walked past the guard, and succeeded in making his escape. Maj. White, of the 67th Pa., at the time the Surgeons were released, arranged with one of them to go in his place, but was detected before they were transferred at City Point, brought back, and placed in a cell, and were ordered to divulge the name of the Surgeon or go without rations. The Surgeon was found, but claimed that he was left on account of ill health. On another occasion Col. A. D. Streight and Capt. Reed made an attempt to escape, were caught, and as a punishment

WERE PLACED IN A CELL FOR SEVERAL DAYS.

During the Winter plans were made to tunnel out, but number of difficulties presented themselves. The prison building extended from one street to another street ran along one of the sides. On the fourth side there was a vacant space of about 40 feet in width; then a high board fence inclosing a lot, on which stood a building used for the storage of private boxes sent for prisoners. A large portion of the time the officers were confined entirely on the second and third floors, but being crowded very much for room we were finally permitted to use what was called the lower middle room for cooking and promenading, but not for sleeping purposes. In this room there was a fireplace, only used to pile wood in to be used in the cook-stove that stood directly in front of it. A board in the floor in the fireplace was taken up, thus access was gained to that portion of the basement, a few feet in depth, and not occupied for any purpose. Once there, it was necessary to get an opening through the division foundation wall into the basement, a few feet in depth, and not occupied for any purpose. Once there, it was necessary to get an opening through the division foundation wall into the basement under the outside tier of rooms. Fortunately, the only portion of the basement in use was at the other end of the building. Then an opening had to be made through the outside foundation-wall, from which point the tunnel had to be excavated some 50 feet to a place inside to the inclosure before mentioned. The appliances for doing this work were limited. Knives and an old hatchet or two were used.

A WOODEN SPITTOON WAS USED AS A CAR

to transport the dirt as it was dug from the person working back into the basement, a string attached to two sides of it enabling it to be pulled back and forth. Consequently the work progressed slowly. Once, thinking they had got far enough, they carefully made a small opening to the surface, when finding they were directly under the beat of the prison-guard, it was hastily closed, and the tunnel extended. Feb. 9 it was understood by those in the secret that all was ready for the escape. It had been arranged that a certain number should go out each night for three nights in succession; that being as long as we could probably keep the roll-call all right At roll-call each day the men were formed in four ranks, and the files counted. This in each of the three rooms on the second floor. They were counted in the first room by a rebel Sergeant, who then went down-stairs and up into the second room, and counted there, and then into a third room. Doors between rooms were supposed to be closed, but in fact there was an opening in them, concealed by shelving, through which enough men could pass to keep the count in the aggregate all right. About 9 p.m. the first attempt was made to pass out. It being discovered by many who were not in the secret, they became so excited that a crowd was gathered around the starting point. Soon the cry was raised that the rebels had discovered it, and were coming in, and the prisoners scattered to their quarters.

AFTER ALL HAD QUIETED DOWN,

a number more succeeded in getting out, but the original plans having all been broken up, we were unable to tell how many had escaped, and consequently our plans for keeping the count all right were frustrated, and at the morning roll-call the prison officials discovered that there had been quite an exodus during the night. One hundred and nine succeeded in getting out. Of this number about one half reached our lines. The others were recaptured singly and in squads, and returned to Libby. The rebels, after discovering the opening to the tunnel, sent a darky boy to crawl through, before they were able to find where the outlet was located. One of the prisoners, who was a very large man, in attempting to crawl through, came very near sticking fast, and it was only by the exertions of those in front and rear of him, that he succeeded in getting through.

THIS ESCAPE CAUSED THE REBELS

to redouble their vigilance, and we hardly dared look out the windows for fear of being shot at; and it was nothing strange to have roll-call by name, which was a very slow and tedious affair, occupying several hours. Not long after, when the Federal troops on one or two occasions came very near reaching Richmond, and the rebels feared an uprising among the prisoners that 1,000 pounds of powder had been placed under Libby, and in case any attempt was made to break out the prison would be blown up. At this time there were over 1,100 officers confined in Libby.

Nov. 12 it was announced that the Surgeons had been exchanged Everybody at once went to work writing long letters, to be secreted on the persons of the fortunate doctors, and in that way were smuggled through the blockade. Finally, on the 24th, the Surgeons were notified to be ready to leave in a few moments, as the rebel Surgeons had arrived. They were told to disgorge the letters they had concealed about their persons, and a few did so. They were searched below, but with what success those remaining did not know. Letters were concealed in a variety of ways - in the lining of hats, coats, pants, boots, under shoulder-straps, bandaged around sore legs, twisted up in small wads and carried loosely in the pockets, concealed in plugs of tobacco, loaves of bread, etc.

IN DESCRIBING INCIDENTS IN LIBBY LIFE

there are two things about which but very little can be said in a public way, and yet both occasioned a great deal of discomfort at all times, and frequently caused much suffering. I refer to the sanitary arrangements of the prison and the vermin with which it was infested. A squad of darkies, who were kept in the lower part of the prison, once a week usually, sometimes once in two weeks, scrubbed the floor in a very slipshod manner. Many of the prisoners, for a long time after they were captured, had a very limited supply of clothing, frequently, but a single piece of underwear.

The writer, for some months, had only one shirt, and while that was being washed he went without, and may others were in the same predicament. Three of us had but one towel between us for a long time, and that had been given us by some loyal friends in Winchester after our capture. The closets were such only in name, and just as public as any part of the building, and were kept in a filthy condition for the want of being properly arranged. Privacy was a thing simply impossible. Many of the officers received in Libby their first introduction to what afterwards became the very familiar grayback. When over 1,100 officers were in the prison they were badly cramped for room, and at night were stretched out on the floor in close proximity to each other

LIKE SARDINES IN A BOX.

In this condition of affairs the vermin fairly revelled, and all that could be done was to fight day by day, as it were, for your lives to keep the enemy within any kind of bounds. Skirmishing for the enemy became an almost constant occupation. This, like almost everything else that transpired in prison, was turned into a source of merriment by some.

In the latter part of the Summer of 1863 our Government sent to Richmond for distribution among the Federal prisoners 15,000 complete outfits of clothing. They were consigned to Brig.-Gen. Neal Dow, who was at that time the ranking officer among the prisoners in Libby. By some means or other he had excited the special enmity of the rebel officials, and they would not permit him to have anything to do with the distribution, and caused the following order to be issued:

COMMANDANT’S OFFICE,
C. S. MILITARY PRISONS,
RICHMOND, Dec. 5, 1863.

Special Order No. ___,

A committee of Federal officers, to be called “Board of Distribution,” is hereby appointed, to consist of the following members: Lieut.-Col. Boyd, Lieut.-Col. Sanderson, Lieut.-Col. Hunter, Lieut.-Col. Von Schrader, Capt. Chamberlin.

This board will report to Capt. C. McRae Selph, Assistant Adjutant-General, who will assign them to such duties in connection with distribution and delivery of Quartermaster and Commissary stores for Federal prisoners of war as he may deem advisable. This board, under Capt. Selph’s direction, will be the only authorized party to sign certificates of issues and distribution, and in case the board needs assistance they can apply through Capt. Selph for one or more members for temporary duty.

By order of T. P. TURNER,
Major Commanding.

Official: C. McRAE SELPH.
A. A. and Q. M. G., C. S. A.

Lieut.-Col. Archer was subsequently added to the committee. This “Board of Distribution” spent nearly three months in the discharge of the duty assigned them. No parole was given by members of the Board, but it was tacitly understood that no attempt to escape would be made while in the discharge of this duty. At that time there were nearly 15,000 enlisted men prisoners in Richmond, divided among the different prisons as follows: On Belle Isle, 8,000; in Smith Building, 800; in Scott building, 2,200; in Crews Building, 1,000; in Pemberton Building, 1,500; in Hospital No. 21, 600; in Hospital No. 22, 400; in Hospital No. 23, 350. Making a total of 14, 850.

This committee left Libby about 9 a. m. every day, returning at 5 p. m., and was accompanied by a prison policeman to and from the different prisons.

EACH PRISONER WAS SEEN IN PERSON

by someone of the Board, his condition examined into, and his wants supplied so far as it was possible to do. A receipt was taken from each man, an accurate account kept of the issues of clothing and a full statement of same sent to our Government. The men were found in a very needy and suffering condition, especially those on Belle Isle. The prisoners there were confined within an embankment on the level portion of the island, largely without any shelter whatever, exposed to all kinds of weather, poorly clad and with starving rations during the whole Winter. Was it any wonder that men suffered and died rapidly? Those who were confined in the prison buildings in the city did not suffer so much from exposure, but the rations were the same, and during the latter part of the Winter smallpox broke out among them.

The most extreme cases of starvation and suffering were to be seen in the hospitals, for only the worst cases were brought there. It is simply impossible to describe the sufferings we witnessed. Men were dying from starvation, begging for something to eat; others who were swarming with vermin were too weak to keep them down. Thank God! those days of suffering are over. Wounds and death on the battlefield were far preferable to those months of starvation and suffering, and in so many cases death, followed by a burial among the large army of graves marked “unknown.”

Jan. 24, 1864, there were 938 in the hospitals; 16 died that day, and 788 died during the months of October, November and December.

Feb. 4, the Board having completed its labors, they were officially disbanded by orders from the prison commandant.

The 1st of March came and no officers had been exchanged, excepting Chaplains and Surgeons, all non-combatants. Every day or two it would be currently rumored that the flag-of-truce boat was at City Point, and exchanges would commence at once; but the days contrived to come and go - oh, how slowly! - and

WE WERE STILL IN DURANCE VILE.

During the afternoon of Sunday, March 6, 1864, a few paroled rebel officers and quite a number of private soldiers were brought up from City Point. As they marched past the prison, fat, hearty and well-clothed, no further evidence was necessary to convince those who saw them of the striking difference in the manner in which prisoners were cared for North and South.

The following morning was an exciting one in Libby. Different rebel officials had notified a number of the prisoners that their names were on the list to go, the writer’s being among the number; but when the list was actually called only a few were taken. A few days later I was sent for by Inspector Turner [ed. note: Richard K. “Dick” Turner] for a private interview. It had been currently reported that for a day or two that several officers had secured their exchange by bribing one of the rebel officials. Turner knew that I had a gold watch that I had managed to retain, and I strongly suspected it would secure my release, but I hated to part with it; although he was very courteous, informing me that he had intended  that I should go on the first boat, but had been unable to so arrange it, but assured me that I should go in the next party.

DID NOT GIVE UP THE WATCH.

The interview terminated, and I and my watch went back to our quarters together, and when the list was called in a few days for the next party my name was not there. About this time it became the rage to secure autographs of as many of the prisoners as possible, and many promises were made to exchange photographs when released. March 21, 1864, 62 Federal officers were selected to be exchanged, the writer being among the number, and we were marched down to the landing and placed on the gunboat Schultz; 925 enlisted men were put on the steamer Allison, and started for City Point.

Before leaving the prison the officers were searched for letters they were supposed to have concealed about their persons from prisoners left behind for their friends in the North. The officers were kept below deck until we had reached Drury’s Bluff, that we might not see the fortifications about Richmond. About 11 p.m. at City Point we were transferred to the Federal steamer New York. When all were on board rousing cheers were given for the old flag that once more floated over us, everybody realizing the fact that we were again in God’s country. An hour or two later, with full stomachs once again, and with thankful hearts, we lay down to rest among friends.

(The end.)

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