Philadelphia Weekly Times, 12/10/1881

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From the Philadelphia Weekly Times, Saturday, 12/10/1881 (Vol. V, No. 42)


The Silver Lining in the Dark Cloud That Overhung Federal Prisoners.


A Reduced Fac-Simile of a Famous Christmas Eve Playbill.


Annals of the War of the Rebellion - Chapters o Unwritten History.


Late Captain in the Seventy-third N. Y. Volunteers.

Doubtless the popular belief concerning Libby Prison is that it was a gloomy dungeon where the light of social pleasure never entered and where horrors accumulated upon Horror’s head. And when it is considered how often during the heated days of the rebellion the troubles of prison life were so graphically and withal so truthfully depicted by returned prisoners, this impression is natural enough. Yet a fair and full investigation will establish the fact that the popular conception of Libby Prison is erroneous to a considerable degree, and illustrating this, it is my present purpose to bring to light a few of the pleasures of the place. I shall not attempt to present them in anything like symmetrical order, but give them as they may arise in memory after the lapse of seventeen years. I must ask pardon at the same time if what I shall record of prison life partakes somewhat of the nature of a personal recollection, for it must be remembered that every prisoner has a personal experience that materially differs from that of his comrade. It is, after all, only by the combination of these individual reminiscences that a full ad accurate account of the events of the war can be obtained, and it should be regarded not only as the privilege but the duty of the soldiers of the Union to give their testimony as living witnesses concerning these ever-memorable events.


It was my fortune, or rather my misfortune, to fall wounded into the hands of the Confederates in the battle of Gettysburg and to remain a prisoner for the twenty months that followed. The first half of the time was spent in Libby Prison, and the remainder of the time in Macon, Ga., and Columbia and Charleston, S. C. Having bee captured in the second day’s fight I witnessed the final struggle of the third day from behind the Confederate lines and was directly in the rear of Pickett’s Division when its magnificent but vain charge was made to break the Union left centre. The column of prisoners accompanied the retreat of the Confederate army, crossing the swollen Potomac at Williamsport in a torrent of rain. Our route toward Richmond was through the beautiful but then devastated valley of the Shenandoah, our journey on foot being not much less than two hundred miles. The column having taken cars at Staunton arrived in Richmond on July 18, 1863, and was at once conducted under guard toward the southeastern border of the city followed by a boisterous mob of men, women and children. We halted at last in front of an antiquated brick building, over the office door of which there creaked upon its rusty hinges a small weather-beaten sign of oblong shape, bearing on either side in faded letters, the inscription: “Libby & Sons, Ship Chandlers and Grocers,” while from the barred windows above there peered down upon us in silence a group of pale faces, and the captives then for the first time realized that they stood on the threshold of the famed Libby Prison.


Libby was a Northern man and I believe a native of Maine, who, prior to the war, owned and occupied the premises, never dreaming in those peaceful, prosy days of business that the modest sign, scarcely larger than a washboard, would through the strange fortunes of a future war be the means of linking his name forever with one of the most noted of military prisons and assuredly one of the most interesting landmarks of the rebellion. The building had a frontage from east to west of a hundred and forty-five feet and a depth from north to south of one hundred and five feet. It stood isolated from other buildings, with streets passing its front, rear and west ends and with a vacant space on the east about sixty feet in width. A line of sentinels guarded the prison from every side. The portion of the building devoted to the use of prisoners consisted of nine rooms, each a hundred and two feet in length by forty-five in breadth. The ceiling was about eight feet high, except in the upper rooms, which were higher, better lighted and better ventilated, owing to the pitch of the roof. Rickety, unbanistered stairs led from the lower to the upper rooms, and all the rooms of the upper floors were connected by doors, leaving free access from one to the other. With the exception of a few rude bunks and tables in the upper and lower west rooms, which were respectively termed “Streight’s room” and “Milroy’s room,” and four long tables in the lower middle of “Kitchen room,” there was no furniture in the prison, its rooms presenting the ordinary appearance of warehouse lofts. The north windows commanded a partial view of the hilly portion of the city which in 1862 was in sight of McClellan’s outposts. From the east the prisoners could look of toward the Rocketts and City Point. The south windows looked out upon the canal and the James River with Manchester opposite and a portion of Belle Isle, while from the windows of the upper west room could be seen Castle Thunder, Jefferson Davis’ mansion and the Confederate capital. From the staff above the roof there floated to the breeze the ensign of the Confederacy. Such in all essential points were the external and internal features of Libby Prison when the column of prisoners from Gettysburg entered its doors in July, 1863.


Of its occupants it can be said that Libby prison was a vast museum of human character, where the chances of war had brought into close communion men of every type and temperament, where military rank was wholly ignored and where all shared in a common lot. At the time particularly referred to, and which covers probably the most interesting portion of the prison’s history, that is, the year embraced between the early spring of 1863 and May, 1864, there were confined there about twelve hundred Union commissioned officers of all ranks and all branches of the army and navy, representing every loyal State. They were not men who would have sought each other’s society of their own accord from any natural or social affinity, but who, united upon the common bond of patriotism, had been involuntarily forced together by the fortunes of war, which, like politics, often “makes strange bedfellows.” There were men of all sizes and all nationalities. Youth and age were side by side and titled men of Europe who had enlisted in our cause might be found among the captives. There were about thirty doctors, as many ministers, a score of journalists and lawyers, a few actors and a proportionate representation from all the popular trades and professions that could engage men in civil life. Among them were extensive travelers and brilliant scholars, who had seen the world and could entertain audiences for hours with narratives of their journeyings abroad; indeed, among the genuine attractions o the prison was the profitable pleasure always to be derived by an intimate association with a convention of men of bright and cultured minds, who had in their love of country often led their squadrons on the rough edge of battle, and who in their history and in themselves presented the best types of modern chivalry. It was, indeed, a remarkable convention and the circumstances are not likely to arise that will reassemble its counterpart again in this generation.

Take it all in that Libby Prison from the strange and vast mixture f its inmates as well as from all its peculiar surroundings, was, doubtless, the best school for the study of human nature that has ever been seen in this country. It will not seem strange, therefore, that men of such varied talents, tastes and dispositions, shipwrecked by fortune in this peculiar manner, should begin to devise ways and means to turn the tedious hours of prison life to some account. To this end meetings and consultations were held and various plans set on foot or the amusement and instruction of the prisoners. A minstrel troupe was organized and it could boast of talent that would compare favorably with some of the professional companies of to-day. By a generous contribution of money a number of musical instruments were purchased, forming a very respectable orchestra, and soon the refreshing and welcome sound of music enlivened the place and often when the weary-souled prisoner had lain down for the night there would steal over the dark and dismal place the familiar strains of “Home, Sweet, home,” and if there was ever a time and place when that old melody touched the tenderest chords of the soldier’s heart it was on Christmas Eve behind the barred windows of Libby Prison. Groups of men could be seen in all parts of the rooms seated on the floor playing chess, checkers, cards or such games as engaged their fancy. Many busied themselves wit their penknives making bone rings and ornaments of various designs - many of them being carved with exquisite skill, that entitled them to rank as positive works of art, and these are now cherished treasures in many northern homes.


 In the upper east room might have been seen General (then Colonel) di Cesnola, of the Fourth New York Cavalry, instructing a class of officers in the school of the battalion. Colonel di Cesnola was a brave and able officer, as well as a learned and courteous gentleman, whose acquirement of the famous treasures of art at Cyprus, known as the “Cesnola collection,” has given him since the war such deserved eminence in the world o art. In the upper east room also might have been seen Colonel Cavada, of the One Hundred and Fourteenth Pennsylvania, busy writing his book, “Libby Life.” Poor fellow! the dream of his life was to free his native island from Spanish rule, and returning from the war he took part in the patriots’ revolt in Cuba, fell into the hands of the Spaniards and was mercilessly put to death with a score of his ill-fated comrades. Many of the prisoners will recall his beautifully descriptive lecture on Cuba, with the history, resources and scenery of which he was wonderfully familiar.

At every hour of the day learned linguists taught attentive classes in French, German, Spanish and all popular languages. Phonography was also taught, as well as grammar, arithmetic and other branches of study. The owner of a book in Libby was the object of immeasurable envy, and I remember on one occasion upon seeing an officer with Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” I sought out the owner, who put my name down on his list of applicants to borrow it, and my turn to read it came six months afterwards. Dancing was among the accomplishments taught to large classes, and it was truly refreshing to see grave colonels tripping the “light fantastic.” Under the minister’s charge daily and nightly prayer meetings were held, and as there was generally a “ball” going on at the same time it was not infrequent to see a lively “break-down” at one end of the room and a prayer meeting at the other and to hear the loud tum of the banjo mingling with the solemn melody of the doxology. The doctors endeavored to enlighten audiences by occasional lectures on “gun-shot wounds,” “amputation,” ‘the effect of starvation on the human system” and other cheerful topics.


General Neil Dow, of Maine liquor-law fame, in several eloquent discourses, warned his fellow prisoners against the blighting evils of intemperance, and it is but just to the general’s eloquence and to my comrades to record that during the remainder of their stay at the Confederate capital no cases of intoxication occurred among them. While the general was a prisoner his cotton mill at Portland was burned, and one of the Richmond papers copying the news from the Northern journals substituted for the word “mills” the word “distillery,” a cruel joke upon the earnest general. A debating society was formed and all manner of subjects were discussed, bringing to light a goodly number of really eloquent speakers, who have since achieved fortune and distinction throughout the country. A form of amusement at night when the lights were out was what was termed the “catechism,” which consisted of loud questions and answers, mimicries and cries, which, when combined and in full blast, made a pandemonium compared with which a mad house or a boiler foundry would have been a peaceful refuge, and such cries as “Tead, of Reading!” “Pack up!” “Who broke the big rope?”  “Who stole Mosby’s hash?” and “Who shaved the nigger of the truck?” all as unintelligible as Choctaw to the un[in]itiated were pointed and plain enough to those who used them, alluding as they did to events and persons of the prison. All enjoyed them except the victims at whom they were aimed.


In each of the large rooms at night the prisoners covered the floor completely, lying in straight rows like prostrate lines of battle. It was, of course, inevitable that among such a large number of sleepers there should appear the usual affliction of loud snorers, whose involuntary discord at times drew a terrific broadside of boots, tin-cans and other convenient missiles, which invariably struck the wrong man with the most deadly precision. Among our number was one particular officer, whose unfortunate habit of grinding his teeth secured him a larger share of room at night than was commonly allowed to a single prisoner, and inspired his comrades with the unanimous hope that a special exchange might restore him to his family, for certainly he was a man who would be missed from wherever he had lived, certainly wherever he had lodged. On one memorable night, when this gentleman was entertaining us with his customary tooth solo, one of our comrades who had been kept awake for the previous three nights, after vainly and repeatedly shouting to the nocturnal minstrel to “Shut up, for God’s sake,” arose in his wrath and picking his step in the dark among his prostrate comrades, arrived at last near a form which he felt certain was that of the disturber of his peace, and with one mighty effort he bestowed a kick in the ribs of the victim that was distinctly heard in every part of the room and hurriedly retreated to his place. Then arose the kicked officer, who was not the grinder, and amid the silence of the night made an eloquent address to his invisible assailant, employing terms and vigorous adjectives that I certainly do not remember to have seen in the revised edition of the New Testament, and vehemently declaring in his brilliant peroration that he’d be “blank-blanked if it was not outrage enough to be compelled to spend wakeful nights beside a man who made his life a burden to him and his nights hideous with tooth serenades, but it was a little too much to be kicked for him,” and resumed his hard bed amid thunderous applause, during which the grinder was awakened and was for the first time made aware of the cause of the enthusiasm.


The inherent spirit of Yankee enterprise under difficulties was well illustrated by the publication of a newspaper in the prison by the energetic chaplain of a New York regiment. It was entitled the Libby Prison Chronicle. True there were no printing facilities at hand, but undaunted by this difficulty the editor obtained and distributed quantities of manuscript paper among the prisoners who were recognized leaders in their several professions, and, in fact, wherever it was likely to do the most good, so that there was soon organized an extensive corps of able correspondents, local reporters, poets, punsters and witty paragraphers that gave the Chronicle a pronounced success. Articles were contributed on all conceivable subjects of interest. Pursuant to previous announcement the “Editor,” on a stated day of each week, would take up his position in the centre of the upper east room and, surrounded by his audience, seated in every available space, would read in their proper order the articles contributed during the week. The discussion through the columns of the Chronicle by the ministers, doctors, lawyers and professional men of the subjects treated upon were striking, able and spirited, and bore the unmistakable imprint of cultured and brilliant minds. Naturally the subject of war, ancient and modern, was discussed exhaustively, particularly our own war, and the chain of political events and disturbing questions that gave rise to the revolt of the Southern States. Considering the absence of books of reference the writers showed marvelous familiarity with the subjects with which they dealt. The presence of such a great number of men of wide experience and travel at home and in foreign lands made their narratives deeply interesting. Their sketches of personal adventure by flood and field, if preserved, as it is hoped they have been, may yet enrich the literature of the war.


“The Libby Prison Minstrels” were deservedly a popular band, whose weekly performances were largely attended and warmly applauded. The troupe was organized under and governed by strictly professional rules. Being directed by a zealous and competent stage manager, whose word was law, no mere superiority of military rank was permitted to secure professional preferment in the troupe. Nothing, indeed, but the positive possession and display of musical or dramatic acquirements could command prominence, and as a natural though droll consequence it was common to see a second lieutenant carrying off the honors of the play as the “leading man” and the colonel of his regiment carrying off the chairs as a “supe.” Indeed, I knew a gallant major and most estimable gentleman who in the first season of his engagement did not deem it beneath his dignity night after night to personate the hind leg of a stage elephant. This elephant by the way deserves especial mention not only because of the peculiar difficulties which attended his construction, but because both intellectually and physically he differed in a marked manner from all elephants we had previously seen. The animal was composed of four United States officers, which certainly gave him unusual rank. One leg was the major before mentioned, the second a naval officer, the third a captain of cavalry and the last leg was by a happy thought of the astute manager “taken off” by an army surgeon. A quantity of straw formed the body, tusks and trunk being improvised from the somewhat meagre resources of our “property room.” The whole was covered ingeniously by five army blankets. Indeed, the elephant, considering the difficulties surmounted in his creation, was, as seen by the light of the “footlights,” consisting of four candles set in bottles and empty condensed milk cans, pronounced by the critics of the Libby Prison Chronicle “a masterpiece of stage mechanism.”

The stage was erected at the northern end of the kitchen and was formed by joining the four long tables. The curtain was made by a number of army blankets sewed together and was in two parts, parting in the centre and being suspended by small rings to a horizontal wire over the heads of the orchestra. It could be drawn together and apart at the manager’s signal bell. Ample space was provided for the “dressing” and “green” rooms, and although the scenery was not gorgeous nor extensive it was sufficient for the dramas produced during the season. The audience were expected to bring their own seats, there being “Standing room only,” as conspicuously announced on a placard posted in front by the management.


One of the best performances ever given was on Christmas Eve, 1863. The night the room was crowded with men who away down in their hearts felt a homesickness that needed some mental physic such as we proposed to give. Our poor fellows thought of their wives and children, if not, indeed, of sweethearts in the North, and, perhaps, our play did them good. Programmes, neatly printed in the prison, were freely circulated, but I have searched high and low and the only one o them left, as I take it, is that from which the following reduced fac-simile is made. This one remaining relic of that memorable night I obtained from a comrade at the Prison Survivor’s meeting in Detroit. The appended programme was followed literally and the performances caused unbounded enthusiasm:

[insert scan of program]

As might be expected the handling of the scenery was attended with considerable difficulty, and the patience of the manager was often sorely tried in his efforts to impress upon the scene-shifters the impropriety of pushing out a bridge to connect with the half of a drawing room. Nor did the shifters, as the manger repeatedly explained to them, seem to realize the importance while performing their duties of keeping out of the sight of the audience. Indeed, the pathos of a play was at times seriously marred by the audience distinctly seeing a pair of cavalry boots coolly walk of with a forest.


It happened one evening, when it was determined to compliment the efficient management with a rousing benefit, that the two officers whose duty it was to personate the hind legs of the elephant were unable to appear, on account of sudden illness, and their places had to be filled at the last moment by two other officer, who volunteered for the emergence. This was an acknowledged kindness on the part of the volunteers, but their acceptance of the parts without sufficient rehearsal proved exceedingly hair-raising to the management and positively disastrous to the elephant himself, or, to speak more accurately, themselves. At the appointed time, however, the elephant appeared, his entrée being greeted with the usual round of applause. In spite of the lack of preparation the wonderful tricks of the animal were creditably performed and enthusiastically recognized by the crowded house. The anxious manager in the wings was happy as he gave the signal at last for certain strange convulsive actions of the animal revealed the painful fact that a very positive difference of opinion existed between the fore and hind legs as at which side o the stage the exit should be made. In vain the perspiring manager hissed from the wings, “To the right, gentlemen; for God’s sake to the right!” A murmur of excitement ran through the audience, the convulsions of the animal grew more and more violent and excited people in the audience shouted loudly:

“The elephant’s got a fit!”

“The monster is poisoned!”

“Play the hose on him!”

“Down in front!”


A perfect babel ensued, in the midst of which the seams of the blankets at last gave way and the shrieking audience witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of an elephant walking of in four different directions, each leg fiercely gesticulating at the other and exchanging epithets certainly more pungent than parliamentary. The despairing manager had no alternative but to ring down the curtain, but in his excitement he pulled the wrong rope, the sky fell down on the heads of the orchestra and the show ended for that evening. The manager being a strict stage disciplinarian at once called a meeting of the several sections of the elephant, the result of which was that three of the legs resigned and the remaining leg (the major) was reduced to a “supe.”


One of the most exciting events in the prison’s history was the famous tunnel escape of February, 1864, by which one hundred and ten of the prisoners gained their liberty - or rather about half of them - fifty of the number being retaken outside the Richmond works while endeavoring to reach the Union lines, the writer being among the unfortunate number. This tunnel, which it took four months to dig, beginning in the east cellar, passed under the guards’ beat and was opened in the yard of an old warehouse, from which a covered way led to the street next the canal, the distance traversed being about seventy feet. The tunnel was certainly an ingenious and perilous work, projected and completed under the direction of Colonel Thomas E. Rose, of the Seventy-seventh Pennsylvania Regiment, who escaped through it, but was unfortunately retaken, his recapture causing especial regret to his comrades.

Considerable excitement on one occasion was caused by the arrival at Libby of a woman in the uniform of a Union soldier, having been discovered among the prisoners on Belle Isle in an almost frozen and famished condition. Inquiry revealed the fact that she had in this garb enlisted in a Western cavalry regiment in order, it was said, to follow the fortunes of her lover, who was an officer in another company of the same command, and in a skirmish in East Tennessee she had the ill luck to be made prisoner, the lover never being aware of her presence in the regiment. Her case naturally at once awakened the sympathy of the prisoners and a collection of money at once made - a proper supply of clothing was got for her, and she was sent home by the next flag of truce boat, returning to her home, it is to be hoped, a wiser if less romantic woman.

It would fill an interesting volume to sketch in the briefest manner the lives and experience of the men who have been captives within the walls of Libby or to trace their career since. Many of the gallant fellows have since fallen upon the battle-field and a sad number have died from the effects of their long incarceration. Some have been lost at sea and others are in foreign lands, some have since become the Governor of States and held seats in the Cabinet. Their voices have been heard in Congress, at the bar and in the pulpit, and their names will be a proud heritage to their children and their country.