The Sad Strange Story of Richmond’s Libby Prison

What do you think was the worst thing that could happen to a Union soldier during the Civil War?

Death? Dismemberment? Dishonor? Wrong. The names that put fear into Yankee hearts were not guns or ships or bombs, they were prisons. Names like Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Castle Thunder were the stuff of nightmares- though Elmira, Rock Island, and Camp Douglas on the Union side were as bad or worse.

One of the Union’s less-enlightened ideas during the early days of the War was to avoid prisoner exchange because that would constitute recognition of the Confederate States as a sovereign government- the 1860’s version of “we will not negotiate with terrorists”.

(Nomenclature note: I could call it the War of Northern Aggression, the War of Secession, the War of the Rebellion, or any of the other colorful period names or choose to use the politically-correct American Civil War, but for the sake of diplomacy I will use simply the War.)

This led to a mad scramble for prison locations to hold the thousands of POWs – over 1300 Union prisoners were taken at First Manassas and held in a barn for lack of a better place. Later they were shipped to Richmond where someone had the clever idea of packing the poor fools in former warehouses.

7T1114-Libby Prison - Circa 1865

This postcard shows Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia on the James River. Originally the building was a warehouse owned by a Captain Libby, who ran a “chandlery” or grocery and supply business that specifically catered to ships. The building was typical of 19th century warehouses with several large open floors, stone foundation (to resist rising damp), massive storage bays, and lots of windows.

Doesn’t seem too awful, right? There are chimneys to keep warm, windows for light and air, free movement on the interior, relatively dry and weathertight conditions. Well, then pack a few thousand men in there and feed them a diet of sweet potatoes and rough cornbread and see who doesn’t get typhoid.

The Dix-Hill agreement of 1862 established a successful protocol for exchange, but in 1863 U.S. Grant in his infinite wisdom decided that refusing to exchange prisoners would hasten the end of the war. His logic was that Southerners would not only lose their own troops to be held in Northern prisons, but also would have to feed and care for captured Yankees. Except they didn’t.

The worst part about the prisons wasn’t necessarily the restricted movement or exposure, it was disease and (particularly in the South) starvation. The South struggled to feed and supply its own army, with citizens second and prisoners a decided last. During the later stages of the War most of the citizens of Richmond starved alongside the soldiers- they certainly weren’t going to waste what little they had on feeding the hated enemy.

Starvation compromises the immune system (as does exposure, i.e. extreme cold and heat), leaving the body not only vulnerable to infection but unable to fight it off. What food the prisoners were given irritated compromised digestive systems and well, what goes in must come out. Diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and cholera are spread through human waste, and so quite logically cause a body to produce massive amounts of waste.

So this is how it works (thank you Florence Nightingale):

Crowding + poor diet = lots of waste that doesn’t get cleaned up

Lots of waste = dirty hands, dirty water, and dirty food

Dirty = disease

Disease = more waste

Vicious cycle.

LIbby_Prison_by_David_Gilmour_Blythe,_1863

In case anyone is wondering, it is very possible to have one’s clothes literally rot off as shown in an 1863 painting by Norman-Rockwell predecessor and propaganda artist David Gilmour Blythe.  Want to know how I know this? My historical interpreter friend John tried it and contracted a skin disease his doctor had never seen before.

Abraham Lincoln was horrified by the conditions at the prison when he visited Richmond in 1865, shortly after Union troops took the city. When angry troops wanted to tear down the building, he is quoted as saying “No, let it stand as a monument”. This stereograph shows Libby Prison in 1865:

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Libby Prison remained a bleak and hulking monument on the riverfront for fifteen years, until it was purchased in 1880 by a fertilizer company. It seems the ghosts were bad for business so in 1889 it was sold as a novelty to Chicago confectioner (and Southern sympathizer) Charles F. Gunther. Gunther was a “cabinet of curiosities” kind of guy and owned, among other things, a snakeskin attributed to the biblical Serpent (of Eden fame) and a shoe from John Wilkes Booth’s horse.

Gunther dismantled Libby Prison and had it shipped to Chicago where he incorporated it into his museum complex as a gallery for all things war. Later, the stones from the foundation were re-used in a castellated facade for the second Chicago Coliseum.

Chicago-Coliseum

Home of the Blackhawks, host to conventions and politicians and horse shows. Funny old world, ain’t it?

The Coliseum deteriorated after the 1930’s and was mostly demolished in the late 1970’s. Thanks to the esteemed Chicagoan Robert Wallace Graham (are we related?) and his blog Scraps from My Autobiography I also found a picture of the stone facade as it stood in the early 1990’s.

httpwww-flickr-comphotosdavidwilson19494400107812

From innocent supply warehouse to notorious prison to war museum to convention center to ruin. The saga of Libby Prison.

And the site? Now under the Richmond Flood Wall next to some high-end condos. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pQ5zxTbTt0 

 

If you haven’t had enough, check out this great article on Women in the Ranks – one Mollie Bean was a prisoner at Castle Thunder, another warehouse prison on Tobacco Row in Richmond.

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