History of the American Civil War: Libby Prison
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History of the American Civil War: Libby Prison


By Jon R. Warren

Next to Andersonville in southwestern Georgia, Libby in Richmond is the most famous of the Confederate prisons for captured Union soldiers. Andersonville held enlisted men; Libby was for officers.

Formerly the warehouse for "Libby & Son, Ship Chandlers & Grocers" (confused in some accounts with the Pemberton Factory Prison, originally a tobacco manufactory), Libby Prison faced north on Carey Street, Its west side on Canal Street. Thus the 150 X 100-foot building stood isolated, making it easier to guard. Canal Street paralleled Canal which in turn ran beside the James River. The sharp slope of the ground from Carey Street made possible an additional story to the three-story building on the Canal Street side.

The three floors were divided into large rooms that the prisoners identified as Streight's room, Milroy's room,, Chickamauga room, Gettysburg room, and the like, according to their commander or the battle in which they were captured. By  1863 the rooms were crowded; at night the men slept spoon fashion in squads for warmth and to save space. When the hard floor became unendurable on one side, the entire squad would shift to the other side on order of an elected leader. Food was poor and inadequate, and officers who had contrived to save any money or valuables on the way to Libby would barter these or even clothing for additional food. Prisoners dared not expose themselves from windows for fear of being fired on by the  guards.

Naturally the men's thoughts turned toward schemes for escape. The most famous escape was engineered by Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania, captured at Chickamauga on September 20, 1863. The cellar at Libby was partitioned into three sections. By making a hole in the fireplace of a disused kitchen on the first floor, Rose was able to descend the chimney and break out into the  east section, or "Rat Hell" as the tunnelers came to call it. Rose and his companions dug a tunnel fifty feet long from the cellar to a warehouse shed on the other side of the vacant lot. On the night of February 9, 1864. 109 officers crawled through to freedom. Forty-eight were recaptured, including Rose.

This article has been read 6962 times. Last read on 2/28/2021 10:47:05 AM

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