Recollection of Libby Prison
Rev. J.L. Burrows, D.D.
Read before the Louisville Southern Historical Association
The Libby prison was a large brick tobacco factory, three stories high, owned and used by the manufacturer whose name it bears. It was opened by the Confederate authorities as a hotel for the reception of Federal troops, who persisted in marching "on to Richmond," after the first battle of Manassas, and who, instead of being required wearily to tramp into the capital of the "Old Dominion," were generously allowed to make the journey in railway cars.
The first installment of Federal troops, gathered from the panic stricken field of Manassas (or Bull Run), about 1,000 in number rather reluctantly filled its chambers within a week after the 21st of July, 1861. Some four hundred others, wounded, were elsewhere provided for in extemporized hospitals. The accommodations furnished these gentlemen were not equal to those ordinarily found in a first class hotel. They had not been expected in such numbers, and due preparation had not been made of their reception. There was not a Confederate official in the land who had any experience in taking care of prisoners of war. They were therefore necessarily subjected to many inconveniences and privations, which a suddenly improvised commissariat and superintending staff could not at once remedy. They slept upon the floor on their blankets, if they had been thoughtful enough to bring any, and ate their rations from their fingers, or spread them out on boxes or barrelheads. Knives, forks and spoons were not abundantly supplied. But all this was better than sleeping on the bare ground without blankets and masticating scant and course rations while on the march, as multitudes of soldiers in both armies were often compelled to do.
Something like order, however, was soon arranged, and the prisoners, by orders of the Confederate authorities, were as well fed and better sheltered than the soldiers of the Confederate armies in the field.
Prison are always uncomfortable places for subjective, if not for objective, reasons. I never have happened to meet one from either side who, while prisoner of war, was satisfied with his accommodations or victuals. It is not human nature to be contented under physical restraints, and it is among the privileges and luxuries of prisoners to grumble; and he is a hard hearted jailer who will attempt to deprive them of these alleviations. Feather beds are hard and tenderloin steaks are tough behind iron gratings, and the kindest and most liberal commissary never satisfied prisoners. No external conditions can soothe the spirit's chafing; and as these men did not have soft couches, nor juicy roasts, they had a right to croak, and they exercised it.
Among those earliest introduced into Libby prison was Congressman Ely, of Rochester, N.Y., who, with other civilians, had taken a holiday excursion in carriages to witness a battle and congratulate the Federal victors. He amused himself by writing a diary of his observation and experiences, which he afterward published in a volume ill natured enough to be amusing, and in which so humble a personage as myself was singled out for special censure. All that I am conscious of having done to deserve this honorable mention, was in a good humored way, to reply to arguments urged to convince me that the Southern States had no right to secede, and that the United States Government was justifiable in sending armies to suppress the insurrection. Of course the prisoners having little else to do, were fond of talking, and so I imagined that I was gratifying them by responding and improvising a cheerful debate to help them while away the time which hung so heavily on their hands. I sometimes ventured to keep the ball rolling in a spirit of pure benevolence, perhaps just tinctured with a grain or two of impure reconciliation with their lot. If I ever uttered an ill natured or abusive or churlish word to a prisoner I would sorrowfully repent of if it I could only remember it. It may be that occasionally I did not sufficiently allow for the irritable sensitiveness of men whose anticipations had been so suddenly and disastrously checked. The sensitiveness put its own somber interpretation upon words which were never meant to offend. For example, one of the chaplains, a clergyman of my own faith, asked me if I could lend him a volume of Hamilton's Logic. The next day I carried it to him, and presented it to him with the remark that it required brains to master Hamilton's Philosophy. He published afterward in a northern paper that Dr. B. had insulted him by intimating that he (the chaplain) had not brains enough to comprehend Hamilton's Philosophy. He did not tell his readers, however, that he had accepted the volume, though tendered with so rude an insult. It was simply an irrascible interpretation of what, in another mood, he would have accepted as a compliment.
Among the Manassas prisoners were ten field officers. One of these was the notorious Michael Corcoran, Colonel of the Sixty ninth New York regiment. He had been, as far as his known biography reports, proprietor of a drinking saloon in the Bowery of New York city, and was quite prominent among the political manipulators of the Tweed school. He aided in enlisting a regiment of New York roughs, of which he was elected Colonel. He led his regiment to the field of Manassas and thence led or followed many of his boys in a forced march "on to Richmond." Walking through the prison one day, in company with a gentlemanly Federal officer, he asked me if I would be introduced to Colonel Corcoran. "Where is he?" I asked. He pointed out a rough, coarse looking man in his shirt sleeves, sitting in a corner, with a crowd of cronies around him playing cards on the head of a barrel, accompanying the shuffle of the cards with boisterous oaths and coarse jests. "Excuse me," I said, "I will not interrupt the gentlemen in their sports." I never was introduced to him, and never, that I can call to memory, interchanged a word with him.
Soon after the war I visited some of my kinfolks in Albany, New York, and from some of my old friends met a rather cool reception. I soon found out that the reason for the cold shoulder was a communication to an interviewer, made by the redoubtable Colonel, and published in one of the daily papers, setting forth, among other instances of his sagacity and valor, that an impertinent minister, named Burrows, had preached a discourse of Libby prison, in which he fiercely abused the prisoners for invading the sacred soil of Virginia, and intimating that they all ought to have been shot on the field instead of being allowed to occupy such luxurious quarters.
This assault, according to his own showing, so aroused the ire of the doughty Colonel, that regardless of consequence, he sprang to his feet, leaped to the pulpit, shook his first in the preacher's face, and declared his instant determination, if such insult were repeated, to kick the parson down stairs at the risk of his life. Of course he thus announced himself as a slashing fire eater, to be admired and worshiped as an intrepid hero by the credulous interviewer and some of his readers.
It seemed a pity to spoil a fiction so sensational and narrated "with circumstance," but a card published in the papers, over my own signature, set the matter right with the good people of Albany, by assuring them that I had never preached in Libby prison on any subject while Colonel Corcoran was there; that I had never spoken to him nor he to me on any subject, and that the whole statement was a vaporing canard woven out of the spider web stuff of a braggart's flimsy brain. The close of Colonel Corcoran's life, as I have learned, was characteristic. In December 1863, having meanwhile been exchanged and having joined his regiment, while drunk he mounted a spirited horse near Fairfax Courthouse, and spurring and curbing the steed into madness, he was violently thrown from his back and had his neck broken.
The prisoners very naturally, like Sterne's starling, wanted to get out, and occasionally some would escape by digging tunnels, evading guards, bribing sentinels, scaling the roof and other ingenious devices. They were very anxious to fit up a schedule for exchanges, and wrote piteous appeals to officials at Washington and to friends everywhere to induce the Federal Government to consent to a system of exchanges. But to exchange prisoners would be to recognize belligerent rights to the Confederacy, and that the United Stated Government seemed very unwilling at that time to do. I need not enter into the particulars of that controversy. It has been proven with the clearness of demonstration, that the Confederate authorities were willing and anxious to exchange man for man, officer for officer, at every period during the whole war, and sometimes when a large balance of prisoners was upon their side, to let all go, upon the usual parole not to serve until regularly exchanged. The obstacles to exchanges were uniformly created by the United States authorities. The prisoners of Libby soon came to understand this, and while some dolefully declared themselves willing to suffer if their Government thought best, the multitude muttered curses both loud and deep against the officials who prevented their liberation. They claimed that they were kept prisoners by their own Government. The controversy was forced to a crisis by the action of the Federal authorities in relation to captured privateersmen. During the summer of 1861, the privateers fitted out by authority of the Confederated Government became quite troublesome buy interfering with the commerce of the United States. A number of merchantmen were taken and sent into Confederate or neutral ports or destroyed. In anticipation of such a mode of carrying on the war, President Lincoln on April 18, 1861, had issued a proclamation declaring that all persons taken on privateers that had molested a vessel of the United States should "be held amenable to the laws of the United States of the prevention and punishment of piracy."
The schooner Savannah, formerly a United States pilot boat, on a cruise from Charleston harbor, was captured by the United States brig Perry, and Captain Baker and fourteen of the crew were sent in irons to New York to be tried as pirates. It was proposed to hang them. Great commotion was excited in Libby prison on the 6th of November, 1861, by an order to General Winder to select thirteen of the Federal officers of highest rank, and confine them in cells, to be death with in the same manner as the crew of the Savannah should be. The name of Colonel Corcoran was the first drawn out of the urn, to be held as a hostage for Captain Smith, of the privateer Jefferson Davis, who had been condemned to be hung in Philadelphia. Colonel Corcoran was given to understand that he would be hung on the day after authentic information was received that Captain Smith had been put to death. Thirteen others, drawn by lot, were placed in close confinement to await the issue of the hanging of the crew of the Savannah. They were as finally settled -- Captains Ricketts and McQuade, who had drawn fatal numbers, on account of their wounds being substituted by others -- Colonel Lee, Cogswell, Wilcox, Woodruff and Woods; Lieutenant Colonels Bowman and Neff; Majors Potter, Revere and Vogdes; Captains Rockwood, Bowman and Keffer. None of the privateers were executed, and the hostages were subsequently released and exchanged.
An interesting episode took place in relation to Colonel E. Raymond Lee, of Boston, in connection with these transactions. A few days before he had been designated, at the request of the prisoners, to go North on parole to procure clothing, blankets, etc., for their use during the approaching winter. The papers had been prepared, and he expected to leave on his humane errand the next morning. But on that ominous morning the order for the lot selection came. Colonel Lee was one of the hostages. General Winder, a West Point classmate and personal friend of Colonel Lee, with a sad heart entered the prison and said to him: "Colonel, everything is changed. I come to tell you that I am ordered to place you and thirteen other officers of highest rank in close confinement as hostages for an equal number of so called pirates. I am sorry to say, Colonel, that if these men hang so must you."
Colonel Lee met the disappointment like a brave man, simply saying: "I left home thinking it possible that I might die on a battle field; but if my country thinks that I can serve best by dying at the hangman's hands, I can meet even that death without a shudder." The stringent measure checked the thirst for the "pirates" blood, and the hostages, a few weeks later, were released and exchanged. As Colonel Lee was leaving Captain Warner -- the humane and efficient commissary of the prison -- who had won the confidence and esteem of the prisoners by his assiduous and kindly endeavors to promote their comfort -- instructed to Colonel Lee $80 in specie, to be transmitted to his (Captain Warner's) wife, then living in Central City, Illinois. He learned by letters through the line that his wife had not received the money. After the war the Captain, being in Boston, called on Colonel Lee, was received with great kindness and hospitality. He accompanied the Captain to a Boston bank, and drew out the identical leathern purse with its inclosure of $78 in gold, and four silver half dollars, explaining that by a mistake in memoranda it had been forwarded to Central City, Ohio, instead of Illinois, whence it had been returned by express to the Colonel, and deposited in bank awaiting the owner's claim.
Many interesting incidents connected with my visits to the prisoners occur to me while writing. I remember a handsome boy, about sixteen years old, brought in wounded from Ball's Bluff, I think. His leg had been amputated above the knee. To my inquiries he answered, "I ran away from Rochester, N.Y., to get into the army. I had a happy home; was a Sunday school boy, and always went to church, and only to think I have lost my leg, and may be I'll die and never get home again." He was among the first exchanged.
Another poor boy I call to mind to weak to talk much, and yet who did talk a little and hopefully, had both arms and both legs amputated. In a few days death ended his sufferings.
Something like yellow fever for a few weeks was endemic among the prisoners, and among our own troops too. They city Alms house, a splendid building by the way, was appropriated as a hospital for these cases. Sitting one day by the cot of a New York soldier, upon whose brow death had stamped his seal, I kneeled to pray for his departing soul, when a gush of black vomit struck me full in the face and breast, and the payer was interrupted by the poor fellow's apologies and assurances that he could not help it. I wiped his face more tenderly than I did my own and held his hand for half as hour later, when his spirit passed away.
A prisoner for a few weeks who excited considerable interest and amusement was Miss Dr. Mary Walker. She had a room to herself in Castle Thunder, and sometimes was permitted to stroll into the streets, where her display of Bloomer costume, blouse, trousers and boots secured her a following of astonished and admiring boys. She was quite chatty, and seemed rather to enjoy the notoriety of her position. She claimed to be a surgeon in the Federal army, and I believe, had some sort of commission, or permission perhaps as hospital nurse to travel with the army.
Captain Gibbs, commandant of Castle Thunder, had generally at his heels "the monstrous savage Russian bloodhound" as he was very unjustly stigmatized by the Federal soldiers who took him prisoner at the evacuation and who turned some profitable pennies by exhibiting him in New York and New England as a specimen of the cruel devices of Southern officials to worry and torture prisoners.
There was absolutely nothing formidable about the dog but his size, which was immense. He was one of the best natured hounds whose head I ever patted, and one of the most cowardly. If a fise or a black and tan terrier barked at him as he stood majestic in the office door, he would tuck his tail between his legs and skulk for a safer place. I never heard that he bit anything but the bones that were thrown him, and he was quite a playfellow with the prisoners when permitted to stalk among them.
In 1863 -- my memoranda are lost -- I was sent for to visit a prisoner in solitary confinement named Webster, who was about to be tried by court martial as a spy. He was quite reticent as to his antecedents until after the trial, which resulted in a death sentence. Then he talked with me quite freely about his career. He had been recognized by some of the guards as having been an enlisted Confederate soldier at Island No. 10, on the Mississippi river, which had been captured in April, 1862. He acknowledged, what had clearly been proven on the trial, that he had enlisted in a Confederate regiment for the purpose of examining and reporting the state of the defences of Island No. 10. He had secretly made full drawing of the fortifications and forwarded them, or by escaping carried them to the Federal leaders. He was a well educated, athletic, handsome young man, and was said to have been a nephew or relative of John Brown. On the morning appointed for his execution I visited him early, and, after conversing and praying with him, proposed to introduce one of the United States chaplains, of whom several were then in Libby prison, to be with him in his last hours. I obtained permission and authority from General Winder and brought to his cell one of those chaplains. I remained in the hall to bid him farewell, and when I took his hand he said to me: "You have been very kind to me, and I thank you for it. I have only one more request to make of any man on earth, and that is that you will go to with me, pray for me at that scaffold, and stay with me to the last." I was surprised and very reluctant to witness a scene so horrible, but of course could not refuse the wish of a dying man. The Federal chaplain was returned to his quarters, and I rode with him in a carriage to the Fair Grounds, the place of execution. He talked with me quite calmly, charged me with some messages to his family, begged me to accept a ring which he took from his finger; said he did not feel as though he was to be executed for any mean or disgraceful crime; that he was trying to serve his country at the suggestion of his officers, and knew well the danger to which he had exposed himself and was prepared to meet it. He was as brave a man as I ever met, and with perfect self possession mounted the scaffold, and, glancing at the rope and the distance to the ground, quietly said to the marshal, who was fastening the cord to the cross beam: "Please make the fall longer!" I trembled more than he did, and so did many brave hearts among his guards when the drop fell.
These are a few of the memories photographed upon my brain in connection with my experiences in Libby Prison which will obtrude themselves, unwelcome as nightmare visions, in some of my brooding hours.
And now fresh from Thanksgiving festivities, can we not all join hearts in the poet's benignant invocation:
"Blow, bugles of battle, the marches of peace;
East, West, North and South let the long quarrel cease;
Sing the song of great joy that the angels began;
Sing of glory to God and of good will to man!
Hark! joining in chorus,
The heavens bend o'er us!
The dark night is ending and dawn has begun."
(After concluding his paper Dr. Burrows stated that a clipping from a newspaper had been sent to him after he had prepared his paper, giving an incident of considerable interest, which he desired to read to the meeting, and on being informed by the President that the meeting would be pleased to hear it, he read the following extract from a letter written by M. Quad in the Detroit Free Press of a recent date):
"One of the occupants of the Castle, in the winter of 1864-5, was a Federal named James Hancock, claiming to be a scout attached to Grant's army. He was captured under circumstances which seemed to prove him a spy, and while waiting for his case to be investigated he was sent to Castle Thunder. Hancock was a jolly, rollicking fellow, having wonderful facial expression and great powers of mimicry. One evening, while singing a song for the amusement of his fellow prisoners, he suddenly stopped, threw up his hands, staggered, and fell like a bag of sand to the floor. There was great confusion at once, and as some of the men inspected the body and pronounced it without life, the guards were notified of what had occurred. The post surgeon was called in to see whether it was a faint or a case of sudden death. He had just come in from a long, cold ride, and his examination was a hastily one.
"Dead as a door nail!" he said, as he rose up, and in the course of twenty minutes the body was deposited in a wagon and started for the hospital, to be there laid in a cheap coffin and forwarded to the burying place. When the driver reached the end of the journey he was gone! There was no tail board to his vehicle, and thinking he might have jolted the body out on the way, he drove back and made inquiry of several persons if they had seen a lost corpse anywhere.
"Hancock's 'sudden death' was a part of his plan to escape. While he had great nerve and an iron will, he could not have passed the surgeon under favorable circumstances. On the way to the hospital he dropped out of the wagon and joined the pedestrians on the walk. When the driver returned to the Castle, and told his story, a detail of men was at once sent out to capture the tricky prisoner, and the alarm was given all over Richmond. To leave the city was to be picked up by a patrol; to remain was to be hunted down.
"Hancock had money sewed in the lining of his vest, and he walked straight to the best hotel, registered himself as from Georgia, and put in a good night's sleep. In the morning he procured a change of clothing, and sauntered around with the greatest unconcern, carrying the idea to some that he was in Richmond on a Government contract, and to others that he was in the secret service of the Confederacy. Shortly after dinner he was arrested on Main street by a squad of provost troops, who had his description to a dot. But, lo! no sooner had they put hands on him than the prisoner was seen to be cross eyed, and to have his month drawn to one side. The men were bewildered, and Hancock was feeling 'for letters to prove his identity,' when the hotel clerk happened to pass, and at once secured his liberty.
"Four days after his escape from the Castle the scout found himself without funds, and while in the corridor of the post office he was again arrested. This time he drew his mouth to the right, brought a squint to his left eye and pretended to be very deaf. He was, however, taken to the Castle, and there a wonderful thing occurred. Guards who knew Hancock's face perfectly well, were so confused by his squint that no man dared give a certain answer. Prisoners who had been with him for four months were equally at fault, and it was finally decided to lock him up and investigate his references. For seven long days the scout kept his squint, and then he got tired of it and resumed his accustomed phiz. The minute he did this he was recognized by everybody, and the Confederates admired his nerve and perseverance fully as much as did his fellow prisoners. The close of the war gave him his liberty with the rest, but ten days longer would have seen him shot as a spy."
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XI. Richmond, Va., February-March, 1883. Nos. 2-3. Recollection of Libby Prison.
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