From the Richmond Dispatch, 2/15/1888, p. 1, c. 5
LIBBY PRISON SALE
THE PROJECTOR OF THE ENTERPRISE WISHES TO KNOW RICHOND SENTIMENT.
A Protest from a Federal Officer Who Stayed in Richmond at the Evacuation – Historical Reminiscences.
Mayor Carrington has received the following letter from the gentleman who organized the scheme to remove the Libby Prison to Chicago, and while he has not answered it doubtless he will feel it his duty to say that the public sentiment of Richmond, of Virginia, and of the South is steadily growing in condemnation of the enterprise; believing that it will reawaken and long keep alive the worst of war feelings:
CHICAGO, February, 10, 1888.
To the Hon. Mayor of the City of Richmond, Richmond, Va.:
Dear Sir, - I would be glad to have you as the official head of the city to inform me what the sentiment of the people of your city is regarding the transfer of the old Libby Prison building to this city, a movement I am connected with. I see a telegram from Richmond of a copy of a letter from some Philadelphia man which is so different from the sentiment of the people of our city toward the people of the South that I would be obliged if you will state the truth as it is to me.
With my best wishes, and believe me to be, sir, your obedient servant, I am, yours respectfully,
W. H. GRAY.
A LETTER FROM ONE WHO WAS AT THE LIBBY AT THE EVACUATION.
The Mayor has also received the following:
PITTSBURGH, PA., February 10, 1888.
Honorable Mayor of Richmond:
Dear Sir, - After waiting for a few days, having seen in the “papers” that “Libby Prison” was to be removed to Chicago by a company of speculators, I have made free to address you on the matter. Not knowing your name, I do so as above. I must confess the proposition startled me, particularly when it was states that the building was to be used for a “curiosity-shop” – a public show. The proposition is too monstrous, the purpose too base and sordid, to be calmly considered. What! The place where Union soldiers were first imprisoned, and where for four years it was used for the same purpose, is now to be taken away and made a great public money-making show of!
Few, I will venture to say none, of those who are concerned in the scheme had anything to do with old Libby during the time it was used as a prison. I am well acquainted with a large number of men who were confined within its walls, and I do not know of one who approves of its removal. It would be no longer “Libby Prison.” There would be no James river, no Belle Isle, no other landmark. Neither the remains of “Pemberton” nor “Castle Thunder” would form the associations that were wont to greet our eyes when inmates of far-famed “Libby.” The prison without its associate surroundings would not be Libby to the “Boys in Blue” who were from time to time confined within its walls. It might serve to collect dimes and dollars as a ghastly circus exhibition to fill the pockets of sharp, unprincipled speculators – men that have conceived the selfish and despicable idea of violating the sanctity of the soldier’s sufferings, and to many the very spot of their death. Outside of the sordid motive that actuates the instigators of the despicable idea, what, I would scarcely ask, is to be gained by such a procedure? Will it be of any importance to the country at large that a few Chicago speculators have gotten possession of and removed “Libby Prison” to a city which had neither “lot nor part” in the matter? Will the sectional feeling which lamentably exists be in any sense removed or lessened? Will the feelings of the people of Virginia and the South generally be in any way better reconciled by having this conspicuous relic of the war paraded around the country as an implied attempt to hold them before the world as inhuman monsters? Would it not be better to let the places, the monuments, the mementoes, and relics of the war, that terrible, desolating war, remain as they are and where they are, undisturbed by either side of those who were the actors in the fearful drama? And above all, by those who have no higher purpose or motive than sordid greediness?
Let these places and matters of interest remain sacred (whether of triumph or suffering), where the participants and the people of the land from all sections North and South can meet and there renew the bonds of friendship which were broken by the sad events of the past, but ought to and can be united again. Where, oh, where is a more fitting place than where the blood of both section have made the ground holy in which it mingles?
Why not let the condition of things remain as they were at the end of the war? Everything that would or tends to disturb the past only goes to show how easily it would be to fan the flame of alienation again. How recently the proposition to return the captured flags stirred up a feeling which has not quite subsided yet. And now the proposal to remove Libby Prison is a piece of disturbing impertinence that no prisoner of war who was ever confined in it would for a moment have anything to do with. It is neither the dictate of patriotic devotion nor the wise purpose of good citizenship. The projectors might as well propose to resurrect the skeletons of the noble dead who sleep in southern graves and cemeteries and take them around to gratify the morbid curiosity of deluded spectators. I trust the good people of Richmond will take measures so that the old prison will not be removed and used for the purpose of filling the pockets of the ghoulish company who planned the nefarious project. Rather, far rather, let it be consigned to the torch, or a torpedo placed under it and hurl the whole structure into the James.
You will, I trust, pardon my freedom in writing with such warmth, but when I state how things of the past identified me with old Libby more than any other prisoner who was ever an inmate of it you will understand my feelings. I was the only United States officer in Richmond when it was evacuated. Having been paroled to distribute supplies to the prisoners of war within the Confederate lines, I was appointed the agent of the United States Government for that duty in Richmond. On the night of April 2, 1865, at midnight, Major Turner, the Confederate commandant of prisons in and around Richmond, sent to my office an orderly requesting me to visit him in his office at Libby Prison. My storehouse was the next to Libby on the north, where I kept the United States Government supplies. On going into the office to see the Major he informed me that the Confederates were about to evacuate the city, and that he sent for me to inform me of the fact, and that he wanted to turn over or surrender to me Libby Prison with all the prison records, that were stored in large book-cases in the prison-offices, stating that he could not take them with him, as lack of transportation and the urgency required compelled him to surrender them to me to preserve, if possible, because, as he said, they were of the utmost importance to both Governments. “Pemberton” and “Castle Thunder,” with all the hospitals, he also turned over to me to do the best I could to preserve them. This was at midnight exactly, and seven hours before any United States troops entered the city. I witnessed the firing of the large tobacco building on the diagonal corner from my storehouse, and the burning of Pemberton. The latter I did my best to preserve by having water carried to me so that I could extinguish the burning window-frames, and had flattered myself that I might save Pemberton, when a cry came that the roof of my storehouse was in flames. I rushed across Cary street to my store and up to the upper floor, where the fire was making headway in the roof. Giving order to my two men (privates) whom I had paroled to assist me in handling the supplies, and to a squad of colored prisoners who were kept around Libby, to bring water, after a good deal of hard work the fire was put out, thus saving the storehouse and the Government supplies and preventing the spread of the fire in the direction of Libby. Had I not succeeded in subduing the fire, and my storehouse being consumed, nothing short of a miracle could have saved Libby Prison. As my store had (perhaps has yet) combustible wings of wooden material, and coming within about forty feet of the prison, no human exertion of mine, with the help I then had, could have saved Libby, with its invaluable prison records.
You will thus perceive why I take such interest and that I have good reason to be interested in the old building, having saved it and its contents from being burned down on the morning of April 3, 1865.
It is not political or any sentimental sympathy with the South “as such,” that prompts me to write as I do. I have always held, and still hold, that the war was a wicked and inexcusable one. I have always been a Republican in politics; but the war being ended and its issues presumably settled and accepted, I endeavor to be guided by the laconic and comprehensive expression of my old glorious commander, General Grant, to that other great and grand commander, General Lee – “Let us have peace.”
It has never been my fortune to have visited Richmond since April 19, 1865, although I always intended to do so and expect to see it ere long, but if Libby is taken away the very pith and incentive to go would be destroyed, not only to me but to all others who were ever confined in it. If old Libby should be gone, and ye gods! gone on such a mission – to be a “peep-show” for those who never helped the Union by braving the dangers of the battle-field or experiencing the cruelties of “prisoners of war.” When I visit Richmond I shall be glad to meet if alive some old acquaintances – notably Captain John West (firm of Johnston & West) and Mr. William (“Billy”) White, and hoping that efforts of a successful nature will be put forth, and that the unhallowed and unholy attempt to remove Libby Prison will be frustrated, and that Richmond will be saved the great mortification of having the most conspicuous monument of the war torn from her midst and by implication be a party to a scheme which will have the tendency to make the South appear as having a monopoly of barbarity utterly unknown and unequalled by a people claiming common civilization – trusting Richmond will not permit herself to be placed in a false light, and that the country generally will be found branding the proposition as it justly and truly deserves, I am, dear sir, very respectfully your obedient servant,
Late Captain Company K, One Hundred and Forty-
sixth New York Volunteers, Colonel by Brevet, 152
Fifth avenue, Pittsburgh, Pa.
FEDERAL SUPPLIES FOR FEDERAL PRISONERS.
Captain Stewart is well remembered here. He was a Federal officer paroled from Libby Prison to take charge of the depot of supplies which their friends in the North were allowed to send the prisoners of war here by flag-of-truce boats. Clothing, loots and shoes, canned meats, and delicacies of all sorts thus came through the lines and were placed in Captain Stewart’s charge, and were by him distributed to the officers and men to whom they were directed. As a matter of fact the prisoners in the Libby often if not always fared better than the Confederate soldiers at the front; better too than the soldiers’ families at their homes in Virginia. At the time of the evacuation the storehouse referred to by Captain Stewart was well-filled with articles of food, of clothing, &c., sent the prisoners here by relief associations and private parties in the North.
The Confederates exercised the same privilege in sending boxes, &c., to their soldiers in northern prisons. But our people had little to send. The most acceptable present and the one generally forwarded was a box of chewing- or smoking-tobacco. In those days tobacco commanded a high price in the North, and supplies of it could be easily converted into money, and money would buy food to eat and clothes to wear. The depot here where such articles were received to be forwarded to northern prisoners was in a large building that formerly stood on the west side of Fourteenth street between Cary and what is now Mill street. For a very considerable time in 1864-’65 this depot was under the charge of Mr. W. D. Chesterman, then a disabled soldier connected with the Bureau for the Exchange of Prisoners. The Captain John M. West who is so kindly remembered by Captain Stewart was an important officer of the Exchange Bureau and had high and important duties in connection with the movement of flag-of-truce boats, &c. He is now the Petersburg agent of the Old Dominion Steamship Company. The article recently republished under the signature of “Carter,” descriptive of how the military prisons were emptied on the eve of the evacuation, was from his pen, and it furnished an absolutely new chapter in the history of the evacuation of Richmond.
A VALUABLE CONTRIBUTION TO THE HISTORY OF LIBBY PRISON.
Whilst the removal of the Libby Prison is so much talked of through the press I do not think it inappropriate in me, as the only male representative of the Libby family now living here, to ask that you will be kind enough to publish the true history of how it obtained its name, which I will here briefly give you.
The building was leased by my father, Luther Libby, in the year the Richmond dock was completed, and was occupied by him as a chip chandlery, grocery, and commission store. His business being mainly with vessels, northern products, and manufactures, it was virtually suspended by the war in 1861, at which time I had been admitted as a partner. I think it was early 1862 that General Winder, then in command of Richmond, took forcible possession of the building, our lease unexpired, and converted it into a prison, and it derived its name for the simple fact of the sign of Libby & Son being left over the door and at the corner of the building. My father did not own the building or have aught to do with it after it became a prison, and I was in the army.
I would not like to see the old house removed, as around it clusters some of the fondest memories of a happy youth and early manhood; but if it is to be carried to Chicago and converted into a museum whose walls are to be decorated with scenes and incidents relative to the prison, I could furnish a pen picture from facts which, if faithfully portrayed on canvas, should have a conspicuous place among them. It is this: An old gray-haired man (whose only offence against the United States Government was in having a prison named after him by accident and a son in the Confederate army) being carried through the streets of Boston, hand-cuffed and followed by a jeering and hooting crowd; also, my mother, aunt, and sister – the last with a nursing babe in her arms – being conducted to the almshouse in Norfolk, Va., by a colored guard with drawn sabres. But I am now a loyal citizen of the United States and think such scenes and incidents should be forgiven, if not forgotten.
GEORGE W. LIBBY.