From the Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries, Volume XVI, July-December, 1886

Reminiscences of Libby Prison

by John Shrady, M. D., Surgeon, 2nd Tennessee Infantry Regiment

In approaching the somewhat forbidden topic of military prisons, I may in truth say that we have forgotten much and forgiven more; with us, as with the schools of our childhood, there lingers the memory of only the pleasant. We are therefore willing to accord to our adversaries many deeds of heroism, of magnanimity, and of charity, satisfied that original sin is not always a constant factor. So, too, although we have exchanged volleys, both sides may have done so without undue animosity and with scarcely other than patriotic motives. Once a captive by the fortune of war the conditions were changed; there were no political discussions, no vituperation of leaders, and no impugnment of sincerity. Weapons, as contraband of war, were confiscated, and many a quarter-master's receipt was given for a good horse; but life was safe and even feelings were respected. There was a sort of healing balsam in the greeting, "Well, boys, it may be our turn next and then don't you forget us," which took away the sting. And right here I desire to pay our captors a tribute, and more especially the detail of the Eighth Virginian Cavalry which escorted us from Rogersville, Tennessee, through many a town on the march and by rail to Richmond. They foraged for us, they chatted with us, and rebuked the mobs that reviled us at the depots. "Only home-guards, boys," said they; "never mind them, you have them too." They treated us so well, in fact, that we almost felt in honor bound not to attempt to escape. Then, as ever since, I realized that the true soldier is neither a brute nor a tyrant.

It was my fortune to have served with the Second East Tennessee Mounted Infantry, made up of mountaineers, and which, with others of like disposition, found active employment in raiding. It was very frequently decimated by details for scouting, and also made considerable of a record in the dangers of bridge burning. It likewise, in common with several other regiments from the same section of the Cumberland Range, waged a fierce war upon guerillas.

Of these East Tennesseans it may be said they were men through whose veins coursed the blood of Covenanters mingled with that of the liberty-loving Hollander - all of them descended from conquerors of the wilderness, and were soldiers by birth and instinct, Indian fighters by inheritance, skilled in woodcraft, alert, tall, straight and wiry, who as martyrs centuries ago might have gone singing to the stake. Of intense individuality and not much given to discipline, they expected from their leaders brave deeds as well as brave words. Of such lineage came the uncompromising Brownlow, and another equally intrepid parson, Carter, whose brother, the general, obtained a transfer from the navy that he might share his fortunes with his beloved neighbors in the service on land. Maynard, a patriot too, but eastern-born, and incorruptible Andy Johnson, the same grand figure no less behind than before the curtain of obloquy, had also cast their lot with these mountaineers, not in the field but equally effectively in the forum. These were the valorous yeomanry who tilled their own soil, - "poor whites," not worth the ink of war correspondents but to whom unionism meant exile, sundered ties and devastated homes, who knew their friends by whispered pass-words, who hid by day and crawled by night, who followed the flag with the eye of faith, and who, silent warriors as they were, went down to silent graves, many of them in the hour of deepest gloom. There were thirty thousand of them, more rather than less, to whom no Homer has yet come with glowing song. They were heroes known only to God. The Great Republic knows them merely as sparkles of patriotism.

Our regiment, together with the Seventh Ohio Cavalry and a battery of artillery, was captured early one morning - not without a brisk fight - after a wild, howling storm, while on outpost duty at Big Creek, one of the forks of the Holston, four miles above Rogersville. The demonstration against us in particular which ended in our disaster was in fact part of that series of movements begun by Wheeler's Cavalry, which culminated later on in the siege of Knoxville. Burnside, with his Ninth Army Corps, with the baptism of the Fredericksburgh disaster, the idol of our section because he ever meant fight and was known for his even-handed justice, held the city until Sherman came to raise the siege. Soon after our disaster a Confederate captain rapidly selected from among his old neighbors five or six of our command, whom he claimed as deserters. The truth was that they had been "impressed," but had not yet been "mustered in" before their escape to our lines. We left them in the cold gray morning, a sombre group around a burnt-out log fire under a close guard. Among them was poor Dabney, the bugler, the soul of our party, mimic, storyteller and wit, with streaming eyes looking away from a hilarious life into the gloom beyond - and Lincoln, too, for so we called him from his resemblance to the martyr President, straight and slender as a ramrod, with teeth set and his old, changeless battle face. Another was watching the curling clouds from a corn-cob pipe. The broken blue wreaths seemed mute emblems of crushed hopes, as they dissolved in the keen, frosty air. We never heard of them again - unflinching heroes all, beggars not even for their lives. The neighbor had gratified his malice, his patriotism, perhaps even his conscience, but our execrations fell upon the Judas, and our prayers went out with the victims.

Perhaps Libby cannot be fairly regarded as the worst specimen of a prison; it certainly had none of the horrors of Andersonville, with its shifting dead line and slow starvation, but this might have been due to the more immediate espionage of our own government and its policy of checking cruelties by threatened reprisals. Thus, when the lots were drawn for two captains to be executed in retaliation for two rebel officers shot by Burnside in Kentucky for recruiting within the Federal lines, and the choice fell upon Henry Washington Sawyer, First New Jersey Cavalry, and John M. Flynn, Fifty-first Indiana Infantry, Secretary Stanton promptly notified General John H. Winder, Commandant of Prisoners, that a like doom would be meted out to General Lee and Captain Winder, both presumably near relatives of the more noted bearers of the same name. It is needless to say that there were no executions. Then, again, Libby was an officer's prison, and personal identity was not so likely to be lost; while of the rank and file in other prisons records were carelessly kept, names and regiments clerically twisted, in fact, the poor fellows became in many instances mere numerals.

After a somewhat labyrinthine march, we were halted in front of an old three-story brick building on the north bank of the James River, corner of Twentieth and Cary Streets, east side of the city. It still stands, a fertilizing depot very little changed in appearance, a point of attraction to visitors of the once proud Confederate Capital. Its dimensions were, and are, one hundred and fifty feet on the street by one hundred deep, the occupied space being broken into nine rooms, not including basements, which served, so rumor said, as bread and water dungeons. The building was three stories high and the gable made it imposing, as it was peaked at a very obtuse angle and had four tiers of seven windows each, overtopped by a single tier of only three windows. The front chimney served as a support for the Confederate flag, or at least for one of the many forms of that piece of bunting. As most of our readers know, this building once did duty as a tobacco warehouse, from whose proprietors it derived its name. During the war it had for its presiding genius Captain Thomas P. Turner, a sort of Falstaffian Dogberry with a gruff voice, whose obesity undoubtedly exempted him from service in the field. He was pompous, consequential, and generally wrathful. To quote a phrase from Hawthorne, his were "many acts, from which it were the best charity to turn one's eyes away." Still, no man is expected to speak well of his jailer; in fact, in some instances, usage has made him the last man with whom one is expected to shake hands. At all events, I must needs vouchsafe him a kind remembrance, since once in my experience when brought before him, a victim of mistaken identity, he asked the guards to substantiate their charge by an oath; this they were unwilling to do, and so I was returned to my still desirable quarters. On this occasion he chided them sharply for their careless charges, reminding them that they had once brought before him a chaplain for profane swearing.

Our doughty captain received us with scant courtesy, volunteering the assurance that we should be kept perfectly safe at least from shot and shell. We were duly searched for valuables, and our greenbacks were exchanged for Confederate scrip, at the rate of one to ten, the currency of the foe, which was just then at a point of its greatest expansion. Our poverty, however, was at about its height, inasmuch as the sutler had forestalled the enemy. Then, "Fall in, prisoners-march," and the doors were barred and further secured by the guards without. Numerous cries now greeted us; "Fresh fish! Fresh fish!" as applied to all neophytes seemed the most prominent, especially at the start. "Not so bad, doctor, after all," said Captain Marney of Co. A., who chuckled to himself that oysters might be included in the bill of fare. "What hotel, gentlemen?" "Fifth Avenue," "Prescott," "Girard," "Gibson," "Galt House," "This way, gentlemen," for all the world, I thought, like New York Jehus. Lighted lath sticks added a grotesque weirdness to the scene. "Don't join mess No. 22," bawled out another, "it is the meanest mess in Libby." "Where were you gobbled?" shouted another. "What's your corps?" "How are we doing in the West?" "Got any papers?" "Say, old fellow," piped out one of our tormentors to a foot-sore member of the party, "this is a good place to get shut of your gout." "Oh, yes! We know how it happened. Overwhelmed by superior numbers," chimed in another.

Our next step was to get into our camp; in other words, to hunt for quarters for the night. We discovered no bunks, chairs, or seats. In the final triumph of the stomach, they had probably all gone for firewood. We soon rose in favor by reason of our facilities in adjudicating disputed plants, for we agreed, so it is said, to furnish two captains for totem posts, as each had a pronounced squint; and then we had to spare a lieutenant, a champion snorer who much resembled in figure Benjamin Franklin, of Printing House Square. To make my meaning more intelligible, we soon found that we had to stake out our own sleeping claims, and to recognize it by our neighbors on either side. Every new-comer deprived the aborigines of just so much ground, and every candidate for a fat man's club was looked upon with aversion as encroaching upon territorial rights. But few, and they the sound sleepers only, were permitted to pass the night on the floor except at the approved angles. We missed our saddles, which made excellent pillows in the field when a bivouac was ordered. Thus, without blanket or ponchon, and overrun by those atoms of creation which generally came to an ignominious end between two thumb-nails, we were expected to court the gentle god as best we could. Even Libby had its first families, - the original pre-emptors, after whom all others were but vulgar intruders, mere parvenues. Our aristocracy had grown gray in wisdom, if not in years. They were known as "old rats." Their pride was centered in the fact that they were the "Mayflowers" of the institution, and that here they intended to remain. One of them wore a faded black buckram cravat, very old, but stiff enough to keep the chin well aloft and his feet from stumbling. His hands would often wander to the upper brim in vain search for a collar. His coat knew a button or two, but how much there was beneath it would be temerity to guess. He was familiar with the Cabinet secrets of both sides, divined all movements, knew the blunders of every general, and could conduct a campaign as well as any newspaper editor of the day. How he came to Libby was a mystery, and how the war closed without his aid is another. At all events, we accepted his authority on exchange, just as we would take any other food for the imagination. He, with a few companions, would stalk up and down the different rooms, - for we had a large liberty in that respect - and would occasionally in a figurative sense "wrap his black cloak around him gloomily and stand like one whom mightiest cares concern." Another character was Brigadier-General Neal Dow, officially known as of the First Brigade, Second Division, 19th Army Corps, generally with book in hand and wearing a red fez cap without a tassel. He was then, as now, a vigorous temperance orator, and as the direct outcome of his teachings I may say that during my entire residence at the famous hostelry, I never saw a single case of intoxication. Sometimes he would burst out in diatribes against Jeff. Davis, taking due precaution that the guards were not within ear-shot. I remember how at least one fine invective was spoiled by a low whistle, and how intemperance and the Confederacy became most wofully mixed. Colonel Abel D. Streight, of Indiana, was another type of the soldier - tall, loud-voiced, and of robust physique, not given to economy in his denunciations of the "Johnny" government - a terror to the guards, who evidently did not desire him to commit an overt act. I left him there, to find his way out by the tunnel and to become the occasion of a bad pun which precipitated the discovery of the plot, some one having explained to the prison clerk, confused in his count, for there never was a roll-call that "he couldn't see Straight." The pun took, but too late for the fortunate colonel. Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. Sanderson, popular with the prison authorities, was our commissary, and was subsequently commissioned by General Winder to issue the clothing sent by the United States Government to the enlisted men on Belle Island, the general depot of the Potomac army prisoners. He was slim, tall, with a pronounced military air, and the court of last resort on whist.

As regards the rations, I might premise the assertion that a Libby graduate never grumbles in any hotel, be it ever so humble. He has been taught by adversity. How we lived I have almost forgotten. There was a wide difference between rations on paper and rations consumed. We must have had soup at least, for almost every prisoner had some bone trinket of his own carving. Corn bread made from unbolted meal and generally regarded as "a dangerous missile," coffee made of rye, quarter of a pound of meat per day, about two quarts of rice to every one hundred men, sweet potatoes occasionally, salt and vinegar in sufficient quantity, I think to be about a just statement. The writer was fortunate enough to win the confidence of a lieutenant of colored troops to the extent of about three quarts of rice, for which said lieutenant had lost his appetite, but which he had hoarded for purposes of barter. Doctor Leary, the cook of our mess, South Carolinian by birth but Kansas Jayhawker by conviction, whose habits were all medical, was wont to announce its service every second hour. Still, in all honesty, our guards fared no better, but they with a larger liberty were better satisfied.

Of the much-talked of essential cubic feet of air we certainly had our modicum, for in all Libby there was not a single pane of glass. Fuel was scarce, and all of us missed the ready fence rail. What soldier is there who will hew, split, or chop for himself, much less for another? So railings, partitions, and doors soon "vanished into thin air," as sacrifices to the great Moloch of our stomachs. Still, when perhaps for the sake of a little cheap sympathy, we afterwards reported to Surgeon-General Barnes, at Washington, he, with a merry twinkle in his eye, had the cruelty to inform us that "we did not seem very much emaciated." We were permitted to buy what we could from without, sometimes our guards, sometimes our own commissary, and sometimes the visiting clergymen were our purveyors, but prices were ruinously high - flour $40 a barrel, potatoes $16 a peck, with other necessaries in proportion, and, worst of all, with a constant upward tendency. The situation was that of Wall Street, all bulls and no bears. Our adjutant embarked in an apple speculation, but did not protect himself well enough with collaterals, and so got only a portion of his money back by turning prison barber. I have recently heard of him as a fashionable dentist in Philadelphia. He was the factotum of our party, rollicky and gay; always fruitful in resources, always happy-go-lucky, and well deserving of his subsequent food fortune. Boxes from our friends North found their way through the lines, broken open and rifled at times, but always welcome. On these occasions not a little selfishness was exhibited; the happy recipients would hoard little squares of sugar and a modicum of coffee with as much care as the miser his gold; in fact, they would defer their consumption to the very last. With the fresh arrivals, whose purse and sword were, in true army style, at the service of every friend, this seemed indeed a strange manifestation of human degradation.

On Sundays, religious exercises generally crowded out all secular affairs. We had singing and prayer, and sometimes a sermon from clergymen of the various denominations outside our walls. To do the prison authorities justice, religious ministrations could be had for the asking. We knew the day by its quiet sobriety, and writing of letters which might or might not pass the lines! Week-days, however, changed the aspect of affairs. There was broad-sword exercise with whittled weapons of lath; there were classes in French, German, trigonometry, stenography, and engineering; there were pastimes by way of chess, the titular dignitaries with rank duly inscribed and made of beef bones, button checkers, and every known game of cards. Moot courts were now and then held, the sentences of which partook of a Draconian severity - one poor fellow was exiled form Libby for having rehearsed his experience at Delmonico's, but heed was given to his appeals to remain. Sometimes and aide on General Fremont's staff regaled us with an air upon his violin. We thought him an Ole Bull, and his instrument a Cremona. He was a Hungarian by birth, and his strains were weirdly startling. There were some three or four quartettes who supplied the vocal music on national holidays, under imputations of attempts at root and acts of insubordination toward the Jeff. Davis Government. At nine o'clock, when the few candles of the short-six brand were lighted, the fun began in earnest, and woe to the man of peculiarities, or as we would now call him, the crank! An ever ready source of amusement was a lieutenant of Ohio, who was exceedingly irascible and consequently the victim of every practical joke. Every night he was stumbled over by a misdirected stranger, and his barrel which he kept for his dead line was toppled down! Then would he make the air blue! For his credit I had better not say how, and the whole floor would break out into a pandemonium of most vociferous laughter. A ventriloquial voice would ask, "Who is the meanest man in Libby?" The honors were usually divided or answers varied by caprice. "Who thinks himself the handsomest man in Libby?" "McFadden," would respond a tremendous chorus. "Who greases his mustache with ham fat?" McFadden." Now McFadden was voted vain, and worst of all, good looking. For a long time after his release he hailed on all hotel registers as from Libby Prison, Richmond.

At length the tormenting rumors of exchange which daily floated around the prison merged into reality, and the fiat of "doctors, fall in," went forth. Need I say that every interested person found his place and that the valuables taken from us were only of secondary consideration in our minds? We went out in the next batch after the chaplains, and antedated the escape of the one hundred and fifteen through the tunnel, or the "Great Yankee Wonder," as it was afterwards known, when for a short time on exhibition. Of this daring exploit I know nothing personally. The painstaking operations must have been going on for weeks, and of course during our stay. Yet so well kept was the dangerous secret that literally no one knew of it but the workmen, and they communicated the fact only to their most intimate comrades. Once in the open air we breathed m ore freely, but still had our misgivings that something might occur to mar our good fortune - most of all lest letters under our shoulder-straps and in our metallic buttons might be discovered. But matters went on smoothly for us until, after a somewhat bewildering march along docks and a river-front, we at last found ourselves under the hatches of the Schultz, a spiteful, noisy little craft used for the exchange of prisoners. Commissioner Robert Ould of the Confederacy accompanied us to our destination, but we saw nothing of him until the gang-plank connected us with the City of New York in Hampton Roads. He was dignified, suave, and courteous. He requested of us "John Brown," which was effectively rendered with a full chorus, as well as other army melodies. In the fullness of our joy, we really thought that he sympathized with us in our hilarity. He and Major Mulford talked over affairs in an official way, chatted with each other pleasantly, and then we learned that we were safe at last.

And with what grateful hearts did we once more behold that flag so lately scorned, mocked, derided, and execrated, now glorious with an effulgent halo! How brightly beamed its stars! How fervidly burned its crimson! How purely showed its white, and how bonny was its blue! To us, then, what an emblem of majesty it seemed. As the shipwrecked mariner drifting aimlessly upon an ungovernable raft greets a sail, as the invalid, wearied by the vigils of The night, hails the morn which exchanges bustle for monotony, as staggers the dazed culprit forth into liberty, so felt we when we clumsily clambered over into our boat as it rocked n the misty, moonlit sea. I would that the reader could have heard the jocund shout, the robust cheer, have seen the trickling tears of joy upon that night of nights, for were we not free? How some danced, how some turned somersaults, how some made a new theme of home, how some rolled out into space the marching soul of "John Brown's Body," how some proclaimed "the Year of Jubilee," and how some shouted their "Coming" way down to "Father Abraham" in Washington! Can it be told how clamor murdered sleep? How all forgotten were wails, shrieks, and moans, "the quick prayers of sudden deaths," the gleaming blade, the crashing bullet, the screaming shell, for were we not beneath scudding clouds,, splashing through the foaming waves of the Chesapeake? And were we not singing, as we may never so lustily sing again, that old, old melody of "Home, Home, Sweet Home?"

John Shrady, M.D.

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