From the New York Times, 3/30/1865


The Libby Prison – Attempted Justification of Barbarous Treatment of Prisoners of War at the South – Confession that the Libby was Mined.


From the Richmond Dispatch, March 24.

During last Summer, a crusade was commenced by the Northern press against the "barbarous treatment" of their prisoners at the South. A Congressional Committee was appointed to investigate the fact; and, in order to arouse the Northern people, this committee had several of their sick and emaciated returned prisoners stripped naked, and photographs taken of them. These pictures were circulated as specimens of the appearance of all the prisoners held in the South. The Confederate Congress appointed a committee lately to report upon the condition and treatment of prisoners held by both governments, and also upon the violations, by the enemy, of the rules of civilized warfare. The report of our committee has been printed, and we copy from it some extracts:

In exchange, a number of Confederate sick and wounded prisoners have been at various times delivered at Richmond and at Savannah. The mortality among these on the passage and their condition when delivered were so deplorable as to justify the charge that they had been treated with inhuman neglect by the Northern authorities.

Assistant Surgeon TINSLEY testifies: I have seen many of our prisoners returned from the North who were nothing but skin and hones. They were as emaciated as a man could be to retain life, and the photographs (appended to Report No. 67) would not be exaggerated representations of our returned prisoners to whom I thus allude. I saw two hundred fifty of our sick brought in on litters from the steamer at Rocketts. Thirteen dead bodies were brought off the steamer the same night. At least thirty died in one night after they were received.

Surgeon SPENCE testifies: I was at Savannah and saw rather over three thousand prisoners received. The list showed that a large number had died on the passage from Baltimore to Savannah. The number sent from the Federal prisons was three thousand five hundred, and out of that number they delivered only 3,028, to the best of my recollection. Captain Hatch can give you the exact number. Thus about four hundred seventy two died on the passage. I was told that 67 dead bodies had been taken from one train of cars between Elmira and Baltimore. After being received at Savannah they had the best attention possible, yet many died in a few days. In carrying out the exchange of disabled, sick, and wounded men, we delivered at Savannah and Charleston about eleven thousand Federal prisoners, and their physical condition compared most favorably with those we received in exchange, although of course the worst cases among the Confederates had been removed by death during the passage.

RICHARD H. DIBRELL, a merchant of Richmond and a member of the "Ambulance Committee," whose labors in mitigating the sufferings of the wounded have been acknowledged both by Confederate and Northern men, thus testifies concerning our sick and wounded soldiers at Savannah returned from Northern prisons and hospitals: I have never seen a set of men in worse condition. They were so enfeebled and emaciated that we lifted them like little children. Many of them were like living skeletons. Indeed, there was one poor boy, about 17 years old, who presented the most distressing and deplorable appearance I ever saw. He was nothing but skin and bone, and besides this he was literally eaten up with vermin. He died in the hospital in a few days after being removed thither, notwithstanding the kindest treatment and the use of the most judicious nourishment. Our men were in so reduced a condition that on more than one trip up on the short passage of ten miles from the transports to the city as many as five died. The clothing of the privates was in a wretched state of tatters and filth. The mortality on the passage from Maryland was very great as well as that on the passage from the prisons to the port from which they started. I cannot state the exact number, but I think I heard that thee thousand five hundred were started, and we only received about three thousand and twenty-seven."


Your committee proceed next to notice the allegation that the Confederate authorities had prepared a mine under the Libby Prison, and placed in it a quantity of gunpowder for the purpose of blowing up the buildings, with their inmates, in case of an attempt to rescue them. After ascertaining all the facts bearing on this subject your committee believe that what was done under the circumstances will meet a verdict of approval from all whose prejudices do not blind them to the truth. The state of things was unprecedented in history, and must be judged of according to the motives at work and the result accomplished. A large body of Northern raiders, under one Colonel DAHLGREN, was approaching Richmond. It was ascertained, by the reports of prisoners captured from them and other evidence, that their design was to enter the city, to set fire go the buildings, public and private, for which purpose turpentine balls in great number had been prepared; to murder the President of the Confederate States and other prominent men; to release the prisoners of war, then numbering 5,000 or 6,000; to put arms into their hands, and to turn over the city to indiscriminate pillage, rape, and slaughter. At the same time a plot was discovered among the prisoners to co-operate in this scheme, and a large number of knives and slung-shots (made by putting stones into woolen stockings) were detected in places of concealment about their quarters. To defeat a plan so diabolical, assuredly the sternest means were justified. If it would have been right to put to death any one prisoner attempting to escape under such circumstances, it seems logically certain that it would have been equally right to put to death any number making such attempt. But in truth the means adopted were those of humanity and prevention rather than of execution. The Confederate authorities felt able to meet and repulse DAHLGREN and his raiders if they could prevent the escape of the prisoners.

The real object was to save their lives as well as those of our citizens. The guard force at the prisons was small, and all the local troops in and around Richmond were needed to meet the threatened attack. Had the prisoners escaped, the women and children of the city, as well as their homes, would have been at the mercy of five thousand outlaws. Humanity required that the most summary measures should be used to deter them from any attempt at escape.

A mine was prepared under the Libby Prison; a sufficient quantity of gunpowder was put into it, and pains were taken to inform the prisoners that any attempt at escape made by them would be effectually defeated. The plan succeeded perfectly. The prisoners were awed and kept quiet. DAHLGREN and his party were defeated and scattered. The danger passed away, and in a few weeks the gunpowder was removed. Such are the facts. Your committee do not hesitate to make them known, feeling assured that the conscience of the enlightened world and the great law of self preservation will justify all that was done by our country and her officers.


The evidence proves that the rations furnished to prisoners of war in Richmond and on Belle Isle have been never less than those furnished to the Confederate soldiers who guarded them, and have at some seasons been larger in quantity and better in quality than those furnished to Confederate troops in the field. This has been because until February, 1864, the Quartermaster's Department furnished the prisoners, and often had provisions or funds when the Commissary Department was not so well provided. Once, and only once, for a few weeks the prisoners were without meat, but a larger quantity of bread and vegetable food was in consequence supplied to them. How often the gallant men composing the Confederate Army have been without meat, for even longer intervals, your committee do not deem it necessary to say. Not less than sixteen ounces of bread and four ounces of bacon, or six ounces of beef, together with beans and soup, have been furnished per day to the prisoners. During most of the time the quantity of meat furnished to them has been greater than these amounts; and even in times of the greatest scarcity they have received as much as the Southern soldiers who guarded them. The scarcity of meat and of breadstuffs in the South in certain places has been the result of the savage policy of our enemies in burning barns filled with wheat or corn, destroying agricultural implements, and driving off or wantonly butchering hogs and cattle. Yet amid all these privations we have given to their prisoners the rations above mentioned. It is well known that this quantity of food is sufficient to keep in health a man who does not labor hard.


The statements of the Sanitary Commission as to prisoners freezing to death on Belle Isle are absurdly false. According to the statement, it was common, during a cold spell in winter, to see several prisoners frozen to death every morning in the places in which they had slept. This picture, if correct, might well excite our horror; but, unhappily for its sensational power, it is but a clumsy daub, founded on the fancy of the painter. The facts are, that tents were furnished sufficient to shelter all the prisoners; that the Confederate commandant and soldiers on the island were lodged in similar tents; that a fire was furnished in each of them; that the prisoners fared as well as their guards, and that only one of them was ever frozen to death, and he was frozen by the cruelty of his own fellow-prisoners, who thrust him out of the tent in a freezing night because he was infested with vermin. The proof as to the healthiness of the prisoners on Belle Isle and the small amount of mortality is remarkable, and presents a fit comment on the lugubrious pictures drawn by the Sanitary Commission, either from their own fancies or from the fictions put forth by their false witnesses. Lieutenant Bossieux proves that from the establishment of the prison camp on Belle Isle in June, 1862, to the 10th of February, 1865, more than 20,000 prisoners had been at various times there received, and yet that the whole number of deaths during this time was only 164. And this is confirmed by the Federal Colonel Sanderson, who states that the average number of deaths per month on Belle Isle was "from two to five; more frequently the lesser number." The sick were promptly removed from the island to the hospitals in the city.


The next charge is that the Libby and Belle Isle prisoners were habitually kept in a filthy condition, and that the officers and men confined there were prevented from keeping themselves sufficiently clean to avoid vermin and similar discomforts. The evidence clearly contradicts this charge. It is proved by the depositions of Major Turner, Lieutenant Bossieux, Reverend Doctor McCabe, and others, that the prisons were kept constantly and systematically policed and cleansed; that in the Libby there was an ample supply of water conducted to each floor by the city pipes, and that the prisoners were not only not restricted in its use, but urged to keep themselves clean. At Belle Isle, for a brief season (about three weeks), in consequence of a sudden increase in the number of prisoners, the police was interrupted, but it was soon restored, and ample means for washing both themselves and their clothes were at all times furnished to the prisoners. It is doubtless true that, notwithstanding these facilities, many of the prisoners were lousy and filthy, but it was the result of their own habits and not of neglect in the discipline or arrangements of the prison. Many of the prisoners were captured and brought in while in this condition. The Federal General Neal Dow well expressed their character and habits. When he came to distribute clothing among them he was met by profane abuse, and he said to the Confederate officer in charge, "You have here the scrapings and rakings of Europe." That such men should be filthy in their habits might be expected.

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