From the Weekly Kansas Chief (Troy, Kan.), 12/2/1880, p. 1, c. 5
LIBBY PRISON AT AUCTION
A Notable Relic of the War Under the Hammer – Reminiscences of Life in the Accursed Institution – The Anecdotes Related by Some of the Old Guard – “One of the Cutest Tricks the Yankees Ever Player.”
RICHMOND, VA., NOV. 11. – This evening Libby Prison, the historic military prison of the Confederate States Government, was sold at auction, under a deed of trust. The auctioneer stated that the property was now being rented as a tobacco factory at $50 a month. It was started at $5,500, and went up by slow degrees to $6,000. The auctioneer stated, reproachfully, that it cost over half this amount to put down the piles upon which the building was erected. He then suggested that such was the value of the historical associations of this building that if it were pulled down, the bricks could be sold at the North for $1 apiece, and as there were 240,000 bricks, the building would bring $240,000. He would, however, be satisfied to sell it for less money. This appeal got it up to $6,725, and it was knocked down to Mr. James T. Gray, a young capitalist of this city. The building is now occupied by Mr. F. L. Boykin, as a tobacco factory, and a crowd of negroes looked through the upper story iron bars, interested spectators.
A HISTORY OF THE PRISON.
Of all the Confederate prisons, “The Libby” was the most famous. Its appearance has changed little since the Confederate sentinel paced his beat around it. The old sign, “Libby Prison,” is still to be seen on the walls, but in many windows the iron bars have been taken down and sold for old iron. Soon after the war it remained idle, although frequent attempts were made to rent it out. Finally, it was used as a sumac factory, and then it was fitted up as a tobacco factory, and during the past two years it has been used as a stemmery. Of the thousands of Union soldiers who were at one time or the other confined in this prison, there are not probably 100 who can tell how it received its name. The building is one of the oldest in this part of the city, and ten years before the war, a sign, with black letter on a white ground, told the character of the establishment as follows: “Libby & Sons, Ship Chandlers and Grocers.” Old Libby was, in those days, one of the richest citizens in Richmond, and lived on Chenda [sic] Hill, in the lower part of the city, his residence being beautifully situated on an eminence overlooking the river, and which, to this day, bears his name. In 1861, this old sign still stuck to the prison walls. When the Confederate States authorities first began to look around for a military prison, they selected a large house in what is known as Lumpkins’ alley, near Broad street, at least a mile from the river. This place was known as “Castle Godwin,” and had formerly been used as a keep, or “jail,” for slaves. This place – Lumpkins’ alley – was then the great slave market, and every year slave-traders came here from down South, either to buy or sell slaves. On either side of the alley were large wooden buildings, known as “jails,” and here the slaves were kept until they were sold. One of the jails was converted into “Castle Godwin,” and used to be a Confederate prison, until about the year 1862. The increasing number of prisoners, however, caused the Confederate States Government to look around for a larger and more available prison, and the Libby Warehouse was selected. The Libby stands by the side of the Richmond Dock, looking over which the James river can be seen. In a stone’s throw stood “Castle Thunder,” the prison used for the confinement of Confederate soldiers. The surroundings of Libby Prison were far from prepossessing. A few negro shanties, a stable, a large warehouse used as a Confederate hospital, and a few small brick tenements were all that the Union soldier could see through the bars. The prison building proper had a front of about 140 feet, and a depth of 105. There were nine rooms, each 102 feet long by 45 wide. These rooms were all low pitched, the height of the ceiling from the floor being about seven feet. In Richmond several of the men, who were formerly guards at the Libby, are living, and some of them have interesting reminiscences of the old place to relate. Many of their anecdotes have been recalled by the sale to-day. Captain Joseph Wingfield, an ex-member of the City Council of Richmond, to-day told a good story of the time when he stood sentinel around Libby.
THE VANISHING YAMS.
As a contribution to the civil war literature, Wingfields’s experience is worthy of a conspicuous place. “So the old prison’s sold, is she?” he said, as he sat down on a nail keg and joined a group seated around the stove, discussing Libby times. There were several members of the old Richmond Light Infantry Blues in the group, who, in their time, had been detailed as sentinels at Libby, and each had some anecdote to relate. Wingfield listened to them all, and then said: “Well, I never pass Libby Prison without laughing. When I look up at the windows, I can’t help thinking of one of the cutest tricks those Yankees ever did play – sharp warn’t the word for it. Fact is, gentlemen, I had my musket leveled at a crowd of those fellows, to shoot, but the trick was so good that I didn’t have the heart to fire on ‘em.” “How was that?” asked the crowd. “Well you see, I didn’t have more than three days’ guard duty to do down there, but that was enough for me. Libby Prison had gotten so full that a room just across the street was fitted up sor some of the prisoners. This room was just above a long room which was used by the Confederate to store some articles in. About a week before I was stationed there, the Confederates had gotten a large supply of sweet potatoes from North Carolina. They were regular yams, and they were in demand, in those days, I can tell you. Well, sir, they stored the one in which the Yanks were confined. The Confederate officers who got these yams for their own mess, noticed that they were disappearing very fast; in fact, they missed about two or three bushels a day. At first, it was thought that the rats had got them, but a little calculation showed that it would take several million rats to get away with them in that way, and the officers came to the conclusion that somebody was stealing. Guards were posted all around the building, with orders to shoot any man they saw going in that room. They watched three nights, but could not see a soul go in or come out of the room, and the strangest part of the thing was, that while they were watching the potatoes they were just melting away. The officers were furious, and swore that the sentinels were not doing their duty, and were allowing the yams to be stolen, right before their eyes, but in spite of all their talking, the yams went like hot cakes. It certainly was a mystery how those yams got out of that room, and where they went to. When the thing had been going on three days, the officer of the guard came to me and said, “I want you to stand guard in that sweet potato room.” He had me put in there all night, and locked me in. I was ordered to shoot anybody I caught stealing. The room was a long, narrow one, and I had a lighted candle placed at each end. Just as fast as I would get at one end of the room, the rats would cut the candle down at the other, and when I would hurry back to light that one, the rats would cut out the one I had just left. Those rats kept me pretty busy, I can tell you. I thought they were the most devilish things I had ever come across. It was pretty lonesome in there, and it seemed to me like hell had been turned loose in that room, those rats made so much fuss; but for the life of me I couldn’t see any yams disappearing, though I kept my eyes fixed on the pile. I knew if any of those potatoes were missing the morning, I would catch fits. It was soon after the Streight tunnel had been dug, and Major Turner had gotten to be devilish strict. Well, sir, about twelve o’clock that night I heard a rumbling, creaking noise, and looked around and cocked my gun, but couldn’t see anybody. I began to feel rather nervous. The noise stopped, and presently I heard it again. I looked toward the pile of yams, and saw a rope coming down from the ceiling. It had a brick tied to it, and came down on the potatoes with a slam. By George! that surprised me; but when I saw the same brick drawn slowly up again toward the ceiling, with about a peck of potatoes sticking to it, I tell you I just held my breath. I crept up nearly under the rope and waited for it to come down again. I didn’t have to wait long.
INVENTED FOR POTATOES.
“The brick came down with a whiz, and then I had a chance to see what sort of a brick it was. It was the most ingenious thing I ever saw. They had drilled about twenty-five holes in the brick, and through these holes they put sharpened nails, so that whenever they let it fall on the pile every nail stuck in a potato, and the brick took up about a peck. A hole had been cut, two feet square, though their floor above, and they would let the apparatus down through that. Just as they were about to draw up, I put my hand out and caught the rope. I heard a fellow above say, “Look out, boys; mind how you pull, the rope’s hung,” and then they began tugging steadily. I put my whole weight on the rope, and the same voice cried, “I’m afraid she’s badly hung, boys; don’t jerk, but pull steadily.” They did pull steadily. It seemed to me there were about twenty tugging at that rope, and they were fairly lifting me from the floor, when I thought of my pocket knife. I jerked it out, and with one stroke sawed the rope in two. It parted with a jerk, so suddenly that the fellows pulling at the other end were slung together in a heap, one on the other; I could hear them as they fell in a lump on the floor, and the way they cussed was a caution, I can tell you. Then I could hear them getting up, and one fellow called out, “I told you so! You see what you’ve done! You’ve broken the rope, and lost the brick; and now they will find us out!” I saw a head poked through the hole, and a long-necked fellow looked down to see where the brick could be. I raised my gun – for I was ordered to shoot anybody I caught stealing – but to save my life I couldn’t shoot, the joke was so good, and then I hadn’t got through laughing at the way they tumbled on the floor; so I just called out, ‘If you all up there touch one of these potatoes again, I’ll shoot.’ You could have heard a pin drop. The fellow’s head went back with a jerk like a snapping turtle’s, and the port hole was closed at once. The next day, when the officers went up there to examine the place, they had great difficulty in finding the hole. It was so nicely cut, and the planks fitted so well together, that if we had not known it was there, we would never have found it.”
The commandant of Libby Prison was Major Turner. He, like all the other officials there, has moved from Richmond. When the war broke out, he was a cadet at West Point, and resigned, to come South. Although a young man, he was made commandant of Libby, and held that important position until the end of the war. After the evacuation of Richmond, he led an adventurous life. Flying from Richmond to the Gulf States, he went to Mexico, and was there with Maximillian. He afterward returned to Mississippi, gave up the idea of being a soldier, studied dentistry, and is now following the profession of dentist, in Memphis, or he was when last heard from. – Special Dispatch to Globe-Democrat.