It was obvious even to the casual glimpse of a passing prisoner of war,
that the City did not lack its full share of the class which formed so
large an element of the society of Washington and other Northern Cities
during the war–the dainty carpet soldiers, heros of the promenade and
the boudoir, who strutted in uniforms when the enemy was far off, and
wore citizen’s clothes when he was close at hand. There were many curled
darlings displaying their fine forms in the nattiest of uniforms, whose
gloss had never suffered from so much as a heavy dew, let alone a rainy
day on the march. The Confederate gray could be made into a very dressy
garb. With the sleeves lavishly embroidered with gold lace, and the
collar decorated with stars indicating the wearer’s rank–silver for the
field officers, and gold for the higher grade,–the feet compressed into
high-heeled, high-instepped boots, (no Virginian is himself without a
fine pair of skin-tight boots) and the head covered with a fine, soft,
broad-brimmed hat, trimmed with a gold cord, from which a bullion tassel
dangled several inches down the wearer’s back, you had a military swell,
caparisoned for conquest–among the fair sex.
On our way we passed the noted Capitol of Virginia–a handsome marble
building,–of the column-fronted Grecian temple style. It stands in the
center of the City. Upon the grounds is Crawford’s famous equestrian
statue of Washington, surrounded by smaller statues of other
The Confederate Congress was then in session in the Capitol, and also the
Legislature of Virginia, a fact indicated by the State flag of Virginia
floating from the southern end of the building, and the new flag of the
Confederacy from the northern end. This was the first time I had seen
the latter, which had been recently adopted, and I examined it with some
interest. The design was exceedingly plain. Simply a white banner, with
a red field in the corner where the blue field with stars is in ours.
The two blue stripes were drawn diagonally across this field in the shape
of a letter X, and in these were thirteen white stars, corresponding to
the number of States claimed to be in the Confederacy.
The battle-flag was simply the red field. My examination of all this was
necessarily very brief. The guards felt that I was in Richmond for other
purposes than to study architecture, statuary and heraldry,
and besides they were in a hurry to be relieved of us and get their
breakfast, so my art-education was abbreviated sharply.
We did not excite much attention on the streets. Prisoners had by that
time become too common in Richmond to create any interest. Occasionally
passers by would fling opprobrious epithets at “the East Tennessee
traitors,” but that was all.
The commandant of the prisons directed the Tennesseeans to be taken to
Castle Lightning–a prison used to confine the Rebel deserters, among
whom they also classed the East Tennesseeans, and sometimes the West
Virginians, Kentuckians, Marylanders and Missourians found fighting
against them. Such of our men as deserted to them were also lodged
there, as the Rebels, very properly, did not place a high estimate upon
this class of recruits to their army, and, as we shall see farther along,
violated all obligations of good faith with them, by putting them among
the regular prisoners of war, so as to exchange them for their own men.
Back we were all marched to a street which ran parallel to the river and
canal, and but one square away from them. It was lined on both sides by
plain brick warehouses and tobacco factories, four and five stories high,
which were now used by the Rebel Government as prisons and military
The first we passed was Castle Thunder, of bloody repute. This occupied
the same place in Confederate history, that, the dungeons beneath the
level of the water did in the annals of the Venetian Council of Ten.
It was believed that if the bricks in its somber, dirt-grimed walls could
speak, each could tell a separate story of a life deemed dangerous to the
State that had gone down in night, at the behest of the ruthless
Confederate authorities. It was confidently asserted that among the
commoner occurrences within its confines was the stationing of a doomed
prisoner against a certain bit of blood-stained, bullet-chipped wall,
and relieving the Confederacy of all farther fear of him by the rifles of
a firing party. How well this dark reputation was deserved, no one but
those inside the inner circle of the Davis Government can say. It is
safe to believe that more tragedies were enacted there than the archives
of the Rebel civil or military judicature give any account of. The
prison was employed for the detention of spies, and those charged with
the convenient allegation of “treason against the Confederate States of
America.” It is probable that many of these were sent out of the world
with as little respect for the formalities of law as was exhibited with
regard to the ‘suspects’ during the French Revolution.
Next we came to Castle Lightning, and here I bade adieu to my Tennessee
A few squares more and we arrived at a warehouse larger than any of the
others. Over the door was a sign
THOMAS LIBBY & SON,
SHIP CHANDLERS AND GROCERS.
This was the notorious “Libby Prison,” whose name was painfully familiar
to every Union man in the land. Under the sign was a broad entrance way,
large enough to admit a dray or a small wagon. On one side of this was
the prison office, in which were a number of dapper, feeble-faced clerks
at work on the prison records.
As I entered this space a squad of newly arrived prisoners were being
searched for valuables, and having their names, rank and regiment
recorded in the books. Presently a clerk addressed as “Majah Tunnah,”
the man who was superintending these operations, and I scanned him with
increased interest, as I knew then that he was the ill-famed Dick Turner,
hated all over the North for his brutality to our prisoners.
He looked as if he deserved his reputation. Seen upon the street he
would be taken for a second or third class gambler, one in whom a certain
amount of cunning is pieced out by a readiness to use brute force. His
face, clean-shaved, except a “Bowery-b’hoy” goatee, was white, fat, and
selfishly sensual. Small, pig-like eyes, set close together, glanced
around continually. His legs were short, his body long, and made to
appear longer, by his wearing no vest–a custom common them with
His faculties were at that moment absorbed in seeing that no person
concealed any money from him. His subordinates did not search closely
enough to suit him, and he would run his fat, heavily-ringed fingers
through the prisoner’s hair, feel under their arms and elsewhere where he
thought a stray five dollar greenback might be concealed. But with all
his greedy care he was no match for Yankee cunning. The prisoners told
me afterward that, suspecting they would be searched, they had taken off
the caps of the large, hollow brass buttons of their coats, carefully
folded a bill into each cavity, and replaced the cap. In this way they
brought in several hundred dollars safely.
There was one dirty old Englishman in the party, who, Turner was
convinced, had money concealed about his person. He compelled him to
strip off everything, and stand shivering in the sharp cold, while he
took up one filthy rag after another, felt over each carefully, and
scrutinized each seam and fold. I was delighted to see that after all
his nauseating work he did not find so much as a five cent piece.
It came my turn. I had no desire, in that frigid atmosphere, to strip
down to what Artemus Ward called “the skanderlous costoom of the Greek
Slave;” so I pulled out of my pocket my little store of wealth–ten
dollars in greenbacks, sixty dollars in Confederate graybacks–and
displayed it as Turner came up with, “There’s all I have, sir.” Turner
pocketed it without a word, and did not search me. In after months, when
I was nearly famished, my estimation of “Majah Tunnah” was hardly
enhanced by the reflection that what would have purchased me many good
meals was probably lost by him in betting on a pair of queens, when his
opponent held a “king full.”
I ventured to step into the office to inquire after my comrades. One of
the whey-faced clerks said with the supercilious asperity characteristic
of gnat-brained headquarters attaches:
“Get out of here!” as if I had been a stray cur wandering in in search of
a bone lunch.
I wanted to feed the fellow to a pile-driver. The utmost I could hope
for in the way of revenge was that the delicate creature might some day
make a mistake in parting his hair, and catch his death of cold.
The guard conducted us across the street, and into the third story of a
building standing on the next corner below. Here I found about four
hundred men, mostly belonging to the Army of the Potomac, who crowded
around me with the usual questions to new prisoners: What was my
Regiment, where and when captured, and:
What were the prospects of exchange?
It makes me shudder now to recall how often, during the dreadful months
that followed, this momentous question was eagerly propounded to every
new comer: put with bated breath by men to whom exchange meant all that
they asked of this world, and possibly of the next; meant life, home,
wife or sweet-heart, friends, restoration to manhood, and self-respect–
everything, everything that makes existence in this world worth having.
I answered as simply and discouragingly as did the tens of thousands that
came after me:
“I did not hear anything about exchange.”
A soldier in the field had many other things of more immediate interest
to think about than the exchange of prisoners. The question only became
a living issue when he or some of his intimate friends fell into the
Thus began my first day in prison.
INTRODUCTION TO PRISON LIFE–THE PEMBERTON BUILDING AND ITS OCCUPANTS–
NEAT SAILORS–ROLL CALL–RATIONS AND CLOTHING–CHIVALRIC “CONFISCATION.”
I began acquainting myself with my new situation and surroundings.
The building into which I had been conducted was an old tobacco factory,
called the “Pemberton building,” possibly from an owner of that name,
and standing on the corner of what I was told were Fifteenth and Carey
streets. In front it was four stories high; behind but three, owing to
the rapid rise of the hill, against which it was built.
It fronted towards the James River and Kanawha Canal, and the James
River–both lying side by side, and only one hundred yards distant,
with no intervening buildings. The front windows afforded a fine view.
To the right front was Libby, with its guards pacing around it on the
sidewalk, watching the fifteen hundred officers confined within its
walls. At intervals during each day squads of fresh prisoners could be
seen entering its dark mouth, to be registered, and searched, and then
marched off to the prison assigned them. We could see up the James River
for a mile or so, to where the long bridges crossing it bounded the view.
Directly in front, across the river, was a flat, sandy plain, said to be
General Winfield Scott’s farm, and now used as a proving ground for the
guns cast at the Tredegar Iron Works.
The view down the river was very fine. It extended about twelve miles,
to where a gap in the woods seemed to indicate a fort, which we imagined
to be Fort Darling, at that time the principal fortification defending
the passage of the James.
Between that point and where we were lay the river, in a long, broad
mirror-like expanse, like a pretty little inland lake. Occasionally a
busy little tug would bustle up or down, a gunboat move along with
noiseless dignity, suggestive of a reserved power, or a schooner beat
lazily from one side to the other. But these were so few as to make even
more pronounced the customary idleness that hung over the scene. The
tug’s activity seemed spasmodic and forced–a sort of protest against the
gradually increasing lethargy that reigned upon the bosom of the waters–
the gunboat floated along as if performing a perfunctory duty, and the
schooners sailed about as if tired of remaining in one place. That
little stretch of water was all that was left for a cruising ground.
Beyond Fort Darling the Union gunboats lay, and the only vessel that
passed the barrier was the occasional flag-of-truce steamer.
The basement of the building was occupied as a store-house for the taxes-
in-kind which the Confederate Government collected. On the first floor
were about five hundred men. On the second floor–where I was–were
about four hundred men. These were principally from the First Division,
First Corps distinguished by a round red patch on their caps; First
Division, Second Corps, marked by a red clover leaf; and the First
Division, Third Corps, who wore a red diamond. They were mainly captured
at Gettysburg and Mine Run. Besides these there was a considerable
number from the Eighth Corps, captured at Winchester, and a large
infusion of Cavalry-First, Second and Third West Virginia–taken in
Averill’s desperate raid up the Virginia Valley, with the Wytheville Salt
Works as an objective.
On the third floor were about two hundred sailors and marines, taken in
the gallant but luckless assault upon the ruins of Fort Sumter, in the
September previous. They retained the discipline of the ship in their
quarters, kept themselves trim and clean, and their floor as white as a
ship’s deck. They did not court the society of the “sojers” below, whose
camp ideas of neatness differed from theirs. A few old barnacle-backs
always sat on guard around the head of the steps leading from the lower
rooms. They chewed tobacco enormously, and kept their mouths filled with
the extracted juice. Any luckless “sojer” who attempted to ascend the
stairs usually returned in haste, to avoid the deluge of the filthy
For convenience in issuing rations we were divided into messes of twenty,
each mess electing a Sergeant as its head, and each floor electing a
Sergeant-of-the-Floor, who drew rations and enforced what little
discipline was observed.
Though we were not so neat as the sailors above us, we tried to keep our
quarters reasonably clean, and we washed the floor every morning; getting
down on our knees and rubbing it clean and dry with rags. Each mess
detailed a man each day to wash up the part of the floor it occupied,
and he had to do this properly or no ration would be given him. While
the washing up was going on each man stripped himself and made close
examination of his garments for the body-lice, which otherwise would have
increased beyond control. Blankets were also carefully hunted over for
these “small deer.”
About eight o’clock a spruce little lisping rebel named Ross would appear
with a book, and a body-guard, consisting of a big Irishman, who had the
air of a Policeman, and carried a musket barrel made into a cane. Behind
him were two or three armed guards. The Sergeant-of-the-Floor commanded:
“Fall in in four ranks for roll-call.”
We formed along one side of the room; the guards halted at the head of
the stairs; Ross walked down in front and counted the files, closely
followed by his Irish aid, with his gun-barrel cane raised ready for use
upon any one who should arouse his ruffianly ire. Breaking ranks we
returned to our places, and sat around in moody silence for three hours.
We had eaten nothing since the previous noon. Rising hungry, our hunger
seemed to increase in arithmetical ratio with every quarter of an hour.
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