American History Stories—Volume IV - Mara L. Pratt

Libby Prison

I wish there were no need of my saying anything to you children about the horrible life of our soldiers in this Southern prison. If not telling it to you would make it any less a part of the history of this war, I would gladly leave it out of our stories; but it is  a part of it, and one view of the war would be wholly lost to you if I were not to tell you of these "prison pens," as they were called.

When any of the enemy are captured in a battle, they are, as you know, called "prisoners of war." We say, in a certain battle, so many soldiers were killed, so many wounded, and so many taken prisoners.

In the city of Richmond, that capital of the Confederates, which months and months ago some of our Union generals ought to have "taken prisoner,"—in this city of Richmond stood the "Libby Prison."

It was a large brick building, which, before the war, had been used as a storehouse. It was large, to be sure; but no building is very large when you think of packing thousands and thousands of men into it.

I am afraid these men, packed into this prison like cattle into a freight car, suffered more than you or I can imagine from filth and bad air, and hunger and starvation. When this building was full, prisoners were confined, on a small island in the James River, called Belle Isle, where a kind of camp was made, surrounded by a wall of earth and by ditches. It is said that the prisoners were penned up there like sheep, without any shelter even in winter, and that many were frozen to death. It is also said that all the prisoners were given poor food, and that they were starved by the Confederates so as to make them unfit for further service. Southern writers say, on the contrary, that these stories are untrue; that the prisoners on Belle Isle were furnished with tents like those of the soldiers who guarded them; and that the food furnished to them and to those in Libby Prison was the same as the rations of their soldiers in the field. They also say that the healthfulness of the place and the good care taken of the prisoners is proved by the fact that out of more than twenty thousand prisoners confined on Belle Isle, only one hundred sixty-four died between June, 1862 and February, 1865, or about five each month.

Whether this charge was true or not, we do not know, but it was believed to be true then. In the early part of 1864, there was an attempt made by Gen. Kilpatrick and Col. Dahlgren, to free these prisoners. It was an unfortunate sort of a plan—one that did more harm than good. With a small band of mounted soldiers they started on a raid to Richmond. They tore up railroads, cut telegraph wires, and did all the mischief they could. When Kilpatrick was within three and a half miles of the city, he halted, expecting to hear Dahlgren's signal from the other side. But he waited in vain. Dahlgren had met only with misfortunes on his march, and was at that moment lying dead in the forests not far distant.

There was great excitement over this affair throughout the country. The Confederates declared that papers were found on Dahlgren's body, showing a plot to free the Union soldiers, and then with their aid, to burn the city and to kill President Davis.

The Unionists declared that this was all a lie, made up by the Confederates to excuse them for treating Dahlgren's dead body as brutally as it is said it was treated when found by the Confederates in the forest.

How much or how little was true on either side, we cannot judge from what was said about it at that time. During a war like this, we should hardly expect to find the people very just in their judgments of each other. The "golden rule" cannot live in war time; and when that is trampled under foot, and hate gets the upper hand, the good angels of peace and truth and justice go away in sorrow, I fear, and leave the field to the bad angels alone.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - IV by Mara L. Pratt