Libby Prison Information



[From Libby Civil War Prison web site at]

This is a reprint of Official Publication #12, Richmond Civil War Centennial Committee, 1961- 1965, no copyright claimed, but the original was compiled by R. W. Wiatt, Jr.

The most famous prison of the Civil War was located in Richmond, Virginia, on the western half of a block bounded by Cary and Dock Streets at 20th. It consisted of three tenement (loft style) buildings, each 110x44 feet, 4 stories high.
They were built between 1845 and 1852 by John Enders Sr., a founder of the tobacco industry of Richmond. Enders was killed instantly when he fell from a ladder thru a hatch in the construction of the central building. Previously he had been a leader in developing real estate in the dock area and with his in- laws, the Ege family, owned much property there. Several of his slaves burned down all the buildings between 21st and 22nd Street when they found that his will did not set them free as they had expected.
Captain Luther Libby leased the west building on 3 year terms from the Enders family and erected the now renowned sign, L. LIBBY & SON, SHIP CHANDLERS. Libby was a native of Maine and with the outbreak of war, since most of his business was with Northern ships, he closed down the operation. He continued to maintain the lease which had started in 1854.
Following the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run) so many prisoners were coming into Richmond that these buildings were among a number which were commandeered for prisoner and hospital use. General Winder gave Libby only 48 hours to vacate the premises. Some say because he was suspected of Union sympathy, tho a son served with the Confederacy. At any rate, so rapidly was the building converted to its new use that the sign was not removed and thus the name LIBBY PRISON came into use.
It is alleged that the first Union prisoner to enter the prison was Mr. Philander A. Streator of Holyoke, Massachusetts. More than 50,000 men passed thru this prison while it was used by the Confederacy. The three buildings were connected by inner doors, but the different buildings went by the designations of East, Middle and West.
The prisoners were not kept on the ground floors. The west ground floor was used as offices and guard-rooms and the middle as the kitchen. There are prisoner references to rooms called by them, "Streight's Room", "Milroy's Room", and "Chickamauga Room".  The cellars contained cells for dangerous prisoners, spies and slaves under sentence of death, and a carpenter shop.
For most of the time, its commandant was Major "Dick" Turner. Its capacity was reported as 1,200, though it is certain that at times this was exceeded.
Many escapes occurred. The most spectacular was one, led by Colonel Thomas E. Rose (77th Penna. Vols.) assisted by Major A.G. Hamilton (12th Kentucky) on 9 February '64, in which 109 officers tunneled their way out. 48 were recaptured and 59 were able to reach Union lines, but 2 drowned. Rose was one of the unlucky, finding himself back in Libby. He was later exchanged on 30 April 1864. The only tools which they had to use in the long tunnel digging were an old pocket knife, some chisels, a piece of rope, a rubber cloth and a wooden spittoon. They constructed the 53' long tunnel, of which there are no remains, in 17 days.
Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, the Union agent in Richmond, was a frequent visitor to Libby, bringing food and reading material. It is stated that she obtained much valuable information from the men there and passed it thru her efficient agents to the Union. She is also credited with arranging for a number of men to escape, tho no tunnel existed between the prison and her Church Hill home, as has been said. In the Van Lew Collection at the New York Public Library there are several items made by the Libby prisoners and given to Miss Van Lew. One is a well carved little wooden book with the inscription "E. V. L. - A Friend In Need."
The best known prisoner housed in Libby was the eccentric Union Cavalry Commander, General H. Judson Kilpatrick, who led the unsuccessful raid on Richmond.
Following the occupation of Richmond (3 April 1865), the Federal authorities used the prison until 3 August 1868 as an incarceratory for former Confederates. The West Building was sold to the Southern Fertilizing Company and the other two continued as property of the Enders family, being owned by Mrs. George S. Palmer.
The buildings were purchased in 1888 by a Chicago syndicate, composed of W. H. Gray, Josiah Cratty, John A. Crawford and Charles Miller, and the architectural firm of Burnham & Root, for $23,000. The Richmond firm of Rawlings & Rose handled the negotiations.
The famous Philadelphia architect, Louis M. Hallowell, came to Richmond to supervise the removal operations. The work commenced in December 1888, and as the building was taken apart each board, beam, brick, timber and stone-cap was numbered and lettered in such a manner that there was not the least trouble about placing these parts correctly together again. The removal of Libby from Richmond to Chicago was a project never before equaled in the history of building moving and one that was not to be surpassed for many years later.
The contract for hauling the material was given to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Company, which kept box cars on side-tracks of the old York River Line near the building. As soon as a carload was ready, it was sealed and sent on its way to Chicago an amazing total of 132 twenty-ton cars.
In the meanwhile massive stone walls of native artesian stone, quarried within the city limits of Chicago, had been erected on the block of Wabash Avenue, between 14th and 16th Streets, which had been selected as the famous old prison's new home. These stones now form part of the wall of the Chicago Coliseum and probably are the basis for the false story that that structure is built from Libby Prison remains.
The enterprise was incorporated as the Libby Prison Museum Association, T/A GREAT LIBBY PRISON WAR MUSEUM, on 4 February 1888, with a capitalization of $400, 000, to which was added the extensive Civil War collection of Charles F. Gunther, a wealthy candy manufacturer. The cost of dismantling and moving was in excess of $200,000. The reerection was completed in September 1889.
Altho the Museum was in Chicago during the year of the Columbian Exposition (1893 World's Fair), it had no connection with that Fair, and was never considered as a Fair attraction. It was quite some distance from the Exposition Grounds. The Museum was highly profitable and continued so until 1899. At that time the venture was disbanded and the Coliseum erected on the site.
Many of the bricks were disposed of as souvenirs and to builders. A large number went to the Chicago Historical Society, along with the collection and other parts of the building. The Society constructed the north wall of their Civil War Room from these bricks. This building is located at North Avenue and Clark St., Chicago.
The beams, timbers and most of the wood were sold to an Indiana farmer named Davis and he used these to build a massive barn on his farm at Hamlet (La Porte County) Indiana. The barn still stands and is owned by his daughters, Miss Ella J. Davis and Mrs. Charles Dowdell of Chicago. Most of the timbers still show the stenciled words "Second Floor M; or "Third Floor E.", together with the pathetic names and initials carved by the men while in prison. Miss Davis has presented the City of Richmond recently with a gavel made from this wood.
With the exception of the above mentioned relics, all that is known to remain of the old prison are: a door and keys in the Confederate Museum, Richmond; some miscellaneous items in several institutions in Vermont and Massachusetts; and its major records in the National Archives, Washington, with some minor records in Vermont.
The City of Richmond has located an interpretive sign on the Libby Prison site at 20th and Cary Streets, now occupied by a salvage company.[1963-64]

LIBBY Prison from the river side, Richmond Va

[Reprinted from The Sweet Singer of Michigan: Poems by Mrs. Julia A. Moore, ed. Walter Blair (Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1928). ]

Julia A. Moore
The Sweet Singer of Michigan

AIR -- "The Soldier's Orphan Boy"

Down south the Libby prison stood,
The rebel's filthy den;
Rebs in battle prisoners took --
Of course our union men.
And our brave boys, hearty and hale,
To prison had to go,
And few have lived to tell the tale
Of misery and woe.
This prison was a horrid place,
Many brave boys died there,
In rags and filth and wretchedness,
They died for want of care.
Many a brave and noble man,
As he lay sick and sore,
Was thinking of his friends and home
He never would see more.

Fathers, brothers, young husbands dear
Went through that prison door --
Some lived to return home, we hear,
And others are no more.
Many a noble soldier died
In Libby prison cell,
And comrades perish'd side by side,
As many a man can tell.

No loving hand was near a couch
To bathe an aching head --
No loving friend to watch the hours,
Or soothe their dying bed;
No friend to wipe the fallen tears
From off the dewy face --
No loving kindred was there near
To mark their resting place.

Libby Prison, Richmond VIRGINIA

[from Encyclopedia of the Civil War]

from Encyclopedia of the Civil War

Life in prison brought out unexpected capabilities and unsuspected deficiencies. This was not always the reverse of the traits shown in the world outside. Often the strong and energetic men preserved these characteristics in prison and the weak became helpless. The veneer of convention often peeled away, showing the real man beneath, sometimes attractive, sometimes unpleasant. Men who were confined for any length of time, stood naked, stripped of all disguise before their fellows. Where conditions were particularly hard, the stories of the attitude of some of the prisoners toward their companions are revolting. In Andersonville and Salisbury, organized bands preyed upon the weak and upon those who managed to retain or obtain some desired necessity or luxury. The possession of a little money, a camp kettle, a blanket or an overcoat was sometimes the occasion for jealousy and covetousness which led to a display of primeval characteristics. The trial and execution of a number of prisoners by their companions in Andersonville is well known.
In these prisons where the prisoners cooked their own food, the possession of a skillet or tin pail raised a man much above the level of his fellows. He might gain greater riches by charging rent, such as a share of everything cooked, or a button, a pin, a sheet of paper, or tobacco.
Life in the prisons was a day-to-day affair with nothing to do but pass the time. Games were created from whatever material one was able to find. Many a rural checker champion owed his skill to the practice gained in prison. Cards were used until the spots were worn off. The chess players at Libby Prison would get so excited over a game that men would pass out, caused in part by their extremely weakened condition. For a time this game was forbidden for this reason.
Prisoners were usually willing to volunteer for labor as the small amount of increased rations were considered ample reason. Jobs such as construction of barracks or digging drainage ditches were done by prisoners.
The Confederacy attempted to establish shoe and harness shops to utilize the skill of the inmates and the hides of slaughtered cattle which were going to waste.
Libby Prison was almost always selected to confine officers, the enlisted men being imprisoned in one of the other prisons, Belle Isle for example. There were a number of escapes from Libby. The most successful were by tunneling under the wall. The hazards of escape were many. Libby Prison was a converted warehouse near the waterfront and the high water table and sandy ground caved in most tunnels before they could reach safety. Some caved in when it rained during the digging.
Next to planning to escape the next greatest hope was to be paroled. From the officers a signed promise was extracted promising not to engage in any military activity against the holder of the captives. The enlisted men were given an oral oath. The men were then assembled at some common point and held until an exchange could be made. A point system was established to determine the value of a prisoner. One private was worth 1 point, a lieutenant 2, captain 4, major 8, colonel 16 and a general 32.
The paroled Union soldiers in the East were sent chiefly to Camp Parole at Annapolis. Often the officers had to be separated from their men and did not report to the camp. Many were unwilling to resume army life and refused to do police duty or guard duty around their camp on the grounds that such duty was forbidden by their parole.
In the West, many of the paroled prisoners were sent to Camp Chase, at Columbus, Ohio. General Lew Wallace, who found three thousand paroled Union soldiers when he took command of the post, reported: "There had never been such a thing as enforcement of order amongst them; never any guards mounted or duty of any kind performed. With but few exceptions officers abandoned the men and left them to shift for themselves. The consequences can be easily imagined. The soldiers became lousy and ragged, despairing and totally demoralized."
Secretary Stanton in an interesting telegraphic correspondence with Governor Ted of Ohio, on September 9, 1862, stated he believed "There is reason to fear that many voluntarily surrender for the sake of getting home. I have sent 1500 to Camp Chase and wish to have them kept in close quarters and drilled diligently every day, with no leave of absence." Governor Ted, the same day suggested that these paroled prisoners awaiting a declaration of exchange, be sent to Minnesota to fight the Indians, and Secretary Stanton immediately approved the suggestion.
General Lew Wallace said however, that few were willing to go. In order to bring some sort of order out of chaos, he determined to organize new regiments and refused to pay or to provide clothes for any man who had not enrolled himself in one of these companies. The paroled prisoners insisted that they were exempt from military duty. The first regiment organized deserted almost in a mass. The officer of the guard one morning found three muskets leaning against a tree, left there by sentinels who had deserted.
Since so few of the released Federal prisoners were willing to re-enlist, while the majority of the Confederates by this time were in the ranks "for the whole war", it is perhaps natural that doubts of the wisdom of further exchange should become convictions in the minds of some of the Northern leaders.
On May 25, 1863, General Halleck ordered all exchanges stopped. Grant felt that although conditions for the Union soldiers in the Southern prisons such as Andersonville were very bad, to give Lee 40,000 troops at this time would be to allow the war to go on indefinitely.
Another point was that the North wanted Negro soldiers included in the exchanges, while the South insisted they were private property and not subject to release. The Union held firm.
Finally after many appeals by the South were turned down, another proposition for exchange was made on January 24,1865, as it was then certain that the action could have little influence on the final results of the war, exchanges were begun and continued through the end of the war.

This page was last updated on 05/28/2006