From the Richmond Dispatch, 3/11/1888, p. 2, c. 1
LIBBY PRISON SHOW.
VISIT TO THE BUILDING AND A TALK WITH RICHMOND PEOPLE.
No Objection Offered by the Residents of Virginia’s Capital to the Removal of the Famous Structure to Chicago.
[Special Correspondence Chicago Tribune.]
RICHMOND, VA., February 28. – The proposed removal of Libby Prison to Chicago excites a good deal more interest and indignation in certain section of the North than it does in Richmond. The Richmond papers have been full of indignant protests from former inmates of the old building. Governor Lee has been importuned, and the Mayor of the city besieged by letters begging the city authorities to interfere to prevent what is termed “so great a sacrilege.” But all is of no avail in arousing a local sentiment against the removal. The people, from Governor Lee down, are absolutely indifferent. They look on the pending negotiations with ill-suppressed amusement at the cupidity of the “Yankees” in seeking to make a “show-house” with an admission fee of a building which at the North has since the war been held in so sacred a memory.
The Richmond people themselves care nothing about Libby. It has no associations of sentiment for them. It was a mere place of confinement for northern prisoners, and as such has no other interest at this day than has Belle Isle of the ground for the exchange of prisoners down the river at Varina. To expect the Richmond people to interest themselves to keep the old structure is to expect too much. Indeed, they are more likely to facilitate its demolishing and shipment. Already the Mayor has tendered to the Chicago parties undisturbed possession of the streets during the razing of the building and free use of the water hydrants, dock facilities, and other needs for the proper shipment and transportation out of the city of the material.
The first payment of $6,000 has been made, the deed has been recorded in favor of W. H. Gray, of Chicago, and nothing now remains but to begin the work of demolition. But, after all, there are many who believe the old prison will never be moved from Richmond. Some even assert that the whole scheme is nothing but a speculation to arouse the soldier feeling of the North against it, and promote a big subscription among the old soldiers to buy out the speculators and let the old building stand.
I went all over the old prison yesterday. It stands precisely as it did a quarter of a century ago, when crowded with the captives of McClellan’s army caged within its walls. The iron bars are yet before the windows. The big doors through which the prisoners marched into the gloomy structure yet swing on hinges creaking with rust. The heavy staircases of Georgia pine, the steps, half-worn through with the tramp of thousands of feet, are still there. The heavy floors, cut and carved with initials of soldiers, checker and backgammon boards, are still in place, though thickly covered with dirt. The huge hewn posts that support the floors are thick with soldiers; names cut deep into the wood. Rude drawings of female figures, horses, etc., adorn some of the wood-work and doors. Years ago the brick walls were covered with names and sketches in charcoal, but the whitewash-brush has wholly obliterated these. On one post appeared “H. T. G. 188 Pa. Vols.”; “M. D. Richards, 3d Pa. Vols.” “That last name,” said the guide, “was formerly ‘M. D. R.’ only, but some years ago when a Pennsylvania battalion came here as the guest of the Richmond troops, one old soldier of the battalion came here, hunted up the post, and, scratching off the whitewash, said: ‘I guess I’ll finish that now,’ and he added ‘ichards’ to it. ‘I’m that man,’ he added.”
The most tragic of all the inscriptions is this, on one of the doors of the old prison: “John B. Crafts, Company E, Forty-third New York volunteers.”
Later some comrade added, in a different style of carving:
“Hung June 2, 1863, for making a plot to get out of Libby Prison.”
Another of the inner doors of the old prison is now in possession of W. A. Mountcastle, of Richmond. It is scarred all over with names. Mr. Mountcastle recently had this door on exhibition in a Boston dime-museum. He now wants to sell it to the Chicago syndicate.
Libby Prison is on Twentieth street, east side, between Cary and the dock. As is well remembered by veterans the building was used mostly for the confinement of commissioned officers, most of the rank and file brought here being sent immediately to Belle Isle, Salisbury, Andersonville, etc. The structure was built in 1845 by John Enders, the “father” of the Richmond Tobacco Trade, as he is called here. It was used for many years as a tobacco storehouse. In 1861 the Confederate Government took possession of it and used it as a prison during the whole of the war. The name of “Libby” came from the lessee of the warehouse, who was ruthlessly ejected by the Rebel Government without regard to rights under his lease. Libby seems to have been roughly treated all around. Jeff Davis turned him out of the building, and at the close of the war Uncle Same put him in Fort Warren, as his son, George W. Libby, now resident here, says “simply because the prison was given his name.”
The building is in three sections, each 44x110, divided by division walls fully two feet thick, the outer walls being the same thickness. It was strongly constructed, as it needed to be to sustain the heavy weight of tobacco that often crammed its area. The front of the building has but three stories, but the slope of the ground towards the rear gives another story on that side. The timbers used in the flooring, floor-timbers, and supports are heavy. All are of oak or Georgia pine. Each floor still has the water-pipes, sinks, etc., put in in 1861 for the use of the prisoners. Whatever may be the past record of the old building its offence now is certainly rank and smells to high heaven. It is used by a company which grinds up bones, dead fish, and other offal. Beside it the stock-yards are like a bower of roses. An hour in the old structure will give one a raging headache. The stuff is ground up for fertilizing purposes, and, as the building is stored full of it, the smell could almost be cut with a cleaver.
The guide, who is in the employ of the fertilizing company, takes pleasure in showing where Colonel Streight and his band of 109 tunnelled under the walls of their prison into an adjoining building and made good their escape. There are no vestiges left of the tunnel itself, but the spot where it started and the direction it took are shown. It was a bold and herculean task to undertake. The poor fellows worked with no other implements than a couple of old knives and a wooden spittoon to carry off the dirt. They started the tunnel from the basement, carried it under the east wall, across a vacant space at least fifty feet wide, and under an old warehouse adjoining. The tunnel was just big enough for an ordinary man to wiggle through on his stomach, but yet Streight and one hundred and nine others were able to make the trip. Those a little stouter than the others had to be squeezed through by men in front and behind. Streight himself nearly had his clothes torn off in making the journey. Colonel Streight was here a short time ago on a visit to Miss Van Lew, who, it is known now, was instrumental in securing the final escape of those who were not recaptured. The Colonel was one of these. He told a gentleman here:
“We had been told by a person who had access to us that if we ever got out of the prison to go at once to the house of a colored woman on Main street, and she would take us to friends. After we crawled out of the hole the party broke up, of course. I and three other officers tried to find the colored woman, but in some way got the wrong direction and did not find her until near daylight. She gave us shelter and went at once after Miss Van Lew. (God bless her!) Going up town two and two, the lady in a carriage ahead, we passed a saloon where twenty or thirty Confederates were carousing. Just as I was passing the door a soldier, bare-headed, came running out and grabbing my arm said: ‘Say, Mister, can’t you come in and make them fellers give me my hat?’ He thought I was a policeman! My heart was in my throat, but forcing out a laugh I said: ‘O, I’m in a great hurry. I guess they’re only joking about your hat.’”
Miss Van Lew piloted them to a house where they rested six or seven days before seeing a chance to slip through the lines. Finally their friends provided them with food and revolvers, and they left Richmond late one night by way of the Brook turnpike, and, following the Fredericksburg railroad as closely as they dared, started for the Potomac, where they intended to find a boat and cross to the Federal shore. This they accomplished after thirteen days of hardship. Mr. Streight said now that his benefactor in Richmond was dead he did not object to giving the name of the man in whose house he and his comrades lay secreted for seven days. It was Mr. J. N. Quarles, an old resident of Richmond, a northern man, and a Unionist.