From the National Tribune, 12/29/1891
LETTERS FROM LIBBY,
Good Testimony as to How Prisoners Were Treated.
HOW HE WAS CAPTURED.
Provisions from the North Help Out the Scanty Ration.
SUFFERING FROM COLD,
How the Ill-Used Prisoners Spent their Time.
THE following letters were written by Adj't S. H. M. Byers, 5th Iowa, to his brother, while confined in Libby Prison, at Richmond, Va., during the winter of 1863,'4:
RICHMOND, Dec. 8, 1863
DEAR JOHN: A little after daylight, this morning; the doors of Libby Prison opened and received all the Union officers captured at the battle of Missionary Ridge on the 25th of November.
First of all, you will want to know how I got here at all. [Here, at length, the writer describes the circumstances surrounding his capture and was not transcribed]
On my way here, in North Carolina, I bought another poor, thin rag of a blanket, and paid $20 for it; that was at Weldon. Cigars were 50 cents apiece at Weldon, and whisky $2 a drink. Am glad I use neither. Confed. money was worth $5 to $10 for $1 of Uncle Sam's money.
We passed Petersburg last night, and this morning as the train crossed the James River bridge we saw thousands of our poor Northern soldiers freezing and starving on a wet sand-bar down in the river, known as Belle Isle.
All this is to let you know how I happen to be here. I trust you did not see the Philadelphia Press account of the battle, for there I was put down among the list of killed. Libby, bad as they say it is, is still an improvement on being killed.
A flag-of-truce boat leaves to-day for Fortress Monroe, and carries letters North. I may send this so, or I may give it to a wounded officer who is to be sent North soon.
I can tell you little yet about Libby, only that it is a great big three-story brick warehouse, owned by Libby & Son; hence the name. They tell me there are 600 Federal officers here now. I will write you many details soon.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 10, '63
DEAR JOHN: I write just a line to tell you to be sure and send me a box with some provisions, such as dried beef, coffee, etc.; but put no money in the box for the Johnnies go through every package arriving for us and confiscate every dollar found.
When we were first brought up-stairs into Libby, a committee of about 25 prisoners received us with yells of "Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Who thinks he's got a good thing of it! Fresh fish! Fresh fish! Who ain't a Copperhead? Fresh fish!"
At the same time we were jerked, hatless and breathless, clear over the heads of the committee to the floor among the other prisoners, amid yelling and laughing.
To-day I found out that that ceremony is gone through with on all "fresh fish," or new arrivals.
To-day a newcomer got quite mad about it.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 11, '63
DEAR JOHN: To-day I bought of one of the guards the inclosed photograph of Libby. Cost $5 in Confed. money. The prison stands close to the James River, with the Kanawha Canal between – the latter close to the prison. The tents you see in the picture are the quarters of the rebel guards.
There is a line of sentinels about the building, who not only have orders to guard us, but to shoot any prisoner showing himself at the window. A chivalrous set of fellows, these Virginians are! It is right to say, however, that an occasional officer who comes to the prison to see the Yankee lions, disapproves the outrageous treatment we are receiving. We have more visitors, too, than you would imagine. Almost daily some Confed. of standing, I suppose, is escorted through the prison by Maj. Turner, the commander.
They rarely speak to us, but their eyes tell what they think of us. The very prominent men among the prisoners are pointed out to the visitors.
ONE OF THE BIG WIGS
here among us is Gen. Neal Dow, the famous Temperance lecturer. He is a little bit of a gray old fellow, with twinkling blue eyes and a pleasant voice. He is treated just like the rest of us. The board where he sleeps on the floor is close to the board where I sleep; for you must know that every fellow has his own board, where he sleeps at night and where his things are piled up during the day. Many of us have cut barrels in two pieces and made tolerable chairs of them.
At night we pile our chairs up on a rude table made of boxes, provided we have one, roll ourselves up in our single blanket, except where two sleep together and double blankets, and when the cry of "Lights out" is heard proceed to sleep the best we can. When morning comes we take our ration of cornbread (cob ground with the grain) down stairs to where the cook stove is, grate the loaf, which is not half baked, and then make a kind of porridge or mush out of the unsavory mess.
A few boxes of provisions sent the prisoners from friends in the North have been brought into the prison. The lucky recipients have divided generously with those of us who have received nothing. So we have now our mush and coffee, and occasionally meat.
The ration, at the best, you may know, is mighty poor, and not half equal to the shortest army ration ever seen in the North.
I want you to send me, per express, via Washington and flag of truce to Richmond, a box containing sugar, salt, coffee, dried beef, a couple of flannel shirts, and a blanket. I have no overcoat, and the wind comes in through these open windows
COLD AS GREENLAND.
My boots happen to be good, and, as I remain in-doors here, I don't much need a hat. My coat and pants are strong and good for six months, by which time I hope to be out of here and see the war ended.
I am beginning to make acquaintances here, and find many interesting men in Libby. We dare write nothing of the war, so on that subject expect nothing.
They say all letters sent from or to the prison are inspected, but I much doubt it, - there are too many of them, besides, I have seen some queer epistles that I know were allowed to pass, or else were overlooked. The fact of the matter is, we prisoners know nothing to write about. True, we see the Richmond papers often, but the censorship is as strong on them as it is on us; and nobody of sense would believe what he reads in a newspaper anyway, North or South, in these times.
I will tell you one thing the Richmond Examiner does say, though, that is probably true. "The Yankee prisoners on Belle Isle," remarks this beast of an editor, Mr. Daniels, "are likely to kill your dogs and use them for rations if you go too close to the line where they are confined. Let it be so; it is right; it is dog eat dog."
Jefferson Davis reads the vaporings of this scoundrel every morning at the breakfast-table, and then gets up and puts his name to an official message, in which he says that, "spite of our humane treatment, the prisoners are dying at a shocking rate."
Did anybody in the wide world ever read such heartless and outrageous impudence? He, more than any other man, is guilty for what it going on in the South to-day. Some day he will have a reckoning.
Don't forget what I said about putting money in boxes. I wrote you a long letter Sunday. Hope you got it. Some home papers wouldn't be amiss in that box.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 14, '63.
DEAR JOHN: I expect you would like to know how we spend our time here. Well, many play cards constantly, and many play chess. That is an intellectual game, and time is not murdered by pursuing it. There are very many fine players in the prison – one man who has never lost a game, and he has been here six months. Occasionally the chess players of our room challenge those of the room next to us, and the game assumes the interest of a little battle. Such a game has been going on for two days.
Many read books and old magazines constantly; just such as they can pick up, or as those who have a little money can buy by sending outside. There is no choice, of course, and worthless novels are read as much as anything.
Some, a few only, are studying text-books and reciting to the better educated. One man has an old law book, and is committing it to memory. Two or three are writing histories and experiences of Libby Prison.
Some keep careful diaries, myself among the number, and a few experts with the penknife spend most of their time carving little trinkets from wood or bone. I have made a cross of bone that would surprise you. It will be a Libby souvenir worth having that I will keep all my life.
There are one or two men here who sleep nearly all the time. I think they are glad to be in prison; it rests them. There are also half a dozen Copperheads here, who wish they were somewhere else. They are pretty generally despised. Think of a man with Union shoulder-straps being a Copperhead!
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 16.
DEAR JOHN: If you count the windows in the picture I sent you, you can tell just about where I am located in Libby. The board of the floor that I sleep on is near the first window north end of upper east room. I and my messmates have a table made of a pine box. This box answers for table, wardrobe, kitchen, and general magazine.
At night we pile our chairs, made of barrels, on top of it, and so have room to lie down on the floor. Our boots serve us for pillows. Strange enough, I sleep well on this hard, cold floor, except the nights that are very cold, and then
IT IS AWFUL TO LIE HERE,
hours and hours, awake, chilling, and wishing for daylight to come, that I may get up and walk about. Of course all the prisoners must go to bed and get up together, as the floor is completely covered when all are lying down.
The first thing we hear every morning, before daylight, is the loud voice of an old darky, Ben, who peddles the city papers, crying out, "Here's your Dispatch," "here's your Examiner and Whig." and "Great news from Lee's Army," "Great News from the North," "Great News from Georgia!"
That darky's voice is our reveille, and it is a welcome sound. Sometimes he cries out, "News of Exchange; Prisoners to be Sent North!" but when we see the paper after daylight we learn that the exciting headlines of the paper are based on some little grapevine rumor.
No, we have almost given up hopes of exchange. We have been deluded so often, so often. Thank you for the box and the "goodies." Our mess lives some better now. I am studying the Latin grammar you put in the box, and recite to Maj. Marshall every day at 2.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 19, 1863.
DEAR JOHN: The following officers are in my mess: Maj. Marshall, Lieut. Austin, Capts. Page and Bascom, and Lieut. Hoffman.
Our dinner today was corn bread (mighty poor), dried beef, and water. Supper will be the same. There is a Sutler comes here, who will furnish prisoners who have any money provisions at the following prices: Crackers, $60 per barrel; bacon, $3 per pound; beef, 95 cents per pound; cheese, $3 per pound; butter, $4.50 per pound; whisky, $75 per gallon.
Col. Streight bribed a guard today and got outside the prison, but the sentinel betrayed him to Turner, the commander, who has put him and one or two others in a dungeon. They call Streight the "Yankee raider," and both fear and hate him.
Dec. 24, 1863.
I inclose you program of our Libby Prison entertainment to-night. All the prisoners who could sing or play on an instrument, and there are many such here, helped in getting up a first rate Christmas Eve performance in the kitchen. It was a jolly time, considering the circumstances. I wonder how our friends in the North are spending this Christmas eve. The sentinel cries "Lights out!" and I must close. This is not Christmas Eve at home. I realize that.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, CHRISTMAS.
DEAR JOHN: My dinner to-day was cornbread, potatoes and water. It is cold outside and it is cold inside. We have little fuel, either for cooking or warming.
Some of the prisoners who have money sent out and bought quite a dinner for themselves. There are a certain few prisoners here, well-known to the rest of us, who lie quite well, keep close among themselves, and seem in some mysterious way to be on good terms with the commander of the prison. They are watched closer than they imagine.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Dec. 30.
DEAR JOHN: Gen. Ben Butler has been appointed Commissioner for Exchange of Prisoners, but the rebels say he is a "beast," and won't recognize him; so for the present we may abandon all hopes of exchange or getting home.
The Johnnies have good reason for not liking Ben Butler. He believes them to be traitors, and handles them accordingly. If we prisoners were to stay here 10 years, our prayer would be for more Ben Butlers.
The Johnnies also say that they won't exchange men found commanding darkies, in fact, they propose to kill all such at sight; that's he way the Richmond papers talk. So with this and that, nobody knows when we will get out of here, if ever. We make calculations on nothing.
The other day, Capts. Sawyer and Flynn, who had been sentenced to death, were released from solitary confinement and put in here among the rest of us. They were to be hung in retaliation for a couple of spies hung by Burnside.
Our Government threatens
TO HANG A SON OF GEN. LEE,
if Sawyer and Flynn are put to death; and as Lee is reported as saying he will throw up his commission if his son is hung, Flynn and Sawyer would seem to be in no danger.
The selection of the two men for hanging was made by lot about the time we first came to Libby. A hat was passed around with bits of paper in it to be drawn out. It was a dreadful kind of lottery, two human lives the stake. I see you did not or could not receive several of my letters; you make no reference to their contents.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Jan. 2.
DEAR JOHN: New Year's day was spent by the men in Libby in trying to keep warm and in trying to see who could make the most noise by yelling, shouting, singing, cat calls, and by a tremendous pounding on every pan, pot, kettle and cup that could be gotten hold of.
The lights were allowed to burn till 11, and the outlandish racket was kept up till that hour. Even after we went to bed, the best singers were compelled to sit up in bed in the dark and sing songs. Never before did the New Year come in with such a strange heralding. I am glad it's all over. My ears still ring with the awful din.
PRISONERS ARE CHAINED FAST
in the basement for attempting to escape. They missed the New Year's racket, any way. Three others have been put in the penitentiary of North Carolina in retaliation for something done to some Johnny rebs in the North.
We hear that the rebel prisoners in the North are treated like gentlemen and with humanity, not only because it is right, but in the hopes that the rebels will treat us decently. It is a mistaken hope. Slavery has brutalized these men. They think it no harm to burn a nigger or starve and kill a Union prisoner. They don't even treat the privates of their own army decently, so the guards told us on the way here from Chattanooga.
I saw with my own eyes dozens of Union men from Tennessee who had been forced into the rebel army, and who had deserted, chained up, two and two, and treated like dogs, even by their own neighbors.
The rebel Congress is in session, and a dismal time it is having trying to devise means to drive every man, boy and child into the army. The leaders are getting scared and are very desperate. I think they would sacrifice every bit of property and every man in the Confederacy rather than be beaten, give up, and take their chances of getting their necks stretched.
When this wicked rebellion does end, as end it must soon, I hope the leaders will be turned over to Ben Butler, and that he may report them "all present" or "accounted for" within 24 hours. Benjamin would need no instructions, and
ROPE IS CHEAP.
I am sure these rabid, fire-eating leaders expect nothing else, unless some foreign power can be persuaded to interfere and help them beat us.
The editorials of the Richmond papers are well written, but are the most desperate toned shrieks I ever read.
No letters from home in two weeks, except the three that came together, and of nearly the same date. A second little box came, I suppose from home, but no letter mentioned it. It is a thousand times welcome.
The notorious John Morgan, the raider, visited us in Libby to-day; so did Gen. A. P. Hill. It is awfully cold, and we suffer. On Belle Isle a number of the Union prisoners froze to death. It is a wonder they don't all die.
The papers say that hundreds and almost thousands of the poor of Richmond are at the point of freezing and starving, but the rebellion goes on.
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, Feb. 2, 1864.
DEAR JOHN: The prison is cold, dark, and gloomy nowadays. We can hardly see to read in cloudy weather. The Johnnies have put iron bars over the windows to prevent our escaping, and yet a man gets away occasionally. We don't know what becomes of him, whether he reaches the North or is killed, or, still worse, tied up and starved in some prison hole in the South.
Our dinner to-day consisted of a big chunk or brick of cold, half-baked corn bread, nothing more. What do you think of it for cold-weather diet? A great lot of boxes that came for us from the North got as far as the prison door, and then were all confiscated by the rebels.
Was very sick to-day; fell over in a swoon. Bad diet and cold will yet kill half of the prisoners here.
Yesterday three prisoners were shot – one of them seven times – in trying to escape from the island. Killing prisoners has become a common thing at the Island and down at Andersonville, according to the accounts in the rebel papers.
I send this by Col. Powell, who is exchanged. There are 900 prisoners here sick in hospital. Things are getting worse daily. The rations are not fit for dogs, and, besides, we are now in constant danger of some fool home-guard firing in at the wi[n]dows and killing us.
SUNDAY, Feb. 7.
Five of our comrades died a day or so ago in the prison. So they are going. Two nights ago a tunnel was completed, and 109 prisoners escaped. A number have been caught and brought back. Two are reported killed. I will write all about this escape in another letter.
(***note: the date on this letter cannot be correct, as the prison escape happened on the night of Feb. 9, 1864.)
LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, March 3.
DEAR JOHN: Still no exchange, and we are tired to death waiting. I got a box yesterday, which makes our dinner worth eating. The ration now is a bit of corn bread, two spoonfuls of rice, and occasionally a bit of meat.
This order was nailed up in the prison on the 1st:
"Officers standing near the windows will be liable to be shot." What do you think of that? I am glad to say the first man killed as result of this inhuman order was a rebel officer of the prison. He was in the prison looking about, and, approaching close to a window, a guard mistaking him for a prisoner, shot him dead. Amen.