From the New York Times, 2/22/1891
GETTING AWAY FROM LIBBY
SOME OF THE RUSES TRIED BY DESPERATE PRISONERS.
DREAMING BY DAY AND NIGHT OF EXCHANGES WHICH NEVER CAME - THE OLD NEWSMAN - RECEIVING LETTERS FROM HOME.
A few days after my arrival in Libby a number of doctors and army Chaplains, who, being non-combatants, were not long detained as prisoners of war, were sent down to the flag-of-truce boat in charge of Commissioner Ould, to be forwarded to Fortress Monroe. One of these was Chaplain McCabe, a genial and energetic gentleman, who for twenty-seven years has been lecturing on “The Bright Side of Libby Prison.” In the course of his short detention supplies were received from the North, and his stay was brightened by the certainty that he would soon be sent home; but, as a matter of fact, he left Libby with as little knowledge, from his own experience, of its dark side as he had of the topography of the other side of the moon.
Every one who remained was heartily glad to see some one getting away. The doctors, Chaplains, and other special exchanges left their blankets behind, which was something. But in this batch there was one Chaplain - not Mr. McCabe, who was and is a most generous man - who not only carried his blankets North with him, when so many were suffering every night for such covering, but who actually carried away a lot of condemned food that had come through for him under flag of truce. He may have had shipwreck or a return in his mind, but certain it is that he had neither patriotism nor Christianity in his heart.
In striking contrast with the conduct of this Chaplain on this occasion was that of a young Assistant Army Surgeon, whose name, to my regret, has escaped my memory. Middle-aged persons will recall that in the Fall of 1863 Major Harry White, now Judge White of Pennsylvania, was elected to the Senate of that State. Either immediately before or immediately after this election Major White was captured in the valley and sent on to Libby. Without him the Pennsylvania Senate was a tie, and to break this the Republicans made every effort to have him speedily exchanged, and the Confederates, fully aware of the situation and exceedingly anxious to add to the political complications in the North, held stubbornly on to him. For this reason Major White became, like Sawyer and Flynn, one of our famous prisoners.
Whether the young doctor proposed it himself, or whether he accepted the suggestion of others, I do not know, but certain it is that he agreed to stay in White’s place, while White went through as an Assistant Surgeon. The plan was feasible. The men were taken from the prison early in the morning and twenty-four hours must elapse before another roll call, when, if the Major’s flight was discovered, he would be safely under the protection of our flag. To insure safety the Major’s hair and beard were cut, I gave him my old slouch hat, and after his disguise was completed every one declared that his own mother would not know him if she met him on the street - which was highly probable - and that he looked much more like a doctor than he did like a lawyer or a soldier.
A majority of the prisoners were Republicans, but the Democrats were just as eager to help White off and were equally rejoiced at the prospect of his escape. He answered to the young Surgeon’s name when taken to Turner’s office, passed the ordeal without suspicion, and when we saw him marching down Casey Street in the direction of the steamboat landing we felt sure that the dead-lock in the Pennsylvania Senate would be broken within a week. But alas! for the vanity of human wishes and the futility of human plans, Major White’s identity was discovered just as he was about to step on the flag-of-truce boat, and he was marched back to prison. The young doctor paid for his pluck and self-denial by a long stay in Libby, but subsequently he and Major White were specially exchanged.
While this elaborate plan for escape failed so disastrously, one of the simplest efforts of the kind made in the course of the war was a grand success. This was the case of Lieut. Kupp, or Cupp, of the Eighty-eighth Pennsylvania, and a resident of Bucks County, in that State. In the boxes received from the North the Confederates permitted citizen’s clothing, but any other garment of a blue shade was at once confiscated. In this way Kupp, who was a tall, lank young fellow, got a suit of clothes that transformed him from a ragged Yankee into a slab-sided, butternut clad North Carolinian.
Kupp “hung out” in the Upper Potomac Room, among the roysterers who persisted in making hideous nights already sufficiently wretched, and after he had got the clothes he assured his friends that he had made up his mind to “light out and go to God’s land.” But they laughed at him. Those Upper Potomac men never took anybody seriously, particularly one of their own crowd. One morning, after roll call, and when the guards had formed and were going down the stairs leading to Turner’s quarters, Kupp, to the dumb amazement of every one who saw the act, fell in behind them and caught step.
The guard passed through Turner’s office without halting, but Kupp came to a stop, and, looking about him, found that he was the sole occupant of the prison office. He was about to walk out, when Major Turner appeared and in his peremptory way demanded:
“Who the devil are you, Sir?”
“I’m Tom Jackson,” was the sheepish reply.
“Yes, Sir, a kinder one.”
“Where are you from?”
“Noth Caliney. Teenth Regiment.”
“And what in blazes are you doing here?” asked the now indignant Turner.
“Ain’t this har house Libby Prison?”
“Waal, so they told me up the street, an’ I reckoned as I was handy I’d kinder peek in an’ take a look at the Yanks - if you don’t object,” said the unabashed Kupp.
“Have you never seen Yankees?”
“Only ‘long way off in the deesance, an’ them ‘uns had guns.”
“D- you, Sir!” shouted Turner. “Go to the front and you can see lots of Yankees; lots of ‘em, Sir. Now, get out of here or I’ll have you sent to the guardhouse.”
And so Lieut. Kupp was kicked out of Libby by the very man who was responsible for his safe keeping.
Most men on finding themselves in Kupp’s position would have made “a bee line for cover” the instant they were outside the prison and the surrounding guards, but not so this imperturbable young gentleman. He deliberately crossed to a vacant lot facing the prison, and picking up a piece of wood he began to whittle, stopping every few minutes to survey his late companions in the Upper Potomac Room. Satisfied with this exterior inspection, he kissed his hand gallantly to the men behind the bars and started for home. Of course Kupp got through to our lines in safety; he was just that kind of a fellow.
About this time Sanderson and Skelton, who were in the hospital, made their escape by bribing a guard. What makes this escape the more remarkable is that Sanderson was a sick man and Skelton was severely wounded, besides which the latter had only one eye, the other having been shot out in the attack on Fort Donelson.
The Confederate authorities seemed to be more particular about the spiritual than the physical welfare of the prisoners. Every Sunday Bishop Lynch or some other Roman Catholic clergyman came to Libby and held religious services, and an Episcopal minister appeared about the same time to comfort the weary souls that were of his way of thinking. In addition to these services, some of the prisoners had been clergymen, and so prayers and prayer meetings were not uncommon, and even those who were not church members listened with respectful attention to the services.
One of the prisoners, who had formerly been a preacher, was Lieut. Col. McMackin of the Twenty-first Illinois. This was Gen. Grant’s old regiment, the one which he commanded at the beginning of the war. McMackin was Major of the regiment when Grant was Colonel, but while Grant rose to the head of the army, his Major, though a brave, patriotic man, never got beyond the active rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was a man at that time over fifty. He was captured at Chickamauga and remained a prisoner till the close of the war. I recall Lieut. Col. McMackin with feelings of great respect. He was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. They had stumped and slept together, and McMackin had the humorous faculty and the ability to tell a story better developed than any man I ever met.
Capt. Bohannan of the Third Middle Tennessee Volunteer Cavalry was another most interesting character. Just here it may not be amiss to explain to non-military readers the peculiar way in which the Tennessee regiments in the Union army were numbered. A majority of the East Tennessee mountaineers were stanchly loyal to the old flag, and thousands of them “refugeed” into Kentucky in the early days of the war, and were there organized into regiments that took the distinctive names of First East Tennessee Cavalry, Second East Tennessee Artillery or Infantry, and so on. When Andrew Johnson became provisional Governor of Tennessee in 1862, the loyal men - and there were many of them in Middle and West Tennessee - were organized without any regard to the East Tennessee regimental numbers, so that we had in our service the First East Tennessee Cavalry, the First Middle Tennessee Cavalry, and the First West Tennessee Cavalry, and so this peculiar numbering was kept up with other regiments, causing no little confusion at times.
Capt. Bohannan was a native of Middle Tennessee. At this time - January, 1864 - he was about forty-five years of age, and a fine soldierly-looking man. He had been in the Mexican war, and after the annexation of California he went West and accumulated a fortune. He was unmarried, and all his relatives were in the South, and when the war broke out, all of them, with the exception of a nephew, sided strongly with the Confederacy. Bohannan was too positive a man to remain long in doubt. At Lincoln’s first call, he disposed of most of his property and started East. He helped to raise his own regiment, and it was with difficulty that he could be prevailed on by Gov. Johnson to take a commission. Heart, soul, and fortune this gallant man gave to the war, and he was ready to give his life. When he told me his story as we lay side by side one night, I did not dream that he would be called on to make the sacrifice before the week passed.
The wet floors gave him a bad cough and one morning when the guards came in to “roust” the men out for roll call, Capt. Bohannan staggered to his feet and fell back again. No uncommon occurrence this. Dr. Sabal, a Confederate Surgeon, and as noble a man as ever wore blue or gray, came in after roll call and said” “He has pneumonia; both lungs are affected. He must go to the hospital.”
“Both lungs, doctor?” gasped the Captain.
“Yes, my poor fellow, but don’t lose heart,” said Sabal.
“Thanks, doctor, but I know what that means. I am called.”
Poor Bohannan shook hands with his friends and messmates and was taken to the hospital, under the Lower Potomac Room. A few days afterward, a cart backed up to the hospital door, and we could see a form wrapped in a blanket placed therein. The cart drove off and Bohannan’s name was dropped from the list of the living.
Since my Libby experience I have never attempted to trace out the origin of a rumor, no matter how reliable or wild it might seem. There was a very general belief that the rumors that daily excited the prisoners originated with the wilder spirits in the Upper Potomac Room, but I will not vouch for this. There were rumors of battles, in which, of course, our side was brilliantly victorious. There were frequent rumors that Lee’s army was in revolt, but these found no believers. “Exchange! An immediate exchange!” When this was shouted through the prison every one was credulous, for it was the one thing which every heart craved. Our dreams by night and our thoughts by day were about exchange; no wonder, then, that we were all so ready to believe that our yearnings were to be gratified and our prayers answered. But unlike the false cry of “Wolf! Wolf!” there never came a time, except to a favored few, when the alarm proved true.
Some men - they were principally the married officers who had wives and little ones at home - would talk about nothing but exchange. They were sad to have “exchange on the brain,” and I recall, with a feeling of pity, how intense the desire became with these men when the supplies from the North were cut off and the forms grew thinner ad the eyes more hollow in the bitter cold months of early ‘64. I think now that these constant rumors and the ceaseless talk about exchange did the men good. Could they have known that there was to be no more exchange and that the majority must face rags, filth, and famine for another year and a half, I am quite sure that many more of the brave fellows would have gone down to prison graves.
The desire for news was intense. Now and then we succeeded in getting copies of the Richmond papers, generally the Inquirer and Whig, both strongly Confederate and very hopeful of their cause, but we could read between the lines and tell pretty well the true state of affairs. The editorial articles were pleas for furloughed volunteers to return or exhortations to those who owed “tax in kind” to settle up with the Government. But while thus exposing the weakness of their own side, these papers basely tried to comfort their readers with pen pictures of the “desolation, destitution, and discontent” prevailing throughout the North. The editor of the Whig said in one number that he had had an interview with a lady who had just come through under flag of truce. He said in effect: “This lady is intelligent and trustworthy. She assures us that if Lincoln does not disband his army and acknowledge the Confederacy before Spring the people will swarm to Washington and drive him from the White House, if they do not hang him. As an illustration of the stagnation existing in New York City, this lady showed us a bunch of grass which she had plucked in one of the principal streets.”
Now and then these papers would have something to say about Castle Thunder, Libby, the Pemberton Building, or Belle Isle; in the last two our enlisted men were confined. The Pemberton Building was on the south side of Casey Street, about fifty yards to the east of Libby, so that we could see the poor fellows without being able to communicate with them.
Every morning just about daylight an old colored man who sold papers would come down past the prison, and reserving his strength for this special occasion, he would shout out the news to the best of his knowledge and belief, and although he seldom proved to be a trustworthy contraband, every prisoner eagerly listened for his coming, even though much of his matter appeared to be stereotyped and much battered by long usage. I can hear him still - I think we decided to call him “Jake” - I can hear old Jake’s voice now, though it must be long since hushed in the grave, calling out, as it did when it roused us into wakefulness in those dark, cold mornings:
“Gerrait new! All de news from de front! Gerrait news from de Potomac! Gerrait battle yesserday! No side won! Gerrait raiden bime Yanks in de mountains! Hunreds kilt!” and so on, till his voice died out in the direction of sunrise.
Ordinary notepaper was selling in Richmond at this time for 25 cents a sheet - when sold to the prisoners it came as high as 30 cents, envelopes to match. The authorities allowed us to write whenever a flag-of-truce boat was ready to go down the river, but the amount was limited to one page of notepaper, and every letter had to remain open for inspection - the latter a proper provision in the circumstances. But the writing of letter was nothing to the receiving of them.
Naggs, Adjt. Naggs of Detroit, Mich., was the man who acted, if not by selection, by universal consent, as our Postmaster. He gathered up the letters that were to be sent off and turned them over to the Confederates. And to him was given the mail that had come in under flag of truce for the homesick prisoners. To see Naggs standing on the head of a barrel, with a swarm of ragged, dirty, and eager-faced men round him, while he called out the names of the fortunate, was something not to be forgotten soon. The man who got a letter from home would start off, try to find a quiet spot, and devour the letter very fast, and then take it in very slowly to get all the good of it. After which he would read it over for days, nor cease hen he knew it by heart and it came to pieces at the folds.
The men would watch Naggs till the last letter in the bag was drawn out, and then the ones who had not been favored, who had not received the expected letter from wife, mother, sweetheart, or friend, would turn sadly away, and for a long time after they would feel colder, hungrier, and more forsaken than before the mail came. As the Confederates read all our letters before they sent them off, so they read every letter that came from the North before they delivered it. Northern papers, everything indeed but actual letters from friends, were confiscated.
It must not be imagined that the prisoners sat down and moped. There were 1,300 men in Libby at this time. Officers, all intelligent, some even scholarly, and every man of them plucky and patriotic. The simplest of them knew that to give way to the blues meant death, and that to keep the mind and body as active as possible was not only a duty but a necessity.
The men who carved bones into distorted crucifixes and doubtful napkin rings were not as one in ten, so that other means must be adopted to employ the minds of the majority who had not “bone on the brain.” We had debating societies in every room, and I have heard some as excellent speeches there as I ever listened to outside of Libby, and some more broadly humorous than any I ever heard anywhere; indeed, they would have been impossible outside of that place and that audience.
We had chess and checkers; some men would lie down on their faces for hours at a time playing the latter game with white and black bone buttons and on a board marked off on the floor with a knife, but the aristocratic game of chess was played with some dignity and it aroused more interest. Match games between the different rooms, which meant between men from the different armies, were of constant occurrence. The men from the Lower Potomac Room, or, rather, their best player, would formally challenge the best players of the Upper Chickamauga, who would as formally accept. The players always remained in their own rooms, and lines of couriers were established to shout the moves from one to the other. Back and forth along this animated telegraph line the orders would go for hours at a time, and, when at length one or the other was checkmated, such a cheer would go up from the victors and their partisans as would make the rafters of the old building ring again, while the guards would halt and ask each other: “What in thunder is up with the yankees now?”