From the New York Times, 2/8/1891
IN SOUTHERN WAR PRISONS
THE PECULIAR RECEPTION OF “FRESH FISH” AT LIBBY.
SEARCHED FOR CONTRABAND ARTICLES OF WAR AND THEN INVITED TO MAKE THEMSELVES AT HOME – THE COMMANDANT AND HIS STAFF.
[Unknown author (a “Captain of Cavalry”) describes at length his capture in November 1863 at the Battle of Chattanooga, and subsequent experiences en route to Richmond. Not transcribed.]
...At 7 o’clock on the evening of the fourth day after leaving Atlanta we crossed the bridge over the James River from Manchester to Richmond. Away to the left and up the river we could see the lights on Belle Isle, where so many of our poor boys were doomed to perish of cold and hunger that bitter Winter.
When the train came to a stop the enlisted men were marched off to the island and the officers to Libby. It was a black night, and the driving sleet froze on the bayonets of the guards till they flashed like electric flames in the gaslight. The rough pavements of the street were slippery as glass, and every prisoner in the party was cold, hungry, and thoroughly played out. We passed a high, gloomy-looking building on our left, and I could see it had been whitewashed up to the second floor. Guards were pacing around it, and by the dim lights in the many windows I could see spectral silhouettes moving back and forth as if to keep warm.
“What place is that?” I asked of the guard who marched beside me.
“Castle Thunder,” was the grim reply.
“A military prison?”
“Not exactly,” said the man, who appeared to be quite intelligent. “There’s been more men taken out of Castle Thunder to be shot or hanged than from any ten jails in the country.”
“How is that?”
“Well, that’s the place where they take spies, deserters, suspects, and political prisoners. Where you’re going ain’t the choicest place in the Confederacy by no manner of means, but it’s a regular old original Paradise compared with Castle Thunder.”
While the man was talking there loomed up to the sight, and about two hundred yards below Castle Thunder, a long squatty looking building, surrounded by many lamps that flung out great streams of lances into the darkness, and revealed three tiers of windows, most of them glassless, but all protected by vertical iron bars. The sleet had frozen on the arms and uniforms of the many guards about the place, giving them the appearance of men in armor.
“Halt! Who goes there?” was the familiar challenge of the guard at the western end and Carey street front of this building.
“The provost guard with Federal prisoners,” was the response.
I looked up, and by the light of a lamp suspended over the door I saw a small sign, on which was the legend:
LIBBY AND SON, TOBACCO WAREHOUSE.
We had at last reached the end of our tedious journey and were about to become inmates of a prison that had more terrors for the men of our army than the prospect of a hundred fights.
We were marched into a long room on the ground floor, broken somewhat by railings and low partitions, and on a door to the right was a card on which, without much effort at symmetry, was the inscription: “Office of the Commandant.” Out of this office there came a slender man of medium height, dressed in the uniform of a Major. His face was smoothly shaven, cold, and of rather an intellectual cast. He was Major Thomas Turner, the commandant of the prison, and a man who succeeded in making himself more bitterly hated by the Union officers than any man on his side, the President of the ill-starred Confederacy not excepted.
Assisted by a nervous, garrulous fellow, named Sergt. Ross, and a bull-headed, black-bearded man named Sergt. Turner – no kinsman of the Major, by the way – we again, like culprits before a Police Sergeant’s desk, gave in our records. While the names, regiments, places of capture, and other stereotyped particulars were being taken down by Ross, a stout, middle-aged man, whose face betokened good living and whose accent indicated a foreign birth, came in to assist Major Turner. This man was Adjt. Latouche, not at all a bad fellow in his way, as we subsequently found.
As I have already indicated, all the prisoners were pretty thoroughly “gone through” by their captors, and every time we changed guards on the way up we were “gone through” again, each searcher but the first being sorely disappointed. But all unmindful of this, Major Turner, after all the records had been taken, called out:
“Gentlemen, you must submit to being searched. You cannot be permitted to take any contraband articles with you into the prison.”
This announcement was so exquisitely absurd that the prisoners broke into a roar of laughter, in which LaTouche and “Little” Ross joined, and at which Major Turner scowled and looked annoyed. However, the search was made, without discovering anything contraband.
At the back part of the room devoted to the prison offices a cataract of heavy, damp-looking steps came down. There was a dim light at the head of the steps, and while we were waiting for the next move, I heard the ceaseless shuffling of countless feet overhead and the hoarse summons of many voices, sounding as if they came from the depths beneath our feet rather than from the place overhead.
“That is all gentlemen,” shouted Little Ross. “Now, please to march up stairs and make yourselves at home.”
The steps led up to the “Lower West Room,” or “Lower Greenland,” as it was called, on account of its cold, by the unfortunate fellows quartered there. In all the recollections of a life that before and since has been far from monotonous, there is no scene more firmly impressed upon my memory, or which comes up more vividly, than that which first greeted my eyes when the steps were behind me and the long, black room, with a few candles fastened here and there to the posts as if to show the utter wretchedness of the place, was in front.
I saw before me a sea of faces, some smooth and boyish, but the majority bearded and inexpressibly haggard. They were clad like the specters of famished men, in ragged coats, or had the fragments of blankets around their shoulders, for the night was bitterly cold, and the wind after a hoarse roar at the barred windows swept without restraint through Lower Greenland. The men were packed so closely before the new arrivals that at first it seemed impossible to advance. I was just wondering, for I was painfully tired, how these men managed to sleep, and I had come to the conclusion that they must do so standing up, when the spectral figures sent up a roar that drowned out the wind and the hissing of the sleet. We were about to be received, as we subsequently helped to receive others, with the peculiar honors of the place.
Following the roar there came a cry of “Fresh fish!” “Fresh fish!” “Fresh fish!” This was not confined to the crowd in our front, but it seemed to come from every part of the prison, and even from the depths and from the roof.
“Let me take your luggage and show you your room!”
“This way to the dining room, gentlemen!”
“Look out for pickpockets!”
“Serve dinner in private rooms!”
“Keep your hands out of that fresh fish’s pockets!”
These and many other shouts that have escaped my memory greeted our introduction to the prison, where I soon learned that “fresh fish” was the name applied to all new-comers, and that the mockery of treating them as if they had just entered a hotel was a part of a rigorously-adhered-to initiation.
By the force of the crowd we were swept through an opening to the right and into what was known as the “Lower Middle” or “Lower Chickamauga Room.” Here the loud voices took the form of inquiries as to where we were captured, the news from our army, the prospects of exchange, and as friends who had preceded us to this wretched place recognized us, we were assailed with questions about the friends who were still at the front. Col. Henry of the Fifteenth Kentucky Cavalry and Capt. Martin of Battery B, First East Tennessee Artillery, drew me away from the crowd and led me up another flight of steps to a long, dingy room, known as the “Upper Chickamauga,” because a majority of its occupants were captured in that disastrous fight, and here I had my quarters during the dreary months I spent in Libby.
My hosts, as I may call them, gave me something to eat, for at that time Northern friends were permitted to send through food and clothing for the prisoners under a flag of truce. While I was appeasing the hunger that had been burning me up all day, from the canal side of the prison there came the cry:
“Nine o’clock, Post No. 1, and all’s well. Lights out there Yanks! D___ you, lights out!” And so from post to post went the shout of the guards and the command to put out the lights.
In an instant the tallow dips, fastened to the heavy posts, were extinguished. The floor was cold and damp, and the unrestrained wind swept through the prison. By the side of Martin, and sharing his blanket, I lay down; but I could not sleep, though the guards at their posts assured me every half hour that all was well.
[This serialized account continues in the 2/11/1891 edition of the New York Times.]