From the New York Times, 4/12/1891


Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times

It was my intention to end the articles on Libby Prison with this, but when I come to think over my last weeks in that building I find it impossible to do so without leaving unsaid much that is necessary to complete the picture, the studies for which were indelibly burned into my memory during those most trying days.

While I have not been so vain as to imagine that these reminiscences have an actual historical value, I have been comforted with the belief that they were substantially accurate, and that they would served to convey a more vivid conception of life in Southern prisons than some of the many other and more ambitious productions of my fellow-prisoners. Last week I attempted to give a description of the excitement and intense anxiety in Libby Prison at the time of the famous Kilpatrick raid, which I believed, as did every man in the prison with whom I talked at the time, was undertaken for the sole purpose of our release.

Since my last article there has been sent to THE TIMES a letter written by Dr. T. S. Verdi of Washington, to the Star of that city, in the summer of 1889, which is historically valuable and which contains information on this subject as new and surprising to me as it must prove to a majority of my surviving Libby associates. Dr. Verdi’s character for professional ability, patriotism, and veracity is second to that of no man in the city where he has so long lived, so that on the face of it his account of that most thrilling episode of the war, the plan to release the Union prisoners held in Richmond in the early months of 1864, must be accepted as substantially correct. In a letter which has just reached me, Gen. Di Cesnola corroborates Dr. Verdi, and referring to the account of this enterprise which I gave last week, he says:

“The writer of the Libby Prison articles will, perhaps, be surprised to find that the plan (for the release of our prisoners) was somewhat different from the one he gives in THE TIMES, and in which he says I was elected to lead the assault. The plan submitted to the Secretary of War was kept so secret that only three or four officers knew about it in Libby Prison. Had the plan been sanctioned by Stanton, the officers in Libby would have been at the proper time acquainted with it and with the part each of them had to play.”

Dr. Verdi, one of those distinguished Italians who reflect honor alike on the land of their birth and the country of their adoption, was before the war and has been since a warm personal friend of Gen. Di Cesnola. Without doubt he speaks with a full knowledge of the facts, and his story is so surprising that no apology is necessary for giving a resume of his statements, for they contain one of the most valuable chapters I have yet seen of the inside history of the late war.

Dr. Verdi says that in the early part of 1864 a person to him unknown left a letter at his house signed by L. P. Di Cesnola, Colonel of the Fourth New York Cavalry, who was then a prisoner in Libby. On the face of it this letter requested that the doctor should write to the Colonel’s wife for certain articles of clothing. The next day another envelope was left at the house by an incognito; this contained “a sheet of paper into which holes and slits were cut of different sizes and lengths and at irregular intervals.” The sheet was of the exact size of the one received the day before. After puzzling over the matter for some time, Dr. Verdi laid the last sheet over the first, and read “a plan for the escape of 20,000 Union prisoners from the jails of Richmond!” Not only that, but a plan for the taking of Richmond by the same prisoners, for the capture of President Davis, his cabinet, and many other important persons who were to be held as hostages. “That,” writes Dr. Verdi, “is what I read through those cuts, slits, and holes. My brain whirled and my heart swelled in reading the plan of this daring attempt. I read it over many a time, and each time more and more analytically, and the more I studied it the more convinced I became that the execution of it was possible.”

After consulting his friend Montogmery Blair, then Postmaster General, Dr. Verdi called on Mr. Stanton. That great but unamiable man grew angry and indignant when the letter was explained to him. “I will take no part in such foolhardiness!” he exclaimed. “That’s murder! Thousands of our prisoners will be slaughtered in the streets of Richmond! Only a few weeks ago Col. Dahlgren lost his life in a foolish attempt to surprise Richmond. It will be the same with this - nay a thousand times worse.” The allusion to Dahlgren is clearly a mistake on the doctor’s part, for a few weeks after the raid, on which that gallant but unfortunate soldier lost his life, “Col. Cesnola,” as he was always called in prison, was exchanged. The doctor’s letter must have been received before the Kilpatrick raid. But this does not at all weaken the force nor lessen the importance of his statement.

After the close of the war Dr. Verdi’s interest in this matter did not cease. It is safe to assume that he learned much about the plan of escape from Gen. Di Cesnola, but here it is in his own words:

“In March, 1864, about 20,000 Union prisoners were held in various places in the city of Richmond, 1,200 of whom, all commissioned officers, occupied the building notoriously known as Libby Prison, a small number occupied Castle Thunder, and about 17,000 an intrenched camp at Belle Isle.

“Among the prisoners in the ‘Libby Prison’ was Col. L. P. Di Cesnola. His bold young officer conceived the idea of a possible rise and escape of these 20,000 prisoners. His idea soon took the shape of a project, which he communicated to four other brave and intelligent officers, co-prisoners of his. They discussed the matter, and finally resolved that each should prepare and submit a comprehensive plan for the escape from the Libby, for the rescue of the other prisoners in other localities in the city, &c. When these plans were prepared, read, and discussed Cesnola’s was accepted as the most practical and comprehensive. This plan provided for an organization among the prisoners that should represent the three arms of service, viz., artillery, cavalry, infantry. These were to be divided in detachments properly officered, each detachment to have a prescribed duty to perform. One was to take possession of armories, one to seize steamers on the James, one to cut telegraph lines, another railroads and bridges, another to capture President Davis, others Cabinet officers and important personages. The artillery detachment was to seize and man cannon, cavalry seize horses, and a large force of infantry was to concentrate at the rendezvous of local militia who guarded the city during the absence of Lee’s army, held at some distance from Richmond by the iron grasp of Gen. Grant. Everything was thought of and provided for, and, if assisted by a body of our cavalry, which Cesnola had reason to expect, would make a dash into Richmond, would liberate the prisoners therein inclosed, who constituted an army in itself.

“Magnificent! But how to get out of the Libby Prison? In the first place, Cesnola, to obtain much information that he needed, selected from the negroes who did the menial services of the prison two of the most intelligent and willing; these proved invaluable, for they kept him informed of the movements of troops, of localities where arms were stored, of the residences of important persons, and of many other things necessary for him to know. Fortunately, at that time, he was selected by the Richmond authorities to distribute among our poor naked prisoners at Belle Isle the clothing forwarded to them by the United States Sanitary Commission. These daily excursions through the city enabled him to observe many things, learn the topography of the whole place, and particularly of the most important localities. For two months he thus walked daily the streets of Richmond, observing and reflecting. Little did his guard know as they walked side by side with the chatty, humorous Colonel what was brewing in his mind.

“During the distribution of clothing he became acquainted with most of our prisoners, and many a hopeful word did he whisper in their ears. The plan was thus fast maturing in his mind, and many dispositions he had opportunities to take. He felt now sure that if only 1,000 Union cavalry would make a dash into the city he could liberate all the prisoners and take the rebel capital. For this purpose he wrote to Gen. Kilpatrick, Col. Devin, Col. Custer, Col. Dahlgren, and Col. McIntosh, (all cavalry,) and selected me to communicate with the War Department at Washington. It needed but this auxiliary assistance for the successful execution of his plan. Everything was ready, but he never heard a word from any of those officers or from the War Department, though he learned afterward that they all received his letters conveying the intelligence. There is hardly any doubt that the idea of delivering the prisoners by a cavalry raid in Richmond, credited to Kilpatrick by is biographer, was suggested to him by Cesnola’s letter, although it would have been a great imprudence for Gen. Kilpatrick to make the attempt without a preconcerted plan of action with the prisoners themselves.

“The plan for the escape of the officer prisoners from the Libby was as clever as interesting. They organized all sorts of amusement, among which were minstrel exhibitions, which gave them a great latitude for applause and for noises of every kind. There was a very serious object in these exhibitions of fun and frolic which the guard in attendance was not acquainted with. They drew largely, they were so funny. The personnel of the guard off duty found pleasure in attending them; everybody was in good humor. But the sphinx was there watching and waiting to turn the humorous into a tragic scene. Cesnola was the sphinx, who only wanted a word of encouragement from Washington to give the word that was to bring about the metamorphosis.

“But no word came, and Cesnola, night after night, retired to his prison couch disappointed if not disheartened. A word from him while the play and shouting were going on, and the doors would have been closed, the Confederate guards mixed with the audience seized and gagged, their uniforms taken and put on the chosen braves, who, thus disguised, were to descend and seize the remaining guards on duty down stairs and at the gates.

“This first step successful, it would have been easy to accomplish the rest. One thousand Union cavalry dashing into Richmond at that moment and 20,000 desperate, well-organized men liberated in less than an hour would have taken possession of Richmond. But, alas! not a word came from outside and time was passing, and even ambition was taking possession of some of the officers. Who should command was a question. Gen. Neal Dow was the senior officer and would have been entitled by the United States military regulations to the command, but he was not competent for such a work.

“Vanity and ambition unfortunately reigned even within those walls of squaor and death. Col. Cesnola was next in rank, and, moreover, he had conceived the plan; but he was a foreigner, and that he should become the hero of this daring deed was repulsive to national vanity. And so the matter was whispered, and even too loudly, for one morning they found that new precautions had been taken and that the guarding force was more than trebled. The secret was out. Who betrayed? One Union officer was suspected, but Col. Cesnola as well as others in the secret would not believe that person guilty of so much treason. But the fact remains that the indifference to the appeal of Col. Cesnola to cavalry officers and, through me, to the War Department at Washington delayed the matter until the Confederates got hold of the secret that was to liberate our prisoners and lay the city of Richmond at their mercy. Thus this daring conception and plan of Gen. Cesnola aborted and Mr. Stanton was saved from the ignominy of refusing to assist our prisoners in their attempt to escape and probably to capture the rebel capital.”

It is not my purpose to start a discussion on this subject, but it is very evident that Col. Cesnola’s letter was sent to Dr. Verdi in the latter part of January or the beginning of February, 1864. My reasons for believing so are first, that the Sanitary Commission goods received under flag of truce were exhausted in January; and second, after the tunnel escape in early February the amateur minstrels were no longer permitted to use the cookroom for a place of entertainment after dark.

Again, it would seem that the War Department did act on Col Cesnola’s suggestion, else why were Kilpatrick and Dahlgren dispatched in early March to make their raid? If the release of the Union prisoners in Richmond was not the primary purpose of that raid, then it should be ranked with the foremost of the ill-advised and wretchedly-executed projected of the war. But the prisoners captured from Kilpatrick’s command, the Richmond papers, and the weak assault on the intrenchments of the Confederate capital, go to prove the purpose of the expedition. We certainly had no doubt about it in Libby. Being a line officer and twenty one years of age, I was not taken into the councils of the gentlemen who were to lead, but I do know, without doubt, that we were organized for ‘a break’ that night, when we lay awake, listening to the roar of the guns, and that if our cavalry had entered Richmond, they would have found the men in Libby not only ready but terribly eager to carry out the programme outlined in Dr. Verdi’s communication, and hinted at in my article last Sunday.

As to “national vanity’s” making any officer jealous of Col. Cesnola because of his being a foreigner by birth, I very much doubt. Gen. Neal Dow and Gen. Scammon, and I think, Col. Powell of West Virginia, outranked the Colonel of the Fourth New York Cavalry; and although these were brave and patriotic officers, the question of their rank or birthplace was not considered by the men who, so far as I know, were unanimous that the junior officer, Cesnola, should lead that night. So long as we were prisoners the question of rank, which would have weight when we had established our liberty, did not enter into the consideration of leadership, though I will not affirm that it was ignored. Cesnola was young, popular, and eager to help and cheer his associates; and then the men who had served with him in the cavalry branch of the Army of the Potomac were loud in their praises of his gallantry. His part in the plan of escape may have influenced the few men who were in the secret. I am very sure that more than 1,200 men who knew nothing about it accepted Cesnola’s leadership as a matter of course.

The officer, a staff officer of high rank, by the way, who was suspected of betraying our secret to the Confederates was very unpopular in prison. Soon after the war he went abroad and remained there till he died. He seems to have been well aware that his loyalty was doubted. I met him at the Langham Hotel in London some twenty years ago, and, with tears in his eyes, he indignantly denied that he had ever violated his oath as a soldier of the Union. He assured me that he knew all about the tunnel weeks before our escape, and asked if he would not have revealed that if he had been a traitor. I did not tell him that I doubted his knowledge of the tunnel before its existence became generally known, for that secret was well guarded. Yet I am willing, as I am sure others will be to give him the benefit of the doubt. No man in his senses could be a party to an expose that resulted in the ruining of the prison, and might have ended in blowing to death so many gallant men who wore the same uniform as himself.

And now, to return to my direct narrative. My experience in Southern war prisons convinced me that poverty and hunger make men either cunning and desperate or helpless and despondent. Through the prison bars to the south, I could see the south, I could see the shores of the James and the banks of the canal growing greener every day, and the trees, visible in that direction, filled out their skeleton limbs and took on the emerald garments of Spring. One afternoon, a yellow butterfly flew into the upper Chickamauga Room, and I recall the delight with which we watched it as it fluttered about and finally vanished in the direction of the river. One of our number, either more poetic or more superstitious than the rest, pointed to he course the butterfly had taken, and said with a shake of his head:

“Boys, we must take that as a sign.”

“A sign of what?” asked one.

“A sign of the direction in which we must all soon go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that before many days the campaign will open, and we’ll be sent South to make room for other poor fellows who must inevitably be captured.”

The speaker was Capt. Maginnis of Fort Wayne, Ind., who still limped from a wound received at Chickamauga. The result showed he was right. Poor fellow, he was destined to go down, but never to return, for he died in Charleston, S. C., that Summer, to which point 600 Union prisoners had been sent and placed under the fire of our own guns, then shelling the city.

“If a man is too sick to move will they carry him South, keep him in Richmond, or specially exchange him?” This is what flashed through my mind when I realized the full force of what Maginnis said. Then cunning and desperation came to my aid, and I resolved to play on the Confederates what we called in active service ‘the old soldier dodge.’ I would be sick.

It required no skill in acting to carry out this resolution. My hair was long and unkempt, there was a dirty fuzz on my long, ashy face, and the blue rags hung from my lean shoulders as if they had been pegs. Then there was the never-ceasing burning of that awful hunger, and the maddening memory of the meat and better fare I had received in the hospital before, so it required no simulation to lie on the floor and to tell the guard, who lifted the dirty blanket from my form with his bayonet at roll call next morning, that I could not rise.

“Rheumatiz?” he asked sympathetically.

Up to that moment I had not decided what particular form my malady should take, but had a vague notion that I could successfully plead a feeling strongly expressed by one of my East Tennessee friends as “kind of general gone-ness,” but the guard gave me a hint, and I acted on it.

“Rheumatism of the worst kind,” I replied.

“Well, that’s regular old h-l when it gets a lock grip and a under holt on a feller. I had hit myself down Fredericksburg way, more’n a year ago, n’ the tetch of a blanket nigh druv me wild. But, I’ll report you,” and the guard went off and consulted with Black George and Little Ross.

Soon after this a doctor - it was not Satal, for whom I had a great liking - came and felt me over, and asked me questions, and then sent me down to the hospital. As there was a guard kept constantly in this room, since the tunnel, I thought it prudent to lie perfectly still, and now and then to emphasize my sufferings with a groan.

Three days before the fighting in the Wilderness began, a number of doctors and other uniformed officers came into the hospital, and made examination of the invalids and took down the names of some twenty, whom it was decided to send away under flag of truce as wrecks who could not help the Yankees and whose retention would inconvenience the Confederates.

“Yes,” said one of the doctors in response to my eager question. “You will be sent North to-morrow.”

This glad news thrilled me so that I cold not sleep that night. It was the last night in Libby for me, but not the last, alas! that I was destined to spend as a prisoner of war.

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