From the New York Times, 4/19/1891
JOY TURNED TO DESPAIR
OUT OF LIBBY PRISON BUT BACK IN RICHMOND.
A PROSPECT OF LIBERTY RUINED BY AN ENGAGEMENT ON THE JAMES - PITIFUL SCENES ON THE CONFEDERATE EXCHANGE BOAT.
Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
Those of us in the Libby Hospital who had been selected to go North were regarded as the luckiest men in the worlds by their less fortunate companions. Those who had to stay back wrote letter on every scrap of paper they could find, which we secreted about our persons and promised to inclose in envelopes and forward to anxious friends when we reached “God’s Land,” as the Union States were called by the prisoners.
I was so excited by my good luck that I could not sleep that night. I did not think it possible to have been so supremely happy in that infernal place. But, although I could not sleep, my imagination was so wrought up that I lived in dreamland. The prospect of soon meeting the loved ones had, of course, some place in my anticipations, but hunger controlled my thoughts, and I dreamed of the favorite dishes I would eat and keep on eating, for it seemed to me that an ordinary lifetime was all too short to appease my hunger. Next to food I thought of clothes. For five months I had worn one shirt. I had washed it several times, but, being flannel, it shrank till the collar would not button and the cuffs were six inches above my wrists; so, to save the garment as long as possible, I made up my mind not to wash it again. I planned to get clothes, and particularly shirts, stockings, and boots, as soon as I struck a place where such things were for sale.
Those thoughts seem childish to me now, yet I was so hungry and ragged and had been suffering so long that their tenor is not to be wondered at. The mind is entirely dependent on the condition of the body, and no force of will can turn a starving man’s thoughts from food.
At 7 o’clock on the morning of May 4 a guard entered the hospital, and Dr. Kennedy read off the names of those who were to go down on the flag of truce boat, and ordered us to the Carey Street front. Most of the men were unable to move, and these were carried out to carts drawn up before the prison. I did not think I could feel a pang of regret in leaving Libby, yet when I came to press the hands of the brave fellows who were to remain back, my gallant companions in suffering whom I might never see again this side of eternity, there were tears in my eyes and voice, and I half wished that some married man had been selected in my place.
Outside the hospital, and I looked up at the barred windows, back from which were the swarming pale faces of the prisoners. They shouted good-bye, begged us to “see the President and hurry up exchange,” and then came the order to move. We passed the Pemberton Building, where the enlisted men were packed to suffocation, and the boys shouted godspeed to us and implored us, as did the men in Libby, not to rest till we had exhausted ourselves in trying to bring about an exchange. Down Carey Street we marched to the steamboat landing, below the mouth of the canal, and were huddled on the forward deck of the flag-of-truce boat with some enlisted men from Belle Isle.
It was a beautiful day, and the change from the fetid atmosphere of the gloomy hospital to the balmy air along the river, and the golden sunshine to which we raised our faces with a feeling of absolute enjoyment, was something to be remembered while life lasts. A lover and close observer of nature from my childhood, I wondered, as I looked over the James and up at the blue sky, why I had not been more profoundly impressed in the past of the transcendent beauty of the world. It was like a glimpse of paradise. The anger that had been making a hell of my heart for months, and the sore disappointment and suffering following the escape through the tunnel - even the comrades left behind - were forgotten for the time in the feeling of rapt exhilaration, as every sense drank in the glories of my surroundings.
My companions must have been affected in much the same way, for they sat in silence with an expression of intense enjoyment and wonder on their haggard faces, each looking as if he thought speaking would be a sacrilege. It seemed to me then like a beautiful dream from which I must be rudely awakened by the shouting of the guards to find myself in the darkness of the wind-swept Upper Chickamauga Room.
Col. Robert Ould, a tall, severe-looking old man, was the Confederate Commissioner of Exchange, and he was in charge of the boat. At his order the little steamer was cast loose, and we headed down the river. We passed the Rocketts and could look up at the bustling ramparts of Fort Darling and Drury’s Bluff. Just below these fortifications our steamer slowed down and made her way gingerly through a series of obstructions that had been placed I the river to bar the advance of our gunboats. It was expected that we would meet our flag-of-truce boat, the City of New York, about 1 o’clock. In anticipation of this the eyes of the group of ragged men on the forward part of the boat were intently fixed on the river in front. About 12 o’clock we noticed, down the river and to the right, wreaths of dense, silvery smoke peculiar to gunpowder, and above the noise of the engines we caught the occasional boom of artillery. Butler was opening the campaign on the south side, his objective point being Petersburg.
Below Harrison’s Landing the black hulls of a number of ships came to view, and, while we were wondering who they were, the wind blew out the folds of a flag hanging from the peak of the nearest vessel. Lieut. Francis of Connecticut, who was standing by my side, grasped my arm, and, with his other hand pointing down the river, he shouted in a frenzy of joy:
“Look at it, Captain! My God! look at it!”
“At what?” I asked.
“At the old flag! There she floats! Glory to God; there she floats!” and he broke down and sobbed like a child.
He was right. There was the banner of the Stripes and Stars; and even the men too weak to rise, waved their ragged hats and joined in the cheers with which we greeted the glorious emblem of the Republic. I had seen it flashing like lightning above the clouds of battle. I had seen it gleaming like an angel’s wing in the van of victorious pursuit, and gone stubbornly back in disaster and retreat. It had become to us not an emblem but a fetish, a thing to be worshipped like an actual divinity. For long dreary months the rebel flag had been floating above our heads in Libby, our sore sufferings increasing our hate for it; but there, at last was the old flag, and at sight of it we clasped each other’s hands, and looked at it through tears of rapture and with hearts throbbing like war drums.
We could not take our eyes from the glorious vision, but while we looked our steamer came to a stop, and Col. Ould and the other officers used their glasses and appeared to be much disturbed. Suddenly the advanced ship began shelling to the right, and a Confederate battery, masked by a curtain of low willows, opened a furious fire, the shot hurtling and splashing over the water not a quarter of a mile in front.
Our steamer began to back to keep from drifting with the current into the line of fire. Five or ten minutes of this duel, then the advance ship - I think her name was the Westfield - seemed suddenly to leap from the water and to fall back in a shower of splintered hull and broken spars. The enemy had destroyed her with a torpedo, and two minutes after the terrific explosion the wreckage covering the water was all that was left. From our position we could not see that a single life had been saved.
The fighting along the shore grew more furious, judging by the sound, and while we were eagerly listening to the cannonading the flag of truce boat turned about and headed up the stream.
“What does this mean?” I asked one of the crew, whose dark, scowling face told he was in no amiable mood.
“It mean’s that this ain’t a war ship and can’t go under fire,” growled the man.
“But there is no danger of harm so long as the white flag is flying,” I said.
“I ain’t so d-d sure about that,” he said. “At any rate, Col. Ould ain’t a-going to take any risks.”
“Then what does he propose doing?” I asked, with my heart in my mouth and a tremor in every limb.
“Can’t you see what we’re doing?” he snapped.
“Not very well,” I responded.
“Well, we’re going back to Richmond.”
“My God!” I cried.
“I reckon,” continued the man, “you’d a heap sight rather be back in prison that blowed up like them other Yanks was that we just saw.”
“No,” I replied, and I honestly meant it, “I would a thousand times rather be blown up or shot to pieces than to return to that hell of Libby again.”
The man was right; we were going back to Richmond. From the heights of unspeakable joy we were suddenly plunged into the depths of an unutterable despair. One man, an emaciated Sergeant named Gates, who had been brought from Belle Isle that morning and who had cheered with the rest at sight of the flag, died as we were returning under the guns of Fort Darling. The shock was something indescribable. Had the whole affair been planned for the purpose of inflicting on us the most exquisite torture that human ingenuity or devilish cunning could devise, it could not have succeeded better. An ashy hue, like the pallor that precedes death, spread over the pale, haggard faces of the prisoners, and from the eyes the light of hope vanished, giving place to the stony look of despair.
It began to rain as the spires of Richmond came into view, and, although we might have found shelter in the boat, the prisoners sat forward in stolid groups, nor gave a thought to the downpour that drenched them to the skin. Just before the return began we were served with some wheat bread and bacon, both great luxuries, but not soon enough to satisfy our hunger, and this was all the food we received till the following day.
After landing, we were marched - that is, those of us who could walk - up Carey Street again, and we expected to be returned to our old quarters in Libby, but instead we were taken to a warehouse near the Pemberton Building, known as “Hospital Number Ten.” The place was crowded with sick men from Belle Isle, all the prisoners who could be moved from that place having been sent south to Andersonville on that and the three preceding days.
It was dark when we entered this building, and after having been out in the pure, open air, the stench of the place was so sickening as to make us faint. We were taken to the second story, and, by the light of a smoky lamp at the head of the stairs, we could see laid out on the floor the skeleton forms of nine men, all of whom had died that day. The sight did not horrify me; I rather envied the men who had answered the mystic angel’s bugle call and gone from torture to the white tents of the silent. The blankets, for which the dead had no longer any use, were given to us, and the guard told us to spread them wherever we could find room, and he jocularly remarked on leaving, “Gents, that’s ‘bout the best I can do for you, so try to make yourself at home.”
The floor was already full of sick and dying men, but I found a place near a youth who told me he belonged to Cilley’s company of the Fourth Ohio Cavalry. This poor fellow’s name was Hart. He told me that one of his feet had been so severely frozen on Belle Isle as to compel its amputation. I tried to cheer him with a hope that did not come from my heart, but he had reached a state of absolute indifference. Between his gasps he managed to say:
“The doctors say there’s no hope for me. Gangrene has set in and I can’t hold out much longer. I wanted to get out so that I might die at home, but I’ve given up all hopes. I live at Akron and left school to enlist. No, Sir, not sorry for it; I’d do it again if it had to be done over.”
Several times in the course of the night I brought Hart water from the other end of the room. I dropped off to sleep about 2 o’clock and did not wake up till 5; then I turned to ask how Hart was feeling - he was dead.
Hearing great yelling and commotion in the direction of Libby, I got up and went to a front window, and saw Carey Street filled with prisoners and guards. Libby had been emptied, and even while I was watching, the men were marched to the cars that were to carry them to the South, where those who did not escape or die were destined to remain till the end of the war. After this Libby was never again used as a place for the permanent confinement of prisoners of war.