From the New York Times, 4/5/1891
HOPEFUL DAYS IN LIBBY
KILPATRICK’S RAID RAISED THE PRISONERS’ SPIRITS.
THE PAINFUL UNCERTAINTY ON THE NIGHT OF THE ATTACK - DESPAIR FOLLOWED ITS FAILURE - THE FIRST TOUCH OF SPRING IN RICHMOND.
Copyright, 1891, by the New York Times.
The success of the tunnel out of Libby caused the Confederates to redouble their vigilance. They placed guards in the cookroom after dark, a guard was kept down in the hospital, and every hour after 9 o’clock a Sergeant and four guards, all carrying lanterns, made a tour of all the rooms in the prison. The latter precaution was not only unnecessary, but it disturbed the prisoners greatly. At night the men lay packed in long, close lines along the floor, and in making their way through them the guards frequently stepped on an unfortunate sleeper. The stamping woke nearly every one up, the glare of the lights suddenly flashing in the face was blinding, and the whole scheme was as useless as it was torturing.
Some of the men, whom no suffering could discourage, imagined they could retaliate on the men with the lanterns by whistling, in chorus, “The Rogues’ March” whenever they appeared; but it is unnecessary to say that it was not effective in abating the hourly nuisance. It is said that men can accustom themselves to the most trying situations. Certain it is that most of us soon grew so indifferent to the coming of the guards at night as to sleep straight on without being disturbed.
The first weeks in March, 1864, were the gloomiest of all the gloomy time spent within the walls of Libby. The rations did not improve - indeed, they grew less in quantity and worse in quality - and, if this were to continue, we felt that the time was not far distant when the strongest must give up the dispiriting struggle. About this time our Government again offered to send through food, clothing, medicines, and doctors, for the stories of the men who had reached our lines by way of the tunnel had stirred the people of the North to a horror of the sufferings of the prisoners; but, true to the policy persisted in from the first, the authorities in Richmond refused to receive such supplies.
The despondency caused by this news was followed by reaction, and the prison buzzed from morning till night with rumors of exchange, and there were those who knew - how they learned nobody could find out - that on the Monday following we should leave Richmond under flag of truce and march down below the Rocketts to a place where a fleet of well-provisioned transports was waiting to carry us North. In the midst of all this excitement there came to us the more reliable news that the Yankee cavalry, under Gen. Kilpatrick, was advancing in force on Richmond to release the prisoners in Libby and on Belle Isle.
Through the few men, who still had a little Confederate money left, we obtained the Richmond papers, and from them we learned of the raid. The roads were frozen, so that horses in good condition could be moved with rapidity. There were no veteran organizations in or near to Richmond at this time, and the companies of department clerks and invalids then in the city could offer no serious resistance to a dashing attack made on a well-selected point. As soon as it became certain that our cavalry were actually advancing the excitement in Libby rose to fever heat, and men who had been fretting themselves about the exchange that never came began to pray for the advent of the raiders.
I recall distinctly the great change this news wrought in my companions, and it must have had the same effect on myself. The weakest grew suddenly strong and the despondent cheerful. Men who had not smiled for months went about rubbing their hands gleefully and laughing at everything that was said, and knots of the younger men could be seen here and there listening to the advice of some older officer who sought to explain just how we prisoners could help along the enterprise having our release in view.
Col. Carlton of the One Hundredth Ohio, whose quarters were near my own in the Upper Chickamauga room, was a young man, but his rank, intelligence, and the fact that he had been educated at West Point made him an authority in our part of the prison on military matters. It was his opinion that, if our friends succeeded in getting into Richmond, we could arm the prisoners and either hold the city till help came or else set fire to the public buildings and destroy the bridges over the James after we had passed to the south of the river.
There were about 1,400 officers in Libby, ranking from veteran Brigadier Generals down to beardless Second Lieutenants, but all true and tried soldiers, and in a mood at this time to take the most desperate chances. In the Pemberton building and other warehouses, including Castle Thunder, and on Belle Isle, we had about 20,000 men, to which force we might add with confidence 3,000 colored men who would join us from in and about the city. Kilpatrick was reported to have with him some 5,000 troopers, so that if he could once force his way in we should have at least 28,000 men in the Confederate capital. A majority of these men were weakened by privation, but this point was carefully thought over in Libby, and it was the general opinion that except the wounded, and those not able to move without assistance, all would be found reasonably efficient when the hour for action came.
It was known that much of Lee’s reserve field artillery was then in Richmond. The old arsenal was full of muskets and infantry equipments, and in the same building there was a great quantity of fixed ammunition of all kinds. Here, too, were the Quartermaster’s stores and the buildings of the medical purveyors, with their supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia. Here, too, were the clothing factories, the Tredegar Gun Works, and all the mechanical establishments on which the continuance of the war, in Virginia, at least, depended. There were grand prizes, and the possession was of the greatest importance to the undertaking that was so elaborately planned in Libby. But, I must confess, the capture of Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet, with the members of the Confederate Congress then in Richmond, was not overlooked in this plan of campaign.
This was not the dreaming of a lot of enthusiastic boys, but the result of the careful deliberation of many officers who had already distinguished themselves in the war. Its feasibility could not be questioned; but one thing was necessary to certain success, and that was the jingle of Union scabbards and the blast of Yankee bugles in the streets of Richmond. And the fact that, while the prisoners were laying out the work to be done, the Union troopers were pushing south with all speed, and coming nearer every hour, assured of us success. The very thought of it made the most sluggish blood leap through the veins and the dullest eye glow with the light of hope and heroism.
Col. di Cesnola of the Fourth New-York Cavalry, and now at the head of the Metropolitan Museum, New-York, was elected by his fellow prisoners to lead the assault, when the hour came for our making a rush on the guard. Other officers were selected to command the men in each of the six rooms of the prison. Gen. Scammon was to lead the men in the Lower Chickamauga and Col. Carlton those in the Upper Chickamauga. Each group of men had its own work assigned it. One party was to make a dash for the Pemberton Building and Castle Thunder, and, after releasing the prisoners in those structures, to organize them and lead them to the arsenal, after their recent abodes had been given to the flames. Another party was to push directly to Belle Isle, overpower the guards, free the 15,000 men who were known to be there, and lead them into Richmond, where arms would be awaiting them. To others was left the firing of public buildings and factories, and to still others the preservation of necessary clothing and supplies.
That this could not be done even with our cavalry within the fortifications about the city without serious loss of life, was well understood. There was not an effective pocketknife in the prison, and, in anticipation of our making a break, the guards were doubled and a battery of light artillery was brought down and posted in the open space on the other side of Carey Street.
The bars of the windows were to be smashed out, and the doors broken open by means of the heavy crossbeams on the upper floors, and then the men on the upper floors were to use the same beams for sliding down to the street, while the men below were rushing on the guards through the doors and from the prison office. Desperate work this for unarmed men; but, then, they were willing to take up desperate chances in order to reach the arms up at the arsenal, and it was well understood that after the guards had poured in their first fire they would not have time to reload before they were overpowered by the weight of numbers.
The extra precautions in the way of artillery and double guards showed that the Confederates feared an outbreak, and that they were not prepared to offer a stubborn resistance to a strong attack was evident to us from the character of the organizations that passed the prison on their way to the eastern defenses. These organizations were composed of old men and boys, few of them had uniforms, and the formations and marching showed that they did not understand the simplest rudiments of drill. It gladdened our hearts to see these men go by, for now we felt sure that no matter how numerous they might be Kilpatrick’s troopers would ride over and through them, nor be checked in their advance by any resistance they might offer.
For the first time since my coming to Libby all the prisoners were in high spirits. They cheered the Home Guards as they passed, and taunts and slang and not a few oaths were exchanged between the pale men marching down the street and the paler men watching them through the iron bars. Of course, no such ridicule would have been hurled at Lee’s splendid veterans had they gone by even in rags, for they had won the right to be respected as gallant men. There was one little battery in the hastily gathered army of resistance that called out roars of laughter as it halted for a few minutes in front of the prison. It consisted of four mountain howitzers, that looked like toys. Each gun was drawn by a particularly gaunt mule, and each mule was led by a man whose heart evidently was not yearning for the shock of battle. One of these mule leaders was in charge of a burly Irishman with a bristling red head and one eye; the other must have been lost in battle, for he was particularly bitter and pugnacious. One of the men in the Upper Potomac room called down to the Irishman:
“Say, Pat, where did you get that mule?”
“From the Yankees, dom yez!” was the reply.
“Then you stole him!”
“Sthole him, dom yez; there’s no need for sthalin’ what it’s so aisy to take,” was the retort.
“What’s the beautiful creature’s name?”
“Sure, that brute’s name’s Baste Butler. Isn’t it, ye devil?” and the one-eyed man struck the mule’s ear’s with his whip.
“Say, Pat,” called out one of our Irishmen, “if you can coax that mule to lie down there and die, I’ll have you massed out of purgatory when you die.”
“Why do you want ould Bin to die?”
“Because,” said Ryan, “it’ll be the first thing like mate we’ve seen near this prison for months and months, and it may be that they’ll issue him to us with the morning’s rations.”
“Ha! ha!” shouted the man with the mule, and the one eye glared up viciously, “ye’re fixin’ a fitter ration than that, dom yez.”
“What is it?”
“It’s like this,” he replied, and he coiled the end of the rope he had in his hand and held it up, with his head to one side, his tongue out, and his one eye closed in a way that was horribly suggestive, though the graphic pantomime called out peals of laughter, not only from the prisoners, but also from the guards.
The howitzer battery at length moved down Carey Street, and the general impression was that our side did not have the best of the verbal contest.
For the truth of the following I cannot vouch of my own knowledge, but as it was accepted without question by the officers of my acquaintance there must have been good reason for the belief. In some way - some think that there was a spy in the prison who revealed the matter to Turner - the authorities got wind of our organization to co-operate with Kilpatrick; it is quite possible they may have surmised it, but be that as it may a number of the leaders were called down to the office, and then told that the prison was mined. Turner is represented as saying:
“If you people come into Richmond to-night, or you attempt to make a break, by G-- we will blow the place and every man in it to h--l!”
This startling threat spread through the prison and produced anything but a comfortable feeling. Still, there was not the least sign that it intimidated any one or in any way weakened the resolution to carry out the plan that had been decided on. Just befre dark we saw some prisoners in the uniform of cavalrymen being taken to the Pemberton Building, and we inferred from this that Kilpatrick was close at hand and had had a brush with the enemy.
Our anxiety the night of the escape through the tunnel was very great, particularly to those who were determined to “make a break for it,” but it was comparative calm in contrast with our feelings on this occasion, for every man had a direct personal interest and would be called on to take part in a life-and-death struggle against great odds before another day dawned. It was a particularly dark, raw night, and I fancy that the guards about the prison did not call out with their customary cheeriness, “All’s well!” When 9 o’clock came and with it the order for “Lights out,” the men did not stretch themselves on the floor as had been their habit, but gathered in little groups in the darkness, and, in whispers, discussed the thrilling situation. How could men think of sleeping above a mine which might be fired at any moment and forever put an end, as far as we were concerned, to hunger and war and the ceaseless yearnings for freedom and the sight of loved ones?
The guards had just announce “Half past eleven and all’s well!” when boom, boom, boom, came the sound of cannon from the south, and the stoutest heart stood still, then began to throb violently.
“Our boys have attacked the works! Pray God they may get through them!” These and similar expression of eager hope and burning anxiety were passed from man to man. In the intervals, when even the guards stopped to listen, the spaces of silence between the poundings of the guns became painfully oppressive.
The guards announced 12 o’clock, the firing that had slackened for a time was renewed with comforting vigor. One sound seemed to come nearer, but as far as we could judge of the direction it appeared to have swung further to the east, leading us to believe that the first attack, if such it were, had been a failure.
Twenty minutes or more of hoarse reverberations, then suddenly the sound ceased. It meant that the attack had been successful or that it had been stubbornly repulsed. The scene of the conflict was only a few miles away. If our cavalry had won, the ring of iron hoofs and the cheers of the victorious troopers in the streets would soon assure us that the time for action or of death had come. The men who were to handle the great beams were in their places; the men who were to lead the forlorn hope and receive the fire of the guards were ready to act, and, with muscles braced and lungs inflated, every man crouched ready for the signal on which so much depended - but it never came.
There was no sleep in Libby that night, nor did the guards passing through with their lanterns wonder why the men were not all lying down. It seemed as if day would never come. As the dreary black hours crept on our spirits sank lower and lower, and when daylight came, bringing with it a prisoner, who told of the failure of Kilpatrick’s expedition, the reaction that became despair to so many set in. So terrible was the disappointment that men did not care to speak about it, but paced the floor in silence and with clouded brows. About noon a cart drawn by a mule passed the prison. In it there was a body partly covered with a blanket, and, in reply to a question, one of the guards said with a grin:
“It’s the Yankee, Dahlgren, that was killed last night.”
So ended in disaster a raid that promised much. I have no word of censure for the leader of the raid, for his courage was undoubted and his patriotism above reproach. Yet, for the want of united action on the part of his command, and it may be a feeling of uncertainty as to his ability to overcome the difficulties when he was brought face to face with them, there was lost the finest opportunity offered to any commander on either side in the course of the whole war. Richmond could have been taken then and by the force under Kilpatrick, and he would have found an army of gallant men ready to crown his success by forcing lee to withdraw from Northern Virginia and so avoided Grant’s bloody campaign from the Wilderness to the James.
Soon after this disappointment our spirits began to rise again, for Col. Cesnoli, Gen. Neal Dow, and about sixty other officers were specially exchanged, and we began to hope once more that a general exchange would follow. Those who could not get away were always glad to see their friends called out and sent down to Commissioner Ould’s flag-of-truce boat. I have forgotten her name, but our boat, the New York, carry Gen. Gresham, was the vessel that always met her. Apart from friendship, we had a selfish interest in seeing others go, for it meant more blankets, more ragged overcoats, and some of the little essential belongings which men will gather about them, even in a place like Libby Prison.
On the 3d of April - I never can forget the occasion nor the date - we received a ration of meat. It was served out as “beef,” and perhaps it was. I know it was very lean, and not much of it; but, excepting in the hospital, it was the first that had been issued for months, and the prisoners were as happy over the event as children at Christmastime.
The special exchanges gave us more room, which was very desireable, for we had suffered all Winter from overcrowding, but the possession of this privilege was only temporary. About the middle of the month the Richmond papers came to us with tremendous headlines and huge exclamation points announcing the “grand victory” Gen. Hoke had achieved over Gen. Wessels at Plymouth, N. C. We had learned to discount the news in the Confederate papers, which, like our own, had a tendency to minimize defeat and to exaggerate success; but on this occasion their assertion that they had filled the Yankees with “Hoke-Ache” proved to be correct.
Gen. Wessels and the officers of his command were brought on to Libby, and as “fresh fish” they were initiated with more than the usual honors. I had grown so accustomed to the rags and pinched, white faces of my companions from our every-day associations that the advent of a hundred and more sturdy, bronzed men, with whole coats on their backs, good shoes on their feet, and trousers on their legs that did not need patching impressed me strangely, and I looked at them with much the same feeling with which a starving pauper must regard the luxurious surroundings of a millionaire. Gen. Wessels and his men crowded us terribly, but, like a poor man with an overincreasing family, we were always ready to make room and share our privileges with the last-comer. These gentlemen brought us the encouraging news that Gen. Sherman had a magnificent army at Chattanooga, with which he would soon march into Georgia, and that Gen. Grant was massing his legions before Lee and would move on Richmond within a few weeks.
The ice had left the canal and the James. The ground in front of the prison showed green patches with a few dandelions in their midst, and these things, with the milder air and a hum of preparation and the marching of troops in the streets, told us that Spring had come and that the resting armies were about to resume the work of carnage.