Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Libby Prison

Libby Prison was the notorious Confederate prison located around 18th & E. Cary streets in Richmond's Shockoe bottom.  The prison, originally built as a warehouse, fronting the canal, was designated for imprisoned captured Union officers. Its capacity was reported as 1,200, though it is certain that at times this was exceeded.

Many escapes occurred. The most spectacular was one, led by Colonel Thomas E. Rose (77th Penna. Vols.) assisted by Major A.G. Hamilton (12th Kentucky) on 9 February '64, in which 109 officers tunneled their way out. 48 were recaptured and 59 were able to reach Union lines, but 2 drowned. Rose was one of the unlucky, finding himself back in Libby. He was later exchanged on 30 April 1864. Elizabeth Van Lew, the Union agent in Richmond, was a frequent visitor to Libby, bringing food and reading material. It is stated that she obtained much valuable information from the men there and passed it thru her efficient agents to the Union. She is also credited with arranging for a number of men to escape.

Years after the war, Libby prison was sold, disassembled & moved to Chicago to be resurrected as an exhibit in the Chicago Coliseum during the 1893 Columbian Exposition better known as the Chicago World's Fair.   Afterward, It was disassembled again & the bricks & other pieces were sold & scattered as souvenirs.

This photo might have been taken in Richmond before it was disassembled & sold.
Many former Union veterans returned to Richmond years after the war to tour the city.

Years before the war, the building was one of many warehouses built by a man named John Enders, who had promised his slaves that he would set them free after he died. One morning, he accidentally fell off or through one of his new buildings that he was inspecting. His slaves, expecting to be freed, were told otherwise and rioted, burning a couple of Enders warehouses down before the riot was quelled. One of the buildings that was spared from damage was later rented (or sold) to Luther Libby, a native of Maine, who used the building to run a ship "chandler" or supply business & then a grocery store before being forced to shut down & forced to leave, probably after being harassed for being a northerner & accused of being a spy. Given only 48 hours to vacate, he left his sign hanging over the door as the Confederate government commandeered the building & turned it into a jail, leaving the sign hanging where it was.

Ironically, Luther Libby, whose name wound up getting associated with an awful prison he really had little to do with, and who somehow seems to have been bestowed with undeserving accolades as if he were some sort of war hero when all he did was leave his sign on a building, spent most of the war in a northern Union prison. His house, located near Libby Hill Park & adjacent to the towering Confederate Sailor & Soldier   Monument on Libby Hill, still stands & is privately owned.

Long before it was named after Luther Libby, the park was also said to be the spot where the founder of Richmond, William Byrd II viewed the James River & was inspired to name the town Richmond, after Richmond on the Thames in London, which runs a similar "serpentine" watercourse. There is a commemorative plaque there to explain it along with an enlarged encased photo of the Thames to compare the view if you ever visit the park.

Photo courtesy of Bevy Richmond

1 comment:

  1. this was enlightening and well-written. I really enjoyed reading it. look forward to more of your articles.


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