Libby Prison Banner


[Source: Atlas Editions; Civil War Cards]

On an isolated site in Richmond, Va., bordered by the James River and empty lots, stood Libby Prison, garnering-but perhaps not deserving-an infamous reputation second only to that of Andersonville Prison. Formerly the Libby & Son Ship Chandlers & Grocers, this three-story, 45,000 square foot brick building saw 125,000 Union officers, but no enlisted men, pass through its doors before May 1864.

By 1863 men were sleeping in squads, lined up on their sides to save space, turning only on the order of an elected leader. Prisoners complained of short rations, cold, and lice, yet many were able to buy extra provisions and receive packages from home. Black servants (captured Northerners) served the white officers, and there was running water and even primitive flush toilets.

Still, inmates' letters fueled Northern reports of inhumane conditions, especially after sentries were ordered to shoot anyone appearing at the windows, and hundreds of pounds of gunpowder were ominously placed in the cellar following a mass escape early in 1864.

Confederate authorities tried to head off negative opinion by inviting in outside observers. They reported plentiful books, games of whist, and classes in Greek. Effusive comments filled the press such as, "i...found it kept scrupulously clean and well ventilated. There was not a bad smell about the place...."and "a picture of profusion met the eye. The rafters were thickly hung with hams of bacon and venison, beef tongues, bologna sausage, dried fish, and other substantials.... "Libby's notoriety survived the war, and in 1889 the building was dismantled and re-erected in Chicago as a tourist attraction.