The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Escape From Libby Prison

The American Civil War proved to be one of the bloodiest, most devastating wars in United States history, claiming more than 600,000 lives within four years. However, twice the number of soldiers who lost their lives in battle died as a result of disease. Poor sanitation and unsophisticated medical care contributed to the contraction of illness, as inhospitable conditions in prisons advanced the spread of disease.

Libby Prison, located in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, infamously housed Union soldiers, officers, and prisoners of war during the Civil War. Conditions were far below the normal standard of living. Overcrowding, food shortages, limited supplies and rampant disease plagued the prison. Commanders at the three-leveled complex designated less than a dozen rooms for inmates, sometimes allotting hundreds of prisoners only a handful of cells measuring 40 by 100 feet.

Beneath the first floor, “something of a cellar served various purposes. There the terrible cells – tiny dark holes infested by rats and other vermin – horrified everybody so maligned as to be locked in them. An olio of things rotted there, polluting the air. Even a short stay in those dungeons amounted, without a doubt, to an aeon of agony.” During the night, the men lay on the “bare wooden floor [in] spoon fashion, turning over on command when the ache in their bony hips and ribs became unbearable,” and daily rations consisted of “tiny portions of corn bread, rancid bacon, and bug-ridden soup.”

On November 28, 1863, the New York Times published a story titled “Horrors of Richmond Prison: An Average of Fifty Victim a Day” that detailed the horrendous conditions from the perspective of recently released surgeons. Within the article, the men professed that “judging from what we have ourselves seen and do know, we do not hesitate to say that under the treatment of systematic abuse, neglect, and semi-starvation, the number who are becoming permanently broken down in their constitutions must be reckoned by thousands.” This article, in addition to other testimonies from escaped and released inmates from Libby Prison, served as persuasive fodder for the North to express outrage over the depravity of the Confederacy.

Map of an escape tunnel from Libby Prison, Richmond, Va., showing surrounding sites including other prisons, warehouses, the canal and dock closest to Libby, and the railroad depot.

In February 1864, a group of 109 inmates attempted to escape Libby through a tunnel they had dug over several months; scraping and digging out the mortar between bricks often until four in the morning. Under the direction of Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose and Major A.G. Hamilton, imprisoned officers earnestly but covertly carved out the tunnel behind a stove in the kitchen, measuring 50 to 60 feet and at one point with a width as narrow as 16 inches, using chisels and a wooden spittoon, all while fending off squealing rats, the “sickening air, the deathly chill, and the horrible, interminable darkness.” With many past attempts to escape ending poorly, the “Great Escape Plan” also risked detection by prison officials.

Union officer, Bernhard Domschcke recollected a close call: “One day in a cellar room, a mole [soldier] busied himself amid sack of cornmeal stored there. The door opened. In walked an official. Astonished, of course, to find somebody in the locked room, he asked, “What are you doing here?” The mole answered with presence of mind: “I wanted cornmeal. I’m hungry. What I get to eat doesn’t satisfy me.” He added that he had clambered down there on an unused staircase – unused and therefore boarded up. The official swallowed this “explanation”: neither he nor his colleagues had the faintest notion of current events underground.”

On the night of February 9th after lights went out, inmates pushed aside the stove to reveal the tunnel’s entrance and hurriedly advanced into the darkness. The tunnel connected the cellar to a warehouse yard on Canal Street and through the night, inmates watching “from the upper floor of the east wing… could see fugitives pop out of the tunnel, cross the yard, clear the gateway to the street, turn left, and disappear.”

After the escapees emerged on the other side, many set their sights on Williamsburg, 100 miles to the southeast, where General Benjamin Butler’s forces were stationed. Another group of men sought refuge in the home of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy who during the course of the war strategically used her social affluence and air of feminine virtue to help Unionists escape the Confederacy.

The next morning during roll call, the remaining inmates snickered when the final tally stunned the officials and in response to the question, “Where are they all?” the men cheekily answered; “they fell out the window.”

The first group of escapees crossed into Union lines on February 14, five days after the initial breakout. In total, of the 109 officers who successfully escaped the dreaded prison, “fifty-nine reached safety, two drowned [crossing the Chickahominy River], and forty-eight were recaptured,” the valiant Colonel Rose among them.

As a punishment, the apprehended were thrown into Libby’s rat-infested cellar and denied adequate rations. More than a dozen Libby Prison escapees eventually reached Washington, D.C., where they diffused their accounts to anyone willing to listen about the abuse they faced at the hands of Confederates.

On April 3, 1865, Confederate forces set fire to their own capital in a panic to escape a Union invasion. Major Thomas Turner, the last man at Libby Prison, frantically collected his belongings and systematically destroyed all prison records. While Turner escaped punishment, other former Confederate loyalists could not say the same. After years of inflicting pain and suffering upon thousands of Union soldiers, Libby Prison became a holding facility for the ‘Rebels,’ but this time, every prisoner slept on a bed and received regular rations.

Learn more about the history of American prisons by listening to BackStory’s “Land of the Free? The History of Incarceration in the U.S.