A Sampler of Civil War Literature
»Escapes

back to the Civil War Sampler Home Page
back to the intro to this section


 
"In The 'Libey' "

go to the next article in this section

Text from Harper’s Weekly

February 20, 1864, pages 122 (3) – 123 (2)

I could never think of Jem as dead, though I certainly had no definite grounds for my belief to stand on—in the very teeth, too, of the formidable fact that all effort to find him—and many and strenuous ones had been made—had thus far proved futile. He had enlisted as a private—Jem had always a dash of romance about him—and had thereby nothing to distinguish him in that awful mangled heap at Gettysburg; and yet I could never fancy his poor body lying under that mournful slab raised for "the unknown," though bankrupt of reason for my conviction.

So when I found myself at Richmond, with that curious aptness of the soul for winnowing out the few grains of good perdue in a whole harvest of evil, my heart gave a quick upward bound at the thought, "Perhaps I shall find Jem here"—Jem was my younger brother, and my pet from petticoats up—otherwise the outlook wasn’t too bright.

The rebels had made a dash on our hospital, which was in about as good fighting condition as the general run of hospitals, took fifty of our boys out of their beds, among them one poor fellow, Simms I think, with his leg just off, and their surgeons; probably by way of padding for an article in the Examiner—I know of no other reason, as we were all non-combatants, and they had already mouths enough to feed—and there we were, huddled together in the street, Eugene Delacroix, a cool, resolute fellow, Robert Allan, and myself, with our poor men lying all about, some groaning and ghastly with pain, and the most merciless sun beating down upon us, scorching out our very lives as we stood there three mortal hours. Probably some red tape was to be unwound somewhere—but at last they brought carts into which they huddled our sick and wounded and dashed off, jolting and jostling them as they drove recklessly over the rough pavement very much after the manner of a butcher with a load of calves.

Allan said something about it and was immediately overhauled by the Chief of Police, the Provost Marshal, and Heaven knows what all; and then we were relieved by the Richmond authorities of whatever money we were so unfortunate as to have about us, and marched with lighter pockets, if not hearts, to Libey Prison. Then I began to look out for Jem and got my first sup of disappointment. They had placed us of course in the officers’ room. Jem was a private, and might be one of the hundred and fifty tramping noisily over our heads, or in some of the rooms below, or in some other prison; and in either case he might almost as well have been in Soudan for all hope of meeting him; or, and it was my last hope, he might be in the hospitals, where it was possible that we should be allowed to do service. Delacroix suggested that.

The room, our future prison, was in the third story and crowded, for there were already some two hundred officers confined there. The air was stifling, loaded with so many breaths; the hot glaring sun beat in pitilessly at the broken unshaded window, added to which, at that moment, were the fumes of the single stove allowed for the cooking of the rations. Ah! If the tender, white-handed mothers and wives, if the gay girls dancing in Northern ball-rooms could but have looked in this bare, cheerless, unceiled room, with unglazed panes at best, and frequently only bits of canvas and strips of boards nailed over the openings, unplastered walls, unevery thing belonging to common decency or comfort, I think their merriment would have grown half-terrible to them, and, through the sweet delirious waltz-music, would sound out something like a wail! Each day a certain number among us were detailed for cooking and scrubbing service, and in due course of time I had my turn at both, and fell into it, I think quite naturally; but I could never get over my secret wonder at Delacroix when similarly employed, he was so precisely the man that it was impossible to imagine in any such predicament—I had always an undefined notion that the laws of nature contained a special clause for his benefit, and that no dilemma would ever dare face him, much less offer him its horns.

As for poor Allan he succumbed at once, and went about in a very miserable way indeed, though men of more calibre might be pardoned for being a little down on their luck. There were put up bare wooden bunks for about half of us; the rest must sleep on the floor: pillow and mattresses there were none—a blanket you might have if you were fortunate enough to have brought one with you—otherwise none. The rations were scanty; but water, the muddy, brackish water of the James River, was even more sparingly dealt out. I thought of the old border-riders vowing candles as long as their whingers to St. Mary when in a scrape. I would have given one as long as the Bunker Hill monument to St. Croton could he have interfered in our behalf. Not specially heroic this, but still I maintain worth the chronicling; for to keep up good heart and firm courage, as the majority of our men did, unwashed, unrested, half-starved, as we soon were, and treated like dogs through long monotonous days of a dreary and cheerless captivity, needs more pluck—enduring pluck of the kind that will bear a strain on it, than ever was required for a forlorn hope.

Meanwhile the days crawled on—dragged is too fast a word for prison time—and constantly I was on the sharp look-out for fun. As Delacroix had said, we soon obtained access to the hospitals for Union soldiers, visiting them daily. They were three in number, and from the first hour of our entrance I should have thought complaint a blasphemy. They used to bring there the poor wretches from the tobacco factories and Belle Isle, worn almost to skeletons, sometimes with the skin literally dried on the bone, moving masses of filth and rags, snatching at any article of food as they passed, groveling and struggling weakly for it like dogs, many of them actually in the agonies of death, taken there that they might be said to have died in hospital. In one day the ambulance brought us eighteen, and eleven out of them died; in fact, we saw little but such sombre processions. We had little medicine to give them, and no food but a scanty measure of corn-bread and sweet potatoes; and this for men down with dysentery and typhoid pneumonia. These, too, were men in the last stages of disease; hundreds more, fit subjects for hospital treatment, were left on the island and in the prisons for lack of hospital accommodation. In the three Union hospitals the average of deaths was forty a day. We lived in an atmosphere of death; corpses were on every side of us. We did what we could; but after all it was little more than standing with our hands fast bound to witness sufferings that we could not alleviate. I had done looking for Jem. I hoped now that he was dead. Better that his handsome head lay low among a heap of unknown slain than to have been tortured all these months in a Richmond prison.

Our own condition was not improving. The weather was growing colder, and the wind whistled most unpromisingly through our broken windows. Stoves were put up, but no fuel was given to burn in them; and sleeping on bare planks, without mattress or covering, was getting to be a problem. There was a falling off also in the matter of rations—corn-bread and two ounces of rice now was our daily allowance; added to this, daily brutality and insolence on the part of the under-keepers, dead silence from home, and the long, hopeless winter setting in; but the edge of all this was blunted for me by the hospital horrors. My very sleep was dreadful with dying groans and pitiful voices calling on those who, thank God! will never know how they died.

One morning the ambulance had brought a load of fourteen from the island, and when I came to the hospital, a little later than usual, I found Delacroix standing by the side of one of them—a young man, judging from the skeleton-like but still powerful frame—an old one, from the pinched and ghastly face—a dying one, at all events. Used as we were to horrors, I saw that Delacroix was laboring under some unusual emotion. He was white to the very lips. I understood why when he muttered in my ear the word "Starving!" Low as it was uttered, the poor boy caught the word.

"Yes," he said, feebly. "It is quite useless, gentlemen—no," turning from the bread that Delacroix offered, "I loathe it now. For days and days I have been mad for it. I have had murder in my heart. I thought if one died the rest might live. Once we caught a dog and roasted him, and quarreled over the bits. We had no cover; we lay on the scorching sand, and when the terrible heats were over came the raw fogs and bitter wind."

He stopped, seemingly from exhaustion, and lay a few moments silent; then the pitiful voice commenced again.

"We were very brave for a while; we thought help was coming. We never dreamed they could go on at home eating, lying soft, and making merry while we were dying by inches. I think if my brother knew? If ever you get back I charge you, before God, find out Robert Bence, surgeon of the _____ Maine. Tell him that his brother Jem starved to death on Belle Isle, and that thousands more are—Ah! just Heaven! the pain again! O Christ! help me! have?!

The words died away in inarticulate ravings. He tossed his arms wildly over his head; his whole frame racked with the most awful throes. And this was my poor boy; so wasted, so horribly transformed, that I had not known him. His glazing eyes had not recognized me. His few remaining hours were one long, raving agony. He never knew that his brother was by his side. I died over and over again, standing there in my utter helplessness. I had never so thanked God as when his moaning fell away into the merciful silence of death.

Delacroix, who had remained with me, vented his grief and wrath in the bitterest curses; but I was stunned. My grief was so vast that I could not then fully comprehend it. There were in store for me days of future horror, hours of sickening remembrance of his agony, of maddening thought of that most awful and protracted torture; cold, hunger, disease despair, all at once; but then I waited in silence till they had taken him away, with the nine others dead out of the fourteen brought there in the morning, and then went mechanically back with Delacroix. It was after sundown, but the first sight that saluted us in the prison was a row of pails and brushes, and the keepers detailing the officers for the duty of scrubbing. At that Delacroix burst out, angrily,

"How the devil do you think we are going to sleep on these floors after they are scrubbed, and without fires to dry them? Is your Government trying to kill us with sleeplessness, since it can’t starve us out? Already we have walked all one night this week, because lying down was impossible."

The keeper turned, with an ugly grin on his brutal face:

"Since you are so delicate you can try the dungeons for a day or two. You won’t be troubled with scrubbing there; and you find the company that is fit for a Yankee—in the vermin."

So Delacroix was marched off to the dungeons, as poor Davies had been the week before, though scarcely over the typhoid fever—as Major White and Colonel Straight have since been, and many another hapless officer, for a trivial offense or none at all. They kept him there three days in that noisome hole. He came out looking a little pale, but plucky as ever. The spite of a brutal man is a hound that never tires. The keeper watched his opportunity, swore that he saw Delacroix looking out at window (this high offense was punishable with death), and put him down again—for four days, this time. Then we got another turn of the hand-screw. We were no longer allowed to attend the hospitals. Delacroix’s eyes flashed.

"There goes the last obstacle to escape. While I thought I could be of use to our poor fellows here I would not go; but now—I have had plenty of time to think down there, and I have thought to purpose. I have a plan. If you like you can try it with me; if not, I go alone."

To know how sounded that word "escape" one must first have realized a prison. The risk was enormous, and failure meant the damp dungeons of the Libey, of which Delacroix gave no alluring description. The plan, however, was feasible. By agreement each managed to secure a sleeping-place near the door, and when all was quiet stole out, shoes slung about our necks, to the upper story, where was a sky-light, through which we were soon out on the rood, and in present possession of our freedom, though it was to be regretted that it was so many stories high. We went straight to the end of our rood, Delacroix, in his walks, having noted that the second building above us was empty; but the adjoining house, unfortunately, was a two-story building, so that we were forced to descend by help of the lightning-rod, which Delacroix did well enough, going down hand over hand with the ease of a cat; while I, less agile, met with one or two slips, and came down with a final thump, which should have startled the guards below, but did not, luckily for us. Then we found ourselves on a level with the third-story window of the next house—the empty one.

"But how if it shouldn’t be empty?" I whispered.

"It is empty," returned Delacroix, energetically, leaning across the little chasm of division to open the sash. "Now, will you go first?"

In I went—bare floor—empty rooms—open doors; that looked uninhabited, at any rate. Delacroix followed; and then we began to make our way down in the Egyptian darkness, getting several stumbles, and nearly breaking our necks on the last flight of stairs—a most villainous one. The lower door was bolted, but, being on the inside, it proved no such mighty matter to open it. Then there was a cold, damp rush of air, and we dimly made out that we were in a small back yard, over-looked by tall buildings, showing ghost-like against the sky. The gate was locked, and we did not stop to pry it open, but took the fence in gallant style, and away! Scarce any one was stirring, and walking leisurely through the dark and quiet streets, by morning light we were well out of Richmond; and now commenced the real perils of our journey; first the brightening light, which urged us to all possible speed in finding a cover. Delacroix had a pocket-compass, and by it we struck a north-easterly course, going on bravely till presently we came plump on a fort—peril number two, "Down!" whispered Delacroix, dropping on hands and knees in the grass. I followed his example in all haste, and so we wormed our way some hundred yards onward. Suddenly Delacroix clutched my wrist. Something was vibrating in the air—a dull, heavy, regular sound, caught all the more readily from our nearness to the ground, and with it a curious, faint tinkle, growing nearer, sounding out loudly now on the raw air. Both exclaimed, at the same instant, "Cavalry, by George!" It was an even chance whether they would ride us down or miss us; but there was nothing left save to crouch lower in the grass, and crouch we did. Doubtless some sweet saint at home was praying for us, for the chance proved in our favor. On they came, at an easy gallop, spurs and sabres jingling, and chatting carelessly; passed us, little dreaming who were their neighbors for that moment; died away into silence the echo of hoofs and tinkle of spurs. But now daylight was a very positive affair indeed, further travel too dangerous, and even Delacroix admitted, with a groan, that remaining where we were was our only safety.

"Remaining where we were" sounds like ease and rest—a peaceful phrase, in fact, conveying a notion of repose; but it was a marvelously hard thing to do. There was the probability of discovery; then, spite of peril, we were in a very desperation of sleepiness, and dropping off continually, to wake up in a panic, fancying that our foes were upon us. We were chilled to the heart; what with night-dews, and raw air, the dampness of the earth, and the enervation of our imprisonment; and as the day wore on we grew ravenous as wolves. Surely night was never before half so welcome, though words have not in them an expression of the difficulties of our way. The sacred soil stuck to our tired feet as if it had been in the Secession interest, and were all the briars sworn rebels they could not have caught and torn us more persistently. Once we floundered into a morass. "Courage," quoth Delacroix, "the Libey dungeons are worse." Twenty times over I should have lain down in a sullen despair, had it not been for his undaunted courage, pushing on spite of everything, himself included.

Daybreak found us in the "open," quite out of reach of any cover. A little ahead the road turned sharply, cutting off our view, but both heard a sound of singing, to which quick steps sounding out in the frosty air kept time, and the singing and walking grew every moment plainer. It was coming toward us. Delacroix laid a hand on his pistols, but I had already caught the words,

"Berry early in de mornin’, when de Lor’ pass by,

When de Lor’ pass by, and invite me to come,"

Chanted to one of the barbaric refrains, so often heard on the plantations, and stayed his hand. The next moment the singer same in sight—a negro, as I had thought. He would have passed us without seeming notice, but Delacroix stopped him, saying, briefly,

"We are Union officers, runaways from Richmond; weary, starving, and in want of a hiding-place. Will you help us?"

A sudden gleam lighted up the man’s dark face.

"Sartain, mas’r. De Linkum men fight for poor nigga—nigga help when he kin. Dis chile hide mas’r safe as ef he be in Washington."

"And if he betrays us—"

"I’ll blow his brains out," returned Delacroix, promptly.

"Small consolation that."

"It is our only chance, at any rate, and besides the sky won’t fall. He is honest."

But for all that he watched him like a cat. At the first suspicious move our colored friend would have found short shrift. I had my hand on my knife, and Delacroix’s revolver was in dangerous readiness. As yet, however, there was no need for action. We met not a soul, and guiding us to a fodder-house, he assured us that we might rest there at ease till dark.

We were so dead tired that we scarcely waited for the end of his assurance before we threw ourselves on the floor and were off asleep. From a rest as deep and sweet as the peace of Heaven I was startled by a hand on my shoulder. My knife was out on the instant.

"Cut de pone, mas’r, not me," cried our negro guide, retreating in some alarm. He had brought us some corn pones. We fell on them like starved wolves, and then off to sleep again, till the dark made it safe to recommence our journey. Our guide did not take the road, however, but struck across toward what we recognized as the colored quarters of a plantation. "Supper first," he observed, sententiously, ushering us into one of the low wooden buildings. We had expected solitude and silence, and got a shock. The room was crowded, and fresh comers pouring in every moment.

"It is a trap!" cried Delacroix. "We are betrayed."

"Mas’r too quick," answered our guide; "dis am a ‘spression ob de feelin’ in de cullud brest, dat all. Ebery one, big and little, come to bress de Lor’and de brave Linkum ossifers. Hercules, gib de gemmen seats; you, Cesar," to a little grinning twelve-year old imp, "quit dat yer. Git de oder little chaps and deflect youselves as pickets. Sojer march roun’and roun’, gun on he shoulder: hold he head so high. Can’t eben see poor nigga, he sech great man. O Lor’! tink de nigga no ‘count; neber tink we hab pickets too, and de Linkum men right under he nose, he! He! Sue, push dat yer chicken dis way. Lizy, gib us de pone and milk. Don’ stan’ nudgin’ and winkin’. Step about gals, be spry.

It was plain that this was a man in authority, though how much was due to calibre, and how much to a ragged military coat, minus the buttons, and a hat, curiously jammed and broken, was too delicate an analysis for men in our condition. The room was crowded, for the news of our hiding had gone from mouth to mouth through the entire plantation, and every soul was there to welcome us. There was little or no noise; but the intense, thrilling excitement on every dusky face was a thing not soon to be forgotten.

"Telled ye so!" cried one old woman; "allers said de good Lor’ hear de groanin’ and sighin’ sometime. Oh! chil’en, I pray night and day all dese yer years sence dey sell away my little Sue. ‘O Lor’, make dem like a wheel; and ole Sam, he say dat a debil’s prayer; but I hearn it in de Bible—hearn Mas’r Arnold read it he ownself; and now, sure enuf, de Lor’ hab make ‘em no ‘count—jest like a wheel rollin’, rollin’, can’t fin’ no rest till dey roll straight down to eberlastin’ ruin; and de jubilee’s comin’ and de Lor’ bress dese men dat bring it. De Lor’ ob glory keep ‘em safe;a nd oh! mas’r, tell de good Linkum men strike hard—he’s groanin’ sech a weary time."

She was interrupted by our guide, who plainly thought his prerogative in danger.

"Dat’s enuf, ole Susan. Curus how women’s tongues kin run. Time to sperse, laides and gemmen, and, ‘member now, no noise. Now ef mas’r’s ready—"

The sentence was completed by a sudden dropping of his military coat and dignity together, placing him at once in his former light of an every day member of society. The remainder of our journey had in it little of adventure. Our guide led us around the pickets, moralizing all the way on, "He hold he head so high—tink nigga no’count," and ferried us across the Mattapony. Here we were given into the keeping of another negro, passed a damp but monotonous day in the woods, were treated to another plantation supper; then another day hiding, another night in pushing through morass and forest, another guide. As good old Bunyan has sit, "we were bemired to purpose’—were torn and foot-sore; but at last we reached the Rappahannock. There our guide left us, and there we passed a day watching men oystering in the river, and wishing for a few of them on shore. The programme was simple now. We had only to wait till midnight, take one of the gun-boats; but oh! those hours of chilled and aching waiting!

The friends who welcomed us with open arms gazed at us with a sort of terror, so wan, ragged, haggard, ghastly, was our appearance. Delacroix looked at least five years older; while I—but small marvel if I have changed—I have always in my ears that moaning voice, "Tell him that his brother Jem starved to death on Belle Isle!" I have the vision before me night and day of that writhing frame, that lone, raving agony; and there are thousands more to freeze and starve! God help them!

 

Website design © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC
Images, logos, and all other content © 1998-1999 HarpWeek, LLC., unless otherwise noted.
Please report problems to webmaster@harpweek.com