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The Prisons at Richmond
Military Background

"Encampment of Union Prisoners at
Belle Isle, Richmond, Virginia,"
October 17, 1863, page 668

October 17, 1863, pages 667 (3) – 668 (4)

We reproduce on pages 668 and 669 several drawings by Captain Wrigley, of the Topographical Engineers, illustrating the Libey Prison at Richmond, and the Place of Confinement for Union Troops at Belle Isle. Captain Wrigley was several months in the Libey Prison, and had ample leisure to make drawings and observations. He also sends us (and we publish on the same pages) portraits of Captains Sawyer and Flynn, the two officers who were who were selected by Jeff Davis to be murdered in retaliation for the execution by General Burnside of two rebel spies. The despot of the Slave Confederacy has not yet carried his threat into execution; but the sentence of death still hangs over the two officers, and must be hard to bear. Captain Wrigley has written us the following account of his observations:

"The military prison at Richmond, Virginia, is situated on the corner of Twentieth and Cary streets, directly on the canal and James River. A fine view of the river, its beautiful islands, and the distant hills is obtained from the south and west windows. The tents on Belle Isle, where our soldiers are kept, just peer above the long railroad bridge leading to Petersburg. This bridge is nearly half a mile in length, and built of timber on stone piers. Two and four hundred yards this side are two other bridges, one for the Danville Road, the other for foot travel. Below them the river eddies furiously between huge rocks and hundreds of beautiful little islands, covered in every available inch with trees, bushes, small flowers, and verdure of all kinds. Just at the bend of the river, about a mile below the prison, is that part of Richmond known as the ‘Rocketts’—formerly a village of that name, but now connected with the city by straggling tobacco factories, warehouses of all kinds, and tenements usually found in the suburbs.

"Richmond lies, as it were, in an amphitheatre of hills, facing the river, on whose bank is the prison, and from which a fine view of the town is obtained from the north and west windows. Far up on the hill stands the Confederate capitol—a plain, unpretending building, very similar to the ordinary American church, as seen in its full glory in some of our country villages. Comparatively few people are seen in the streets, an able-bodied man without a uniform being a rara avis of the first class; and the few ladies who walk out appear to be living, as it were, backwards on the finery and fashion of other days.

"The name Libey, generally spelled ‘Libbey,’ which is applied to the military prison, is derived from the proprietors, Messrs. Libey & Son, ship-chandlers and grocers, who formerly carried on there an extensive business. It is really a row of three buildings, three stories high, and having each one room on a floor, each room being 105 feet in length and 45 feet wide, making nine rooms in all—three in each story. On the first floor, the west room contains the quarters of the Confederate officers and the offices connected with the place. It is in this room that the prisoner first enters; and from it he is ushered to his future dreary abode. The east rooms of the first and second floors form the hospital of the building; the three upper rooms, together with the west room of the second story, communicate and form the officers’ quarters; the two remaining ones are used to receive temporarily, for the night, small squads of captured prisoners, previous to sending them over to Belle Isle. All these apartments have bare, unplastered, white-washed beams and walls.

"The Officers’ Quarters"

"Two of the four rooms allotted to them are partly used as kitchens—a portion of the room being partitioned off, and large cooking stoves, of a huge, square pattern, set up in them. The cooking is all done by the officers themselves; they form messes of whoever may be agreeable to each other, and take their proper turns in preparing the meals. The tin plates and cups taken from our captured soldiers are given to them in sufficient quantity to allow two messes to eat at one time. Many, however, purchase their own dishes, and are more independent. Two bath-tubs are placed in these rooms, and five faucets supply all the water for bathing, cooking, and washing. The ration allowed is eighteen ounces of bread and a quarter of a pound of meat per day, together with a little rice; vinegar and salt at intervals.

"Although a hearty man would not perish with this amount of food, it is not sufficient—in point of quantity, quality, or variety—to prevent a gradual disorganization of the system, and consequent total unfitness for duty.

"Most all of the officers have money with them, and, if they desire, purchase in the markets, through the Confederate steward, vegetables, fruit, eggs, meat, and butter—all these commodities, nevertheless, being enormously high; this is compensated for, however, by the value of gold and United States notes, they being worth, respectively, 14 and 11 to 1 in Confederate money.

"A few bunks in the upper west room are occupied by the first-comers of the prison, the remaining of the officers sleeping on the floor in their blankets, only two of which are allowed to each man. There are 18,9000 superficial feet of floor in all these rooms; deduct 2900 for kitchens, sinks, mess-tables, etc., and it leaves but twenty-six superficial feet per man. No outdoor exercise is allowed. The place is infested with vermin of all kinds, beyond all power to drive them off.

"Our officers, even in the face of these discouraging facts, keep up good heart; earnestly hoping, however, for a speedy release. Classes in Spanish and French, the study of the law, a debating-club, and a weekly paper—The Libby Chronicle—take up all spare moments, and the ability displayed by many in these matters is truly gratifying; and if the officers there are a fair sample of our army generally, we may well be proud of the effect of our republican institutions.

"The hospital is the best conducted part of the prison. It contains 120 beds—each a straw palliasse—and pillow, sheets, and comfortable, on a wooden cot. The fare is a shade better. The surgeons (three in number) are really skillful men, and do all in their power to alleviate the condition of the sick in their charge. Stimulants of all kinds are difficult to obtain, but are furnished by the Confederates to the fullest extent of their capability. They will not, however, allow our Sanitary Commission to send any thing of the kind.

"Gold or Confederate money will alone be received by the Commissioners and handed to the prisoners; all boxes of clothing, or delicacies of any kind, will also reach them in safety.

"The writer had the pleasure of a trip through the Confederacy, from Jackson, Mississippi—where he was captured some five months since—to Richmond. If the people of the Northern States could but know and appreciate the total exhaustion of the South in this struggle, they could not fail to bend every effort at this time to trample out the few remaining embers of the rebellion.

"Their railroads and rolling-stock are in the most dilapidated condition, and they are without men to repair them. Eight miles an hour was the average of the mail-trains on which we traveled. Locomotives of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad we saw near Atlanta, Georgia; and rolling-stock also of other roads. The stations, however, were filled with engines, but slightly out of repair, which they were unable to mend. Every bridge throughout the South was well guarded, especially so in North Carolina and Virginia; the principal manufactories of war material out of Richmond were in Georgia and Alabama, now within easy ‘raiding’ distance of our armies.

"The absence of not only luxuries, but even the conveniences of life, seems to have given the whole people a semi-barbarous air, and the almost total extinction of the genus citizen made this all the more apparent. We saw no slave who was not anxiously waiting to be free; no man whose interests would allow it who did not wish to be back in the old Union. Many would come and tell us, as we waited for the trains, how the wave that swept over the South in ’61 carried them along with it, and how earnestly they would rejoice at peace. All this, too, at a time when their arms flourished and they were exultant. Now they are downhearted beyond conception. Let not our Copperhead friends pour too much of their faith into the Confederate tub, for the bottom will be out of it ere they are aware."

Captain Wrigley is now at home.


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