A history of Libby Prison, 1862-1865

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Virginia Tech


Libby Prison ranked as one of the most notorious of Civil War compounds. Used as a transitory depot and hospital as well as a permanent place of confinement, over 125,000 Federal prisoners passed through Libby's doors. The Confederate States Military Prison headquarters located in Libby Prison made it the focal point of Richmond's spindly prison system.

Prisoners' diaries tell of depravations suffered during captivity. Insufferable living conditions, poor food rations, inadequate hospital facilities and harsh punishment composed a majority of the prisoners' complaints. Daily newspaper accounts reflected the lifestyles of Richmond's population and residents' attitudes toward the presence of Federal captives in their city. A majority of the time, prisoners had access to the daily papers. Yet very few of them attempted to draw a correlation between the type of existence that they endured within Libby Prison versus the civilian population's struggle to sustain itself in likewise unsuitable circumstances. The Official Records of the Civil War round out the picture of the difficulties faced by the Confederate government in trying to maintain large numbers of prisoners with proper shelter and food. Added to this was the continual desire of Confederate authorities to establish an exchange system to alleviate their burden and Federal prisoners' suffering.

This thesis attempts to draw these major sources of information together. Prisoners' reminiscences used in this study were critically evaluated for their validity. To establish the diarists' retention in Libby Prison for the period indicated in the diary, Roll Call Books located at the National Archives were consulted. Newspapers and official correspondence balanced out the interpretation of Libby life. Throughout the Civil War, the Confederate government did not attempt intentionally to deprive Federal prisoners of adequate provisions. A majority of the time, circumstances dictated the actions disliked by captor and prisoner alike.