Libey Prison Story


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Civil War Harper's Weekly, February 20, 1864

This site features an online collection of Harper's Weekly, the most popular illustrated newspaper of the Civil War years. These papers were read by millions of Americans during the war. Today they serve as an incredible resource for students and researchers.

(Scroll Down to See Entire Page, or Newspaper Thumbnails below will take you to the page of interest)


Grant Crossing Cumberland Mountains

Grant Crossing Cumberland Mountains

Democratic Opposition

Democratic Opposition to the War

Slavery Debate

Slavery Debate

Military Ball

Military Ball

Negro Soldier

Negro Soldier

Flag Poem

Flag Poem

Libey Prison

Libey Prison


Columbia, South Carolina

Colt Armory

Colt Armory

Valentines Day

Valentines Day

Colt Fire

Colt Armory Fire

Quack Treatment

Quack Cancer Cure






[FEBRUARY 20, 1864.



OUR Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of the cessation of hostilities during the winter, indulges now and then in a festive entertainment. The presence of soldiers' wives with their husbands in camp gives, of course, the crowning charm to these gatherings. We present our readers this week, on page 116, a sketch of a ball lately given by the Third Army Corps. The upper compartment of the picture will give our readers some idea of the difficulties which failed to prevent the arrival of visitors. Below this is the dancing-hall, made up of tents, and decorated with flags and evergreens. Another portion of the sketch gives a view of the supper-room. While the fortunate soldiers who have partners are at supper with their ladies, those not so successful are engaged in what is called the "gander" dance, which our artist has faithfully represented on the same page.

This ball was quite a success; a score of Generals attended; and it was altogether an event to break up the monotony of every-day dreariness in camp. It was the first opportunity that gave the ladies staying with their husbands in camp a chance to come together.


THE rain was pattering with steady, sighing monotone against the little square window of the long wooden building—a window from which the only prospect, a range of far-off hills veiled in heavy mist, was dreary enough. Nor was it strange that Allan Revere, thinking of the orange-groves and jasmine swamps of his own bright land, turned with a groaning sigh upon his pillow, and closed his burning eyes.

"This pain is perfectly intolerable!" he muttered, with momentary irritation; for Allan Revere, who would have thrown himself upon the bristling bayonets of a regiment of soldiers without flinching, and had fought like a tiger even while the scarlet blood ebbed from his life's fountains until insensibility came to his relief, was a very child in hospital, like many another brave soldier. "It throbs and burns with every breath I draw: the bandages are heated through. Why does not some one come to bind on fresh ones?"

"Can't say, I'm sure, Sir," said the little sergeant in the next bed, who had been whiling away the tedious hours with quavering snatches of song. "My leg feels as though it were on fire."

"Oh no, it doesn't," said the spectacled surgeon, who had entered from the next ward just in time to catch the last words. "All your fancy, my man! And how are you getting along, my Confederate friend?"

"I'm getting very cross, Doctor, if that will do you any good," said Allan, sharply.

"Hum-m-m!" commented the surgeon, gravely, feeling the young man's pulse: "considerable fever—inflammation running very high—"

"It'll run away with me altogether before a great while," said Allan. "Why, Doctor, I have lain here four hours, and not a soul has been near me to change the bandages or bathe the wounds! If you intend to kill me I wish you'd do it at once, and not keep me lingering here!"

"Well, there has been rather a lack of nurses latterly," said Dr. Gower, skillfully unfastening the fevered wrappings; "but I'm expecting a Vermont lady here to-night—"

"Yankee nurse!" said Allan Revere, with an indescribable curve of his mustache.

"Yes; just that," said the Doctor, rather shortly; he was a Massachusetts man himself, and nothing but the chivalric sense of delicacy which pertains to every true gentleman restrained him from a cutting retort.

"Will she wear cowhide shoes and talk through her nose, Doctor?" persisted the invalid, maliciously.

"Really I don't know. Will you have the kindness to turn a little more on your left side?"

"There; will that do? Don't bring her into this ward, Doctor, please; I feel a presentiment that a Yankee nurse is all that is needed to finish me."

"Aren't you a little cross to-night, Mr. Revere?" asked the surgeon, smiling. "Now lie still and be a good boy, while I attend to Charley Bryan's leg."

Allan Revere mentally made up his mind to intercept the Doctor on his returning way and "quarrel it out" with him; but the cool lotions and quieting draughts, added to the weak languor of his frame, proved too much for any belligerent intentions, and he drifted away into a quiet sleep, that carried him back to Floridian everglades and sun-bathed savannas, while the chill rain played its ceaseless tune on the wooden roof over his head, and the wind moaned around the lonely hospital like a homeless spirit.

It was nearly midnight when he woke, with a convulsive start, and a strange fancy that every vein in his wounded arm was filled with molten fire.

"Water—ice—water!" he cried; "my arm is burning up! Help, some one, for mercy's sake! don't let me die here like a dog!"

There was a slight rustle through the fire-lit darkness; a shaded lamp glowed along the aisle, and he saw the hazel shine of a woman's pitying eyes beaming down on his face.

"You are the wounded Floridian," said a soft voice. "Dr. Gower told me about you. Stay—I see what the matter is; your bandages have become loosened."

Light and cool as a falling snow-flake her quick hands wet the cloths in healing lotions, and replaced their folds.

"Now, the other one!" pleaded Revere.

"Not now. Dr. Gower says it will injure it to be opened again at present."

"But it burns like a live coal!"

"I am sorry; but it will be better soon."

"You will not bathe it?" said the young man, contracting his brows.


"Then I shall do it myself!" he asserted, raising himself on one elbow.

"Lie down again; you must not."

"Must not!"

Allan Revere looked defiantly at the melting hazel eyes and the little firm mouth. The next minute she had passed her arm lightly under his shoulder and laid him back, like a helpless child, on the pillow. He flushed and frowned, but could not help smiling.

"How strong you are, little woman!"

"Now will you lie still?" she asked, gravely regarding him.

"I suppose I shall have to," he returned, ungraciously.

And this was Allan Revere's first experience of the Yankee nurse.

"What are you thinking about, Miss Vane?"

What was she thinking about? That would have been rather a hard question to answer the dark-eyed young Confederate; for, sitting in the dreary hospital ward, with all her fretful patients soothed, and tended, and coaxed into momentary quiet, she was back among the box-borders and snow-fringed cedars of the farm-house garden at home, the sunset burning redly over the rocks, and the little brook slipping noisily across mossy ledges and greenish-smooth masses of stone past the very door yard gate.

"I am not quite sure, Mr. Revere; I believe I was thinking about going home."

"Then you are going?"

"Next week."

Allan Revere was sitting up in a cushioned chair, having obtained the privileges of convalescence, but he was very pale still.

"And I believe," went on Becky Vane, who was the very soul of candor, "that I was also thinking of this being St. Valentine's Eve."

"One of your Yankee saints?"

"Mr. Revere!"

"Pardon me, Miss Vane; I know I'm a petulant brute. But go on; tell me about St. Valentine."

"As if you didn't know! I was only remembering how the country boys and girls observe the day up in those grand old wildernesses where modern innovations are unknown."

"Tell me about it," said Allan. "I am interested in these legends of your frozen North."

"Well," said Becky, stitching away calmly at her work, "just to prove that chivalry is not necessarily a growth of Southern soil, I'll gratify you, Mr. Revere, with the recital of how our youthful swains think nothing of watching all night long under their lady-love's window, so that her first glance may fall on their faces in the light of St. Valentine's dawn, thereby entitling them to the privilege of being her Valentine all the year."

And I suppose a Valentine sometimes turns into a husband?"


Becky Vane rose as she spoke, and went across the room to bathe the forehead of a poor teamster-lad, whose piteous call had reached her ear.

"Confound the fellow!" muttered Revere; "I wish his head was in Jericho!"

You see Mr. Allan Revere had forgotten the days when Becky's soft fingers cooled the pain beneath his jetty curls. So selfish are we all; and yet Allan had a noble heart after all.

The stars of the chill February night hung like golden shields over the red glow that announced the near approach of sunrise when Becky Vane, wrapped in a gray shawl that made her look like a little nun, carne out of her tiny cabin to begin the day's labors in those long, blank-looking hospital wards. For poor Charley Bryan had floated down the turbid currents of the river Death with the turn of the night, and Becky knew that she must make his shroud by noon! Do not shrink, reader; these are but the veritable records of hospital life! She had seen death in many, shapes during this last winter, and ceased to fear his ghastly accessories—this noble girl!

As she crossed the threshold a tall figure with the auroral glow of sunrise on its pallid features met her glance. She started, with a stifled cry.

"Miss Vane!"

"Mr. Revere!"

"I have won the meed, have I not, Miss Vane? I may be your Valentine?"

He could see her cheek blaze scarlet in the dim light—he could feel the little hand striving to escape from his hold.

"I do not know what you mean, Mr. Revere!"

"Becky Vane, you have not been deaf or blind —you must know how dearly I love you! Becky, my dear little Valentine, will you promise to be my wife some day? I never knew how necessary you were to my existence until you spoke of going away —and, Becky, I shall go with you."

"But, Mr. Revere—"

"Allan, if you please."

"Allan, then—I am a Yankee girl."

"Listen, Becky. I have given my parole until the end of the war; shall I parole myself to you until my life's end?"

"I can trust you, Allan," she whispered.

"Then I may go home with you?"

"Why, if you will go, I can not help it!" she answered, with edifying demureness.

"But give me one loving word, Becky, before you go."

"Indeed I shall not, Mr. Revere. Go back to your ward; the idea of a wounded man standing out in this cold air. What would Dr. Gower say?"

"I don't care a fig for Dr. Gower."

"But for my sake, Allan."

He bent over her hand a second, leaving the reverent touch of his lips on the velvet fingers, and went in like a docile child.

And Becky Vane, with dewy hazel eyes and cheeks that burned like rubies, slipped away to work on poor Charley Bryan's shroud, and Love and Death went side by side, as they have done many a time before.

"Why, yes," said Dr. Gower, "I'll make out

your discharge any day; there's no objection now that you are doing so well. So you are going North, eh? By-the-way, Mr. Revere, what do you think of Yankee nurses now?"

"What do they think of me? is the most important question I should think, Doctor," laughed the Floridian. "But from this day henceforward I shall believe in patron saints."

"Indeed! and who may yours be?"

"St. Valentine."


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 reasons 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 windows, 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: pillows 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 mein 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 awl 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 failing 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, find 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 night 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 this 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 will 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




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