The Libby Chronicle, 9/18/1863

Written Accounts
Other Sites


The Libby Chronicle



VOL. I.                              LIBBY PRISON, RICHMOND, VA., SEPTEMBER 18, 1863.                              No. 5.


Bulletin. Our bulletin board deserves special mention this week. The intellectual bill of fare to be found there will doubtless make the week one of the most memorable since our arrival here. All will desire a good, hearing of the lecture on " Life and Manners in Cuba" by Lieut. Col. Cavada, whose discription of his native land from experience and observation will doubtless afford much solid information, and, if we credit the rumors that have already gone out, no little amount of merriment.

Golden Age. Major Henry's series of lectures on "Mesmerism," to be followed by experiments, will also form an era in Libby, especially if the Major can succeed in so mesmerizing any considerable number of us as to make us believe that .we are amply fed and clothed and delivered from the " pesky varmints" which are the "bÍte noir" of our existence here.

The readers of the Bulletin will note the hours for the various classes, debates, prayer circles, etc.

Chess. Chess players will be attracted to the game of Capt. Wilson, who is said to be able to beat any one in Libby with his back to the board, ordering the moves to be made by a third party. Some say that he can play better in this position than he could. if he were watching the board. The Captain is evidently a master in this department.

Tactics. Col. Cesnola requests us to state, that repeatedly urged to give lessons In. army tactics, he will begin permanently this P. M. at one o'clock precisely in the upper room, middle section.

The class in phonography will meet for its fourth lesson to-morrow at ten A. M. The French class meets this P.M. at two o'clock sharp, and Col. Cavada's class in Spanish to-morrow at the same hour.

Lost or strayed away: A copy of Blunt's sermons, bound in black muslin. Any one returning the same to Lieut. Henry Rulon, east room, will receive the thanks of the owner.

No. 5.

No shadow falls upon the inmates of Libby so dark and threatening as that of the death roll and the dead cart. Every morning the rumbling wheels of an ominous vehicle are heard on Cary street. It is usually backed up in front of the east section, two rooms of which being used for hospital purposes. The dead are then heaved in, like carcasses in a butcher's dray, to be borne away and cast into unnamed graves. As from one to a dozen a day-and some say that one day there were at least as many as fifty- are thus carted off, not one of us can tell but that his turn will be the next. It is well, perhaps, for us to remember, that to this hospital the sick and dying are brought from Belle Isle about a mile above us, also from Castle Thunder and Castle Pemberton, two prison pens nearly facing us on Cary street.

The causes of death are numerous. The first and most flagrant is want of proper food in sufficient quantity. Each man receives about a half-pound of bread and less than four ounces of meat per day. We can eat the whole of it at a meal and not be a quarter fed. It must be stated, that at night, for a kind of dessert, they bring us a little soup, in such pails and of such quality, that to get it down at all we have to do so without seeing, smelling or tasting, just as a shark swallows a dolphin.

The water we are compelled to drink is from the James river, which on account of the recent rains, is warm and muddy. Add to all this the filth and nauseating stench of these apartments, which decency forbids us to describe. All our rooms are overcrowded, so that in sections the sleepers are like sardines in a box. They are consequently compelled to lie spoon-fashion. Occasionally throughout the night, as poor fellows feel shoulder and hip, bones ache, we hear them cry, "Spoon over to the right," or "Spoon over to the left," when a turn-over of a whole broadside of sleepers has to be effected.

It is not to be wondered at that some of us, sensitive to these terrible - influences from within and from without, should yield to discouragement and despondency. But when a man becomes discouraged, being thus unmanned, he soon becomes a ready victim for his last enemy which is death. Courage is at least half of the battle. Others give much thought to methods of escape. Only a few of these plans seem to prove successful. In some instances those concerned in them are discovered and brutally punished. Others are more fortunate. One of our comrades succeeded in bribing a sentinel one night by means of his gold watch, and effected his escape. Another, more shrewd still, feigned to be sick and was taken to the hospital. The Confederate surgeon, not knowing what ailed the sick Yankee, and caring less, suffered the poor fellow to die. He was taken in the evening with others to the morgue, where, during the. night, he rose from the dead; and as there were no guards at that point, be made good his escape. Ever after that memorable Yankee resurrection at the morgue, a special guard has been appointed to watch the Yankee dead, lest between two days, they should come to life and "make themselves scarce."

Major Heustis, and Lieut. Von Weltzien, of Scott's Nine Hundred, escaped as follows from the hospital : The major was a tailor by trade; the surgeons brought him uniforms to make and mend, until he had managed to secure two entire suits. One evening after the surgeon's visit these two having previously lade their plan, stepped down into the surgeon's office below, pulled off what remained of Yankee uniform, donned the Confederate gray, and in the twilight;, when recognition on the street is made by the dress rather than by the countenance, they walked out of Libby, as surgeon and assistant. Not a challenge was made from the guards. Once in the street, their way was clear by patrols, between earth-works, and at last through the woods of the Chickahominy swamps. After narrow escapes from pursuers and terrible sufferings from hunger and fatigue, they found their way to Fortress Monroe. What will not a man give, endure and risk for personal liberty!*

* After I was released from Libby Prison a tunnel was made under the east wall, across one street into a shed. How 109 escaped in one night through the tunnel; how 49 were recaptured including Col. Rose, the leader of this wonderful enterprise; how 2 were drowned, and 59 made good their escape, see Century Magazine, March,1888.


I hear a voice speak from the sky,
In solemn tones 'tis drawing nigh;
It bids me heed time's rapid flight,
For sure as day there must be night,
And sure as life there must be death,
And life is but a passing breath.

I've seen the days of childhood pass
Oft with their innocense, alas!
Then sterner youth with quicker pace
Fled forward in the mighty race,
Till manhood rushing down to age,
Passed quickly off from life's short stage.

I've seen the flower when in full bloom
Ne'er reek the dark night's deathly gloom, 
But ope her cup to catch the dew,
And show, at morn, her brilliant hue; 
But that same flower I've seen decay,
Fall to the dust and pass away.

The vale and woodland I have seen
Dressed in their robes of vivid green,
While brooklets laughed along their ways,
And birdlings sang the live-long day;
But Autumn came, his cold breath took 
The rustling leaves adown the brook.

I've seen the beauties earth e'er brings,
I've loved her children, precious things! 
I've felt her sorrow and her care, 
I've heard her music everywhere; 
But my conclusion is to-day - 
These things must perish, pass away.

But, ah, there is a substance here 
Which to the studious will appear -
'Tis not a show which dazzles eyes, 
Nor changes like the cloud that flies, - 
'Tis truth, 'tis principle, and may 
We thereto cling and pass away.


I am one of those who have derived much information from the facts which have been demonstrated, and much amusement from the fun which has been generated in the columns of THE CHRONICLE. We have been favored with statements and demonstrations of facts pertaining to almost every subject of public interest. Creeds of religious and political faith have wisely been excluded from the fact department of this association. No one could consistently with the objects of the association and with the courtesy due individual members thereof, lead off with a bigoted or partisan statement or denunciation which would necessarily be offensive to others and would, if replied to in the same spirit, lead here as elsewhere to recriminations, disputes and discussion. We are gratified to observe that this principle has commended itself to all, and that questions of new or old schools, of Methodism or Baptism, Democracy or Republicanism, of Sewardism or Seymourism, have not been obtruded on ground sacred to instruction.

Success to the "stubborn fact" department of the Lyceum, and may matters of personal experience, travels, history, science with its innumerable branches extending from the depths of the earth to regions above and beyond our ken, the arts and graces, Christianity and patriotism never lack for able defenders and expounders. Then the meetings of our association will not lack in interest, nor the speakers or readers complain of want of appreciative listeners. In the stubborness of facts is found a self-supporting dignity.

Fun, on the contrary, is apt, inside and outside of our circle, to de-de-de-degenerate into folly. The harmless play of seven and eight P. M., has often, at nine or ten, run into the profanity and obscenity which wisely await darkness before coming forth to disturb the sleep and sensibilities of the majority of the officers here confined. Inside our circle great care is necessary lest the joke grate too harshly on rough edge and straight edge. When well executed the burlesque is perhaps the happiest style of wit. Of this food so healthful for body and mind we should, however, seek the highest and best, by keeping watch and ward over our unruly members, and carefully analyse and bring forth those specimens which are recognized models. May our fun never grow less in quantity, and may it ever improve in quality. Vive la bagatelle!
                                                                                                                                MAJOR P.


The duty of prisoners in Libby is very plain. This is a great place to develop character. If there be a streak of meanness or selfishness in a man, a week's confinement in Libby will determine the disease to the surface, and the individual will show his true character. Instead of , cultivating the " small sweet courtesies of life," some appear to cultivate little meannesses. This does not speak well for the American officer, and it tarnishes our military character. Though incarcerated we are not hidden.

In such a situation as we now occupy we should cultivate the agreeable toward our fellow officer; for this will mitigate many of the ills which we are obliged to suffer. Away then with that snappishness of the cur which can never condescend to give a civil answer to a civil question. Men who indulge in this incivility deserve . to be stripped of their insignia of office and ought to be condemned to eat " Libby Soup" until the end of the war.

A cap for whom it fits.

No. 2.

Mr. Editor: Who among your hearers have not felt as the writer feels today, weary and worn out with the dull monotony of prison life? There is no future here - night and day succeed one another with- but the same ennui, the same fruitless longing for liberty. Even these more than precious letters, brief mementos of the dear ones at home, make the bitterness of captivity but the deeper. Many, and probably all, of us have faced death on the battle field, and are willing to do so in our Country's cause again; but who, once released, would yield to see the walls of Libby Prison once again? True, some have been unfortunate enough to be prisoners of war a second, and in one instance, we believe, a third time. Such are entitled to our best sympathy. They are sufferers indeed.

Am I harping, Mr. Editor, on a threadbare theme ? I crave pardon. A fit of the blues is on me to-day, and what I write must partake of it. Even the heavens are overcast with clouds.

"The melancholy days have come,
The saddest of the year."

We take a side-long glance from our South Window, and see away off in the distance a portion of Belle Isle, occupied by thousands of our brave men. Poor fellows! Their lot is even worse than our own.

Hark! What sound breaks from the depths below our feet? "Mess No. 10, dinner." We go, yes, we go. Sorrowfully we lay down our pen, hoping when we take it up again, to reach a more cheerful result.

Au revoir. Black bean soup awaits us. 




DEAR SIR -- Please tell Willie, Chaplain McCabe's boy, to put down a towel and a small piece of soap, if he has it to spare. Chaplain McCabe has some fever this evening. We hope, however, that he will be better in the morning.

Respectfully, etc.,

Sept 15.                                                     O. NELLIS.

* A hole has been cut through the floor from the upper east room to the hospital, but kept so nicely concealed that the authorities have not discovered it. Anyone wanting to communicate from one of these rooms to the other, gives three knocks near the hole. If the coast is clear, that is if no Rebel officer is about, three knocks are the signal for "all right." Until the officers captured at the battle of Chickamauga were brought to Libby, the two lower rooms of the middle section were used for privates," brought in at night or at such times as it was not yet determined where they were to be permanently kept, Sometimes they stayed in these rooms for several days, and were nearly starved. Though the officers were also on "short commons," still we managed to gather a few crusts and bones which we passed through holes in the floor, when a scrambling below took place to obtain the falling morsels. This was being fed from "above."


The chewing of tobacco, although a filthy habit, may be defended on the ground that, if the chewer be careful, he annoys or injures no one but himself, and every man has a right to amuse himself as he pleases, provided he does not interfere with his neighbor. But can as much be said in defence of smoking? We think not, especially in Libby where at least four hundred stinking pipes pollute the air most villainously. This stench may counteract, it is true, the noxious and sickening effluvia from the sinks, but in this case the remedy seems worse than the disease.

From earliest dawn of gray morning, until long after we have sought sleep on the vermin-infested floor, this choking and offensive smoke loads the air, permeates every nook and corner of the prison, and irritates our lungs at every breath. At meals we have it thick about our heads. It mingles with our hash, lends its hateful flavor to our Rio (?) coffee, settles in puffs and circles into our soup ; in short, we . are forced to eat it with every mouthful of our food.

At roll-call we seek a place in the ranks where no pipe is near; but we scarcely get into "position" when pop comes a gentleman in our rear, protruding his long-handle pipe over our shoulder, while its hot reeking stench slowly attacks our nostrils. The call over, we hasten to a window to catch, if possible, one breath of sweet morning air, and we have gained but one inspiration, when we are saluted with, "Fine morning, Captain." We try to answer "yes," but are choked off by a dense cloud of the fumes of the weed, which surround, envelop and engulf us. We stand aghast on finding ourself flanked on either side by an old "black stager" of a long-used clay pipe. Retreating from this dilemma we pass into the kitchen, and, the morning being cool, we try to hover near the stoves a moment, when we are startled by an authoritative voice behind us calling out: "There's too much crowd around these stoves ! Are these gentlemen all cooks ?" Not belonging to that fraternity on this occasion, we hastily retreat, fearing we have intruded, when the speaker, with all the insolent nonchalance of an acting assistant adjutant general, steps up to the stove and - lights his pipe! Amused we turn to leave but are attracted toward a gentleman who is chopping meat for hash. A well filled pipe, at the end of two feet of cane reed, hangs down and reaches nearly to the meat, while at every blow of the knife, the jotting motion shakes a little ashes and tobacco into the dish. A queer condiment, we think; but, then, perhaps his mess all smoke.

As we leave the kitchen we pause to read the "hints for cooking," kindly posted for our use, but, lo! the title page, frontispiece and part of the first page are torn away; for what? To light pipes, forsooth. Disheartened we turn again to a window for an instant's relief from the everlasting pipe. But here also we find a commissary peeling cold potatoes to make his hash. As he works he is "crooning o'er some auld Scotch sonnet," and ever and anon the motion of his lips shakes from his overloaded pipe, small flakelets of the burning weed, which sprinkle each potato thoroughly. But then he is making private hash, so that's all right. We hear the sound of music and turning we see two good singers holding the book. Fond of music we approach to have a treat, when, whew ! each in his left hand holds a pipe ! and at every "rest" in the tune each takes a hearty whiff. Choked, tired and disappointed we turn away to pray that Gen. Meredith will hurry up the exchange. - Gerold.


This was substantially the subject of Major Henry's first or preparatory lecture on Mesmerism. It is not likely that any who heard it will ever forget it. No outline report of ours can do it justice. We doubt not that upon this magnificent foundation the eloquent lecturer will erect an edifice of transcendant beauty. Each lecture will doubtless grow in interest. The three great lights of Libby just now may be classified as follows: First, THE LIBBY CHRONICLE; Second, The Libby Lyce-I-see'em; Third, Major Henry with his Mesmerism. This is indeed the Augustan Age of Libby Prison.

The major began by saying, that in order to learn what we can do or achieve, we must first study our faculties and their relations to external nature. Man is a universe in himself. In him may be found all the elements known to exist around him. A child of earth, so far at least as his physical nature is concerned, the correspondences between earth and himself are numerous and most striking.

The rocks of earth are like the bones of the human skeleton. The chain of the Rocky Mountains and Andes form the spinal column, and the Himalayas, with their spurs, are the outstretched arms. The soils of earth, which cover the rocks in most parts, represent the human flesh. The ocean and the rivercourses are not unlike the heart's blood and its circulation. The vegetation on the surface of the earth is reproduced in the hair. All the invisible and imponderable elements of the earth find in man their most subtile combinations.

It may seem to some as fanciful (if so it is only on the ground, "that truth is stranger than fiction"), that the psychic and magnetic forces of the human body are analogous to ferro-megnetism, in having a polar distribution. The right and left hands are the two principal poles. The right hand is positive, the left negative. The right and left sides are throughout in magnetic opposition, but in a state of health so equally balanced .as to be in equilibrium. The right side is positive, the left negative. The same is true of the front and back sides. The anterior portion is positive, the posterior is negative. (This may account for the weakness of some men's backbones. Editor.) The head and feet are the poles of the two extremities of the body.

In the examination of the brain of man we see his superiority over all other known creatures. The axis of a fish's brain or of a reptile's is nearly horizontal. In the bird it is elevated a few degrees; iii the dog it is higher still; thus it rises higher and higher with every grade of being. The axis of the human brain is perpendicular. Man stands erect, and you cannot go farther without tipping over backward. We close our sketch with his well chosen verse:

"Since God collected and resumed in man 
The firmanents, the strata and the lights,
Fish, fowl and beast and insect - all their trains 
Of various life caught back upon his arm,
Reorganized and constituted man,
The microcosm, the adding up of works."

Hit Counter

Page last updated on 02/12/2008