There were many thousands of prisoners captured by both sides in the Civil War. Although many were patrolled or exchanged, many prisons were still needed to hold them. One of the south's famous prisons was Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Before the war Luther Libby owned a warehouse for ship equipment that took up an entire block in the Confederate capitol. When the government needed a prison for Federal officers they used that building, and the old name stuck. The basement was used for storage and cooking, the first floor was the quarters for the guard, and the second and third held the prisoners. However, the kitchen had to be abandoned because of a large number of rats, and the room won the name “Rat Hell.”
|Map of the prison and tunnel|
[I]t was impossible to breathe the air of the tunnel for many minutes together; the miner, however, would dig as long as his strength would allow, or till his candle was extinguished by the foul air; he would then make his way out, and another would take his place – a place narrow, dark and damp, and more like a grave than any place can be short of a man's last home.The work would have never been done in normal circumstances, but they were driven on by the hope of escaping from Libby Prison. Another prisoner wrote, “No tongue can tell...how the poor fellow[s] passed among the squealing rats,—enduring the sickening air, the deathly chill, the horrible interminable darkness.”
They work had to stop after several prisoners were able to slip pass the guards. Security was heightened, and the guards began to do roll call. At one rollcall when the prisoners were collected, two were missing, as they were down in the cellar. They were able to talk their way out by saying they had just been missed by the officers doing rollcall. But another time one officer was again in the tunnel during rollcall. The guards decided that he escaped, and the prisoners decided he would have to remain in hiding in the cellar to avoid giving away the plan.
|Diagram of the tunnel|
The escape was very successful. 109 prisoners made their way out of the tunnel and walked out of the prison gates without attracting the attention of the sentries. The guards believed that escape was nearly impossible, so they were not particularly careful in keeping watch. When morning came the tunnel was closed and the remaining prisoners tried to hide the large number of missing men. Inevitably the escape was discovered, and pursuit was made. Many of the officers had fought in the area before being captured, so they were familiar with the terrain. 59 of the escapees were able to reach the Union lines, 48 were caught by the Confederates, and two drowned in the James River.
More of this fascinating story can be found in Four Months in Libby, and the Campaign Against Atlanta by Captain L. N. Johnston.