Large crowds of men in chains stood in line wearing ripped up blue buttoned jackets, sky blue pants and a pair of worn out black boots. It was September 23, 1863 inside Richmond, Virginia.  A wagon is noticed in the distance, and many civilians walked along the adjacent road of a dimly painted four story warehouse with a sign saying, “Libby Prison”. As each Union officer entered the derelict building the fear on their faces grew. Many of these prisoners were starving, from a three day ride of eating nothing but crackers.  Most of them were captured by Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Chickamauga, in Northwestern Georgia. The Union prisoners each filed into the Libby’s entrance forced to sign in. Those who opposed or fell out of the chain line were offensively beaten by Confederate guards, all armed with bayonets. The chains went around both the wrists and ankles holding about ten prisoners together.

Once they entered the prison, it was like entering purgatory. The ceilings were low, and each cell block was at least a hundred feet wide housing a hundred to two-hundred Union officers. Other rooms included guard stations and kitchens. An odor seemed to travel through the prison halls and irritate everyone’s nose. Among these helpless prisoners, Lieutenant James Rue of the North walked with the rest of the prisoners as he kept his thoughts to himself. James was twenty two years old. He wore the general Union blue outfit, had short hair and his face was covered in gunpowder filth from the remnants of brutal warfare. As James walked through the long hallways, he had flashbacks of Chickamauga; men in blue jackets dying left and right of him as he struggled to fire his bayonet, running across wide acres of grassy land.

The guards guided the prisoners up the stairs. He saw a long dimly lit hallway that included identical rows of cell bars, with full crowds of petrified blue coated men. James noticed Union officers screaming, crying and singing through the cell bars as they continued to walk down the second floor hall. The guards were loud and abusive, spitting at a few Union officers as they walked into the cell block. Once they were inside, the guards removed the chains.

James was in a dark, stale and enclosed place. The ceiling had a dull brown color, and the walls were made of hard concrete. There were four barred up windows that went across the room. About ten feet in front of him were a gathering of men. Most of the men were gathered nearby, screaming at the Confederate guards who were teasing them by throwing a limited amount of corn bread into the prison crowd. Other men like James, decided to lie against the walls or sit on the cold floor in somber.

Libby Prisoner Conditions
Libby prisoner conditions painted by David Gilmour Blythe circa 1863.

Reluctantly, James got up from the floor and walked over to the crowd.

“How can you do this to Federal U.S. soldiers, this is inhumane!” one soldier screamed to the guards.

“Yeah, this place is hell. I demand you set all of us free through a prisoner’s exchange!” another Union soldier yelled.

“Ha, a parole of exchange, there ya’ll be no exchanges until the end of the war,” the guard explained as he laughed.

James pushed his way towards the front of the crowd. At the edge he was stopped by a wall of steel bars leaving a few inches of empty space, enough to stick your hand out. Ignoring the noise he looked beyond the bars and saw a group of about ten guards in gray uniforms all armed with bayonets and knives. As James observed the scene, one of the guards pointed a bayonet to his stomach.

“Get away from the bars, you’re too close, Yankee!” the guard yelled.

James took a few steps back and walked back through the crowd. Behind him, a few soldiers approached the bars in panic.

“I need to pee please, I need to get out of here, and I have a family at home!” the desperate soldier said.

“Tell your friend that if he doesn’t get off the bars, he’ll be shot. I don’t want to have to waste my gunpowder,” the guard asked the other prisoners.

The desperate prisoner screamed before the guard shot him down. James turned around, and saw the pool of blood covering the innocent soldier. Immediately, the prisoners pushed to get to the back of the room. James walked to the back, saw a piece of corn bread and as he was going to grab it, another prisoner snatched it.

Every day had been the same, sitting in his cell with the two-hundred prisoners, hoping that something will change. A limited amount of corn bread and bones from left over beef were the only meals served as food. Depending on how James felt that day, he was able to grab the food in time to eat it or miss his opportunity and starve. Food was always given through the bars when the guards came around. Sometimes, prisoners within the cell would make barters or trades for such supplies as chewing tobacco and flour. These supplies were usually hoisted from a rope through the windows from outside tradesmen. This was helpful because the James River was located behind the prison. Prisoners did this whenever large crowds sang in the center of the cell block, distracting the guards from looking at the back. All the prisoners slept together on the hard floors, leaving no room for comfort. There was no light, so when it got dark to the point of not seeing anyone, the prisoners slept. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Over time, the angry crowds that formed within the cell gently quieted down. Throughout this time, James mostly kept to himself, thinking of the day he was going to die.

Libby James River
Back of Libby Prison facing the James River in Richmond, VA. Postcard from 1907.

After the New Year, it was now the beginning of January 1864. James’s hair was now down to his ears. An uneven beard appeared on his face, black circles formed around his eyes and when he took off his shirt, the bones in his ribs could easily be seen. Since his imprisonment, about a quarter of the original soldiers were shot, died of disease or were brought to the hospital, which usually was fatal. Other than that, the simplicity and harshness of this new adapted lifestyle became normal. Whenever he started noticing a soldier with bruises, he would make sure that he avoided him, so he would not receive a disease. Scurvy was a major disease that affected the Union prisoners. Men’s skin would be abnormally pale, teeth would start to fall out, parasites would leech onto their bodies and gaping wounds would spread throughout the legs and thighs, eventually killing them. When peeing, soldiers could sometimes receive an empty pale from a guard and share it, while other times the soldiers unknowingly, would use spots towards the far ends of the room for urine deposits. This created another disgusting smell to add to the other odors such as: human sweat, human waste, dirt from the floor, polluted water, and unclean prisoners.

One day, James was lying on the floor eating a crumb of corn bread with his pale hands, until he heard a voice in the distance.

“Who here knows how to cook?”

James turned his head to the right and saw one of the guards speaking to the solemn crowd of prisoners.

“I need people to use the kitchen downstairs to make more rations for the guards, but we ya’ll don’t have a good cook,” the guard said.

Simultaneously, every prisoner raised their hand.

“I’m only going to take twenty, plus once you’re in the kitchen, you stay.”

Suddenly, before James had a chance to pick his weak body up from the floor, all of the prisoners pushed themselves towards the cell bars, screaming. The guard aimed his bayonet at them. He then ignored the rowdy crowd and pointed his bayonet tip at James.

“You, come with me,” the guard said to James.

The guard then opened the cell door and grabbed twenty random prisoners out of the cell block including James. He then fastened the chains around their wrists and ankles and started to walk them down the hall. James along with nineteen other prisoners was brought downstairs to the cafeteria and kitchen. Unlike the cell block, the cafeteria had a few double doors that locked after prisoners were put inside. The cafeteria was larger than the cell block holding about a hundred other prisoners. Inside the kitchen was an alignment of stoves, ovens and cabinets. The pots filled with mossy soup seemed to have remained on the ovens for a long time. Many other pans were neglectfully left on the floor. For the most part the cafeteria did not have much light except for the sunlight that pierced through the gated windows. Identical to the cell blocks, the cafeteria and kitchen was heavily guarded and if a prisoner either got too close to the doors or the windows, they would be shot without mercy.

Every day now for James, would be cooking. Twenty prisoners at a time would cook inside the kitchen with inadequate fuel. The guards observed as each prisoner cooked, making sure that no one was trying to cook rations for themselves. However, James was satisfied by the heat from the stoves because it warmed his body from the cold winter breeze, which gusted through the windows.

One day, as James was sitting in the corner of the cafeteria with his head down, a middle aged man walked up to him and said, “Hey kid.”

James lifted his head, looked straight into the man and hid the piece of corn bread in his pocket jacket.

“Don’t worry; I’m not going to steal your bread. I’m a Union officer and my name is Colonel Thomas Rose, what’s your name?” Rose said.

James paused for about a minute and finally said, “I, I’m Lieutenant James Rue.”

“James Rue… Well, I want to show you something, but it’s a secret,” Rose whispered.

“What is it, and why are you whispering?” James replied.

“Tonight, when everything is pitched black and all the prisoners are asleep, I’ll tap on your shoulder,” Rose whispered.

James nodded as the mysterious man walked back through the prison crowd.

A few hours later the cell was covered in darkness except for the moon light that pierced through the barred windows. All the prisoners were sleeping on the floor, some had blankets. James resting on his back, waited for the sign. When he felt a light tap on his left shoulder he turned his head to see Colonel Rose with a desirable look on his face.

“Follow me,” Rose whispered.

Before Thomas Rose could move, James grabbed his arm.

“Wait, what if the guards see us,” James whispered.

“They won’t, they’re fast asleep, but we still have to be very quiet,” Rose whispered.

James got up, and began following Colonel Rose while walking over the pile of sleeping bodies without waking a single person. The glowing light of the moon helped them guide their way across the Cafeteria towards the kitchen. Next to the kitchen were two misplaced stoves in front of an obsolete fireplace. James helped Rose to move one of the stoves out of the way without making too much noise. James noticed as Rose took out a couple of loose bricks that were inserted in the fireplace. James then watched as Rose grabbed a piece of wood from a broken bench and placed it in the fireplace. It seems that the bricks were removed from this burnt out fireplace which then left a hole that led to an unknown place.

“Here, follow me down this hole,” Rose whispered.

James immediately followed; together they crammed themselves and descended the hole. When they came out of the hole, James could see an even darker room, full of swarming rats. He could hear a number of voices and sounds in the distance. The rats were squealing and the air was very stale. As they walked on the unknown ground, their footprints made a soft crunching sound in the darkness.

A voice in front of them said, “Is that the Colonel?”

“Yes it is, and I’ve brought another prisoner that could help us,” Rose replied.

“Back already, I knew you could find someone new,” The voice said.

The darkness suddenly was illuminated by a torch. The man carrying the torch was covered in dirt, and seemed to be younger than the Colonel. James then saw why the ground was   soft. The glow from the flame shone onto it. James went to touch the ground avoiding the rats, and felt a straw like texture.

“Is this straw?” James asked.

“Yes it is, ooh sorry major, this is Lieutenant James Rue,” Rose said.

“Nice to meet you James, I’m Major Andrew Hamilton and these other men working are all prisoners of war, just like you,” Hamilton said while he shook James’s hand.

James could now see a whole group of dirty men working in what seemed like a mine. Every man was hacking away at the broken wall with chisels.

“What are you guys doing?” James asked.

“Well, we have found a perfect place to create a tunnel that will link to the streets,” Major Hamilton explained.

“How long have you been doing this?” James replied.

“For about a few months, every day we’d get more prisoners to help, we’re now about up to fifty, and hopefully get a couple of more by the time this is done,” Hamilton explained.

“Where did you guys get the chisels?” James asked.

“We stole them from the carpenter shop which is on this floor,” Hamilton explained.

“Wow, how do you guys never get caught?” James asked.

“Well, we have a system and Captain Isaac Johnston over here usually runs it,” Hamilton said as he pointed to an older man with long hair and a drooping blonde mustache.

Johnston began to speak. “Yes, when it hits sunrise, the workers climb back up the fire place and a couple of workers and I usually sleep beneath the straw,” Johnston then continued with, “We have groups of digging teams that come in and out of this abandoned kitchen every day. And what’s good is that most guards won’t ever come in here because of the rats, they call this place, “rat hell”.”

“Nice name,” James said sarcastically.

“Yeah, but after working here for months, I’d take this place over the cell blocks any day,” Colonel Rose stated.

“What about the huge hole in the wall?” James asked.

“I simply cover it up with broken pieces of bedrock and brick, before going under the straw,” Johnston answered.

“That makes sense,” James said, hoping that what they were doing was going to work.

With the introduction, James now had something to look forward to; an escape. For the next couple of weeks, James would follow the Colonel to “rat hell”, and help chip away at the working tunnel. Then towards the end of January, James began inviting other desperate prisoners to this secret haven of escape. On February 8th while working at the far end of the tunnel, James along with Hamilton was chipping away at the bedrock until they felt the first bit of air.

“Oh my god, guys come, we’ve made it to the end,” James called to the workers.

Together they all began hacking away at the wall, revealing a small piece of the outside. They continued this until they each were able to climb out and feel the fresh outside air of the night. The large group came together in the tunnel and decided to escape the next day.

“Everyone, we escape tomorrow night,” Colonel Rose spoke.

The next day, James was excited and worried about escape. He knew he wanted to leave, but the thought of capture was another issue. By now, about half of the prisoners since the beginning have died, and James did not want to be around long enough to add to the statistic. At night, James along with Colonel Rose and Major Hamilton led small groups of prisoners through the fireplace. Gradually and quietly, three prisoners would descend down the fireplace. James, Hamilton, Thomas Rose and Johnston all filed out of the tunnel without any trouble.

Libby Escape

When James made it out of the long tunnel, he could feel the cold fresh air on his face, and see the beautiful circle of the moon. In the distance about a quarter of a mile, James looked back at the horrid prison that left him scarred for life. The numbers of free prisoners started to increase rapidly. By the end of the night, a total of 109 prisoners had escaped. James could see the paleness, and sickness of the free men. Every man’s bones were transparent on their skin and most of their clothes were removed. Although everyone was free, the soldiers did not know where to go. They were all too weak to go back and fight, and if a civilian found out they were prisoners, they could be caught.

“Come on men, let’s start walking through the swamp, we have no time to spare and nothing to lose,” James said.

The accumulating crowd of prisoners began to follow James, Hamilton, Rose, and Johnston into the swamp, hoping that it would lead them to the Union lines. After treading through the swamp for a couple of hours, walking in water that came up to their knees, James now had the feeling that he was on the road to freedom.