It has been referred to as "The Bastille of the South". In March 1862 General John Winder informed a man named Luther Libby, a Maine native and Richmond businessman that the Confederate government was expropriating his three building tobacco warehouse complex for use as a prison for captured Union officers. Over the next three years thousands of Union officers would be incarcerated in a facility that would come to be known as Libby Prison. The place would prove to be a real hellhole. The prisoners were never allowed to go outside for fresh air and exercise. Food rations were limited to rock-hard corn bread, rancid meat and bug-infested soup. The men were not issued blankets and most were forced to sleep on the floor. This was a place filled with despair and many escape plots would be hatched. Most of these plans were unsuccessful until one fateful night in February 1864 when 109 men crawled to freedom through a narrow tunnel that teams of prisoners had been working on for weeks. Author Joseph Wheelan has chronicled these harrowing events for us in his terrific new 2010 book "Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison". It reads like a work of fiction but "Libby Prison Breakout" reveals in incredible detail this little known aspect of the Civil War that has largely been lost over the past 150 years. I simply could not put this one down.
Anyone who has even a casual interest in the Civil War knows about Andersonville prison in southwest Georgia. But oddly enough I had never even heard of Libby Prison. Evidently very little has been written about it. I only became interested when my 92 year old mother mentioned that her father had told her on several occasions that a member of the family had been imprisoned there. As it turns out I discovered that Libby Prison actually preceded Andersonville and was primarily used to incarcerate captured Union officers. Union soldiers were imprisoned a just short distance away in Richmond at a place called Belle Isle. History records that conditions in both places were absolutely atrocious. In "Libby Prison Breakout"Joseph Wheelan paints a rather vivid picture of the circumstances that led to this extremely unfortunate situation. Earlier in the Civil War prisoner exchanges were conducted on a fairly regular basis. However, for a variety of reasons these transactions were largely eliminated as the conflict wore on placing even greater stress on the South's already scarce resources. At the same time the success of the Union Army's strategy to cut off the supply lines to the South had the undesired effect of leaving Confederate officials with little choice but to cut the rations to their prisoners. When you understand that the Confederacy was having a very difficult time just feeding its own troops you begin to comprehend why conditions in these prisons were so deplorable. It simply was not nor could it be a priority for them.
The second half of the book focuses on the planning and execution of the actual breakout. Here you will meet the mastermind of the operation Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose and a number of his co-conspirators. This was a tenacious group that overcame numerous obstacles and setbacks before they finally succeeded. Joseph Wheelan describes the entire operation in excruciating detail. You will also be introduced to some of the key Union sympathizers in Richmond during this time, most notably Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond socialite who risked everything and provided invaluable assistance to the Union cause. I found "Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison" to be an extremely well written and meticulously researched volume. I believe the book to be a very important addition to the literature on the American Civil War. Very highly recommended!
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Paul Tognetti (drifter51)
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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Author of popular American histories (Jefferson’s Vendetta, 2005), Wheelan takes up the Confederacy in this work. Focusing on the Civil War history of Richmond’s Libby Prison, Wheelan notes the building’s pre-war existence as a warehouse and, in the course of his narrative, details its configuration and location in Richmond, essential preliminaries to the author’s central scene: an ingenious escape through a tunnel by 109 Union prisoners in 1864. The culmination of previously thwarted attempts to escape the overcrowded, fetid misery of Libby Prison, the successful one naturally provoked Confederate manhunts that Wheelan follows to their denouements. That some fugitives were harbored by Richmond resident and Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew permits Wheelan to relate her heroic story; that a subsequent attempt by the North to liberate Libby Prison, a cavalry raid by Ulric Dahlgren, gives the author the same opportunity: both Van Lew and Dahlgren are recognizable to the Civil War readership. The Union escapees, however, are not, so buffs will be intrigued by Wheelan’s thorough research into their biographies and wartime exploits. --Gilbert Taylor