A drafty Richmond deathtrap for captured Yankees became a tourist trap after the war–600 miles away!
BY BRUCE KLEE
The Union officers who stepped into the huge brick prison’s reception room knew all too well what this chamber was. It was the proverbial lion’s mouth. Here, men were swallowed up by Libby Prison and became mere objects in storage. Here, men were registered, searched, and assigned to oblivion and misery in some overcrowded room of this former warehouse. Looking up, the officers saw a familiar if detestable face: Confederate Major Thomas P. Turner, the prison’s twenty-ish warden, dominating the room from a life-size portrait.
The officers knew the Rebel guards had been ordered to shoot any inmate who dared show his face at one of the prison’s windows. But once they arrived upstairs, the men tempted fate. With perfect calm, they stood at the glass openings like the easiest targets in a shooting gallery.
No shots came. In fact, there weren’t even any guards around to fire them. The Union officers were indeed inside the notorious Libby Prison, but much had changed since their names appeared on warden Turner’s rolls a quarter-century earlier. Turner was now a dentist in Memphis, Tennessee, and the ex-prisoners were visiting Libby as civilian tourists, many accompanied by their wives and adult children. Yes, much had changed, but perhaps the greatest change of all was the new view from the prison’s upstairs windows. It was no longer of Richmond, Virginia, but of Chicago, Illinois.
How a Richmond warehouse-turned-prison came to be a tourist attraction a third of the way across the North American continent is a tale of Victorian eccentricity, blatant opportunism, and sheer turn-of-the-century exuberance. But it all began with a simple building intended only for peaceful commerce.
Originally erected on Carey Street in Richmond, on a rise that dropped sharply to the Kanahwa Canal and James River, the 100-by-150-foot warehouse of Libby and Son, Ship Chandlers and Grocers stood three stories tall atop a basement that was fully exposed at the rear. Each floor was divided into three rooms. Ceilings were eight feet high except on the top floor, which opened all the way up to the gable roof.
Early in the war, proprietor Luther Libby was given 48 hours to vacate his building so it could be used to house Union officers captured and transported to the Confederate capital. Libby, a ship chandler from Maine, moved out and left his business sign behind. The new prison conveniently assumed his name.
By 1863, Libby Prison was thoroughly overcrowded. Prisoners slept in groups on the cold, hard floors, lined up on their sides like spoons to conserve heat and space. An elected leader in each group periodically called out orders for his mates to roll over in unison. Waking hours were no more gratifying. Food was lousy and in short supply. Even sunlight was scarce, as few prisoners dared to stand near the windows for fear of being shot. Conditions like these soon earned Libby a reputation among Confederate prisons exceeded only by the infamous Andersonville in Georgia.
In early 1864, two unprecedented incidents at Libby Prison shook up authorities in Richmond. First was the greatest prison escape of the war. After weeks of digging a tunnel through a kitchen fireplace, down into a closed-off portion of the basement, and 50 feet underground to a warehouse shed, 109 men escaped in the middle of the night on February 9. Two of them drowned trying to swim across the river and 48 were recaptured, but 59 safely eluded Confederate pursuers and won their freedom.
A few weeks later, 4,000 Union cavalrymen under the command of Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick rode up to the city limits, intending to raid the prison and free its inmates. But Kilpatrick retreated on March 1 in the face of a small force of 300 Rebel troopers. The plot failed to spring the Union officers, but it did frighten the Confederates.
Richmond authorities responded to the incidents, and to a worsening food shortage, by sending the prisoners to more secure locations farther south. Before leaving, the Union officers destroyed what little food they still had and broke apart the makeshift furnishings they had made. They even tried to set the building on fire.
In 1865, Libby was used as a temporary holding facility for recently captured prisoners. The inmate population never again became very large. When Richmond fell to the Union in April, the Stars and Stripes was raised over the building and the last of Libby’s inmates were freed. Taking their place were Confederate leaders awaiting trial or transfer to other facilities. Into the upper rooms went Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens, Secretary of War James Seddon, and Secretary of State Robert Hunter. And into a cell in the rat-infested basement went warden Turner, who faced charges of cruelty and robbery. He remained there until June, when he was discharged for lack of evidence.
Finally, the prison was closed. The building ultimately became a storehouse for the Southern Fertilizer Company, “a fitting ending for its inglorious career,” one writer remarked.
But the life of Libby Prison was not over. In 1888, W.H. Gray, an entrepreneur from Chicago, discovered the building and declared it a historical landmark that should be moved to “the chief city of the state which produced the great president who bore the mental and political burden of the struggle and the great general who brought it to a victorious issue.”
Whatever the logic behind moving the prison from Richmond to Chicago to honor Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom had lived in Illinois, the prospect of sharing in the economic windfall of the coming World’s Columbian Exposition was clear. Scheduled for 1893 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s historic voyage, the exposition of 150 buildings of Romanesque, Greek, and Renaissance architecture on 600 acres would draw 27 million people to Chicago from all over the globe.
Gray formed the Libby Prison War Museum Corporation with a group of six Chicago business associates, including sports magnate A.G. Spalding and Charles F. “Candy Man” Gunther, a well-known confectioner who claimed to have introduced caramel to the United States. Gunther was also an avid collector, and some of his Civil War memorabilia was on display above one of his candy shops. These relics would become the core of the museum’s holdings.
The corporation soon took possession of Libby and started to prepare for the ambitious move. Louis Hollowell, a prominent Washington architect, was hired to plan the dismantling, shipping, and rebuilding of the structure.
As word of the idea reached the public, detractors raised their voices. In a letter to the New York Times, a Southerner explained that the war had taken his father and two brothers and he had been trying to forget about it. He wrote that reviving the prison would “perpetuate in the North all the animosity of the war.” A Union veteran condemned the “unprincipled speculators who conceived the selfish and despicable idea of violating the sanctity of the soldiers’ sufferings and to many the very spot of their deaths.” It would be better to blow up the place, he wrote.
Supporters of the project, on the other hand, included the mayor of Richmond. The mayor suggested, “It might do the South some good by showing that the building is not nearly such a bad-looking place as it has been painted.”
Bill Nye, a popular humorist who had visited Libby in Richmond, noted the prison’s recent use as a fertilizer repository. “It now has a breath which will advertise its arrival in Chicago,” he declared. “If people do not visit Libby Prison it will not be because they are ignorant of its whereabouts.”
Starting in April 1889, the building was carefully disassembled. Some 600,000 bricks, capstones, sills, and timbers were numbered and loaded into 20-ton Chesapeake and Ohio box cars. The shipment required 132 cars.
On May 7, one of the special trains derailed in Kentucky. “The remains of the war relic were scattered about,” the New York Times reported, “and people flocked to the scene all day to secure old bricks and lumber as mementos.” The Chicago Tribune, lamenting that “good citizens of Chicago would attempt to make money out of horrid memories,” caustically observed, “The gratification created by the wreck becomes diminished as the news of the disaster indicates that the demolition was not complete.”
Almost all the prison’s pieces eventually reached Chicago, and the building was reconstructed on half a city block on South Wabash Avenue, below the Loop, as the city’s central business district was known. A monumental Gothic wall of artesian stone quarried in Chicago was built around the property.
For the grand opening on September 20, 1889, brass bands played old war songs as Gunther honored hundreds of Union army officers and commanders of the Grand Army of the Republic, a large, Republican-leaning organization of Union veterans. Although only four former Libby inmates attended the opening ceremonies, some 3,500 others visited over the next decade. When they came, each man was asked to identify the place where he had slept so a marker could be displayed on a nearby wall. Each of these brass plates was inscribed with a soldier’s name, rank, place and time of capture, and present residence.
Crammed into the new museum were thousands of war artifacts, or as a museum brochure put it, “a repository of everything of interest connected with both sides of the struggle.” Portraits of important military and political figures lined the walls. Paintings depicted major battles. A branding iron for deserters was there, as were the key to the prison’s main entrance, a revolver once owned by Andersonville Prison commandant Henry Wirz, a wheelbarrow used by an Illinois infantryman in his assignment as regimental postmaster, musical instruments from the Libby prisoners’ minstrel shows, and a table from the McLean House at Appomattox Court House, where Robert E. Lee surrendered his army to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865.
Photographs of a local wartime facility known as Camp Douglas, along with an original copy of its history, reminded visitors that Chicago had its own prison during the war. More than 10,000 Confederate captives had been confined at the 60-acre camp in 1863 and 1864.
Handmade items testified to the prisoners’ resourcefulness. There were wooden eating utensils, chessmen whittled from floorboards, elaborately carved toothpicks of bone and wood, a picture frame made from 2,700 pieces of pine, and a 10-inch chain fashioned from a single wooden block.
Glass cases held prisoners’ diaries, a love letter from Jefferson Davis to future wife Varina Howell, documents of Robert E. Lee, the Bible that Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson used to teach “his famous Colored Sunday School,” original manuscripts of statesman Daniel Webster’s speeches, the will of revolutionary abolitionist John Brown, the shoe John Wilkes Booth’s horse lost in the alley next to Ford’s Theatre, George Pickett’s sash, “the actual chisel which dug the way to liberty for a hundred men” through Libby’s basement, and the last newspaper edition published in Vicksburg, printed on wallpaper as the city was being surrendered to the Federals.
Throughout the museum were memorabilia with labels boasting their provenance: the beam from which the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination were hanged; a section of cupboard from the house of Barbara Fritchie, who legend says waved the Stars and Stripes as Stonewall Jackson’s troops passed her house in Frederick, Maryland, in September 1862; and a piece of the tree supposedly struck by the war’s last shot.
In the kitchen area, where a depiction of the great escape hung on the wall, a guide would “cheerfully explain the mode of procedure in getting away from this famous prison.” Below, in the part of the basement once known as “rat hell,” visitors could see the opening of the escape tunnel “and the very bricks that were taken from it.” In the lobby, there was a desk constructed from original Libby flooring for the use of visitors “who might wish to do some writing.”
Of course, there was a gift shop. “Presided over by the daughter of a veteran,” it sold souvenir gavels made of flooring from the original prison, gift plates embossed with an artist’s rendering of the prison, bullets from the Gettysburg battlefield, and blocks of wood from the Andersonville stockade.
Some of the museum’s exhibits were a bit odd. In the courtyard, for instance, stood “the original cabin” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fictional Uncle Tom. Others were downright bizarre and lacked the slightest connection to the Civil War: “shrunken heads of Incas” and “the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, with testimonials of its authenticity.”
On a more relevant note, the museum published a monthly edition of the Libby Prison Chronicle, a figurative continuation of the “newspaper” that had been read to prisoners regularly by a chaplain. According to its masthead, the Chronicle was edited by John L. Ransom, a 14-month veteran prisoner of Libby, and was the only paper of its kind in the country.
The Chronicle printed articles on new museum acquisitions (the bullet-riddled trousers of an Indiana volunteer wounded at Chickamauga, for example), reunions (including one held by participants in the great Libby escape), notable visitors (such as William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army), editorials (one voicing support for legislative action awarding Union prisoners two dollars for each day spent in Southern prisons), special events (like the 1895 benefit for the museum’s guides, all of whom supposedly had been prisoners of war), and museum services (such as the availability of the fife and drum corps for outside events). Occasionally the bona fide news was supplemented with plugs for Gunther’s candies.
Within just three months of the opening, more than 100,000 people visited the museum, and attendance swelled during the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The Chronicle regularly printed words of praise from visitors: “immense and beyond description,” “worth a travel of 1,000 miles to see it,” “the guides are lovely,” “of greater interest than the World’s Fair.”
Interest in the prison and its collection soon waned, however, and Gunther and his associates sought a more profitable venture. They formed the Chicago Coliseum Company, and in 1899, Libby was once again dismantled.
In its place rose the gigantic coliseum that hosted Chicago’s political conventions, sports events, and entertainment for more than 80 years. In 1981, when the arena was scheduled for demolition, preservationists made a futile attempt to save it by having it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Among the arguments in support of preserving the building was that it incorporated “the outer wall of the famous Libby Prison Civil War Museum as part of its front wall, and also had a rear wall largely constructed of bricks from the equally famous Libby Prison.”
From the start, detractors had criticized the Libby Prison War Museum for alleged lapses in taste, but evidence published in newspapers across the country revealed that majority opinion was clearly favorable. The Kentucky Leader opined, “Anyone going to Chicago and missing the Libby Prison Museum has missed half their lives.” The Iowa City Republican declared: “It brings home to one how fearful a thing war is and impels a murmured prayer that never again may our land be devastated by war. Every true American would be better for visiting this place.”
As the museum went into its final two weeks of existence, the Chicago Tribune, which originally had opposed the extravagant project, assumed stewardship of the site and offered free admission to all city residents who had yet to visit “the only museum of this kind in America, if not the world,” as the paper described it. “To have lived in Chicago between 1889 and 1898 and never to have seen the tunnel by which 109 federal officers escaped may be regarded as shameful neglect.”
Today only a plaque marks the original site of Libby Prison in Richmond. In Chicago, only a small wall of Libby bricks, an original door, and a handful of prisoners’ artifacts remain inside the Chicago Historical Society to document the prison’s reincarnation as America’s most unusual Civil War memorial.
Bruce Klee of Geneseo, New York, writes about theater and American history.