Libby Prison Breakout:The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison, Joseph Wheelan, Public Affairs Press, 352 pages, $26.95. February 2010
In warehouses along the Virginia waterfront, Union prisoners of war were held in desperate squalor—freezing, malnourished and subjected to hateful mistreatment. Among the worst of these makeshift prisons was Libby, a former tobacco warehouse where 1,200 Union officers slept without blankets on the bare floor and subsisted on scraps of cornbread and rancid meat. Many died, most endured; the most audacious plotted their escape. Joseph Wheelan, a prolific biographer and former AP editor, recounts the improbable tale of 109 courageous officers in Libby Prison Breakout—the first book to chronicle this amazing escape in depth. Charting the transformation of stately Richmond, Virginia, from antebellum gentility to wartime industrial center, Wheelan depicts the citizens’ attempts to cope with mounting privations as the Confederate Army commandeered Richmond’s food, clothing and goods. Martial law, protests, food riots and harsh countermeasures nurtured among Richmond’s populace a seething hatred of “the Yankee,” an enmity that would color the treatment of prisoners from the North. With prisoner exchanges at a standstill, Union POWs could scarcely hope for a timely release. And while the Union Army’s treatment of Confederate POWs was constrained by the Lieber Code (an antecedent to the Geneva Convention), no such code of conduct shielded Union prisoners from a prison system that “at times seemed expressly designed to induce suffering.” The often highly educated officers proved resourceful at coping with their captivity, but disease, lice, cruelty, overcrowding and sheer boredom made escape an increasingly urgent prospect. In November 1863, two recently captured Union officers, Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose and Major A.G. Hamilton, began to dig a 55-foot tunnel under Libby Prison. Leading 107 of their fellow captives, they fled in the chill of winter through the heart of the Confederate homeland, with Rebel soldiers in hot pursuit. Their successful escape lifted Northern morale, and their subsequent Congressional testimony, detailing their cruel and degrading treatment, led to the imposition of harsh measures against Rebel POWs. Drawing from primary sources including letters, journals, prison records and even issues of the prisoners’ weekly “newspaper,” Wheelan makes this little-known historical event feel palpable and current. The author does not flinch from depicting the ghastly human cost of war, nor does he give short shrift to the tale’s colorful characters—such as Col. Abel Streight, a man of imposing physical presence, formidable intellect and larger-than-life personality; or the one-woman “spy ring” of Elizabeth Van Lew. Libby Prison Breakout is a valuable contribution to Civil War historiography, and a richly rewarding reading experience.
Joseph Wheelan, a former Associated Press reporter and editor, is the author of Mr. Adams's Last Crusade, Invading Mexico, Jefferson's War, and Jefferson's Vendetta. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.
Source: Public Affairs Press and History Book Club