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About Libby Prison

Libby Prison was a Confederate prison, located in Richmond, Virginia used to hold officers of the Union army who had been captured.  Originally, the building was a tobacco warehouse that was constructed in the early 1850s and was leased to Luther Libby and his son, George, for the purpose of selling groceries and marine supplies to the sailors using the James River and the Kanawha Canal. In 1861, 700 prisoners were housed there, but by 1863, there were well over 1,000 in some very harsh conditions, namely lack of food, rampant disease, men dying every day, and a life of no hope at all.


The building was just over 300 feet in length, about 40 feet high, and 50 from front to back.  There were nine rooms in the prison, six for the prisoners and one each for the commandant, hospital, and kitchen. Each man had a “space,” about 6 feet in length and about 2 feet wide, and after hearing the command “Lights Out,” the prisoners would lie on the hardwood floor, front to back, sandwiched together with no room to turn over at all. No pillows or blankets, too. The windows had bars in them, allowing the heat of summer and the cold of winter to add to the misery of the men. And, then there were the rats: “Rat Hell,” Libby Prison was called.


The infamous escape from Libby Prison occurred on February 9, 1864 when 109 inmates slid through a tunnel to freedom in downtown Richmond. At least half of them were recaptured and were sent to the dungeon for punishment, with nothing but bread and water for a week, sleeping standing up, and listening to the squeal of the rats.  


Hundreds of men died at Libby Prison, but those who survived were transferred to Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, Georgia in May, 1864 as the Confederate command believed that the Federal Army of the Potomac was getting to close to Richmond.