Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 7


Early on the tenth morning after our capture we were told that we were
about to enter Richmond. Instantly all were keenly observant of every
detail in the surroundings of a City that was then the object of the
hopes and fears of thirty-five millions of people--a City assailing which
seventy-five thousand brave men had already laid down their lives,
defending which an equal number had died, and which, before it fell, was
to cost the life blood of another one hundred and fifty thousand valiant
assailants and defenders.

So much had been said and written about Richmond that our boyish minds
had wrought up the most extravagant expectations of it and its defenses.
We anticipated seeing a City differing widely from anything ever seen
before; some anomaly of nature displayed in its site, itself guarded by
imposing and impregnable fortifications, with powerful forts and heavy
guns, perhaps even walls, castles, postern gates, moats and ditches,
and all the other panoply of defensive warfare, with which romantic
history had made us familiar.

We were disappointed--badly disappointed--in seeing nothing of this as we
slowly rolled along. The spires and the tall chimneys of the factories
rose in the distance very much as they had in other Cities we had
visited. We passed a single line of breastworks of bare yellow sand,
but the scrubby pines in front were not cut away, and there were no signs
that there had ever been any immediate expectation of use for the works.
A redoubt or two--without guns--could be made out, and this was all.
Grim-visaged war had few wrinkles on his front in that neighborhood.
They were then seaming his brow on the Rappahannock, seventy miles away,
where the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac lay
confronting each other.

At one of the stopping places I had been separated from my companions by
entering a car in which were a number of East Tennesseeans, captured in
the operations around Knoxville, and whom the Rebels, in accordance with
their usual custom, were treating with studied contumely. I had always
had a very warm side for these simple rustics of the mountains and
valleys. I knew much of their unwavering fidelity to the Union, of the
firm steadfastness with which they endured persecution for their
country's sake, and made sacrifices even unto death; and, as in those
days I estimated all men simply by their devotion to the great cause of
National integrity, (a habit that still clings to me) I rated these men
very highly. I had gone into their car to do my little to encourage
them, and when I attempted to return to my own I was prevented by the

Crossing the long bridge, our train came to a halt on the other side of
the river with the usual clamor of bell and whistle, the usual seemingly
purposeless and vacillating, almost dizzying, running backward and
forward on a network of sidetracks and switches, that seemed unavoidably
necessary, a dozen years ago, in getting a train into a City.

Still unable to regain my comrades and share their fortunes, I was
marched off with the Tennesseeans through the City to the office of some
one who had charge of the prisoners of war.

The streets we passed through were lined with retail stores, in which
business was being carried on very much as in peaceful times. Many
people were on the streets, but the greater part of the men wore some
sort of a uniform. Though numbers of these were in active service, yet
the wearing of a military garb did not necessarily imply this. Nearly
every able-bodied man in Richmond was; enrolled in some sort of an
organization, and armed, and drilled regularly. Even the members of the
Confederate Congress were uniformed and attached, in theory at least, to
the Home Guards.

It was obvious even to the casual glimpse of a passing prisoner of war,
that the City did not lack its full share of the class which formed so
large an element of the society of Washington and other Northern Cities
during the war--the dainty carpet soldiers, heros of the promenade and
the boudoir, who strutted in uniforms when the enemy was far off, and
wore citizen's clothes when he was close at hand. There were many curled
darlings displaying their fine forms in the nattiest of uniforms, whose
gloss had never suffered from so much as a heavy dew, let alone a rainy
day on the march. The Confederate gray could be made into a very dressy
garb. With the sleeves lavishly embroidered with gold lace, and the
collar decorated with stars indicating the wearer's rank--silver for the
field officers, and gold for the higher grade,--the feet compressed into
high-heeled, high-instepped boots, (no Virginian is himself without a
fine pair of skin-tight boots) and the head covered with a fine, soft,
broad-brimmed hat, trimmed with a gold cord, from which a bullion tassel
dangled several inches down the wearer's back, you had a military swell,
caparisoned for conquest--among the fair sex.

On our way we passed the noted Capitol of Virginia--a handsome marble
building,--of the column-fronted Grecian temple style. It stands in the
center of the City. Upon the grounds is Crawford's famous equestrian
statue of Washington, surrounded by smaller statues of other
Revolutionary patriots.

The Confederate Congress was then in session in the Capitol, and also the
Legislature of Virginia, a fact indicated by the State flag of Virginia
floating from the southern end of the building, and the new flag of the
Confederacy from the northern end. This was the first time I had seen
the latter, which had been recently adopted, and I examined it with some
interest. The design was exceedingly plain. Simply a white banner, with
a red field in the corner where the blue field with stars is in ours.
The two blue stripes were drawn diagonally across this field in the shape
of a letter X, and in these were thirteen white stars, corresponding to
the number of States claimed to be in the Confederacy.

The battle-flag was simply the red field. My examination of all this was
necessarily very brief. The guards felt that I was in Richmond for other
purposes than to study architecture, statuary and heraldry,
and besides they were in a hurry to be relieved of us and get their
breakfast, so my art-education was abbreviated sharply.

We did not excite much attention on the streets. Prisoners had by that
time become too common in Richmond to create any interest. Occasionally
passers by would fling opprobrious epithets at "the East Tennessee
traitors," but that was all.

The commandant of the prisons directed the Tennesseeans to be taken to
Castle Lightning--a prison used to confine the Rebel deserters, among
whom they also classed the East Tennesseeans, and sometimes the West
Virginians, Kentuckians, Marylanders and Missourians found fighting
against them. Such of our men as deserted to them were also lodged
there, as the Rebels, very properly, did not place a high estimate upon
this class of recruits to their army, and, as we shall see farther along,
violated all obligations of good faith with them, by putting them among
the regular prisoners of war, so as to exchange them for their own men.

Back we were all marched to a street which ran parallel to the river and
canal, and but one square away from them. It was lined on both sides by
plain brick warehouses and tobacco factories, four and five stories high,
which were now used by the Rebel Government as prisons and military

The first we passed was Castle Thunder, of bloody repute. This occupied
the same place in Confederate history, that, the dungeons beneath the
level of the water did in the annals of the Venetian Council of Ten.
It was believed that if the bricks in its somber, dirt-grimed walls could
speak, each could tell a separate story of a life deemed dangerous to the
State that had gone down in night, at the behest of the ruthless
Confederate authorities. It was confidently asserted that among the
commoner occurrences within its confines was the stationing of a doomed
prisoner against a certain bit of blood-stained, bullet-chipped wall,
and relieving the Confederacy of all farther fear of him by the rifles of
a firing party. How well this dark reputation was deserved, no one but
those inside the inner circle of the Davis Government can say. It is
safe to believe that more tragedies were enacted there than the archives
of the Rebel civil or military judicature give any account of. The
prison was employed for the detention of spies, and those charged with
the convenient allegation of "treason against the Confederate States of
America." It is probable that many of these were sent out of the world
with as little respect for the formalities of law as was exhibited with
regard to the 'suspects' during the French Revolution.

Next we came to Castle Lightning, and here I bade adieu to my Tennessee

A few squares more and we arrived at a warehouse larger than any of the
others. Over the door was a sign


This was the notorious "Libby Prison," whose name was painfully familiar
to every Union man in the land. Under the sign was a broad entrance way,
large enough to admit a dray or a small wagon. On one side of this was
the prison office, in which were a number of dapper, feeble-faced clerks
at work on the prison records.

As I entered this space a squad of newly arrived prisoners were being
searched for valuables, and having their names, rank and regiment
recorded in the books. Presently a clerk addressed as "Majah Tunnah,"
the man who was superintending these operations, and I scanned him with
increased interest, as I knew then that he was the ill-famed Dick Turner,
hated all over the North for his brutality to our prisoners.

He looked as if he deserved his reputation. Seen upon the street he
would be taken for a second or third class gambler, one in whom a certain
amount of cunning is pieced out by a readiness to use brute force. His
face, clean-shaved, except a "Bowery-b'hoy" goatee, was white, fat, and
selfishly sensual. Small, pig-like eyes, set close together, glanced
around continually. His legs were short, his body long, and made to
appear longer, by his wearing no vest--a custom common them with

His faculties were at that moment absorbed in seeing that no person
concealed any money from him. His subordinates did not search closely
enough to suit him, and he would run his fat, heavily-ringed fingers
through the prisoner's hair, feel under their arms and elsewhere where he
thought a stray five dollar greenback might be concealed. But with all
his greedy care he was no match for Yankee cunning. The prisoners told
me afterward that, suspecting they would be searched, they had taken off
the caps of the large, hollow brass buttons of their coats, carefully
folded a bill into each cavity, and replaced the cap. In this way they
brought in several hundred dollars safely.

There was one dirty old Englishman in the party, who, Turner was
convinced, had money concealed about his person. He compelled him to
strip off everything, and stand shivering in the sharp cold, while he
took up one filthy rag after another, felt over each carefully, and
scrutinized each seam and fold. I was delighted to see that after all
his nauseating work he did not find so much as a five cent piece.

It came my turn. I had no desire, in that frigid atmosphere, to strip
down to what Artemus Ward called "the skanderlous costoom of the Greek
Slave;" so I pulled out of my pocket my little store of wealth--ten
dollars in greenbacks, sixty dollars in Confederate graybacks--and
displayed it as Turner came up with, "There's all I have, sir." Turner
pocketed it without a word, and did not search me. In after months, when
I was nearly famished, my estimation of "Majah Tunnah" was hardly
enhanced by the reflection that what would have purchased me many good
meals was probably lost by him in betting on a pair of queens, when his
opponent held a "king full."

I ventured to step into the office to inquire after my comrades. One of
the whey-faced clerks said with the supercilious asperity characteristic
of gnat-brained headquarters attaches:

"Get out of here!" as if I had been a stray cur wandering in in search of
a bone lunch.

I wanted to feed the fellow to a pile-driver. The utmost I could hope
for in the way of revenge was that the delicate creature might some day
make a mistake in parting his hair, and catch his death of cold.

The guard conducted us across the street, and into the third story of a
building standing on the next corner below. Here I found about four
hundred men, mostly belonging to the Army of the Potomac, who crowded
around me with the usual questions to new prisoners: What was my
Regiment, where and when captured, and:

What were the prospects of exchange?

It makes me shudder now to recall how often, during the dreadful months
that followed, this momentous question was eagerly propounded to every
new comer: put with bated breath by men to whom exchange meant all that
they asked of this world, and possibly of the next; meant life, home,
wife or sweet-heart, friends, restoration to manhood, and self-respect
--everything, everything that makes existence in this world worth having.

I answered as simply and discouragingly as did the tens of thousands that
came after me:

"I did not hear anything about exchange."

A soldier in the field had many other things of more immediate interest
to think about than the exchange of prisoners. The question only became
a living issue when he or some of his intimate friends fell into the
enemy's hands.

Thus began my first day in prison.

John McElroy