Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison

Overview

While many books have been inspired by the horrors of Andersonville prison, none have chronicled with any depth or detail the amazing tunnel escape from Libby Prison in Richmond. Now Joseph Wheelan examines what became the most important escape of the Civil War from a Confederate prison, one that ultimately increased the North?s and South?s willingness to use prisoners in waging ?total war.?

In a converted tobacco warehouse, Libby?s 1,200 Union officers survived on cornbread and...

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Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape from the Notorious Civil War Prison

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Overview

While many books have been inspired by the horrors of Andersonville prison, none have chronicled with any depth or detail the amazing tunnel escape from Libby Prison in Richmond. Now Joseph Wheelan examines what became the most important escape of the Civil War from a Confederate prison, one that ultimately increased the North’s and South’s willingness to use prisoners in waging “total war.”

In a converted tobacco warehouse, Libby’s 1,200 Union officers survived on cornbread and bug-infested soup, and slept without blankets on the bare floor. With prisoner exchanges suspended, escape and death were the only ways out.

Libby Prison Breakout recounts the largely unknown story of the escape of 109 steel-nerved officers through a 55-foot tunnel, and their flight in winter through the heart of the enemy homeland, amid an all-out Rebel manhunt. The officers’ later testimony in Washington spurred two far-reaching investigations and a new cycle of retaliation against Rebel captives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Kirkus Reviews
“The harrowing, little-known story of the 109 Union officers who escaped from a Richmond prison in 1864—an episode that deserves a higher place in Civil War lore….A true-adventure story that also documents how prisoner abuse and recriminations spurred the federal commitment to the “total war” that ravaged the South”

Library Journal
“Civil War buffs especially will want to read about this mass prison break that riveted North and South in the late winter of 1864”

Booklist
“Buffs will be intrigued by Wheelan’s thorough research”

Newark Star Ledger
“It’s not very often that a solid and scholarly history book is a page-turner to rival a John Grisham potboiler… Joseph Wheelan’s book is crammed with the kind of detail that has slipped away the last 150 years.”

Civil War News, June 2010
“Joseph Wheelan has written a winner of a book… No detail is missed, and the pages turn quickly. Perhaps most importantly these men are given identities as Wheelan brings to life the protagonists by craftily resurrecting their lives before the war and what they endured inside the converted tobacco barn. In doing so Wheelan provides pathos, excitement and insight into the yearning of all POWs for freedom.”

Library Journal
Before the advent of the Confederacy's notorious Andersonville Prison for Union POWs in March 1864, many captured Yankees were held near Richmond, VA. Those who were officers were held at Libby Prison, a former tobacco warehouse, while enlisted men were held in great squalor on Belle Isle in the James River. The 1200 officers in Libby Prison lacked adequate sanitation, bedding, and food. Crowding at Libby had escalated in 1863 when the Union halted prisoner exchanges that sent their well-fed Southern prisoners back to the battlefront in return for sickly and undernourished Yankees. Former AP reporter Wheelan (Mr. Adams' Last Crusade) tells us what happened next. Frustrated at the North's inability to free them, determined Libby prisoners spent months tunneling from a rat-infested cellar. On February 9, 1864, 109 men escaped, 59 safely reaching the Union lines about 100 miles away. It's not exactly The Great Escape, but once Whelan manages to get his story moving he provides a detailed description of the digging of the tunnel and the escape from the prison. VERDICT Civil War buffs especially will want to read about this mass prison break that riveted North and South in the late winter of 1864.—Stewart Desmond, New York
Kirkus Reviews
The harrowing, little-known story of the 109 Union officers who escaped from a Richmond prison in 1864-an episode that deserves a higher place in Civil War lore. Former AP reporter and editor Wheelan (Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress, 2008, etc.) fastidiously establishes the circumstances and conditions leading to the desperate actions of Union officers, held separately from enlisted men per conventions of the time, to break out of Libby Prison, a former vast tobacco warehouse on the Richmond riverfront. As the war moved through the fall of 1863, the Confederate economy was fast unraveling, with civilian privation the norm, particularly in cities. Yankee prisoners, even officers, were at the end of the line for the South's rapidly shrinking food supply. (Conditions were far better for Rebel captives held in the North-the author suggests that many were better fed and cared for than they had been in their own ranks.) An ornate system of parole and exchanges had prevailed at the war's outset, offering hope of a short internment for captives of both sides. But with the Emancipation Proclamation from a politically rejuvenated Lincoln, the South rejected leniency. They refused to parole captured black troops, often executing them on the battlefield, and they put white officers on trial for inciting slave revolt, a capital crime. As conditions worsened at Libby, two officers took the lead in finding an ingenious way to get into a cellar through their kitchen fireplace. The first tunnel was scraped with makeshift tools but descended too far and was flooded by a nearby canal. Three others were dug, amid hordes of rats, filth and sewage,before breakout was achieved in February 1864. Some were killed and recaptured, but 52 escapees made it back to Union lines, all with tales to tell. A true-adventure story that also documents how prisoner abuse and recriminations spurred the federal commitment to the "total war" that ravaged the South.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586487164
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 282
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Table of Contents

1 The Confederate Capital 1

2 The POW Archipelago 19

3 Inside Libby Prison 31

4 The Defiant Colonel 47

5 Misery and Retaliation 65

6 Miss Van Lew's Spy Ring 83

7 The Warrior Schoolteacher 103

8 Test of Faith 121

9 General Butler's Raid 129

10 The Ordeal of Tunnel Four 143

11 Escape 157

12 Flight 169

13 Fallout 193

Epilogue 219

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 233

Bibliography 257

Index 273

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