A Hard Way of Serving the Lord: Colonel Wilson in Libby Prison

With so many of us now “sheltering in place” due to the COVID-19 crisis, it made me think of another time when Americans were under confinement, in this case the experience of our Civil War veterans who became prisoners of war.

One of those men, Colonel William Tecumseh Wilson of the 123rd Ohio Infantry, penned the following letter to his wife Louisa (“Lou”) back home in Upper Sandusky, Ohio in November 1863. Writing from Libby Prison in the heart of the Confederate capital, Wilson had been a "resident" at Libby for nearly four months after being captured during the Second Battle of Winchester. Colonel Wilson was finally paroled on March 18, 1864 and was formally exchanged May 28, 1864. He rejoined the regiment for the Lynchburg raid but soon suffered from an attack of inflammatory rheumatism and saw little action for the rest of the war. He was appointed a brevet brigadier general in 1866 and later served as Comptroller of the State Treasury of Ohio and mayor of Upper Sandusky.  

This letter was published in the December 4, 1863 issue of the Wyandot Pioneer.

Colonel William Tecumseh Wilson, 123rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia
November 1, 1863

My Dear Wife:
          I am going to try and get a good, long contraband letter through to you by the next boat which we are expecting every day. I received the box you sent me very unexpectedly a few days after it was shipped and if you only knew how delighted I was, you would feel partially rewarded at least for your labor in furnishing me with the me with the necessities it contained. My health is pretty good now and while the contents of the box last, Mess No. 32 (Captain [Charles H.] Riggs [Co. G], Adjutant [Benjamin F.] Blair, Lieutenant [Frank B.] Colver [Co. G], and self) will live pretty well. Captain Riggs received a small box containing some butter and the others are expecting similar favors. [Captain Riggs would die September 15, 1864 at the Confederate prison in Columbia, South Carolina.] I received the package which had contained the coin you sent me with the information that the money had been handed over to the Rebel quartermaster at this place. I am very sorry that you did not send it in the box for then I would have received it. Gold is valuable here. There is no knowing what amount of Confederate trash I might have bought with those $12. We get $7.50 for one in greenbacks.
Squalid conditions inside Libby Prison 

          Everything is exorbitantly high here. Flour is $75 a barrel, coffee $8-10 per lb., tea is $15-20 per lb., butter is $4-6 per lb., eggs $2-3 per dozen, other things in proportion, and all growing scarce and higher. Famine is staring this part of the Confederacy in the face and the people as well as the papers acknowledge it. They clamor for the removal of the prisoners from their midst and insist that if anyone is to starve it should be the Yankees. If we are forced to remain here, we must depend upon our friends at home to a considerable extent for subsistence. All boxes and packages are delivered to us so far, but one paper has gone so far as to recommend the confiscation, or in other words, stealing of the nice things sent to the Yankee prisoners. God alone knows what will become of the poor private soldiers, thousands of whom are confined here. The paper alluded to above suggests they ought to be sent to some point in the interior where the weather and want of food will thin them out according to the laws of nature. What do you think of that in this civilized age? We are receiving now about a half ration of bread, 4 ounces of meat (but such meat), a spoonful or so of rice, and the smallest amount of salt imaginable. We expect this amount to be reduced before long.

          About 1,000 of us are confined to seven rooms in which we cook, wash, eat, sleep, and do everything else, not being permitted to go outside the door for any purpose. The building is full of vermin and a portion of each day is devoted to skirmishing, as we call it, but which vulgar people would probably term “hunting lice.” We’re an interesting looking set of pets when this part of the daily labor is performed. The light-colored underclothes you sent me would have been better adapted to this business if they had been darker. This hint you might convey to any friends who may think of sending clothes into this department.

          Most of our time is spent in reading when matter can be had, playing cards, checkers, chess, fighting our battles over, and talking about the loved ones at home, that is, when not engaged in cooking or washing clothes. It is very monotonous, and as one of my companions frequently remarks, “a hard way of serving the Lord,” but the proud consciousness that we are suffering all this for our country enables us to bear it with comparative cheerfulness.

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia
          One of Colonel Wilson’s fellow inmates, Captain John W. Chamberlin of Co. A, 123rd Ohio, described Libby Prison as follows. “It is a large brick building about 150 feet in front by 105 feet deep. Fronting on Cary Street and extending back to Canal Street; immediately in the rear of it was the canal and James River. The building was, previous to the war, occupied by Libby & Son who carried on in it their business as ship chandlers and grocers. Internally it much resembles an Ohio grain warehouse. It is three stories high with a basement story underneath and is divided into three tiers of rooms. The lower room of the first tier is occupied by various officers engaged in the control of the prison. The two upper rooms were at the time of our arrival used for the confinement of prisoners, and we found their Colonel [Abel] Streight’s command and a few others amounting to 136 officers. Of the middle tier, one room was occupied by citizen prisoners and deserters from the Union army. The third tier was used as a hospital for Federal prisoners. The basement contained a couple of cells for the close confinement of prisoners, the remainder of it was devoted to the use of the slaves employed about the premises.” (‘A History of Prison Life in Libby,’ Wyandot Pioneer, April 22, 1864, pg. 1)


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