A View from Behind the Bars: A Buckeye at Libby Prison

    On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address where he called upon the nation to a "new birth of freedom." His eloquent words speak to us across the ages, but it is important to remember that while Lincoln spoke, the very conflict which tested whether a nation conceived in liberty could long endure was still raging. Less than 200 miles south of Gettysburg in the heart of the Confederate capital, thousands of Federal soldiers also yearned for a new birth of freedom and for them it was a very personal and bitter struggle. The fortunes of war had delivered them as prisoners into the nerve center of the Confederacy; whether they were captured during Streight's Raid, at Second Winchester, at Chickamauga, or at little-remembered Limestone Station, all of these men struggled with the ennui and privations of prison life. 

    The following letter written by First Lieutenant George Duncan Forsyth of the 100th Ohio was penned while the writer was a prisoner of war at Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, written the very same day that Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. The Buckeye lieutenant had been captured along with nearly 250 men of his regiment at the Battle of Limestone Station, Tennessee on September 8, 1863, and his letter gives a synopsis of daily life within the prison's walls. It is a story of suffering, loneliness, and tedium. The men had hours to kill and little to do: the primary highlight of the day was their meal times, in which a few ounces of cornbread and sweet potatoes constituted the bulk of the fare. To pass the time, the men whittled bone fragments into rings and ornaments, played games, and once in a while enjoyed the "Cork Opera" put on by fellow prisoners. "Our life here is by no means varied," Forsyth commented to his family. "So I will give you a day's history and you will have the whole."

A prewar ambrotype of a youthful George Duncan Forysth. The Toledoan went to war with Co. A of the 14th Ohio and first saw action at the Battle of Philippi in June 1861. The following summer, he went out as a lieutenant in Co. B of the 100th Ohio and was captured with roughly 250 of his comrades at Limestone Station in northeastern Tennessee. He was shot and killed by a prison guard April 12, 1864 at Libby Prison, and a memorial to his memory was erected at Forest Cemetery in Toledo. The first G.A.R. post of Toledo was named in his honor, as was another post in nearby Napoleon. Forsyth's older brother James William Forsyth attended West Point where he was a graduate of the class of 1856, later served on General Phil Sheridan's staff, and most notoriously commanded the Federal troops during the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. 

November 19, 1863

My dear mother, sisters, and brother,

    Some ten days ago I wrote you a very long letter on all the old scraps of paper I had and all the dirty fly leaves of all the old thumb-worn prison-read books I could get into my paper-seeking clutches, detailing to some extent our prison life, writing a little one day and a little the next. As these details, while interesting, would grieve you, it came to my mind and a scrap of paper within my grasp and expecting I could send this North by an assistant surgeon who was captured with us. But yesterday I received through Frank Bennett the paper, wearing apparel, etc. that you sent me. So I shall tear up the old letter and write another more connected if not more complete. You cannot imagine, nor I in commensurate language inform you, how grateful I was for the articles you sent, how sorely they were needed or what thoughts and feelings their reception awakened in the poor Yankee prisoner's breast.

    It seemed to me that I could trace in the selection of the several articles the kindly solicitude of each and every member of the family for my personal comfort. A mother's and a sister's affectionate devotion and a brother's manly love were revealed to me as package after package was unfolded in characters far more legible than those you will read upon these pages. Even so simple a thing as the gutting of the leaves of the novel Ally sent me excited a thousand pleasurable emotions. Everything was exactly adapted to the situation. The fine tooth comb is an inestimable treasure and the soap truly valuable. I'll be bound that Mama sent the soap. Convey my warmest thanks to Miss Yaeger for the cherries and tomatoes. Douglas Kelley and I intend making as Thanksgiving dinner with them.

A depiction of the crowded interior of Libby Prison in the fall of 1863. The Confederate victories of that summer delivered thousands of Federals to Richmond; enlisted men were usually sent to Belle Isle while the officers were housed at Libby. 

    Our life here is by no means varied, so I will give you a day's history and you will have the whole. Libby is a large three story building formerly occupied by C. Libby and Son, as a ship chandler's establishment. We occupy the second and third stories with the exception of the east room on the second floor. The middle room on the first floor is our cook and mess hall. I should have stated above that these are the largest rooms on each floor. The officers of General Robert Milroy's and Colonel Abel Streight's commands live in the two west rooms on the second and third stories, the other western officers the two middle rooms, and the Potomac officers those on the east side of the building. I live in the upper middle room. The Milroy and Streight men have three cookstoves in their own rooms and do not mess or cook with us. We have six stoves in our cook room and on these stoves our 600 officers have to cook. Each suite of rooms has its commanding officer and chief commissary. Colonel Streight commands in his two rooms (the two west ones), Colonel LeFavour of the 21st Michigan in the two middle ones called "The Cumberland Army" rooms, and Colonel [Charles W.] Tilden of the 16th Maine commands the Potomac Department. We of the 100th all belong to the latter as we arrived upon this field of action before the Department of the Cumberland was organized, which took place shortly after the Battle of Chickamauga. [Streight's men were captured at the end of his raid in May 1863; Milroy's men were captured at the Second Battle of Winchester in June 1863.] 

    We are divided into 22 messes, each mess having a commissary whose duty is to divide the rations, make details for kitchen duty, keep a roll of the members of the mess and make out a bill of what they wish to send out and purchase, and hand the same to Colonel Tilden who engrosses them all, and makes the purchase for our four rooms in bulk. The chief commissary attends to the division of the rations among the several messes and carries on a contraband trade with the outside world in greenbacks and Rebel promises to pay. The chief commissary is Lieutenant [James P.] Jones of Norwalk, Ohio. [Co. D, 55th Ohio who was captured July 2, 1863]

Libby Prison as it appeared in 1865. Lieutenant Forsyth lived on the third floor and presumably was shot when he was looking out one of these third floor windows in April 1864. 

    Now for the ration: it consists of about 12 ounces of the most horrid cornbread you ever saw- just like clay and almost as unpalatable. If there is no meat then a few miserable half-decayed sweet potatoes are issued to us. The remainder of the ration, consisting of a little salt, vinegar, or rice and black beans is turned over to the cooks and is all, every mite of it, served up and eaten at dinner. So, if one is not so fortunate as to be supplied with provisions from home, he has but one scant meal per diem and dry bread ( a few mouthfuls only) during the interval.

    I will add that rye coffee, for which we pay 75 cents per pound, is served up in the morning. Each mess has stated hours for its meals and no one is allowed to infringe upon the time of the others at the stoves. The mess hall is fitted with rough pine tables with seats such as you have seen at picnics, all stationary. In my mess which is No. 6, we have old rye coffee served at 9:30 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. If we have meat, a soup is made of it, but if not, dinner consists of rice, about four ounces of sweet potato and bread. I have never yet had a ration of meat that I could not eat in four mouthfuls. As long as my money lasted, I used to buy two small loaves of bread extra per day at a cost of 25 cents per loaf- the price is now 50 cents per loaf.

    We rise in the morning at 6:30 or 7 o'clock. The first thing we have to do is to fold up our ragged and very lively blankets and hang them on the rafters overhead, or if you are lucky enough to have a barrel cut out as an armchair, you can pack them away in it. Then we repair to the hydrant (each room is provided with one) and await your turn to perform you ablutions. Then comes roll call which consists in our falling into line four deep on our floors and being counted by the prison clerk. Then comes an hour of time killing toll a pair of stentorian lungs shouts out "No. 6, coffee," or "No. 6, breakfast!" After which there is another long time killing siege till dinner and after dinner the same thing until bed time when we stretch ourselves upon the hardest floor in the world nd roll and toss until welcome sleep comes to relieve us of the tedium of our own thoughts and wafts us off to dreamland.

    Such is our life from day to day, varied occasionally by addresses from General [Neal] Dow and others officers, and once a week a Cork Opera. A triangle, banjo, and tambourine were bought by subscriptions and several officers having a taste that way, give us very agreeable concerts. The time killing operation consists of playing chess, cards, and checkers, backgammon, making ornaments and keepsakes for friends out of bone, and numerous ornaments according to the character of the individual.

A ring and kerchief slide carved from bone by a Federal prisoner at Libby Prison. The kerchief slide is dated January 1, 1864. (Cowan Auctions)

    Officers have frequently been insulted and punished severely for the most trifling offenses. There was a time a few months ago when you could not put your head or arm out of a window without being shot at by the sentries. In August last, an enlisted man in one of the lower rooms died from the effects of a wound received for putting his head out of a window. [Ironically, Lieutenant Forsyth would be killed in the same way on April 12, 1864.]

    But our condition is immeasurably better than that of our men. We do not hear much of them. Now and then a little information as to their condition creeps in and it is truly awful. When we get out of here, the country will hear a recital of horrors that would move a saint to revenge. I write often but suppose that a good many of our letters never leave General Winder's office. Indeed, it is said that they burned two barrels full of letters at one time. So if you get a third of mine I shall be satisfied.


Letter from First Lieutenant George Duncan Forsyth, Co. B, 100th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Toledo Blade (Ohio), December 31, 1863, pg. 2


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