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Escape from Libby Prison: The Largest Successful Prison Break of the Civil War


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Escape from Libby Prison: The Largest Successful Prison Break of the Civil War

September 9, 2019 by Jenny Ashcraft | 22 Comments


On February 9, 1864, more than 100 Union prisoners tunneled their way to freedom in an audacious escape from Libby Prison in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. More than half of the prisoners made their way to Union lines while others were recaptured and returned to the confines of Libby.

Screen-Shot-2019-09-04-at-4.00.51-PM.png Libby Prison

Libby Prison started as an old food warehouse on Tobacco Row along the James River. Captain Luther Libby, along with his son George W. Libby, leased the three-story brick building where they operated a ship chandlery and grocery business. In 1862, the Confederacy took over the building and turned it into a prison for Union officers. Colonel Thomas E. Rose, a Union officer from the 77th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, was captured during the Battle of Chickamauga and taken to Libby Prison. He found conditions appalling and immediately started plotting his escape. He devised an ambitious plan to dig a tunnel from the cellar of the prison to a tobacco shed that stood just outside the prison walls.

Rose revealed his plan to a few trusted accomplices and planning got underway. Life inside Libby Prison was miserable. Prisoners were held on the second and third floors of the building. Windows were barred but open, leaving inmates freezing in the winter and insufferably hot in summer. Overcrowding created constant stress and resulted in food shortages. The lack of sanitation led to disease and death. One father whose son was held at Libby prison desperately sought to have supplies delivered to the prison. He wrote, “He has been confined during the whole summer without a change of clothing…and is in a very destitute condition.” Desperate for relief, it was not difficult for Rose to find prisoners willing to help with his plot.

Outside of Libby was a canal, and during wet weather, the prison’s cellar flooded bringing hundreds of rats scurrying into the building. The putrid air in the cellar kept everyone away and helped it earn the nickname, Rat’s Hell. The area was largely avoided by Confederate guards and provided Rose and his associates the perfect place to dig undetected.:snip: 

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