Maggots, shinplasters, and spooning at Libby prison — 150 years ago this week

More than 40 years after the American Civil War ended, my great-great-grandfather James “Jimmy” Young wrote a memoir about his experience with the 6th Connecticut Volunteers, Company K, and the months he endured in Andersonville prison. He was originally from Aberdeen, Scotland. In 1855, when he was 14 years old, Jimmy immigrated to Montreal, Quebec with his parents Robert Young and Mary Fyvie and nine siblings. On August 21, 1863, at the age of 24, he enlisted in New Haven, Connecticut.

When none of the guards was looking his way, Private Jimmy Young of the 6th Connecticut Volunteers put his hand inside his haversack and wrapped his fingers around the handle of his knife. The guard had just ordered the other prisoners and him to hand over their money to the prison clerk. He pulled out the knife. This was probably his last chance.

Libby prison

Less than 24 hours earlier, Jimmy had been a free man, manning a post that was little more than a mound of earth in an open field at Drewry’s Bluff, south of Richmond, Virginia. Soon after daybreak that morning, he and four other Union soldiers had been captured by the Confederates and transported down the James River to Richmond.

When their boat docked a short while later, the prisoners were greeted by a “motley crowd of men, women and children, white and black.” Some of the women spit in the men’s faces as they marched toward Libby prison.

Before the war, the three-story prison had been a food warehouse, leased by Captain Luther Libby and his son. Its location on the waterfront made it suitable for holding prisoners. Years later, Jimmy wrote that the building looked desolate.

Libby Prison, north side, Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. Library of Congress.

Libby Prison, north side, Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. Library of Congress.

Upon arrival, Jimmy and his fellow captives were led into one of several large rooms in the prison. The room was filled with prisoners. The only furniture he could see was a row of tin wash basins and a wood trough for washing. Jimmy would soon learn water was scarce.

They were told to deposit their money with the clerk and to prepare to be searched by the examiner who would confiscate their valuables.

Jimmy ignored the order to give up his money. From his haversack, he pulled out his knife and cut through several threads on the waistband of his pants. After making a tiny opening, he tucked $30 inside the waistband and stitched it closed. He still had a bit more paper money, 75 cents in shinplasters, and hid it in his clothing or perhaps somewhere on his body. That was all the money he owned.

Then the order came for the prisoners to go downstairs where the examiner would search them for valuables. Jimmy fell into line and headed toward the stairs.

Shinplasters

When it was Jimmy’s turn, the examiner made him remove his boots to check inside for any valuables. He found none. He searched the lining of Jimmy’s cap and examined what he thought was every part of his clothing. He even removed the top of each brass button on Jimmy’s shirt, looking for hidden money. He still found none.

Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, carries a haversack. Library of Congress.

Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment, carries a haversack. Library of Congress.

By the time the search was over, the examiner had confiscated Jimmy’s knife, quart cup, haversack, photographs of friends, rubber blanket, and other small items. But, he had found no money. The examiner remained suspicious and questioned Jimmy. To convince the examiner he only had a small amount of money on him, Jimmy pulled out the shinplasters from some deeply hidden place and handed them over. That was good enough for the examiner. He looked no further.

When the examiner started searching the next prisoner, Jimmy pulled on his boots and thought about how to retrieve his possessions. Without drawing attention to himself, he walked toward the end of the room. As he passed a window, he saw his photographs, knife, and cup and quickly gathered them up. Thinking no one was watching, he walked over to the pile of confiscated goods, pulled out his haversack, and moved on. When some of the prisoners saw him helping himself, they tried to do the same, but the examiner caught them and ordered them to return everything. Jimmy was lucky. Somehow, he managed to keep most of his money and posessions.

Lively with maggots

Jimmy soon learned that the daily food ration was usually six ounces of corn bread with a small piece of ham that was “lively with maggots.” Despite the dire situation, he was amused at the ingenuity of the men. Since few of the men had plates or utensils, they would take whatever food they could hold in the hollow of their hands or eat it from their boots.

Beans were considered a special meal at Libby and served late in the day. After one of these meals, Jimmy looked inside the kettles that had been used to boil the beans. It appeared that rice had been boiled in them. Upon closer inspection, however, he discovered that the bottoms were covered with almost two inches of maggots. Jimmy could see that the number of maggots varied from kettle to kettle. He figured the amount depended on how deeply they had scooped out the beans.

Spooning at night

Nighttime provided little relief. The room where Jimmy was held was so overcrowded that the men had to sleep on the rough plank floor “dove-tailed in like spoons.” Lice and “other vermin” kept them awake.

After enduring a few days at Libby, Jimmy and other prisoners were transported by rail to the prison in Danville, about 140 miles away. Their departure provided temporary relief to the overcrowding at Libby until the next shipment of prisoners arrived.

Jimmy would remain in Danville for some time until arrangements could be made to transport prisoners to the new Andersonville prison in Georgia.

__________________________________________________________

Read more about James Young’s civil war exploits in How my Scottish-Canadian great-great-grandfather was captured during the US Civil War — 150 years ago today.

Sources
Young, James. Reminiscences of the Prison Life of James Young. ca. 1920.
Image of Libby prison, North side, Richard, Virginia, April 1865. Prints & Photographs Online Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Online <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003005118/PP/&gt;.
Image of Private Albert H. Davis of Company K, 6th New Hampshire Infantry Regiment in uniform, 1861. Prints & Photographs Online Collections, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Online <http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010648376/&gt;.
Research notes
Since I do not own a photo of James Young in civil war uniform, I posted a photo of Private Albert H. Davis. It is possible my great-great-grandfather’s gear looked like Private Davis’ gear.
To see what a haversack looks like, scroll down this auctioneer’s website to see a couple of haversacks or Google the word.

Copyright © 2014, Gail Dever.

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About Gail Dever

Gail Dever is a Montreal-based genealogist and blogger and a webmaster for the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa.
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3 Responses to Maggots, shinplasters, and spooning at Libby prison — 150 years ago this week

  1. Great story – you are so lucky that he wrote his memoirs!

  2. This is an amazing thing to read. Thanks for sharing.

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