1864 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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Union soldiers hated and feared Libby Prison at Richmond, Virginia, more than any Confederate prison camp except Andersonville. Libby had been improvised from a commandeered tobacco warehouse in order to hold the officers captured in the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861 and had never been adequately provisioned. By the beginning of 1864 dwindling rations and the breakdown of prisoner exchange made life unbearable for the prisoners of a Confederacy that could barely feed its own population. Libby was dangerously overcrowded and underfed when, on February 9, Col. Thomas E. Rose led 108 other Union prisoners in the largest escape of the Civil War.

Colonel Rose, a prisoner from the Battle of Chickamauga, began plotting his escape from Libby the moment he arrived the previous October. It was clear to him that an overland escape was impossible; prisoners were not allowed outside the building, and the guards had orders to shoot at anyone who came too close to a window. Rose instead devised a system by which he and several assistants could squeeze through the back of a fireplace and tumble into the cellar, a pestilent hole known as Rat Hell, to dig a tunnel at night. Using a chisel and a jackknife, the men completed a fifty-foot tunnel that opened into a shed outside the prison yard.

Of the 109 officers who escaped, 59 safely reached Federal lines, 2 drowned, and 48 were recaptured. Rose himself was within a few hundred yards of safety, sitting at the side of a road with a broken foot awaiting an advancing group of Union soldiers, when he was surprised and retaken by a small detachment of Confederates. He was shipped back to Libby and put in solitary confinement. A prisoner exchange in July finally secured his freedom.

January 13: Stephen Foster, the composer of several of America’s most enduring popular songs, died in New York City. Though untrained as a musician, Foster wrote some two hundred songs in his lifetime, most of them either rhythmic minstrel songs or sentimental love songs, all of them with an almost primitive simplicity and generosity of spirit.

Foster rarely demanded from publishers what his songs were worth, and by the time he moved to New York City from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1860 he was hardly in a position to demand anything. Though he was one of the most renowned songwriters in the United States, he had already written most of the songs by which he is remembered and was such a poor businessman that he had to produce songs by the dozen in order to live even in poverty. The composer of such icons of musical Americana as “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races” was reduced to turning out mediocre songs in a Bowery room, many of which he sold for as little as ten dollars. Foster had in his pocket one cent for each of his thirty-seven years when he died in the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital of injuries sustained in a fall.

Today several states have memorial sites in Foster’s honor, and two, Florida and Kentucky, claim Foster songs as their anthems.