The Selling Of Libby Prison


WHEN THE CIVIL War ended, a second fierce and divisive conflict began, fought on the same battlefields but over a different issue: not political secession but the commercial development of the battlefields themselves. The Civil War took four years to come to a conclusion that was nothing if not decisive; its successor has raged for more than a century, and the controversy that erupted earlier this year over the proposed Disney’s America theme park in Virginia suggests that its Appomattox is nowhere in sight. But if its current campaigns and skirmishes are being fought under our eyes, its earliest incidents are nearly as distant in time from us as the Civil War itself. In a series of assaults from the 1870s until the end of the century, Lookout Mountain in Tennessee was stormed and liberated from a private concern that had established a toll road to the summit. In the second battle of Gettysburg, thirty-three years after Meade expelled Lee from Northern soil, preservationists, after fierce fighting in the courts, managed to oust a tourist trolley that had entrenched itself in the middle of the battlefield. But the war has never been onesided. Commerce gained some early victories too. None was more striking than a set of raids that began in Richmond in the 1880s.


In 1845 there arose in that city near the James River a sturdy and nondescript oblong brick box, three stories high. It served for a time as a tobacco warehouse; in 1861 a large sign proclaimed it the home of Libby and Son, Ship Chandlers and Grocers. War plucked the building, as it did many individuals, from obscurity. Greatness was thrust upon it—if only great infamy—when the Confederate government appropriated it as a prison for captured Union officers. Whether it or its rural counterpart at Andersonville became more notorious in the North would be hard to say. Prisoners held at Libby—over the course of the war there were forty-five thousand of them—complained vociferously during the conflict and afterward of hunger, brutal treatment and theft by their captors, winter cold and damp, and close confinement in overcrowded quarters.


After the war the name of Libby remained instantly recognizable. When a group of Chicagoans visited Richmond in the late 1880s, however, they found the building lapsed into its antebellum shadows and more than its antebellum seediness. “Beside it,” a reporter observed, “the stockyards are a bower of roses.” The company in possession manufactured fertilizer from fish and animal carcasses. Yet underneath the reek and refuse, the traces of the prison stood intact. “The heavy floors,” though ”… thickly covered with dirt,” retained the checker and backgammon boards carved by desperately bored prisoners. The sturdy wooden posts were “thick with soldiers’ names cut deep into the wood.” They struck the visitors as capable of supporting a much more lucrative trade. The Chicagoans arranged to buy the structure. They planned to disassemble it, take it home, and rebuild it as a tourist attraction.

Late-nineteenth-century Chicago drew its raw materials from a vast hinterland stretching far to the west and north. It reached eastward in search of another resource that a great city should have but that it lacked: a historic landscape. Though its collectors cast occasional longing eyes on Old World edifices from Shakespeare’s cottage to the Pyramids, they mostly wanted the monuments of their native land. But those monuments no less than their overseas counterparts were hard to pry loose. Chicagoans had been rebuffed in 1881 when they tried to purchase Boston’s pre-Revolutionary Old State House and move it west; Philadelphia proved no more willing to part with Independence Hall.


No local sentiment anchored Libby Prison in place. The objections to relocating it came from elsewhere. Northern veterans who had been imprisoned in Libby vehemently objected to having the scenes of their sufferings made into “a 10-cent show” for “the benefit of a clique of vulgar speculators. . . .” It would “collect dimes and dollars as a ghastly circus exhibition to fill the pockets of sharp, unprincipled. . . men that have conceived the selfish and despicable idea of violating the sanctity of the soldiers’ sufferings and to many the very spot of their deaths.” For weeks opponents besieged the mayor of Richmond and the governor of Virginia with demands that the scheme be stopped. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, however, they were soon driven off. To the head of the syndicate the outcry merely showed that “there are a great many cranks in the world.” The city interposed no obstacles. Though delayed by several changes of ownership, the transfer began in early 1889.

On May 6 a train carrying part of the dismantled prison broke an axle and jumped the tracks near Springdale, Kentucky. There were no human casualties, but the local population turned out in force to scavenge souvenirs from the debris. Critics of the scheme rubbed their hands with satisfaction at the news. They presumed that “one of the luckiest and most laudable railway accidents that ever happened” had put an end to a project “outrageously and vulgarly in violation of patriotism and decency. . . .”