- Historic Sites
The Selling Of Libby Prison
This isn’t the first time a Virginia governor has found himself embroiled in controversy about the commercialization of a Civil War site
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
They rejoiced too soon. Had the scheme still been under the control of its author, William H. Gray, this mishap might indeed have derailed it for good. He had boasted recklessly of the care with which the prison would be rebuilt on its original plan. “Don’t you see,” he had asked a reporter, “the loss of a single brick would be almost irreparable . . . ?” But the property had passed out of his hands. It had ended up in those of Charles F. G’unter, a candy manufacturer in whom the avid collector’s regard for the perfect specimen—Libby was to be made a museum for his Civil War memorabilia—was tempered by the pragmatism of the successful businessman. Gunther spoke to the newspapers and minimized the damage done in the accident, picked up the pieces (or those that remained), and got the venture back on track. He opened Libby to the public in Chicago on September 20, 1889.
Northern veterans objected to having their sufferings made into “a 10-cent show” for “the benefit of a clique of vulgar speculators.”
The transplanted building stood on Wabash Avenue between Fourteenth and Sixteenth streets. Gunter had enclosed it within an ornate castellated stone wall resembling nothing so much as the perimeter of a Victorian penitentiary, as if the Southern prison had itself been belatedly brought north to expiate its wartime offenses by confinement at hard labor. Fifty cents (half-price for children under fifteen) admitted the spectator to a mix of the authentic and the contrived. The exterior had been recreated with some care. Of Libby’s most famous episode, the escape in 1864 of more than a hundred inmates through an underground passage that they had dug, there was a reminder in the form of a hole in the wall labeled the tunnel entrance, though not in the same location as the original.
Charles Gunther’s success with his Libby Prison exhibit attracted other raids on the Civil War landscape as the 1893 Chicago world’s fair approached.
Otherwise, Gunther had tried principally to create as pleasant a setting as he could manage to display his collection. The floors were new and the paint was fresh, the partitions were gone, and the interior was brilliantly lit by electricity, the better to show off items that ranged from letters by leading generals on both sides to pieces of weaponry to the beam from which those convicted in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy were hanged.
The initial turnout at least reproduced the overcrowding that had been one of the wartime Libby’s characteristics. “The museum was an immediate success and one of the nation’s most talked-about attractions.” Gunther’s achievement prompted further raids on the Civil War landscape as the Chicago world’s fair of 1893 approached. The John Brown Fort Company sought to acquire the enginehouse at Harpers Ferry where the raiders of 1859 had been besieged and captured. This time there was local opposition, but, the Chicago Tribune was happy to report, “arguments and pleas and big figures at last prevailed. The owner gave an option on the property,” and the building was transplanted to Wabash Avenue. The Wilmer McLean House in Appomattox, where Lee had surrendered to Grant, was dismantled for the same purposes but never reached Chicago. Afterward much of the Brown fort made it back to Harpers Ferry, where it was patched together at two successive sites. In 1949, when the National Park Service rebuilt the McLean House, only one in a dozen of the bricks was from the original, the rest having been scattered.
Even less survives today of Libby Prison. A decade after opening his museum, Charles G’unter decided he needed the prime lot it occupied for his Chicago Coliseum. So Libby was again torn down, the victim of commercial zeal. Made novel and colorful to attract business, it became expendable once the novelty had worn off, as enticing and as disposable as the wrappers in which its owner packaged the candies that were his main line of work.
Yet as a gesture to the past, G’unter retained Libby’s facade within a wall of the far larger building that replaced it. In 1920 he sold his collection to the Chicago Historical Society, and it became the cornerstone of that institution’s great Civil War holdings. When the Coliseum was eventually torn down in 1982, Libby’s much-traveled facade made one final journey, across town to the historical society, to come to rest amid the memorabilia it had once housed and in the proper hands at last.
One wonders how it would have fared in Richmond.