Skip to main content

The Selling Of Libby Prison

June 2024
5min read

This isn’t the first time a Virginia governor has found himself embroiled in controversy about the commercialization of a Civil War site

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. . . .”

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.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.