Vermont Flag Site Logo
1st Vermont Cavalry
Prison Life

"FRESH FISH"

A Personal Experience At Libby Prison

A lecture by Capt. Eli Holden

As transcribed by his daughter,
Annie Holden Burr, March, 1906

The following is a lecture given by Eli Holden recounting his personal experiences as a prisoner at Libby Prison during the American Civil War. It was written down by his daughter, Annie Holden Burr in March, 1906.

"On October 1, 1863 it was my misfortune to enter Libby Prison, Richmond, VA a prisoner of war. I was received at the office by a gorgeously uniformed deputation of Confederate officers on duty for that purpose. My name, rank and Regiment were called for and recorded in a large ledger-like volume.

My wallet was demanded and the contents transferred to the pocket of one of the officials. The portmonai (a poor one) was returned. Finding himself little-enriched by the proceeding, I was asked, had I more money. To this question, I gave an emphatic negative. I afterward found this an error. I did not correct it however.

From the office I was conducted by an armed attendant to the stairs leading to the floor above and left alone in darkness. Guided by the tramping of many feet, I groped by way to the landing and seated myself on my blanket, tired, hungry and miserable.

Could I have known that this was the beginning of 18 long, weary months as the guest of the Confederacy; my condition would have seemed indeed hopeless. As I entered the room, I heard some one call out "fresh fish," but had no idea that he referred to me. In those days I carried my appetite with me. I had eaten but two meals in the last two days, nothing since morning. My thoughts were mostly of food, problem asking what the prospect was in this line. I was told I would receive no rations until next day.

After musing on my condition for a while, I was asked by a young man wearing a Captain's uniform, "Are you the fresh fish?" I replied, "I am." Not aware of being fish or fowl, but my surroundings are so new and strange I could not be certain of anything. He introduced himself as Captain [William D.] Lucas of the Fifth N.Y. Cavalry and invited me to his quarters, which in Libby meant the part of the floor occupied, and here I found Captain [James A.] Penfield of the same regiment who I had known before. They gave me supper of bread and water, which was very acceptable.

I did not realize 'til afterwards that this generosity deprived them of breakfast. They also invited me to take quarters near them. The intimacy thus begun, continued through our entire imprisonment and, with additions, made our mess.

I found Libby prison a large building between two streets, of three stories on one, and four on the other. It was divided by solid brick from bottom to top making the same number of rooms on each floor. During my stay we occupied only the two upper floors of six rooms with one room below for cooking and eating, the remainder of the floor being a hospital office, etc. The windows were without sash or glass and without iron bars to keep us from falling out.

For some months after I had entered, it was said the first escape occurred when workmen were sent in to bar the windows. Some of our number took tools and went out past the guards in daylight; the guards having orders to pass workmen, and supposing those who carried tools to be such.

The occupants of Libby at this time were the officers of Col. Streights command captured Rome, GA., the captives of the Gettysburg campaign, nearly all officers taken east of the Mississippi thus far in the operations of 63.

The only general among us at this time was Neal Dow, another of the Main liquor law and temperance leaders. There were quite a number of surgeons and chaplains that, for some accountable reason, were detained as prisoners of war. Usually I have found men of these professions very agreeable associates, but here they were the reverse having exchange on the brain to that extent they could talk of nothing else; and were glad of their release, which soon occurred for their sake as well as ours.

Some time before my arrival, for some real or fancied act of our government, the rebels decided to hang two captains. Lots were drawn to see who were to be thus honored. The lot fell on Captains Sawyer of New Jersey and Flynn of Indiana. As hanging was a simple matter with our keepers, affecting no one very much but the individual concerned, it was supposed the men would be executed.

Our government was notified and having the sons of General R. E. Lee and General Winder in their possession, answered - when you hang Sawyer and Flynn, we hang Lee & Winder. The hanging never took place. But, Sawyer, having made himself ridiculous, was the butt of his of his comrades after. In the night when all was quiet, would come the cry "Who was mad for not being hung? Sawyer of N.J.," from several parts of the prison, with much laughter.

An event soon after my arrival was the addition of the officers captured at the battle of Chickamauga, who were turned in after lights were out. (No lights being allowed after 9:00 p.m. under penalty of being fired-upon, the rooms were dark.) They were greeted with yells of, "Fresh fish, fresh fish don't steel their blankets. Let their haversacks alone. Keep your hands out of their pockets."

If they did not vow they were on the boarders of the infernal regions, they must have thought, 'abandon hope all ye who enter here.' In addition to these yells were orders of "file right" and "file left" to guide them on over those who had laid themselves about the floor to rest, also, "Go to the next room. That's reserved for you."

This was continued until these weary men found places to lay their tired limbs on the downy side of the floor of Libby Prison. These men were captured after two days of heroic fighting on the bloody field of Chickamauga. More than ten weeks before they had been marched over dusty roads, herded in fields, crowded in cattle cars too thick to sleep with little to eat to meet this reception from their friends and comrades. It was cruel. But whenever there were, few who would not share our scanty food with a stranger, and a former friend, was treated to a banquet, "a Libby banquet." [not quite clear here] I have learned the meaning of 'fresh fish.' All newcomers shared a like-fate, unless some stale fish came to their rescue. I could never account for my mild initiation.

The rebels were economical in all things with their prisoners, even with space. This large addition made us so crowded that two more rooms were given us each 105 feet long by 45 feet wide, we now had 6. In sleeping, a row lay around the room their heads next to the wall, each one occupying about 2 feet in width, at the foot of this row was a narrow walk, then the center of the room was filled. A few used hammocks. These were mostly gunboat men. There were no fires, except in two rooms for cooking. In the principal cook room, no one was allowed to sleep. I have said there were no winders, only places for them; consequently, the rooms were very cold.

This unlimited ventilation was a blessing, though not designed as such by our keepers. Even with it, the air in the center of the room became very foul during the night.

Each day we were counted. A squad of soldiers came in and drove us into ranks four deep in each room. The clerk Ross counted, if not right he separated the operation until it was right, or he became disgusted, and reported "all right." These rebels had no system. They counted whenever they felt moved to do so at any time between daylight and dark. If any were at dinner or bathing, or any other necessary duty, they had to come in ranks until Ross was satisfied, "Youans is all yere…" Libby was kept clean and the prisoners had no hand or voice in the matter

Each morning a squad of negros swept making all the dust possible. Two or three times a week, the whole prison was washed by pouring large quantities of water upon one end of the room and sweeping it to the other. Our blankets and other possessions had to be kept out of their way, or get a thorough wetting. The slavery way of doing this work left the room very damp for several hours.

A great annoyance in Libby was the vermin, named by solders "gray backs." The old building swarmed with thes

e little pests. They paid no respect to rank, all received equal attention. Each morning, a general skirmish through our garments took place, the slaughter was great, the relief temporary. Fastidious newcomers would express much disgust and declare they would never degrade themselves in this way. I never knew one to maintain his dignity but a few days; their surrender was unconditional and complete.

The food furnished varied much in quantity and quality. At first, we received wheat bread and meat daily. One method of cooking was to boil the meat for about 25 minutes in a larch kettle, put in the rice, or cow peas (the cow pea is a poor bean), of which they gave small quantities, eat the soup with bread for dinner and make hash of whatever was left for breakfast. Two meals each day were sufficient to dispose of our supplies. We cooked in turn.

After I had served, I was of the opinion of ladies who say they prefer some other persons cooking to their own. I assure you I preferred to remain ignorant of the ingredients of the hash. After a few weeks, I presume they thought we ought to have a change. They made one by giving us corn bread. The loaf for a day's supply was the size and shape of 1/3 of a brick. In texture the resemblance was greater, though. I think there was more tenacity in the bread. I saw many loaves thrown from the fourth story upon the pavement, without being broken. They also diminished in meat supply and for 40 consecutive days gave us none, and always after, the interval between the meat rations were long and frequent.

The corn bread loaves were such an abomination as food that a few of us petitioned for meal and mush. This was an improvement, though we had neither milk nor molasses. Our cooking facilities were very poor. Sometimes, one would have to wait an hour or more to boil coffee if he had any. None was furnished.

A few of us petitioned to buy and use a stove, which was granted. Thirty-five of us formed a stock company, shares $10 each and $350 for a small cook-stove. My mess at this time had seven members and we owned 1/5 of the stove. Each mess who held shares had their hour for use and we were independent. Though at least 100 were allowed to do their cooking on our stove, I think they never forgave us for being better-provided-for than the rest. I know, I never [did] after I had my former good standing, and was twitted of joining the 'aristocracy.' All soon asked for raw rations, formed masses of from 1 to 10 and became their own cooks.

Most being captured in warm weather with summer clothing, many without a blanket, as winter drew near, we suffered much from cold. Exchange was dead. The rebels could not or would not relieve our wants. They told us we could write home for what we wanted, money and liquors prohibited, and anything sent would be delivered. All who had friends in reach sent for a barrel of supplies, and I pitied the poor fellows whose friends were too distant or their families within the rebel lines where a letter could not reach them.

Our letters could contain but six lines, unsealed and sent north by our flag of truce boat from City Point. After writing, we waited anxiously for the next boat. Our faith was weak as to the honest delivery of supplies sent. In time a few arrived, the recipients were happy. I think the first were faithfully delivered, without a very rigid inspection, but often money had been sent and some of the prohibited articles smuggled and many were kept and the contents of some injured by the inspection. This was partly caused by foolish persons bragging that they were smart enough to get money and liquors. This was true, but the innocent suffered.

I think at the time few people in Richmond had the delicacies in variety of food of the Yankee officers in Libby prison. Captain Penfield of my mess, besides a miscellaneous barrel from his family received from New York City a barrel of cheese, a barrel of books, a large hogshead of canned meats and fruits.

Major Dillingham of Waterbury, also of my mess, among many other things, had a large bag of the best coffee. In our supplies were ham, dried beef, pickles, condensed milk, corn starch, sugar, fruit, etc. My mess bought a barrel of flour -- paying $250 for it. It required ingenuity to store our provisions and have room to sleep.

Oh, we were not starving then, but a short distance away on Belle Isle were 8,000 poor fellows sleeping on the cold ground in mid-winter without any boxes from home, without flour or coffee, or money to buy it. Though they had friends as able, as willing, as loving, as ours, they were not allowed to relieve them and they froze, starved, and died to satisfy the hellish malignity of General Winder and Jeff.

Our government was allowed to send some clothing and blankets. Colonel Sanderson of Libby was permitted to visit the island daily for a while to superintend the proper distributions. He was forbidden to report what he saw, learned, or carry communications with us.

Some gained permission to send a few dollars of our scanty funds to men of our companies. I have hoped they were benefited though most of them died miserable deaths, sleep in unknown graves, and never saw Old Glory or God's country again. Colonel Sanderson one day reported a female warrior among the prisoners on Belle Isle. She had served two years, done good service in many battles, captured for several months and a prisoner of war without her sex being suspected.

The rebels were willing to release a woman. The Libby-ites contributed $600 to buy clothing. This sum would furnish about what a wash woman would want on a hot July morning. I was told the next truce boat took her north.

 So many men confined together must naturally seek amusement and every conceivable method within our means was tried. All games of dominos, checkers, chess, and cards were continually played; even draw poker had its varieties. We had fine singers who made old Libby ring with songs of war and love. We had our first class players. Instruments were obtained by contributions, (among us contributing was as much a nuisance as at a church fair) and we had a fine string band. We had a dancing master and the latest fancy dances were practiced daily.

Great bearded fellows went whirling about the room until they brought up against some comrade who often swore forcibly at their heedlessness. We had schools, military, civil, and uncivil. French, German, Spanish and Italian were taught by competent instructors. Military tactics by graduates of the best schools of Europe, sword exercises with wooden weapon or iron foils received much attention. We had a minstrel troupe, that assisted by the band, gave weekly performances of no mean merit.

We placed several tables together, carpeted with army blankets for a stage and blankets for curtains and scenery. The funny parts were mostly original, made of incidents that happened daily among us. They drew good houses, and were often honored by the presence of the prison officials (always a doubtful honor).

We manufactured dominoes, chessman, checkers and boards, tables and chairs, stools, shelves, etc., but the greatest industry was bone carving. Rings and charms were the most common, but curious and beautiful designs were wrought by the skillful and patient. I knew men to carve daily for weeks on a small piece of bone and some beautiful things were made.

Libby prison was not all gloomy. We would sometimes forget our misery and enjoy ourselves.

The most exciting event of the winter was the tunnel. Want of time will allow me to give but a brief outline of this affair. I find myself under the necessity of omitting many details of interest in every part of this narrative. For full details of the tunnel operations, I refer you to a well-written account in the March, Century Magazine for 1888. The leader and engineer of this enterprise was Colonel Ross of 77 Penn., his able Lieutenant, whose mechanical ingenuity overcame all obstacles was Captain Hamilton, 12th Kentucky.

The base of operations was the east cellar. To reach this, they loosened and removed bricks in a fireplace, back of a stove in the cook room, then cut a hole in such a manner as not to break the wall in the opposite room, used as a hospital or in the cellar below, the cook room that was occupied by workmen sometimes. This fireplace was within 10 or 15 feet of a sentry outside the door of the cook room. The work being carried on in the quiet of the night, it was necessary to make as little noise as possible. The bricks taken out were replaced each morning and soot thrown in the cracks to hide the opening.

Hamilton did all this work, and in time with great patience, succeeded in making a passage shaped like the letter "S." Ross attempted to pass through but stuck so tightly that Hamilton had to get help to pull him out. The hole was enlarged with a rope ladder Colonel Rose had made, the cellar was reached. Ross organized a working party of 15 and attempted to tunnel under the street to the canal.

After 39 nights of hard labor they were driven out by water. This party wore out and disbanded. Ross and Hamilton would not give up. They soon reorganized a working party and started a tunnel from the north end of the cellar to the lot joining on the east separated from Libby by an alley or street 50 feet wide. The air in the cellar was bad, often their lights would not burn, nor could the worker breathe. This difficulty was overcome by making a fan of a rubber blanket and driving air to the operator.

The dirt was removed in one of the wooden spit boxes with a cord attached to the opposite sides; the one in the hole drew the box in, filled it, and gave a signal on the cord. The one at the entrance drew it out, emptied it, gave the signal and the operation was repeated. The dirt was hidden under the straw stored in the cellar. The tunnel was about 2 feet in diameter, and in about 20 days and nights was carried 53 feet reaching the surface beyond the fence under a shed.

The tunnel was completed on the morning of Feb. 9th - Colonel Ross went out upon the street, made an examination and returned the short time before daylight, decide the party wait until evening. Each of the 15 who had assisted was allowed to inform one friend under a pledge of secrecy that a way to liberty existed.

The second party was to wait one hour after the first went out. At 10 o'clock, Colonel Ross led his friends to the cellar for the last time. Colonel Hobart, who was to follow, removed and hid the rope ladder, and replaced the bricks. At this time, I do not think 50 of all the prisoners knew of the tunnel. Captain Schofield, my bedfellow, if pooling our blankets for mutual comfort made us such, had known of our first operations, his poor health prevented his taking part or now going out; he had given me his confidence and chance a few days before.

I was too much disabled by rheumatism to profit by it. Those in the secret watched anxiously from the east windows, saw dark forms come upon the sidewalk and glide away.

Before the hour had passed, so many had discovered that something unusual was taking place, the excitement was great. Colonel Hobart tried to restore order and method but could not, fearing all would be given away replaced the ladder and went out. I did not go below to be in the way of those who could escape, but with a group, watching and listening. I passed the most anxious night of my life. So many crowded about the fireplace that those in front could not get back if they wished.

About midnight, some idiot called out that the guards were coming. This caused a stampede, making a great noise and injuring several severely. A discovery was feared but all soon became quiet and a strike for liberty continued.

A small major near me who had slept during all the tumult of the night awoke about 4 o'clock in the morning, and was told of the escape. He caught up his blanket, ran down the stairs, plunged into the hole and reached our lines. 109 went out during the night, among them Colonel Streight toward whom some of the rebels were very bitter and had treated with such severity. 59 of these reached our lines, 48 were captured and returned and two drowned. Colonel Ross, who discovered success was one of the unfortunate being captured in sight of our men. The first brought back were placed in the horrible cells in the basement, but were soon sent above to make room for others.

When Ross counted in the morning, he said, "Youans ain't all yere," and then we were driven in one room and counted through the door. Ross then said, "Mowah than 100 youans gone." The guards were marched in arrest to Cattle Thinder. The Horse, foot and artillery of Richmond were rushing in all directions after the missing.

The place of exit which they did not find until afternoon was visited by hundreds of the citizens. To witness the dismay and excitement was the next thing to being one of the successful. In other prisons, tunnels were tried, but always discovered.

The next exciting event was Kilpatrick's raid, but the rebels were affected more than the prisoners - we being ignorant of the cause. Kilpatrick entered the two outer lines of defense and came within 3 and 1.5 miles of the city. Every man civil and military was ordered to the defense. Colonel Dohlgreen, with 4-men had been sent to attack from another side. He failed to reach his position and lost his life. He was cripple having lost a leg in Maryland in July before. Large quantities of gunpowder were placed in the basement with fuse attached to blow us into eternity if Kilpatrick succeeded. It was perhaps well for us that he did not.

The officers captured from this raid were treated with more cruelty. I know not the reason unless for giving them a bad scare. They run a wood petition across one corner of the workroom in which they were placed with Negro privates. The Negroes were given better food and were not allowed to share with the officers. The rest of the prisoners were forbidden to hold any communication - but we did. [A nail had split from a cross-grained board, a triangular pierce about three inches at the base and six inches long. This piece was loosened; a wall of men would form around one and remove the piece, pass in food and replace it.] We also made a hole through the floor above, and with a tunnel, formed of tin-cans, poured coffee through to them. When the rest of the prisoners were removed from Libby, these men remained and when they joined us in the summer - were reduced to skeletons.

The discussion of exchange was always in order in Libby. Exchange news of the most sensational type was in continual circulation. The arrival of each truce boat brought a fresh supply; it often reached us before anything else often before the boat.

Men of brilliant talent and high intellectual attainment would give credence to the most foolish and absurd exchange reports.

The cry of 'PACK-UP,' we're going home, would ring out in daylight and darkness. A few special exchanges took place, but most of us were there to stay. In time, the winter wore away. Our supplies grew less. The spring days were warm and beautiful.

The James River became larger, covered the street, and flooded the basement, driving out hundreds of rats upon piles of wood, lumber and anything that rose above the water. I saw many start to swim the river to the green open country beyond. They were soon lost to view, but after a winter in Libby, I hoped they succeeded, though I have little affection for rates.

We were watching daily to learn of the opening of the campaign of '64 through the Richmond papers or new prisoners. Suddenly the cry of 'PACK UP' came in earnest from our keepers - orders, they said, "Go light for you are marching." Libby was alive; it resembled a beehive that has been disturbed.

Many things convenient had accumulated that could not be moved. What to take, and what to leave were a perplexing question. After blankets, the members of my mess selected 15-20 pounds for each man and gave away the rest.

On a bright May morning, we filed out of Libby and formed a line in the street. For the first time in many months, we could breathe pure with the blue sky over us, our feet on mother earth once more. I believe a correct panoramic view of that line of men would give this audience more pleasure than any entertainment ever given in this hall.

I cannot describe them. I will make no attempt. Our Libby life was ended.

I have tried to avoid the worst features upon the dark background - a few bright spots appear. For in the great catalog of Heaven's mercies, mankind, the power we have of finding comfort and some pleasure under severe trials ought to have the foremost place."


NOTE: Eli Holden returned from the war a Captain. He was the first man to enlist from his area, walking to Rutland from So. Barre to do so, and after the war he returned to the home far which he remained upon until his death. He married and nine children were born of the union.

Service Record:
Holden, Eli, Barre. Enlisted, age 26, 5/2/1861 and mustered in 5/9/1861 as a private in Company F, 1st Vermont Infantry. He mustered out with his regiment 8/15/1861. He enlisted again 9/17/1861 and was mustered in 11/19/1861 as First Sergeant, Company C, 1st Vermont Cavalry, but was immediately commissioned 2nd Lieutenant of the company. He was promoted to 1st Lieutenant 11/8/1862 to date from 10/30/1862. He was wounded in action 4/1/1863 at Dranesvill, Va. in a skirmish with the Confederate raider Mosby. According to G. G. Benedict, "The casualties in this lamentable affair were seven killed and mortally wounded; 22 wounded and 82 captured unwounded. Lieutenant Holden received a flanking sabre cut on the head, which nearly scalped him, as was Lieutenant Sawyer. Holden's rank was not discovered by his captors and he was paroled with the other enlisted men." He was taken prisoner 9/26/1863 at Richard's Ford, paroled 3/1/1865, breveted Captain to date from 3/13/1865 "for gallant and meritorious service in the field," and mustered out 3/15/1865. Captain Holden died 12/13/1905 and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Barre.

Sources:
1866 Adjutant General's Report
1892 Revised Roster
Benedict, G. G. Vermont in the Civil War. Burlington: Free Press Association, 1888.
Holden, Eli. "Fresh Fish," A personal Experience At Libby Prison. Transcribed by Annie Holden Burr, March 1906.
Links:
Libby Prison
Prisons, Paroles and POWs
General Neal Dow
Escape from Libby Prison
Contributed by:
Ann Daley and Erica L. Evelti, Eli Holden's great- and 2nd-great-granddaughters, respectively.