The Great Yankee Wonder

Published:January 16, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

Libby Prison, April 1865 [LC-B8184-10215]

This week’s Virginia Vignette is about an escape from Libby Prison in Richmond during the Civil War. Around 109 Union officers tunneled out, with fifty-nine of them eventually reaching the safety of their own lines. The last two sentences of the Vignette prompted skepticism from some readers, however. Here’s what we wrote:

A prison employee, suspected of aiding the escape, received 500 lashes. The tunnel, meanwhile, was dubbed the “Great Yankee Wonder” by the Richmond press and placed on exhibition.

In particular, readers wanted to know how anyone could survive 500 lashes. Also, where and when was the tunnel exhibited?

These two facts come from historian Elizabeth R. Varon’s 2003 biography of the Unionist spy Elizabeth Van Lew, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. She gets the tale of 500 lashes from an 1867 statement given by one of Van Lew’s spies, Abby Green. (The statement is stored in the National Archives.) So what were the circumstances of this statement? How did Green know what was going on in the prison? Did a Unionist spy like Green have an investment in portraying the authorities at Libby as particularly cruel?

These questions go to the credibility of the source, and I don’t have any definitive answers. As to whether someone could survive such a lashing, even Green conceded it was nearly lethal.

As for the tunnel being called the “Great Yankee Wonder” by the Richmond press, Varon cites not the press accounts but the 1888 book The Capture, the Prison Pen, and the Escape by Willard W. Glazier, a former Union prisoner. This source also should be treated with some skepticism as our entry-in-progress on Libby Prison makes clear:

Such memoirs should be read in context, however. After the war, former Union prisoners were not granted pensions unless they had also sustained injuries or suffered from disease during their service. To muster support for their plight, the veterans mounted a public-relations campaign that included wildly sensationalistic “recollections” owing much to the dime novels of the “Wild West.” When the United States government granted universal pensions beginning in 1890, these memoirs virtually disappeared.

Varon’s work on Van Lew—and “Crazy Bet” is a fascinating figure in her own right—has been skeptical and revisionist and I trust her as a scholar. However, these two facts strike me as a little shaky.

For more on Libby Prison, see Mike D. Gorman’s wonderful website, Civil War Richmond. And for more on Van Lew, read Varon’s biography and check out these two Virginia Vignettes, on Van Lew and on the mysterious Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

IMAGE: An 1865 photograph of the north face of Libby Prison.