Libby Prison Breakout: The Daring Escape From the Notorious Civil War Prison

by Joseph Wheelan, Public Affairs, 2010, $26.95

 The audacious escape from Libby Prison by 109 Union soldiers in February 1864 is, of course, the focus of Joseph Wheelan’s fascinating new book. But Wheelan explores a number of other important aspects connected with the famed breakout. The former journalist also examines wartime Richmond, the war’s abbreviated POW exchange system and the valuable contributions of Southern belle (and Union sympathizer) Elizabeth Van Lew.

The escape was the brainchild of Colonel Thomas Ellwood Rose and Major A.G. Hamilton, both captured in September 1863, who met accidentally in a deserted cellar while searching for the best place for a tunnel. Fortunately for us, none of the participants they recruited were shy about later discussing their experiences. Wheelan weaves into his narrative a gripping 50-page account of tunneling with primitive tools under miserable conditions, no light and foul air.

Although the book is at times a painful read, it teems with heroes—mostly the desperate prisoners and the members of the Union underground in Richmond. (Historical figures from Lincoln on down come off poorly, however.) Union and Confederate statements on POWs revealed in the book eerily remind readers of what today’s leaders tend to say about terrorists: “They are evil men bent on destroying our way of life. If we don’t coddle them, what’s the big deal?”


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.