Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Libby Prison Breakout" by Joseph Wheelan

The Civil War was anything but "civil." It was fought with cruelty on both sides. This book concerns the notorious "Libby" Prison in Richmond. The prison was located in a series of three adjoining warehouses that had been the home to a ship chandler by the name of Luther Libby. He had purchased it prior to the war from the original owner, John Enders, in 1852. When the Confederacy commandeered the buildings for use as a prison, the sign Mr. Libby had hung above the entrance with the name "Libby and Son", would cement his name into history forever, through no fault of his own.

The book tells three intertwined stories, each of great interest and each dependent upon the other.

The first part of the story is an examination of the state of affairs in Richmond, the Capitol of the Confederacy during the days leading up to the war. In this phase we are introduced to Elizabeth Van Lew, a Southern, aristocratic woman, born in the North and with deep Union sympathies. She is also a woman of courage and action. She uses her social position to assist the Union in espionage concerning troop strengths and positions. She also organizes an "underground railway" for Union prisoners who manage to escape the deplorable conditions within the walls of Libby Prison.

The authors' description of Richmond and the food shortages coupled with the lack of clothing and building materials conjure up the scenes of Atlanta in "Gone With the Wind". They are simply that vivid.

At the same time as Ms. Van Lew is working outside the prison, the men inside are anything but idle. They are stealing, buying and otherwise engaged in any way that they can to stay alive. They even manage to buy civilian clothing with money smuggled in to them and some are able to simply walk out in this manner. But these are rare exceptions.

While all this is happening, two Union officers, Colonel Rose and Major Hamilton, have begun their own separate attempts at escaping the worst prison since the British prison ship Jersey, located in Brooklyn, New York. After seperate failures they team up to dig a tunnel beneath the walls and into the sewer system in an attempt to escape. They try three times before they succeed.

The book also examines the principles of war, if there are any. Which allegiance is stronger? The duty to one's country, or to humanity? The author compares some of the atrocities of the British during the Revoutonary War with the actions of both the North and the South against one another in the Civil War. You will be surprised at who was doing what to whom, and how little that war has changed in the intervening years. Only the technology is different. The brutality is not.

Finally it is the story of a mass prison escape in which 109 Union officers made their way to freedom. Once they were out of the prison, Ms. Van Lew and her group of activists (which included some of the slaves) manage to hide, supply and transport these men back to Union lines. Some of the means they employ are ingenious, some are simply daring and required nerves of steel.

One further aspect to this book, that makes it more than just another escape story, is the authors use of the subject to explore the policy of "unrestricted warfare". Is it just to use prisoners as bargaining chips? Must we stand on principle when dealing with enemies that abuse and torture our own captives? These were some of the questions faced by President Lincoln and his Generals in dealing with the Confederacy. While we officially rejected the policies of "unrestricted warfare" we cannot ignore Andersonville, the notorious Union hell hole along the Kansas-Missouri border, where "unrestricted warfare" was the norm. General Shermans "March to the Sea" also comes to mind as an example of Northern abuse.

A vividly written book, you will look forward to each chapter as the author takes you through the paces. And you will be surprised, or maybe not, at the relevance of the issues raised here, to the events of today as they pertain to war.

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