Letter from Colonel Frederick Bartleson, 100th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, to his wife while captive in Libby Prison at Richmond.
February 26, 1864
I take this opportunity of sending you a longer letter than usual by the hands of a prisoner who has been exchanged. Owing to the fact that many here do nothing else but write letters, which, of course, as one would expect, are to be read, such an accumulation of letters ensued that an order has been issued, unduly severe, prohibiting more than one letter a week, and that to contain no more than six lines. This will account for what you have doubtless regarded as very brief epistles…
The question of exchange looks black, but perhaps it may clear up one of these days. Some special exchanges are being affected, and it is said that Capts. Sawyer and Flum, who were once on a line selected to be hanged, are to be exchanged.
You noticed the arrival of a number of officers who had escaped from Libby by means of a tunnel. It was, I think, the most clever performance in that line during the war, and we could see them coming up from their subterranean hole and issuing on the street in full view of the guards. Of course, there was great rivalry as to who should go, as all could not. For my part, I could only look on with regret, as it was impossible for me to crawl through or to make the descent, which was through a fireplace to the ground floor, where the tunnel was commenced. Some have been brought back, but the rest are safe. But the difficulties after getting out are very formidable. The country is swarming with scouts and patrols on the lookout for deserters…
Considering our number in this prison, it is a matter of as much congratulation as wonder that we are so healthy here. The same cannot be said of the Island. But there is very little smallpox among us, while it is said to be quite bad elsewhere. I was vaccinated and it took slightly.
My daily life: I go to bed about ten, get up a little after daylight for roll-call, then breakfast. Read, write, walk and talk and grumble for a while. At two P.M., roll-call, then have dinner. Read, write, talk and grumble till bedtime. Not a great variety, to be sure…
Being confined in a building, with insufficient exercise, is very irksome. But there is nothing which does not become systematic, and Libby has its life and its routine and its characters. I wish Dickens could paint and describe it. When I first came here, there was a newspaper edited by a chaplain and published weekly. It contained some good articles occasionally. Then for a long time there were French classes and German classes, and some soldiers improved the time very well.
Now, in regard to the relative treatment of prisoners by respective Governments, I have a word to say. No man can say that prisoners are as well treated there as they are here. There are two reasons against it; one is, they haven’t got the means to treat them as well, and another is, they haven’t got the disposition. They are fighting from different motives from us. We are fighting for the Union, a sentiment, a high and noble sentiment, but after all a sentiment. They are fighting for independence and are animated by passion and hatred against invaders.
When men fight for independence, it makes no difference whether the cause is just or not. You can get up an amount of enthusiasm that nothing else will excite. And while we feed our prisoners well, and it is our policy to do it, and while public sentiment would not justify any other course, they feed theirs they are not particular how. Public sentiment there will justify almost any treatment of the Yankees.
When a box is received, there is great joy with the recipient. If it is a dull season for boxes, great crowds gather around with the most vociferous cries and pass critically on each article received, tickled to death, like a child with a new toy. This prison life almost makes one a child again, and it is reason, undoubtedly, which purifies a man’s mind and makes him think he will be better when he gets out. Render him liable to good impressions–you imagine how I get along here.
The whole secret of making it endurable consists in having something to do. When I am in good trim and my mind is clear, I manage to make the day pass tolerably. Something to do at stated hours, making one forget where he is, is the secret. When there was a general belief that an exchange would be affected, I broke in on my ordinary pursuits and devoted myself to tracing the reliability of the rumors, which flowed in on us like a flood. I was more dissatisfied at that time than almost any other, when our hope vanished; so little doubt had I entertained, previous to that time, of the success of the negotiations which were going on.
A rumor here on exchange is dissected and analyzed with the utmost skill and acuteness. A thousand minds, eager and watchful, are brought to bear upon it. And no matter how absurd it may appear at first, it is gravely considered from all angles. Your old maid is no match at all for the Libby gossips. Curiosity here beats the most inquisitive form of that article elsewhere–and as for the exaggerations of a rumor after it is once started, no one can imagine them. I do not believe that on this subject it is possible for any inmate here to tell the truth. I am accustomed to say that here it requires twelve men to tell the truth.
We are made up here, as you can well imagine, of every variety of character and disposition. Sometimes I am sorry to say that the temper of some few is overcome and that fight is the consequence. We have had one or two of these little affairs since I have been here, but they were stopped. Of course, there is a public sentiment which condemns all such things, but in a population numbering nine hundred, we constitute a little village without the restraints of home.
The vermin are troublesome, so please put something in the box to help keep them off. We have bed bugs, too, and I presume that in the summer, we will find them very bad…
Now, dear Kate, I think this letter is long enough. I have not sent it through the mail in the ordinary way, but through the favor of a friend.
My love is all for you. Remember and give my love to all our friends.
Note: Colonel Barleston had been captured at the Battle of Chickamauga and sent to Libby Prison. He was later released and was killed in operations around Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, on 23 June 1864.
Source: Tapert, Annette (ed.), The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Press, 1988), p. 186-89