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1864 March 12: Colonel H. C. Hobart’s Account of Libby Prison

March 16, 2014

The following article is from the March 12, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  The article is very long and we have split it into three postings, one today, the second part detailing the famous escape tomorrow, and Hobart’s closing remarks the next day.

COL. H. C. HOBART’S RECEPTION.

ADDRESS BEFORE LEGISLATURE.

HORRORS OF LIBBY PRISON.

HOW THE PRISONERS ESCAPED.

Exciting Narrative.

COL. HOBART’S VIEWS ON THE WAR.

Vigorous War the only Road to Peace.

From the Daily State Journal of March 3d.

The Assembly Hall was crowded as it never was before, last evening, on the occasion of the reception and address of Col. HARRISON C. HOBART, of the 21st Wisconsin, recently escaped from Libby Prison, Richmond.  The lobbies and gallery, as well as the floor of the Hall were densely packed.  Hon. LEVI HUBBELL of Milwaukee, presided.  When Col. HOBART appeared in the Speaker’s desk, he was greeted with long and loud applause.

Harrison C. Hobart (see footnote)

Harrison C. Hobart¹

Judge HUBBELL said he had very great pleasure in introducing, on this occasion, a gentleman known to very many present,— known honorably in the civic history of this State—one who, at an early day in the present struggle, volunteered in the ranks ;  who, as a Captain in the 4th Wisconsin, participated in the capture of New Orleans, and who had risen, by his own merit, to the second in command of another regiment.  In the great and terrible battle of Chickamauga he had the misfortune to be taken prisoner, and was thrown into a loathsome dungeon at Richmond.  By the providence of God he had escaped from that dungeon and returned to his own State, among his friends.  Any man who had suffered and endured so much in behalf of the country, was entitled to be received with honor.  But the speaker said the audience were already aware of these things, and in regard to his experiences in the South, the gentleman, like St. Paul, was able to speak for himself.  (Applause.)

Col. HOBART, after the applause had subsided said :  He had had an opportunity of seeing the enemies of the country since the war commenced, but he did no[t] know that he had ever been more abashed than at the present time.  He thanked the gentlemen of the two Houses of the Legislature for the kind manner they had referred to him, and said he knew that those expressions were not for him personally but for the soldiers of our army.  He should endeavor, by giving in brief the story of his own experiences, to illustrate in some degree the treatment which our soldiers experience when prisoners in the hands of the enemy.  Last September, on the 10th of the month, he was on the Tennessee river in command of his regiment.  An order came to cross the mountains and proceed to the rear of Chattanooga, in order to get in possession of that important point.  One of the first men to cross the river was that gallant gentleman, Col. Heg [Hans Christian Heg].  (Applause.)

Col. Hobart then went on to give a sketch of the movements just antecedent to the battle of Chickamauga with a graphic account of the engagement.  He described the building of low breastworks of logs on the Saturday night before the terrible Sunday battle, and the attempt of the rebels to carry them on the following day.  Our soldiers were veterans.  The rebels came on in vastly superior numbers.  Again and again they were repulsed.  The sharp orders of rebel officers could be heard :  “Carry those Yankee breastworks.  You must take them !  Forward !” and again they would charge, to be again repulsed with terrible loss.  It was not till near sunset that the rebels succeeded in flanking the works.—A part of the regiment were cut off and surrounded.  He stepped into a thicket of fir trees to avoid a cavalry charge and found himself confronted by an advancing line of rebel infantry.  He saw at once that his usefulness to country was for the time at an end.  A rebel officer advanced and took him by the hand, giving him an invitation to go and see Gen. Claiborne [sic],² which under the circumstances he did not feel like declining.  (Laughter.)  He was taken soon after to the tent of the General in question and introduced to him.—The General asked “Where were you fighting ?”  “Right there !”  Col. H. replied.—Claiborne answered :  “Your men have fought like brave men, sir—that line has given us the main trouble of the day.”

Col. H., as he was taken to the rear, saw the rebel dead, and learned that they had suffered terribly, and that their troops were broken and scattered.  Yet they had succeeded in defeating us.  The conduct of Gen. Thomas [George H. Thomas] and his troops that day deserved the high commendations bestowed on them.  But it was his impression that it was not Gen. Thomas alone that saved our army.  It was Gen. Thomas and sundown together.

Col. Hobart and his companion were that night taken ten miles to the rear, without food.  The prisoners had no clothes except those worn then they were captured.  In the morning about 2,000 of the prisoners were gathered together, of whom several hundred were officers.  The next day they were marched twenty-five miles to Tunnel Hill.³  There they were given a little raw Indian meal and a very little meat.  From thence they were taken in cattle cars, via Atlanta to Richmond.  In passing through Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia, he kept his eyes and ears open.  The country was one wide scene of desolation—far greater than he suspected.  The farms were uncultivated.  Where men were engaged in labor, it was in connection with the military operations of the country.  All other business was suspended.  The whole country had given all its energies to the war.  You may ask if I saw any evidences of Union sentiment ?  He saw many such evidences.  He talked with many of the soldiers, and took every occasion to ascertain their views.  He had opportunities of speaking with them when no officers were present.  They told him—most of them—that they had been in the army a long time, and that they had an impression that we wanted to take away their southern rights.  But most of them had only a vague impression of what they meant by the phrase, as very few of them have any slaves.  They said they wanted the war to end, as they wished to go home.  Many of them had not been home since the beginning of the war, and were anxious about their families.  The officers are mostly from wealthy families.  They feel differently.  They are defiant, and declare that to sustain the institution of slavery they must fight to the bitter end.  If unsuccessful, they know that slavery is dead.  They will fight as long as there is a hope of success.  But the private soldiers did not share in these feelings.

The minor officers taken prisoners were treated well till they reached Richmond, but the private soldiers had indignities heaped upon them that he had never heard of being practiced on our prisoners.  At Tunnell [sic] Hill they had their rubber blankets taken from them.  At Atlanta they were put in an enclosure and their other blankets and overcoats were taken from them, (cries of shame.) That night which was cold, the men slept on the naked ground, with nothing to protect them from the inclemency of the elements.  On reaching Richmond the officers were put in Libby prison ;  1,100 officers were confined in six rooms.  These rooms were low and dingy, and 100 feet by 30, in dimensions.  Thus nearly 150 men were shut up in each room.  They were not allowed to go out, they slept on the floor.  No cots were allowed.  Scarcely a man had a blanket to lie on.  He shared a ragged old horse blanket with Dr. Dixon4 of this state.  The filth was indescribable.  The audience would spare him from going into details.  The stench was such as sometimes he wrapped his blanket about his head to avoid the odor.  It was sickening and horrid in the extreme.  They were __ted by the rebel officials with every species of indignity.  Some of the time, small pox prevailed in the rooms.  Every thing that human ingenuity could devise, was done to avoid the gloom of the prison, and keep up their spirits.  But at the best, it was but a lingering death.  When officers were in a dying state they were refused an opportunity to have friends come and see them from adjoining rooms.  No respect was shown to them, and everything was done to aggravate the misery of their condition.  Gen. Winder5 who had general charge over the Richmond prisoners, did not visit them while he was there, and made no response to their request for an amelioration for their sufferings.

Col. H. next spoke of the difficulty in the exchange of prisoners.  He said it all grew out of the refusal of the rebels to allow our Government credit for the prisoners we took and paroled at Vicksburg.  Those paroled prisoners had been put back into the ranks of the rebel army.  Our Government demanded that credit for them should be allowed in making exchange of prisoners.  The subject of colored soldiers had nothing whatever to do with the difficulty of effecting an exchange.  He had it from Gen. Breckinridge [John C. Breckinridge] himself.  Furthermore Col. Hobart said he would state here, and state it with the expectation that it would go back to his late comrades, that in all his intercourse with his comrades in Libby prison, notwithstanding all their sufferings, he did not believe there was a man there that desired the North to surrender a single point in regard to the exchange.  (Cheers)  They would have the country do nothing inconsistent with its honor and true interests.  That was the sentiment of the nearly eleven hundred officers now confined there.

Judge Hubbell—Three cheers for the eleven hundred.

(The cheers were given with uproarious zest.)

Col. H. resumed :  The rations of the prisoners were half a loaf of tasteless, unbolted corn bread,6 and sometimes a little rice or soup, and the muddy water of the  James river.  When the officers received boxes of provisions from the North, they threw out their tasteless rations through the windows to the poor women and children that crowded around to receive them.  The situation of the private on Belle Isle was far worse, of course, than that of the officers at the Libby prison.  They received comparatively little from the North, and it was a fact that they had killed and eaten every cat and dog that came within their reach.  This fact told more in regard to their famishing condition and suffering than could be given in an equal number of words.

The speaker then detailed the methods devised for escape.  It was a constant theme of talk, and projects for effecting it helped to keep up their spirits and animation.  Several actually passed out by the guards, in citizens dresses they had procured, by stepping up suddenly and accosting the guard, inquiring if such a person—naming somebody—was in the prison.  They were thus mistaken for citizens and allowed to walk away in broad daylight.

[CONTINUES TOMORROW]

1.  This image is from “The Social Fraternity: Its History and Influence,” by A. Chester Clark, in The Granite State Monthly, vol. 30, no. 1 (Jan. 1901): 177. It is available digitally on Google Books. For more on Hobart, including a photograph in his Civil War uniform, see the Col. Harrison C. Hobart entry in the Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
2.  Patrick Ronayne Cleburne (1828-1864) was an Irish immigrant who joined the Confederate Army as a private, was quickly elected captain, then colonel, was promoted to brigadier general in March 1862, and to major general in December of 1862. Cleburne participated in many military campaigns, including the battles of Shiloh, Richmond (Ky.), Perryville (Chaplin Hills), Stones River,  Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Ringgold Gap. His strategic ability gained him the nickname “Stonewall of the West.” He was killed in 1864, at the Battle of Franklin.
3.  The Fight for Tunnel Hill, which took place on November 25, 1863, was part of the Battle of Missionary Ridge. “To pry the Confederates out of their position on Missionary Ridge, General Ulysses S. Grant planned to attack the Confederate line on both flanks.  General Joseph Hooker would strike the southern end of Missionary Ridge while General William T. Sherman’s troops attacked the northern end of the Confederate line at Tunnel Hill.  On the morning of November 25, 1863, Sherman launched a series of piecemeal attacks against General Patrick R. Cleburne’s division on Tunnel Hill, with no success.” See the Civil War Trust’s Saving Civil War Battlefields website for Chattanooga-Tunnel Hill. The general area of village of Tunnel Hill, Georgia, hosted many engagements and camps throughout the course of the war.
4.  Lucius J. Dixon, from Madison, had been the surgeon of the 1st Wisconsin Infantry since August 28, 1861. Joseph Green of Hudson had been one of his 2nd assistant surgeons, but was promoted and transferred to the 11th Wisconsin Infantry about a month before the Battle of Chickamauga.
5.  John Henry Winder (1800-1865) graduated from West Point and was a career military officer who served with distinction during the Mexican War. During the Civil War he was noted for commanding prisoner-of-war camps throughout the South, and for charges of improperly supplying the prisoners in his charge.
6.  Unbolted cornmeal is where all parts of the corn are left in the “flour.”

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