It’s about a hundred and sixty miles from the battlefield at Gettysburg to Libby’s Prison in Richmond. I know that because I had to walk it all the way, under the watchful eyes of rebel guards. Not my favourite way to travel - given the choice when having to go any distance I prefer a well appointed steam train with a good dining car, where I could while away the evenings with a hand or two of cards, perhaps being entertained by a good German oom pah pah band.
In this case I didn’t have a choice, though. Having done my best to confound and confuse the rebels, and playing no small part in them losing the battle at Gettysburg, I then found myself caught trying to slip my cable by two infernally nosey rebel soldiers. I ended up being thrown in with a group of a few score or so other federal prisoners, ready for the long walk to Richmond and a probably long spell in chokey.
For once I couldn’t find it in me to blame myself, though. All I did was a bit of appropriate toadying when summoned by the Prime Minister, M’Lud Palmerston, to go and inspect the Confederate Army in the summer of ’61, after their totally unexpected victory over the Federals at Bull Run. Who better to send, after all, than that experienced soldier and traveller, Sir Harry Flashman, VC, hero of Britain and saviour of the empire on so many occasions ? But after completing my inspection I’d had the devil’s own luck, starting with the Trent affair, then seeing the slaughter at Shiloh, before being caught spying on the Yankees at the behest of Lyons, the British minister to the Americans. That led to me being blackmailed by that genial old rascal Lincoln, under the threat of execution, to spy on the rebels from right inside their high command. The rest is, as they say, history, and what a history it was. For a shirker like me I’d been to hell and back as the tides of war swept me across the eastern theatre in the company of Robert Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jeb Stuart. I’d seen Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, plus half a hundred smaller actions, before the fateful events at Gettysburg, where the Confederacy finally lost all chance of a decisive victory which would allow them to secede permanently from the Union.
Lincoln knew his man, of course. We’d met before and despite my fame and unearned reputation as a hero, he knew me for the scoundrel and coward I was, and had no hesitation in threatening and suborning me into spying for him, with the alternative being a stretched neck and a pauper’s grave in the dust somewhere out in the mid west if I didn’t. Given that choice what’s a seasoned poltroon like me to do ? So spy for him I did, and to some effect, until the stupid slaughter at Gettysburg, and my not inconsiderable part in bringing it about, made even me sick of it all, and I determined to make my way back to the Union lines, for surely now I’d done all Lincoln could ask.
T’was my misfortune to get captured the night the battle finished. Though I’d disguised myself by changing my clothes and shaving off my whiskers I was in a blue funk, as I was put with the other prisoners, about whether I’d be spotted by any of my erstwhile comrades in arms. If so I’d be for it, either as a deserter, or worse still, regarded as a Union spy. So I kept myself to myself that night, and burrowed, as best I could, into the centre of the group, looking down and not speaking to anyone. I was told I’d be interrogated the next morning and I had to work on a story that would convince anyone that I was just a plain old newspaper man, reporting on the battle.
As it turned out I needn’t have worried. The rebels were so concerned to get us away before any Union counter attack that may come that we were off before the sun came up the next morning, with no one questioning me at all, as we set off on the long, weary walk to the Confederate capital. As the day went on it promised to be a hot and tiring one as well, as we trudged through the countryside in high summer. There was no prospect of any transport as all the rebel wagons were being used to carry the thousands of wounded back into southern territory. Still, for the moment I was relatively safe, going away from the battlefield where someone might recognise me and as yet unquestioned, but I thought I might have to escape before we got to Richmond.
Our guards, though rough and ready, were friendly enough and shared what rations they had but that changed when we handed over to a Virginia cavalry unit a couple of days later. I’d little enough to steal but those that had found themselves robbed of any item that could be of use to the new guards, from coats and caps, to pens, paper and even their pipes. It was only when one of ‘em tried to steal the blanket I’d been given to keep warm overnight that the officer in charge stepped in and stopped their thievery.
It took about ten days to get to Richmond and by the time we reached there we were all, guards and prisoners, a dirty and bedraggled bunch, as well as hungry. My boots were falling to pieces, my hair was matted with dirt and my clothes filthy from the march and sleeping on the ground. The only consolation was that no one was likely to connect me with the dashing English soldier who’d been seen about the city so much the previous year, fighting for the great cause of freedom – as long as you weren’t a nigger, of course..
Well, if I thought that was bad it was like a walk in the country compared to the prison itself. Of course I’d heard a good deal about conditions there but nothing prepared me for the stark reality of the place.
For one thing it wasn’t really a prison at all but an old brick built warehouse consisting of three storeys. The prisoners, mainly officers, were kept in the upper two floors, with the bottom storey used for storage and administration. As we shuffled inside in the half light of dusk we could smell the reek and filth caused by lack of any decent sanitation. It was damn hot too, with low ceilings and poor ventilation, the air just lying still and thick. There were no cells as such, just eight or nine large rooms in which men were jammed together, sleeping or sitting cheek by jowl on the dirty floor. The windows had no glass in them at all, just thick iron bars to prevent any escape attempt. There was no sort of proper process to admit us – we filed in and were ticked off a list as we entered. Even the wounded and sick were just carried in and dumped wherever there was any space, with no provision at all made for their care. There was a daily roll call but that was just about all. I soon found that our jailers were completely indifferent to whether we lived or died, as long as we didn’t escape.
If that hadn’t already been on my mind when I got there it would soon have become my overriding thought over the next few weeks. Quite apart from the foul conditions, which would have weakened the strongest man, the short rations we were provided with were no better than a starvation diet. There was no meat of any sort, the food consisting mainly of corn bread and sweet potatoes, and only warm, and usually brackish, water to drink, supplemented occasionally by a thick bean soup. Many of the prisoners were sick with dysentery or fever and that sort of diet was no good to them at all. The surgeons who were prisoners did their best but many were completely hopeless cases, with no proper facilities to treat ‘em available. Ambulances would arrive constantly, bearing ten, twelve, or perhaps even more, sick or wounded prisoners and invariably at least half of them would die within a day or so. Apart from that it was a dangerous enough place even if you weren’t sick at all. The day after I got there one of my fellow new arrivals went to get some air at the window and to try to catch a sight of the James River, which wound its way through the city. Before anyone could warn him there was the crack of a rifle and he fell stone dead, a bullet in his forehead. That was the dead line, and anyone who looked out, or even got near the bars or sills, was likely to be shot out of hand. Quite plainly the longer I was in this horrible rat hole the smaller my chances of survival would become, and I had the added incentive that there was always the chance of someone recognising me. Then the game would be up with a vengeance – not that we had many regular visitors, except one.
That visitor was someone called Miss Elizabeth Van Lew, known throughout Richmond, the rebel capital, as Crazy Bet for both her odd behaviour and her opposition to both secession and slavery. That was quite unusual in a lady who counted herself as a natural Virginian. Her opposition to the southern cause had made her many enemies but she took little or no notice of them and was a regular visitor to the prison, bringing whatever was allowed from books and clothes to extra food.
I’d heard of her, of course, in my time there before but never met her in all my time in Richmond for no other reason than chance. My first sight of her was a few days after I’d arrived. There I was, sitting on the floor, trying to remove some lice that had newly taken up residence on me when the door opened and in came a tiny, angular figure, twitching slightly as though with bad nerves, accompanied by two guards. She was carrying a basket in which she had some bread, fruit, and other items of food which she was being allowed to distribute amongst the prisoners there.
As she came close to me I could see that she had once been pretty – she was blonde and had a sharply defined face with high cheekbones – but though she could only have been my age, in her forties, she was quickly turning into an old maid. One thing about her was singular, though, and that was her bright blue eyes which someone once described as unearthly brilliant. As she passed near me those eyes swept briefly over my face and then, just for a second, fixed steadily on my eyes, as if she knew me. Then she was gone, without giving me any of the largesse that she was spreading around the other prisoners there.
One of the other prisoners, by the name of Fletcher, who’d been there for quite some time looked at me and nodded. ‘That’s Crazy Bet Van Lew, as the rebels calls her’, he said. ‘There’s plenty here who owe their lives to her, what with extra food, medcine, or persuadin’ the doctors to put ‘em in a hospital where they kin get well agin’, he continued.
‘Well, I sure have heard of her’, I answered, still playing the unfortunate newspaper man, Prescott Arnold. ‘Don’t seem she had no gifts for me, tho’.
‘That’s a cos she looks after the worse off first of all. She sees you needs somethin’, you’ll likely get it. Bravest little lady in Richmond, that she is’, and with that he went back to dealing with his own infestations, and me to mine.
Crazy Bet came in almost every day, sometimes again with food but sometimes also with books and clothes. After that first day she took little or no notice of me – the state I was in I could hardly blame her. Talk about sic transit gloria Flashy, eh ?
Time dragged on and the days limped slowly into weeks. No one came to question me and it seemed I’d been completely forgotten about – there seemed to be no thought about what to do with any of the prisoners at all. Sometimes a few were exchanged for rebel prisoners but in general we just sat around getting more bored, hungrier and dirtier. For forms sake I complained to the guards about my captivity – it would have seemed damned odd otherwise – but they mainly ignored my complaints or occasionally hit me on the leg with the heavy sticks they carried, which was enough of a discouragement to allow me to stop protesting. No doubt, mostly being dirt poor themselves, that was the most power they’d ever had, and some of them seemed to enjoy exercising it more than others. Teaches you a lot about man’s supposed humanity to each other, when you’ve seen it, or worse, suffered from it. People really aren’t very nice, especially when they have a taste of power. Trust me, I’m an expert on it.
I suppose I’d been there a month when Crazy Bet at last lavished some of her precious attention on me. She’d been working her way round the prisoners who were sat near to me when she came up to me as I sat scratching myself on the dirty floor and handed me an apple and some fresh bread. She gave me a brief stare with those piercing blue eyes, and then nodded slightly, her face and eyes hidden from the guards by the huge battered old bonnet she was wearing. I was that hungry that I paid little attention to anything but the food, which was wrapped in a clean piece of newspaper. After I’d eaten it, though, I was bored enough to look at the paper. Most of it was homely guff, of course, but there was also a brief note about the expected return to the Richmond stage of the actress and southern heroine Patricia Carney – my old bed partner and one of the Union’s most important agents in the Confederacy. That made me start – surely it couldn’t be a coincidence, could it ? The chances of that were far too remote. Just what was Crazy Bet up to I wondered? Was she more than she seemed to be ? Surely an old maid like her couldn’t do more than improve things for the inmates by giving them some extra food and a few trifles to relieve the boredom, could she ?
I waited in quiet eagerness for her next visit but when she next came to Libby she didn’t come near me or even acknowledge me. The boredom and frustration was so bad I was near to tearing my hair out, but all my long experience told me to calm down and wait on developments – no use letting the cat out of the bag by doing anything hasty or ill thought out, though it took my all meagre and wilting willpower to wait and wait.
Sure enough a few days later old Crazy Bet was working her way around to me and gave me some more morsels of food and this time a book – would you believe, a dime novel about my old friend, the scout and trapper Kit Carson, called ‘Prince of the Gold Hunters’, no less. For the first time she spoke to me properly – before there had only been nods or a brief hello. ‘Sit up young man’, she said, somewhat acidly. ‘You’ll do your spine no good at all slouched like that’, and then she moved on, twitching slightly as she went. Well, thinks I, that’s a message of sorts and while I ate the food hungrily I waited until she had gone and the guards with her before I turned to the book.
Going to one of the darker corners I pretended to give my full attention to the book while I carefully felt its spine for anything that might be hidden there. Sure enough, there was a tiny scrap of paper, folded very tightly. I opened it out carefully, being sure there were no prying eyes looking at me. ‘Ross can be bribed’ was all it said. Ross was the chief guard on our floor of the prison, a big, easy going sort of chap who was nearly as scruffy as the prisoners he guarded. That was all very well, as far as it went, but what was I going to bribe him with, and for what? He might well be biddable for the cost of a few dollars, but he could hardly let me escape on his watch, could he ? Still, I thought, at least I know I’ve got a friend and some useful information. That was some progress, I thought, after all this time.
Over the next few weeks Crazy Bet brought me more books in. Instead of a note or message they usually concealed two of the new Yankee ten dollar bills very tightly folded so that over time I had a considerable amount of cash available, which I was obviously meant to use to bribe the said Ross. I’d have to test him out, though, to see if he was the sort to take a backhander. Those prisoners who’d managed to hold onto a little money often used it to bribe the guards to buy them extra food from the shops in Richmond. It was against the rules but as it was a handy supplement to their meagre pay it was common practice and the rule was ignored by the majority of the guards. The question was would Ross go further and help me to escape this horrible rat hole ?
I started to loaf around the door to the room I was incarcerated in, saying a friendly hello to him when he came in. After a few days we got to chatting about this and that until I judged it was time to see if he’d bite.
‘Say, Sarge’, I began, ‘any sign o’the Captain lookin’ at letting me out. I’m no soljer as you kin see.’
‘Well, Mr Arnold, I don’t see no sign o‘ that. Cap’n’s pretty busy running this place and is in no mind tu tak up th’ case of no Yankee found runnin’ round ol’ Gettysberg, soljer or not’.
‘Maybe’s you could talk to him ‘bout me. He’d lissen to you, won’t he?’, I suggested.
‘Maybe he would, maybe not. But I don’t want to go upsettin’ him and makin’ him angry. I got a nice billet here, Arnold, an’ I don’t ‘tend to risk losin’ it by annoying tha’ cap’n’, he replied.
‘I ‘ppreciate that, Sarge, an’ I wouldn’t ‘spect you to do it for nothin’ an’ all’.
At that he looked at me in surprise so I lowered my voice, looked round carefully and said
‘I got fifty good Yankee dollars if you can get him take a peek at my case, maybe get him ta send it up tha’ line for a lookin’ at’, I said.
At this his eyes bulged – fifty dollars was about three month’s pay for him and what’s more they were federal dollars which he could spend anywhere, not like .the useless rebel notes.
‘Where’d you get that frum ?’, he asked suspiciously.
‘I got a stash that no-one found on me’, and I carefully showed him the money.
‘Jus’ for talkin’ ta the cap’n ‘bout you ?’, he asked, fairly twitching with excitement.
‘Fifty more if I get out’, I answered, to encourage him more. After all, he could just take the money and then do nothing. The prospect of another fifty would make sure he’d give it a go.
Ross looked round again – no one was taking any notice of us.
‘Gimme it, an’ I’ll see whut I kin do’, he said, and with that I passed him the cash which he quickly folded up and put into the pocket of his ragged trousers, then turned away and went out of the room, shutting the door behind him. Truth to tell I half hoped his officer would listen. I’d had plenty of time to work on my story and I was sure I could spin him a yarn that would make him push my case up the line for release. After all, I’d had plenty of practice.
Ross avoided me for the next few days, other than a nod or hello, so I guessed he was working on things. It was surprise, then, when he came up to me and said ‘I ain’t spoken to the cap’n’. I must have looked surprised because he quickly added
‘I got a better plan for you – if you’ve got more money’.
‘How much ?’, I asked.
‘Two hunred and fifty dollars’, he replied.
‘Maybe, maybe I have. Depends on what your plan is’, I said.
‘I’ll go git you an ole uniform for a private, frum our army. One evenin’, when ah’m not on dooty, put it on, covered yuself with maybe a blanket as though you’re cold, and help take them there vittling pots back to the kitchen. Take ‘em in, turn arount, then drop the blanket and keep on walkin’ till yous out of the jail door’, he said.
‘Whut ‘bout tha guards on the door, and will it be open ?’, I asked him anxiously.
‘Doors guarded, a’course, but not locked. People are in and out all the time, and you prisoners are all locked in upstairs, so thure’s no need to lock them down thur. More trouble than it’s worth. Jus’ get on out an’ keep walkin’ to wherever it is you plan ta go’, Ross replied. With that he left me to ponder his plan. A few days later, when I went back to my usual place after visiting the latrine there was a scruffy bundle tied up there – inside was a battered tunic and trousers approximating the mish mash of rags that passed for a uniform in the Confederate Army – I’d seen the niggers in India better dressed, and cleaner as well. A couple of days later I loafed over to Ross and passed him his money which he slipped away out of sight in a trice.
Where I planned to go was really the prime question, of course. My only real hope was that Crazy Betty could help, so the next time I returned a book to her on one of her visits I said ‘My back’s much better now’, drawing her attention to a note I’d put in the spine of the book. ‘Glad to hear it’, was all she said, somewhat primly, as she took the book and moved on. The note said I planned to escape sometime in the evening around dusk but not any details – not that it mattered because if it was found I’d bucked and gagged as a punishment whether there were details in it or not. I’d seen it done to other malefactors and it was a damn uncomfortable way to pass the time.
A few days later Crazy Bet was visiting again but for a change she didn’t give me any books this time. Instead I got some boiled eggs to eat – one of which was hollow and contained a note enjoining me to make for St John’s Church in the Church Hill area if I was to escape. Someone would watch out for me between eight and nine in the evening for the next week. Once they were sure I wasn’t being followed they would make themselves known to me and lead me somewhere safe. That was the church where Patrick Henry made his famous ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech just before the revolution – it was no great distance from the prison, being about five or so city blocks away. I couldn’t ask for any more so after carefully destroying the note I got to work on making my escape.
The kitchen was the middle room on the first floor, and it was the only room we prisoners were allowed free access to. I was housed, as it were, on the top floor, in a loft known as Sleight’s room. I’d been down to the kitchen a number of times, as often just for a change of scene as to cook something, so I knew my way around well enough. There was usually no guard on the kitchen door so if I could get that far it would be easy enough to get down the stairs to the ground floor and hopefully escape if I was dressed as a rebel soldier. I had to try soon, though, as Crazy Bet’s note gave me a week. It would be much easier to make my escape if I had somewhere to hide out for a time rather than having to shift for myself. So I went down to the kitchen that evening to see if things were the same as before. As expected there was no guard there so I determined to try escaping around dusk the next evening, which was still fairly late and coincided with when the sentries round the prison were changed. With any luck my absence wouldn’t be noticed until roll call the following day, by which time I’d either be safe in hiding or on my way to the north. I needed help, though, and enlisted Fletcher’s aid, telling him a little of the truth, that I was a Union officer with important information I had to get back to the north. It was risky, if he talked, as I’d be treated like a spy but he was a steady enough fellow and I had to take the chance anyway.
The next evening, as the light began to fade and the prison became gloomy, I slipped into a quiet corner and donned the old rebel uniform. Truth to tell everyone was so scruffy and dirty that in that light you could hardly see any difference between prisoner and guard. I wrapped the blanket over my shoulders as if against the cold and with a few other prisoners, including Fletcher, made my way down to the kitchen with the cooking pots. Once we’d deposited them in the kitchen I made sure I was first out, with Fletcher right behind me. As we got to the doorway I slipped the blanket off onto the floor, Fletcher made to stumble to delay the others behind him and instead of turning right to go back upstairs I turned left and headed down the flight of stairs to the door. It didn’t take long to get to it and I soon reached it, my heart thudding harder and harder as I stretched out my hand to open it – if Ross was wrong and it had been locked I was sunk.
Relief flooded through me as the handle turned easily and I sauntered through, whistling ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’. There were two guards there and they looked up briefly as I nodded to them, then went back to their joking and talking, paying me no more notice. But it was hard to resist the urge to run as any moment I expected a call to stop and my shoulders tensed and my back stiffened, as though anticipating the impact of a musket ball – they weren’t shy about shooting someone they thought was escaping, as I’d seen. But it was something I’d learned to deal with over the years and I always try to teach young men who may find themselves in a similar situation this one simple lesson – don’t panic until you have to. I was safe enough here though, and soon turned a corner, making my way nonchalantly up the hill from the prison by the river to the church. There were a few folk about in the darkening evening but they took little or no notice of me as I made my way along the few city blocks to the rendezvous.