Two Union officers stayed at Richmond’s Libby Prison in autumn and early winter 1862.
Or was it the same Libby Prison?
In its Oct. 17, 1862 issue, the Belfast-published Republican Journal ran a “Narrative of Released Prisoners,” a wire report dated October 9 out of Washington, D.C. The first paragraph introduced Capt. F.G. Young, “direct from Richmond” after being released from a brief captivity.
He and Maj. W.C. Barney were taking “a horse-back tour in the vicinity of Bull Run” when nabbed by the 30th Virginia Cavalry on September 21. Reaching Washington 18 days later, Young discussed what he’d seen — polite, well-equipped and -mounted enemy cavalrymen — and where he’d stayed: Libby Prison.
“The treatment of Federal prisoners: had “changed for the better,” and Young and his best prisoner buds “had no cause to complain.” He shared “a large[,] cool[,] and pleasant room” with 30 other men, and the prisoners “were attended by the maids and servants with marked kindness.”
The Union prisoners ate regularly, “and a sutler was constantly present,” the RJ reported. “The morning newspapers were served at daylight.”
Sounds like Young relaxed at a high-end hotel, with “maids and servants” at his beck and call. The article left the impression that if a Maine officer got captured, Libby Prison was where he wanted to stay.
But not so the blue-eyed Capt. John Ayer of Bangor and Co. H, 16th Maine Infantry Regiment. Led by Lt. Col. Charles Tilden, that new outfit charged across the Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862, overran North Carolinians defending the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac River Railroad tracks, and got shot to pieces for the effort.
Shot just above his right knee, Ayer went down and vanished behind enemy lines. Then the Daily Whig & Courier reported that his friends had received from Ayer a letter dated Friday, Dec. 19. Sent from Libby Prison, the letter indicated Ayer had arrived at the prison a day earlier and was “quite comfortable, and have good care.
“The ball passed through, but the wound is not serious,” Ayer wrote.
The Whig & Courier opined that “we trust he will soon be exchanged, and recover from his wound.”
After all, the prison-praising F.G. Young was out of circulation for 18 days. Why would his captors want to hold onto the wounded John Ayer?
But he went into a Libby Prison unimaginable to F.G. Young. Imprisoned less than three months, the two officers could not have stayed in the same place, given what happened next.
Amidst wretched living conditions, albeit better than the horrors inflicted on Union enlisted men sent to nearby Belle Isle, Ayer suffered from malnutrition and inadequate medical care. Perhaps his leg wound turned gangrenous; Ayer died at Libby Prison on Sunday, Feb. 22, 1863.
The fault possibly did not lie with the prison’s medical staff, including captured Union doctors and assigned Confederate doctors. Writing from Annapolis, Md., Reverend Henry C. Henries (a Bangor minister whose name unfortunately appears on that city’s Civil War monument) informed Mrs. Ayer that her husband “had won the respect and confidence of … the C.S. (Confederate States) officers and men” at the prison.
“It may not be too much to say they loved him as a brother, and all that was in the power of the [Confederate] surgeon, Dr. Wilkins, in charge of the Libby Prison Hospital, and the officers of our own army who were there with him, was done to make him comfortable,” Henries wrote.
Besides his wife, John Ayer left behind two young children. Libby Prison had certainly been no vacation paradise for him.
Sources: Republican Journal, Oct. 17, 1862; Daily Whig & Courier, Jan. 12, 1863 and March 14, 1863
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Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.