Conversation in Libby Prison

Libby painting
Libby Prison by David Gilmour Blythe, 1863

In a dark third-floor corner of one of the great spaces where Union prisoners of war are confined in the former warehouse called Libby Prison, a young soldier from western Ohio is talking to an older man, a yellow stripe on his uniform pants, captured a week earlier at Frederick Hall, Virginia. It is Sunday, March 19, 1865 and distant church bells ring  through the glassless, barred windows.

What did you tell ‘er, Pete, after they captured you at Winchester, after the Rebs paroled you, after the Infantry mustered you out and you went home to…where…Albany? What did you tell ‘er, and what did she say, when you told ‘er you were goin’ back ?

What ‘d she say when you went an’ jined the cavalry? What did she think of her man, ‘most forty, climbing on a horse to chase Rebs ‘round Virginia at your age? What’re you gonna tell her if we ever get outta stinkin’ Libby Prison? If, like them whispers I been hearin’, Grant’s got that ol’ fox Lee cornered in the henhouse somewhere ‘tween here an’ Lynchburg, then what?

What’ll you say when you get back to her all skinny from eatin’ green hardtack and corncakes. rancid bacon an’ bad water? Will you tell her about seein’ what you seen? What’ll she say when she sees you?

Peter Snyder rose from his pallet in that old Richmond warehouse, smiled a tired smile into Micky Shelby’s freckled face and said, I vill say, “Mama, home I’ve come.” Und she und the kinder vill hug me. Und she vill say, ‘Velcome home my Peter. Kiss your Papa, liebchen.’

Dot’s vat she’ll say, Mick. Und later in bed I’ll tell her the elephant I’ve seen too much, and I’ll never leave her, ever again.

Over at dVerse Poets Pub today, my friend Grace is looking for poems that tell a family story. I tried, but could only come up with this sketch. I simply had to write it. The old soldier is my great-great-grandfather, Peter Snyder, a German immigrant who loved his new country so much he enlisted at age 35 as soon as the call went out for men to serve the Union cause. I only found out this story while doing a little research a couple of years ago and wondered about Peter. Today, I put some flesh on those old bones.


24 thoughts on “Conversation in Libby Prison

  1. nice… you def. managed to put some flesh into those bones… nice storytelling joe… and i think it’s cool that he fell in love with the new country so much that he wanted to serve the people who live there

  2. A prose poem for & of the ages, brother; nice job. It feels so accurate, so fresh–it, as all good historical prose should, completely transports us through the veil of time, & let’s us be in the company of ancestors; very impressive; you rocked the socks off the prompt with this one, Joe.

    • Thanks very much, my friend. I’m not sure what to call this. But if you think it’s a prose poem, then I’m happy it is for you. Both sides of my family have cool immigrant stories, but whose doesn’t, right?

  3. I had to read it out aloud so I can appreciate the accents and word choices ~ Nicely told narrative ~ Interesting to read that you have German blood in your family ~ Maybe you could write more about your family history Joe ~

    Thanks for linking up and wishing you happy week ~

  4. How amazing to have family dating to the Civil War,and God bless your great-great grandfather who believed in the cause enough to enlist. So glad you shared this piece of your history with us, Joe. Remember him with pride, my friend.

    • I’m fascinated by the guy, Gin. Didn’t know he existed (though, since I’m here, obviously he did. LOL) until a couple of years ago. Found his war history at the State Archives. Poor guy. Captured twice! Unfortunately, that, some census info and a few whispers are all I have.

  5. Such an interesting story.. I you ever get the chance Wilhelm Moberg wrote about a similar story in “the immigrants” where the Swedish settler wanted to enlist (but he was rejected)… But the reason was much the same.

  6. The American Civil War was one of the most brutal and socially destructive in history – one wonders sometimes if Americans have ever truly gotten over it. Perhaps in telling these stories that process can be aided.

    • No, I don’t think some families can get over it. It was too wrenching, too destructive, too crippling to people in the South (and in the North to a lesser extent) on so many levels. With each loss, each injury, each death, it became personal for some family. Thanks for reading.

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