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.