Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stand Here and Die Fighting - Captain Francis Irsch, Part 2

Libby Prison in August of 1863. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For part one of the series, click here.

The captured soldiers of the 45th New York refused paroles in hopes that their presence would encumber the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia and enable its downfall. Unfortunately, this dream gave way to a nightmarish reality: prison. For enlisted men, that meant Andersonville or one of several other hell-holes. For Captain Francis Irsch, it meant Libby Prison in Richmond.

By the summer of 1863 the prisoner exchange system had broken down. With camps overflowing and more prisoners arriving with every battle, prisoners-of-war on both sides faced atrocious conditions. We can learn a lot about Captain Irsch's experiences after his capture on July 1st by delving into the account of another Union officer captured at the battle of Gettysburg, Federico Fernández Cavada. After his capture during the second day of fighting, Cavada faced several months of imprisonment at Libby Prison, and upon his release in 1864 he published a stunning account,  Libby Life: Experiences of  a Prisoner of War in Richmond, Va., 1863-1864. 

Cavada's account of captivity began on July 4, 1863. That evening a column made up of about 2,000 federal prisoners started out on the Chambersburg Pike from Gettysburg in a drenching downpour. They continued marching until after midnight. Cavada remembered:
It would be difficult to give a description which could do justice to the trials of that weary night-march; we were pressed forward at the utmost speed of which we were capable, and many, unable to keep up with the column, fell exhausted by the road side. Along with us were long trains of wagons, and a motley assortment of vehicles of all kinds, impressed from the farmers of the neighborhood, loaded with the Rebel wounded.
This march was just the first of many trying days ahead for the federal prisoners. "The suffering among us from fatigue and exhaustion," continued Cavada, "and from hunger and wet, and in many cases from wounds, may readily be conceived."

After marching more than 200 miles in 14 days, the worn out prisoners reached Staunton, Virginia, where they boarded railroad cars for Richmond, arriving on the same day. According to Cavada,
The gloomy and forbidding exterior of the prison, and the pale, emaciated faces staring vacantly at us through the bars, were repulsive enough, but it was at least a haven of rest from the weary foot-march, and from the goad of the urging bayonet.
Captain Irsch, Lieutenant Colonel Cavada, and the rest of the Gettysburg prisoners sized up their surroundings. Libby had nine long, dimly lit rooms with low ceilings that each quartered a couple hundred officers. The place had served as a warehouse before its conversion at the start of the war. The prisoners lived on scant rations, some days only cornbread and water from the nearby James River, supplemented often by sweet potatoes. Occasionally the prisoners received something slightly more sustaining. Cavada described one such meal, bacon soup:
We have tasted of the promised soup: it is boiled water sprinkled with rice, and seasoned with the rank juices of stale bacon; we must shut our eyes to eat it; the bacon, I have no doubt, might have walked into the pot of its own accord. It is brought up to us in wooden buckets and we eat it, in most cases without spoons, out of tin-cups.
 Francis Irsch suffered through these conditions for the next six months, but not idly. For a man as indomitable as Irsch, we could hardly expect him to endure quietly. Indeed, several sources indicate that four times during his stay in Confederate prisons, or en route to them, Captain Irsch attempted to escape his captors. All four times unfortunately, Irsch failed. And here at Libby, Captain Irsch participated in one of the largest, most daring, and most famous prison breaks of the war.

Diagram of the famous Libby Prison tunnel that appeared in Federico Fernández Cavada's book, Libby Life.

Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania.
Rose oversaw the efforts to construct a tunnel at
Libby Prison. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania hatched the original plan, which involved working parties of officers sneaking down into the cellars of the prison at night to excavate a tunnel under the street outside Libby, and into the yard of a warehouse across the street. On February 8, 1864, Rose and about 25 other officers who knew about the tunnel slipped quietly to the cellar and made their escape. After getting a two hour head start, they arranged to spread word of the tunnel to the rest of the prisoners, to allow all willing and able officers to attempt their escape. By morning 109 officers had made it out, including Captain Irsch.

Once on the outside, the Union officers had the challenge of making it from the middle of Richmond into federal lines without detection. Irsch made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in this hope, but Confederate authorities recaptured him near Williamsburg. All told, 53 officers made it to Union lines. Captain Irsch (and many others) returned to Libby Prison. As punishment Irsch was confined in a subterranean cell for three weeks and fed no more than corn bread and water.

Over the next year, Irsch bounced from prison to prison - seeing time at prisons in Macon, Georgia and Savannah, Charleston, and Columbia, South Carolina. Finally exchanged in Wilmington in March of 1865, Irsch received a 30 day furlough and then reported back for duty. By that point, the war had virtually ended.

For Irsch though, his experiences and suffering in Confederate prison camps left a lasting impression. In part three of this series I will take a look at how Irsch's wartime experiences continued to shape his life after the war, and guided his involvement in the creation of the 45th New York's monument at Gettysburg.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Steve,
    This is wonderful stuff. I am the great, great grandaughter of Captain Irsch and need to learn as much as I can. Please contact me at Thank you so much.