ESCAPE FROM LIBBY PRISON by James Gindlesperger


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Stalag 17 on the Chickahominy River, with Bluecoat and Secesh stand-ins for Cookie and Sergeant Schultz. During the Civil War, amateur historian Gindlesperger writes, the South captured some 200,000 Union soldiers. Most wound up in hellholes like Andersonville, Ga., and the equally notorious Libby Prison of Richmond, Va. Early in 1864, Pennsylvania infantry colonel Thomas E. Rose, who had spent two years inside Libby, organized a daring escape, and he and 108 of his comrades tunneled their way into the prison's rat-infested sewers. Forty-eight of those men eventually made their way to Union lines and freedom, while the others were recaptured or killed. This should be a compelling story, but Gindlesperger does not tell it well. In recounting Rose's feat, he falls into some of the worst excesses of you-were-there historical writing, especially with his annoying reliance on invented dialogue that resounds with every possible clich‚: ""Why don't y'all go back up North and leave us poor dirt farmers alone?"" Gindlesperger has one exasperated Southerner call out to the assembled prisoners, who probably would have liked to do just that, while a jailer promises, ""Y'all are going to get a chance to partake of some of our Southern hospitality."" One suspects that if Gindlesperger had stuck to straightforward narrative, without these tedious inventions, he could have produced a longish article for a historical journal, a more appropriate venue for a discussion of this small sideshow in history. The problem of grating dialogue is compounded by unimaginative prose--Libby's chief jailer is, of course, a ""cruel and ruthless man""--and by the author's failure to discuss what significance, if any, the Libby breakout might have had on the course of the conflict. Adds little to Civil War literature.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Burd Street/White Mane