Lucky Numbers

The old Libby & Sons tobacco warehouse fronting the James River in Richmond, Virginia, was taken over by the Confederate government in 1861 to house captured Union officers.  By May of 1862, 1200 souls were imprisoned on the top two floors of the warehouse, now renamed Libby Prison.  Conditions were stark, the windows were open spaces with only iron bars on them.  Cold wind and rain buffeted the prisoners, the excessive summer heat took its toll.  Disease was rampant among the crowded prisoners, many died, to be replaced by fresh numbers daily.   Union officer, Lt. James Bartlett, a graduate of West Point Class of 1861 arrived at Libby Prison two days after being captured on May 13, 1862.  General John Winder, Inspector General of Confederate Prison Camps, would harangue the new arrivals “You Yankee scum are now the guests of Libby Prison.  Don’t think about escape, nobody escapes from Libby Prison.  Unless you are lucky and die.  As a matter of fact, I plan on killing more Yankees in prison, than Robert E. Lee can kill on a battlefield”.   Almost immediately, Bartlett resolved to escape.

Within a week, Lt. Bartlett had determined that his best chance of escape was to reach the James River.  Flowing only 40 feet away from the prison, it held a couple of possibilities.  If Bartlett could reach the river, he could steal a row boat, or stow away on a steamer or sloop, and reach the Union army outside of Richmond. Staring at the James River out of the barred window in the fading daylight, Bartlett went over the numbers in his mind again.  Forty feet, 16 paces, 13 seconds.  Exhaling, the number 13 came out softly on his breath.  He was startled and gave a small jump when a gruff voice behind him said “What’s that Lt. Bartlett?  Thirteen?  God Damn you are jumpy boy!  What about 13”?  “Yes Sir, Captain Jenks” replied Bartlett, “thirteen is my lucky number”.   Jenks’ mouth turned up on one side in a sneer.  “Thirteen!  Everyone fears the number 13 as being unlucky!  Hell, the Rebs captured on May 13!  How can that be lucky”?  Bartlett was revolted by the coarse Captain Jenks.  Hiding his disgust, he evenly replied “It’s my lucky number now.  Lightening does not strike the same place twice”.  With that, Bartlett slowly walked away.

Bartlett began to pay attention to the details of the prison, the timing of the guards turns, people coming and going, and he also observed that the prison’s doctor would make several trips to one or two of the ships tied up at the wharf and bring back boxes of supplies, also noticing that, given the Doctor’s unsteady gate, he greatly imbibed his medical stores. Bartlett’s escape plan unfolded in his mind.  He decided that the next time he was on kitchen duty, he was going to slip away from the kitchen, cross the wood shop and enter the prison infirmary.  The kitchen was never under any guard, because the Rebs were repulsed by the rats that inhabited the kitchen in great numbers.  It appeared to Bartlett that the wood shop was also rarely used.  He was going to try and disguise himself as the prison doctor to make his escape.  He would don the doctor’s white duster and steal his straw hat, walk out the infirmary door and mimic the doc’s unsteady gate to the James River wharf.  He estimated that would take 13 seconds, he would time his departure when the sentry was mid-way on his round.  Bartlett told no one of his plans.  There were Union prisoners who were all to keen to turn in fellow prisoners for misdeeds in order to curry favor with the Rebel guards for better food and clothing.  That was why Bartlett was evasive when Jenks asked him about the number 13, Jenks was a suspected stool pigeon.

Two days later, Bartlett began his kitchen duty.  In the dimming day, he went into action.  Leaving the kitchen, and crossing the wood shop, he quickly made it to the infirmary.  Opening the infirmary door a crack, he was startled by his good luck.  Hanging on a hook to the right of the door he was peering through was the doctors’ white duster and straw hat.  Bartlett slipped on the jacket and plopped the hat on his head.  He waited for the guard to make his turn and pass the infirmary.  When the guard was a safe distance away, Bartlett walked out the door and proceeded to the wharf.  Making it to the sloop, Bartlett was shocked to see the prison doctor start to make his unsteady way down from the deck of the boat.  Equally startled, the doctor stared at Bartlett.  In a drunken slur the doctor said “Sir, I do believe that is my hat and jacket, I demand you return them”!  The doctor began to shout at the guards.  Bartlett charged up the gang plank and pushed to doctor out of the way, forcing him to fall into the shallows of the river.  Bartlett scuttled across the deck of the sloop, looking to jump to another sloop moored nearby.  Guards yelled for him to stop and shots rang out.  Bartlett felt something slam into his head and he toppled from the sloop into blackness. 

The cool water of the James brought Bartlett back from unconsciousness.   As he bobbed to the surface, strong arms pulled him from the water.  A voice said “get him below, quickly”.  Bartlett passed into blackness again.   Awaking the next day to see light streaming through a port in the cabin he was laying in, Bartlett heard a cheerful voice say “Ahh, the good Lt. is back among the living”.   Bartlett turned his head – and did it hurt – in the direction of the voice.  The owner of the voice introduced himself.  “My name is Captain Joyce, and this is my steamer.  That is a nasty bump you got on your noggin there Lt.”.  Pointing to 4 men surrounding him, Joyce said “This is some of my crew.  These are free black men, I purchased their freedom, and they chose to work with me.  We are dropping off some lumber at Chafin’s Bluff”.  Bartlett stared at the Captain.  Did this mean he was going to be turned back over the Rebs?  Chafin’s was a Rebel supply base.   Captain Joyce’s eyes twinkled.  “I know what you are thinking, I see those wheels spinning.  We are going to make sure you get to your people, I am no secesh sympathizer for sure, but I do earn a good sum for the use of my boat.  You got out of Libby, nobody has ever done that.  We will take it from here, you will be safe.  You are now a temporary crew member of Steamer Number 45 in the service of the Confederate Navy.  Now get some rest”.  Captain Joyce winked and left Bartlett’s cabin.  As Bartlett began to slip back into sleep, he thought 45, my new lucky number”.    

Libby Prison

The above story is a work of fiction, based on some historical facts.

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