“Little Doctor on the Black Horse” Post #5 – Libby Prison –

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Little Doctor on the Black Horse

Libby Prison

by Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton

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Libby Prison, Richmond, Va., [1] 10/29/63 – “Dear Hattie, Please send me a box of eatables: 5 lbs. Ground coffee, 1 of tea, 20 of brown sugar, 1 ham of dried beef, a small cheese, if you can find it, and as much butter as you’ve a mind to; put up in oyster cans. Also anything else suitable for prison life, some pickles. I shall want you to send me a box about every two weeks. Capt. Riggs got a box and all things came all right, even to the lining in the vest pocket. I’d like a shirt, but what I want most is something to eat and . . . I should like to see you very much. It is harder to be a prisoner than a soldier. Money is put in the commandant’s office and doled out of at $50 per month, hardly enough at the prices here.”

Libby Prison

Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia

The prison furnished rations, but slim ones — two meals a day. Those with money could have guards buy for them in the markets. In the letter a faint trail of dots runs from the “and” up to and circles around “send me” and “money”, where in tiny dim letters are “hide” and “send”.

Hattie understood his secret message, which the censors apparently missed, for family tradition says she “colored” the butter with gold pieces. These got through safely, like the aforesaid “lining in the vest pocket”, for David’s next letter states: “I got the box all safe. The contents are being duly dissected.”

This letter also asks, amongst other things, for “1 three-cornered file, 1 small round file, and send some light reading.” the files at first puzzled me. Was he thinking of escape? Then I remembered the two bone napkin rings he carved in prison, one for Mamie and one for little Hattie. These were made from the bones of the beef issued as rations. He also did some wood carving. [2]

 

“What rations the Confederates furnish are good, but the same every day. We boil the beef for soup for dinner, then the meat is chopped as hash for breakfast. We get but two meals a day. We can buy things from the city markets, but many of us have no money, and prices are very high. Money can be sent by mail, but it is taken out and put to our credit in the commissary, and handed out at only $50 a month, which will hardly keep one here.”

© 1961 by Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton. All rights reserved.

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Editors Notes:

[1] Libby Prison was a warehouse on the James River waterfront in Richmond, Virginia that was converted to a prison by the Confederates in 1861 for Union officers. Although notorious for overcrowding and poor conditions, it was still better than prison camps like Andersonville, where Hospital Steward Solon Hyde was held.

Napkin Ring[2] I do not know what happened to the napkin ring Doctor Benedict made for his eldest daughter Mary. But I do know about the one for his second oldest girl: Hattie — it’s in a cabinet behind my desk.  I recall hearing from a family member — I don’t recall from whom — that Doctor Benedict did not complete these napkin rings while at Libby Prison, but after the war in his woodworking shop. Given the fine detail in the one I have, I think that is probably true. Doctor Benedict was exchanged only two months or so after arriving at the prison.

NEXT POST: Exchange and Return Home

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harriott-wickham-1915-20-2About the Author: Harriott Benedict Wickham Barton   (1890-1981) was born in Norwalk, Ohio to Frank and Agnes Wickham. Her father was the youngest of twelve children of Frederick and Lucy Wickham, early settlers of the Firelands, and her mother was the great-great granddaughter of Platt and Sarah Benedict, who founded the city of Norwalk. Educated at Norwalk High School and Wooster College, she became a teacher. She marched as a suffragette and worked for the Labor Department during World War I. After the war, she went west to teach school, and became one of the last homesteaders, proving up a property near Wheatland, Wyoming. She married Angus Barton in 1924 and they raised four children on the homestead through the Dust Bowl and World War II. In the late 1940s, she and her Angus moved to Ohio, where they spent the rest of their lives. During the 1950s and ‘60s, she wrote “Little Doctor on the Black Horse,” poetry, and short stories, some which were published in various journals and magazines.

 

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