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On February 9, 1864, Colonel Thomas E. Rose (1830-1907) led 108 other imprisoned Union officers in a daring escape from Libby Prison. Rose, colonel of the 77th Pennsylvania Infantry, planned the breakout, organizing the weeks-long effort to dig out of the prison’s cellar known as “Rat Hell.” Prisoners endured dark, dank, chill conditions, as well as omnipresent rodents continually crawling over them. Breaking through at a tobacco shed some 55 or so feet beyond Libby’s confines, the escaping officers made their way through the Richmond night, hoping to make it to Union lines. Of the 109 men who escaped, 59 found their way to Federal lines, two drowned, and 48 were recaptured, including Rose, who had almost made it to safety.

In October 2020, the Library of Virginia purchased a sketch by Rose depicting Libby Prison on the day of the escape. Rose drew it for George E. Albee (1845-1918), who had been a prisoner there in August 1864. Although undated, it was ascertained that the diagram was made between 1889 and 1899, when Libby had been torn down and reconstructed in Chicago as the Libby Prison War Museum.

While cataloguing the diagram after it was conserved and digitized, research on Colonel Rose uncovered a letter dated February 15, 1894 that he wrote to “Dear Allen” in a dealer’s online catalog. The letter discusses the reconstructed Libby Prison in Chicago, as well as the Libby Prison breakout that Rose led. Rose commented on “This sketch I send you….” That Rose would draw two diagrams seemed unlikely, and a closer look revealed that “Allen” was actually “Albee,” the same Albee for whom Rose had drawn the diagram now in the library’s collection.

The letter was available, and the library acquired it in November 2021. The diagram and letter are reunited as the Thomas E. Rose letter and sketch of Libby Prison, February 15, 1894 (LVA accessions 53170, 53463).

In a further bit of serendipity, many years ago the Library of Virginia had acquired George Albee’s diary that details his time imprisoned in Libby in August–September 1864 (George E. Albee diary, 1864, LVA accession 41695). Albee served with the 36th Wisconsin Infantry and remained in the United States Army after the Civil War. In January 1894, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for action along the Brazos River in Texas on October 28, 1869.

Pages from the diary of George E. Albee describing his arrival at Libby Prison.

A lieutenant in the 36th Wisconsin Infantry, Albee was captured at the second battle of Reams Station on August 25, 1864.

All of these items are available for research in the Archives Reading Room at the Library of Virginia.

Trenton Hizer

Senior Manuscripts Acquisition & Digital Archivist

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