• Kendrick Gibbs

A "Wildcat" in Libby Prison - Letters from Stephen Sartwell's POW Experience


On June 30, 1862, the Battle of Glendale raged in Henrico County, Virginia; day 6 of the Seven Days Battles. Unable to walk after the fight due to a sprained ankle, Private Stephen Sartwell of the 105th Pennsylvania was captured by Texas soldiers and was sent to Richmond to serve time at Libby Prison and Belle Isle.


Private Sartwell was a native of the small unincorporated community of Warsaw, Jefferson County. In 1860, the 26 year old carpenter, lived with his 22 year old wife, Sarah Coon. The young couple had married 4 years earlier in 1856 and had a son, Samuel, in 1858 and a daughter, Anna, in 1861. Just two months after the birth of his daughter, Sartwell enlisted in the Union Army on October 23, 1861 in Company I of the 105th Pennsylvania "Wildcat Regiment."


Sartwell spent over two months as a prisoner of war in Richmond. After his release, he sent two letters to his wife recounting his experience being captured and his time in the prisoner of war camps. In July of 1863, those two letters were published in the Brookville Republican.



Sarah Ann Sartwell (Coon) (Ancestry.com)


In his second letter on April 21, 1863, Sartwell tells his wife about three different incidents that happened in the camps. The first was about Union sympathizers in Richmond and a Union soldier willing to give them up to try and get out of prison:


“You must be aware that there are some Union people living in Richmond; the men, generally, are put into close confinement, and the women are left at large, but are not allowed to express their sentiments publicly, or make any Union demonstrations whatever. There were two families of this kind living in plain view of this building, and by going up into the garret and looking out of an attic window, these families would make their sentiments known by displaying small Union flags.


This was encouraging to us, and I, for one, used to take delight in looking out of this window, and, I believe, in a few days I would have struck up a conversation by way of signs, had it not been for a man who belonged to the 16th Mass. Vols.


This man had been trying to get the rebels to let him take the oath of allegiance to their Confederacy, but they had no confidence in him, and he had failed in every attempt. When he discovered the loyalty of these people, he determined to give the rebels information of the fact, in order to further his purposes. It was well for him that he did not make his intentions known, for he certainly would have been pitched out of the window and dashed to pieces on the pavement below.


After the rebels got this information through him, they stopped the display of flags and took him from the building; but not, however, until he had been pretty severely handled by one of the Irish Brigade, who would have finished his career had the rebel guards not interfered. There is an instance here which demonstrates a fact of much importance to the men of the North, which is the fact that the rebels have no respect, whatever, for a man who leaves his colors."



Libby Prison in Richmond, VA. Taken by Alexander Gardner in 1865.

The second incident describes treatment of the prisoners by their own men:


“We at no time received more than half rations from the rebels, and often we found it almost impossible to keep alive, and we to resort to other methods to get the staff of life. We could buy a half ration of bread from the guards for five cents, which we were very glad to get; but this did not last long – We had some sutlers among us, who, by their lying and other intrigues which they resorted to, got the rebel officers to stop the guards from selling bread, and to give them permission to do so, they promising to pay specie for all they bought. These men, after they got the thing into their own bands, soon raised the price of bread…The rebels finally put a stop to it, and fixed the price at the same rate as it sold for at first.


Among the prisoners there were two Jews, one of them had a considerable amount of money and was somewhat given to gambling He got hitched, one night, with some New York blacklegs, who tired their very best to strip him of all that he had; but he proved to be too sharp for them.


All at once one of the them arose suddenly, and stated that he had lost his pocketbook; the others seized the Jew and held him until they roused up all the men in the room, it being about 11 o’clock, P.M., who by this time had fallen asleep. As soon as the way was open, the man who at first alleged his long the pocket book, stated the case again, and one of the others fixed the suspicion on the Jew. – The Jew seemed to have very few friends, but I firmly declared his innocence.


A description of the pocket book was given, which, the Jew stated, was the exact description of his, and demanded that the contents be also described. This was perfectly fair, but was not granted. But, to make this story short: he had to produce the book, when one of the gamblers knocked it out of his hand, and that was the last that was seen of the money; the Jew had to be rescued by the guard, or he would have been thrown out of the window."



The Prisoner of War Camp at Belle Isle. Photograph taken by Charles Rees, circa 1863.

The third incident is Sartwell's experience of what it was like to feel freedom after being released from prison on parole:

"The time had now arrived when I was to be set at liberty. What a happy time it was to me when I had signed the oath of parole; I almost felt like flying. I had been a prisoner from the 30th of June to the 21st of September; it seemed like an age to me…On the next day after we were paroled they started us for our own lines. – When I got within sight of the boat which was to take us out of prison, a thrill of joy passed through me, and I felt like giving three hearty cheers.


We passed down to the boat, our papers were signed, and we got permission to go on board and breathe the air of freedom once more. A few hours before sundown we cast off and sailed down the James River, happy beyond expression. After changing boats at Fortress Monroe, we sailed to Annapolis, where we expected to land, but we did not; from here we went to Baltimore, and from Baltimore to Washington, from which place we were ordered to Alexandria, where I learned the whereabouts of my regiment, and proceeded forthwith to join it, -- I found the boys around their camp fires, and after a general shaking of hands we indulged in a regular old cap talk; the boys were all anxious to hear from Richmond, and I was equally anxious to hear from all the boys in the company.


They seemed to be gleeful, but I felt sad to learn what the carnage of battle had done to deprive me of so many old friends. I believe I have written enough for this time, so

so I will leave you for this time with a hearty good bye.[1]

Your affectionate Husband

Stephen W. Sartwell


By the summer of 1863, the 105th Pennsylvania was in David Birney's Division of Daniel Sickles' III Corps. At Gettysburg on July 2nd, Sickles moved his men into a risky position in the middle of the Union line. The 105th moved across the Emmitsburg Road to the property of the Sherfy farm where it took heavy casualties after being flanked and taking heavy musket fire.


One of those casualties was Corporal Stephen Sartwell - he was killed-in-action during the fight on July 2. In honor of his service and sacrifice, his wife Sarah published his letters in the local newspaper so that his friends and family could share in his experience during the war.



[1] Stephen Sartwell, “Incidents of Life in the Libby Prison at Richmond, by a member of the 105th,” Brookville Republican, July 15, 1863, 1.


All personal information was collected from the 1860 U.S. Federal Census viewed on Ancestry.com



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