There are many interesting items in the Michigan Historical Museum’s military collection, but few hold as many mysteries as this book-shaped wooden box. A card tucked inside the box reads “Made in Libby Prison by W. H. Marble while a prisoner in 1863.” Under the card is a sheet of thin wood that could have passed as the lining of the box. When removed, it reveals a cryptic letter on the reverse.
There was a William H. Marble from Michigan. According to the Michigan Civil War Volunteer Registries, he enlisted in Company G of the First Michigan Infantry on April 21, 1861 and mustered out three months later. There is a possibility that that record is inaccurate, but it is just as likely that another W. H. Marble was imprisoned in Libby Prison.
By 1863, over crowding at Libby Prison led to squalid conditions. Around one thousand men were housed in the upper three stories of the building, originally used by grocers Libby & Son. After 1862, only officers were imprisoned at Libby. The W.H. Marble from Michigan was an enlisted man, but an enlisted man might have stayed if he was too sick to be moved with other enlisted prisoners. It is also possible that the 1863 date on the card with the box is incorrect.
In order to distract themselves from their bleak surroundings, prisoners made rings from beef bones, carved wood into trinkets, wrote poetry, played chess, held lively debates on the issues of the day and even produced a prison newspaper. Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew visited the soldiers in Libby Prison often. She brought them food and reading material and gathered information she passed on to Union authorities.
The box that Marble made has an inscription on the spine, similar to a modern library call number. It reads, “V152185.” One intriguing possibility is that this apparently random assortment of characters is a spy code.
A photo of Libby Prison, taken during the Civil War (Photo Courtesy of the Library of Virginia).
“In memory of the war of 1861, 2, 3, & 4…”
Eventually, Marble’s box found its way to a man identified as “Copanhagan” who added the following inscription on a piece of wood he placed in the box:
April the 14th A.D. 1868
In memory of the war of 1861, 2, 3, & 4 H. C. Baer Lieut. of Co. H. 6th Michigan Heavy
Artillery Wm. S. Trask Capt. Of late Co. H. EDC
Yours truly Copanhagan
On closer inspection, the older letter written on the underside of the removable wooden lining shows that the unknown author took the time to make eighteen evenly spaced lines on which to write. The text has faded and been smudged over the years, making it difficult to decipher. The following transcription, obtained using high-resolution digital photos, raises more questions than it answers.
July 1, 1860
My kind & beloved friend,
Do we ________ that we are stand
Ing on the brink of the grave and
______ enter/intend the harsh and the
certainty of eternity yet fed
force/farce let ___ realize of dying mo
ment there is not a face how
ever beautiful that today upon
thy ____ that in ___ very few
____ shall not b_y __________ ____ Pering
beneth (sic) the green ______ _______
_____ it another/mother worn/worm, _______ ______
is that the __ of ____ ________
it is not ______ let us _______
___ lier (sic) than _____ would let
us recieve (sic) that bone/bane _____
(last two lines completely illegible)