Federico Fernandez Cavada was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba in 1832. His father, Isodoro Cavada, died in 1838 and Federico was sent to live with his mother, Emily Gatier, in Philiadelphia. In Philadelphia the young Cavada was educated and became an engineer. A staunch abolitionist, Cavada enlisted, along with his brother Adolfo, in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, in which he served as an engineer. Assigned to a hot air balloon observation unit, Cavada spent a good deal of time in 1862 drawing maps and sketches while floating above Confederate positions in Virginia.
By July of 1863 Cavada had achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel and was in command of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry. On July 2, 1863 the regiment was engaged in fierce fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg and Cavada was captured by Confederate forces. After a march of nearly two weeks, he found himself held in the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, VA. Cavada was held as a prisoner of war until the Spring of 1864, when he was exchanged. Later that year he published his prison memoir, Libby Life: Experiences of a Prisoner of War in Richmond, VA, 1863-1864. Complete with his own illustrations, Cavada's book gave a detailed narrative of the prisoner of war experience from his capture until his release.