Belle Isle, which is now a much-loved public park, was one of the largest prisons in the South during the Civil War.
After several months of battles on the Virginia peninsula, Richmond was struggling with how to handle one of the fastest-growing segments of its population: Union prisoners of war. Union Gen. George B. McClellan’s mismanagement of the retreat back to Harrison’s Landing meant that many Union soldiers were captured during the confusion. Across the city, several warehouses and factories functioned as makeshift prison buildings for Union soldiers, but two in particular would achieve notoriety both during and after the war.
The first, Libby Prison, was converted from a warehouse and held Union officers during the war. It was located on the waterfront of the James River near S. 20th St. and E. Cary St., but no longer exists today. The second prison still exists, and if you’re new to Richmond or aren’t very familiar with the city’s history, you might be surprised to hear that it wasn’t a building at all, but an island on the James River. Belle Isle, which is now a much-loved public park, was one of the largest prisons in the South during the war.
The Confederate government purchased the land in June of 1862, but prisoners didn’t start arriving until July. The first reports from local newspapers (with quite a heavy dose of media bias) made it sound like a vacation destination. From the Richmond Enquirer:
PRISONERS OF WAR.–The number of prisoners now officially reported at the Libby Prison is about 5,300, a large number of whom have been removed to Belle Isle, a very pleasant spot–much more agreeable than any locality which has been given to our wounded soldiers–situated above the Petersburg Railroad Bridge, in the midst of James river. Their friends in the North may be perfectly satisfied that they will pass a pleasant summer at Richmond. 7/11/1862
The Richmond Dispatch described the situation similarly:
Enjoying Themselves.–The Yankee prisoners now encamped on Belle Isle seem determined to “make the most of a bad job,” and to enjoy themselves in the best fashion possible. The majority of them are quartered in tents, and between and among them, in various places, they have dug wells, either for the purpose of obtaining better water than is afforded by the muddy bed of the river or to bathe in. They are permitted to go in the river by the dozen, and there is hardly a moment in the day that squads are not vying with the rocks in disturbing the equanimity of the “noble James.” The island is approached by a boat starting from near the Tredegar Foundry, but few persons are allowed access, save those called thither by official duties. 7/26/1862
By leveraging the rapids of the James River, the island location was perfect for preventing escape. However, the landscape was far from perfect for the wellbeing of the prisoners themselves. With only 300 tents on the island, most of the Union soldiers lived without shelter, completely exposed to the elements. Overcrowding, malnourishment, and lack of shelter would make Belle Isle a hellish, miserable place for Union soldiers. The intended capacity of Belle Isle was 3,000 and they had already nearly doubled that number in those first days of July.
Painting a picture that significantly contrasts with early newspaper reports, private John J. Sneath, from the 12th Pennsylvania Reserves wrote the following in a letter home:
There were over four thousand of us on the Island. Most of us had to lie on the sand, and out in all the rain without blankets, for we had lost them on the battle-field. All we got to eat on this Island was ten ounces of sour bread a day, and often not any for 36 hours. Shannon was with us on the Island. Many of our men died for want of food. The dead were left lie three days in the hot sun before burial. I was a prisoner in their hand forty long days. Shirleysburg Herald, 8/21/1862
Belle Isle’s population would fluctuate significantly throughout the rest of the war, closing for short periods after major prisoner exchanges were negotiated and re-opening after nearby battles. The conditions there would only grow worse as the war continued and many Union soldiers would die there during the war.