You may have heard of Libby Prison and the prison on Belle Isle. But there was another Civil War-era prison known ominously as Castle Thunder.
Last month we talked about the increasing crime problem in the Richmond of 1862, so I thought it would be fitting to talk about one of Richmond’s infamous prisons during the Civil War. We’ve already talked about Belle Isle’s role as an island prison for Union soldiers during the war. You may have also heard of Libby Prison, where Union officers were held. But there was another well-known prison–reserved initially for political prisoners, suspected Union spies, and deserters–known ominously as Castle Thunder. Because of the nature of their crimes, many prisoners in Castle Thunder were awaiting death sentences.
Made up of three old red-brick tobacco warehouses, the prison sat on Cary Street between 18th & 19th in Shockoe Bottom. A wooden fence created a small prison yard with guards lining the top of the walls. Prisoners were divided among the three buildings: Confederate deserters and political prisoners in one warehouse, black and female prisoners in another, and the last warehouse reserved for Union deserters and prisoners of war. In the back of the prison was a brick area where punishments ranging from lashings to executions took place.
In November of 1862, the prison was less than a year old and run by a new commandant, Capt. George W. Alexander. Despite only being on the job for a month, Alexander quickly established a reputation for brutality and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Stories about Alexander and his guards became so heinous that he would later be brought before the Confederate House of Representatives in an investigation into the treatment of prisoners in 1863. He was later cleared of the charges, in part because his defense cited the character of the inmates as justification for his behavior.
Castle Thunder’s residents were a particularly rough bunch, with one newspaper remarking “even Southerners fear this loathsome place.” One anecdote told the story of prisoners openly laughing at the death of another inmate, telling the guard, “There’s a fellow here got his discharge and he wants to get out.”
Stories of the brutality at Castle Thunder abound in the local newspapers during the war. One particular story from November involves an Englishman, incarcerated for drunk and disorderly conduct, set upon by prisoners:
An Englishman had been arrested and placed in the prison for drunkenness, and was no sooner locked in among the motley crew of thieves, vagrants and deserters, than he was set upon and robbed of a gold watch and all the money of which he was possessed. He lost no time in informing the Assistant Provost Marshal, in charge of the prison, and that officer caused every one of the occupants of the room, several hundred in number, to be drawn up in line, and the Englishman was requested to point out the parties who perpetrated the robbery. He recognized eight, and they were accordingly secured in the usual way, their hands being bound under their knees, and each one suffered the infliction of twenty-five rousing thwacks with a big strap made for the purpose. This mode of punishment is certainly most appropriate, and if generally adopted towards rogues, would save the courts, civil and martial, much trouble. Richmond Enquirer, 11/27/1862
As you can see, there was no shortage of brutality from either the prisoners or the guards.
Castle Thunder remained open for the duration of the war. After the Union took control of Richmond in 1865, they made use of Castle Thunder to house Confederate prisoners. We’ll definitely be hearing more stories from Richmond’s infamous prisons, including some daring escape attempts, as we continue to tell the story of Richmond during the war.