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Belle Isle 

Civil War Prison


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PHOTOS:     Prison Photo      Belle Isle Graves in 1865

List of soldiers buried at Belle Isle and removed to Richmond National Cemetery

 
Belle Isle is located west of Richmond, Virginia in the James River.  During the Civil War, this small and beautiful island was used as a Civil War Prison.  Holding only a few small shacks, the island afforded no protection from the elements to the Union soldiers who were captured and taken there.   Prisoners were given tents to sleep in but the tents numbered 3000, while the soldiers held there, numbered almost 10,000 by 1863.  A hospital for prisoners and an iron factory were located on the island, but no barracks were ever built for the prisoners, hence the continuous exposure to weather played a large role in the death toll on Belle Isle.  Excerpts from the diary of prisoner: Zelotes A. Musgrave attests to these facts.:  
 
November 1st 1863
Took the cars at Petersburg for Richmond Va. We arrived in Richmond Va at 12 noon. Four hundred and thirty of us prisoners marched on to Belle Island (near Richmond Va.) which is in the
James River.
November 2nd
We are laying on Belle Island with no tents or blankets.
November 3rd
On Belle Island near Richmond Va. One forth rations issued to us today.
November 4th
Same place, I am sick today.
November 5th
Bell Island. Plenty of body lice here.
November 6th 
Belle Island. Laying out on the ground.
November 7th
Belle Island. Still laying out on the ground.
See the entire diary online

Prisoners were allowed to swim in the James river surrounding Belle Isle.  The rapid water was extremely perilous but some men braved the rapids and rifle fire, attempting to escape.  Some drowned or were shot, in their escape efforts, but a few did find their freedom.

 

There is controversy over the number of deaths on Belle Isle.  The South claims the death rate was low, while the North claims it was very high.  According to John Ransom, a soldier who was incarcerated there, "Stormy and disagreeable weather.  From fifteen to twenty and twenty-five die every day and are buried just outside the prison with no coffins- nothing but canvas wrapped around them."  On February 11, 1864, he further wrote: "a good deal of fighting going on among the men;" they were "just like so many hungry wolves penned together."  Prisoners were robbing each other of rations and blankets.  The Prison commander admitted he could do nothing to stop the thievery.  Quoted from John Ransom's Diary.

 

Walt Whitman's question when he saw prisoners returning from Belle Isle can give us some insight into the human suffering endured there.  He said; "Can those be men?"  "Those little livid brown, ash streaked, monkey-looking dwarves? - are they not really mummified, dwindled corpses?"

Many Belle Isle prisoners were Union soldiers from the 2nd Tennessee Infantry who were captured at the Battle of Rogersville on November 6, 1863.  Enlisted men who survived at Belle Isle were later transferred to Andersonville where it was said; "They would have new and better facilities."  Officers were sent to Libby Prison.  See the 2nd Tennessee Roster at top of page.
 
 LINKS: 
 In Search of the Graves of Our War Dead
 Pausing For War
 Richmond National Cemetery
 Belle Isle Prison
 Belle Isle State Park
 Confederate Prison Camp Rules
 Civil War Soldiers Database Ancestry
 Civil War Databases and FAQ
 
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