- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

When thousands of captured Union soldiers were herded into Richmond after the Seven Days battles, the largest island in the James River quickly changed from an industrial village to a sprawling, squalid prison camp.

"Can those be men?" Walt Whitman asked in shock, seeing emaciated prisoners returning north after being exchanged from Belle Isle in Richmond. The soldiers he saw were mere skeletons, their hollow cheeks sunken into their faces and their limbs so weak they couldn't feed themselves. They were survivors of a Civil War prisoner-of-war camp deserving of Andersonville-like notoriety.Any idea when Whitman said this? Maybe it was years after the Seven Days prisoners were taken to Belle Isle and the island changed

"I doubt if any prisoners were ever before treated by any people professing to be a civilized nation as are the prisoners here," wrote Belle Isle POW Osborn Coburn.

Such was not the case in the beginning. In 1861, Belle Isle was a beautiful 80-acre island. Local stories maintained that the island was the first soil on which Europeans had set foot when they explored central Virginia.

In the spring of 1862, however, after the capture of thousands of Union soldiers (many of them already wounded) in large-scale battles outside Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign, the Confederate provost marshall in Richmond, Gen. John H. Winder, desperately needed space to house the prisoners until they could be exchanged. Someone suggested Belle Island as a detention area for enlisted men because it was isolated by the dangerous fall-line rapids, had fresh water readily available and was easily swept by cannon placed on the surrounding hills in Richmond and a large rise on the island. Winder readily concurred, and by late July, more than 5,000 prisoners were confined in the flat, sandy lower portion of the island, which had been turned into a tent city complete with its own "Broadway." The island's former inhabitants were relocated temporarily.

At first, conditions were tolerable and even pleasant for many. A London correspondent covering the war was amazed at the health of the inmates. (Just 14 out of many thousands reported sick.) The Richmond Examiner reported later in the summer that "only fifteen deaths have occurred since the island was occupied," a rate lower than the normal death rate from sickness in either army. It was summer, there was abundant fresh water, and the imminent reality of a speedy exchange of prisoners and return to friendly lines kept spirits high. According to Belle Isle historian Sandra Parker, the early prisoners were treated exceptionally well, and Belle Isle remained for a while a Richmond "picnic spot."

However, because of the course of the war, what originally was envisioned as a transient camp took on a disturbing sense of permanence. In late 1862, after the vast majority of prisoners had been exchanged, the island was fumigated and cleaned, and leaders envisioned the camp more as a depot or holding point reserved mainly for emergencies. In January 1863, however, thousands of prisoners from Murfreesboro, Tenn., were shipped in, and a pattern was established that resulted in four separate waves before the end of the war, with each successive group of Belle Isle prisoners suffering greater and more inhumane deprivations. The final wave of prisoners was removed near the end of the war to the hell of Andersonville.

Conditions steadily deteriorated, in part because of Confederate hardships and in part because of policy. Prisoners were "robbed" as they were processed. Worried officials who feared an uprising curtailed access to the running water of the river, and as a result, human waste built up in the camp streets. The prisoners often dug their own wells in the shallow sand. The tents rotted and were not replaced. A deadline was established and enforced. Clothing and blankets became scarce. Disease broke out, including a deadly smallpox epidemic in late 1863.

Food, the most necessary survival item, steadily contracted in quantity, quality and variety and often consisted of nothing more than a small cake of corn bread in which the husks and kernels were not even fully ground. On a better day, a small portion of meat might be included, or a few beans might be doled out for watery soup.

"The beans never had been handpicked or cleaned," one prisoner complained. "Windmills were few and apart in Dixie."

Sometimes, when the river was high, the only access to the island was by a narrow railroad bridge to the south side. On those days, it was not uncommon for prisoners to go without food.

The soldiers invented various ways to combat depression and pass the time. Vocal quartets were formed that performed songs from both sides and even original songs about the prison. One group recited Shakespeare. Others played chess or cards, sketched, attempted to keep journals (as did the previously quoted Coburn) or write letters home, and in at least one case attempted to forge Confederate currency. A few amused themselves by picking at or playing with the numerous "six-legged rebel gray backs" (lice). Each day the camp was rife with rumors of exchanges, even after they officially stopped in 1863, and no one ever stopped talking or thinking about the possibility of going home.

There were unscheduled events that provided momentary distractions. Camp Commandant Lt. Bossieux's French poodle was enticed into the lines and eaten by famished inmates. In fact, dog became such a coveted menu item that Confederate guards were forced to stop taking their tracking dogs on the rounds because they frequently disappeared.

There were periodic escape attempts. Two men who hid in the sand avoided detection by rooting pigs only to be located later by the poking bayonets of suspicious guards. Others drowned while trying to swim across the dangerous rapids. Some did not have to escape. When female soldiers were discovered, they were immediately sent north. When blacks were discovered in the ranks, they also were separated for "appropriate" treatment.

There were occasional fights and a gang of prisoners who terrorized all of the other inmates were controlled only at gunpoint by the guards. Those who could not fend for themselves often found what little food they had stolen from them.

Eventually, many prisoners were too weak or sick to take pleasure in any distractions. Starving men pulled up every blade of living grass within their reach. Rats were trapped and eaten. Men ran through the streets all night attempting to keep from freezing or buried themselves in the sand. Twenty-five men a day were dying at the peak of suffering, a rate that places Belle Isle among the worst of Civil War prisons.

There was an alliance between "the Prince of Darkness and Jefferson Davis," one POW insisted.

Some men, constantly starving, volunteered to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederate government and work in one of the nearby war industries (and thus gain more food). Most, though, suffered silently for their cause.

"I guess Secesh is bound to starve us," Coburn wrote.

Even Confederate authorities admitted the severity of the situation. "They die from slight diseases, having lost all hope," the medical director in Richmond reported to Winder. Increasingly, the Confederate government couldn't feed its own armies, let alone thousands of POWs, and the best of intentions were useless without resources.

In all, more than 1,000 prisoners died while at Belle Isle. Reports reached the North, and both military and civilian leaders were outraged, resulting in immediate reprisals against Rebel prisoners held in Northern POW camps. An unsuccessful raid even was attempted in 1864 to liberate the suffering Belle Isle prisoners.

The Confederates argued with justification that they were doing everything they could. Union authorities maintained a hard line, however, and never resumed general exchanges after 1863, refusing to place Rebel soldiers back in the field.

"This action on the part of General Grant is a sad blot on his otherwise famous record," POW George Darby wrote.

In February 1865, after the last prisoners had died or been removed to Andersonville, the Confederate government returned the island to its owners. The war ended shortly thereafter, and after a brief stint as a Union refugee camp, Belle Isle quietly resumed its place as an industrial resource in the heart of Richmond, serving as home to a steel mill, a quarry and a power station.

Renewed interest in Belle Isle arose in the 1990s when the site was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Today, as part of the James River Park System, it has a modern footbridge to take visitors to the island to hike, bike, fish, swim and relax on a sunny rock reading a book.

POW Coburn and so many others had no pleasant footbridge to take them home.

"Oh, how tired I am getting of this lying around the dirt with nothing to read," he lamented. A short time later, he was moved to Hospital No. 21 and died.

Jack Trammell works at Randolph-Macon College ([email protected]) and writes fiction and nonfiction. His mystery "Gray" takes place in Richmond. The James River Park System can be reached at 804/649-8911 and has a Web site, .www.ci.richmond.va.us/department/parks_rec/james.asp.

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