Although Belle Isle's isolation was ideal in terms of discouraging escape attempts, its location proved less than ideal in terms of shelter. Unlike Castle Thunder and Libby prisons, both brick structures located in Richmond, Belle Isle was an open-air stockade. The prison's six-acre perimeter consisted of earthworks that stood roughly three feet high, and the prisoners' only shelter came from three hundred or fewer Sibley tents (conical, pole tents invented by Henry Hopkins Sibley), which slept about ten men each. This limited shelter proved grossly inadequate, especially as the number of prisoners steadily grew.
On September 23, 1862, Confederate authorities shut down Belle Isle when the prison emptied due to the exchange of prisoners. On January 17, 1863, however, after the Battle of Fredericksburg (1862), they briefly reactivated the site, doing so again on May 13 after the Battle of Chancellorsville and the breakdown in exchange negotiations. By the autumn of 1863, Belle Isle's population swelled to at least twice the prison's capacity, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 8,000. On October 5, 1863, the Richmond Examiner complained that the capital was overrun with the "'azure-stomached' race this winter."
The overcrowding led to numerous health problems among the prisoners—including, most notably, the smallpox outbreak of December 1863. Moreover, during the summer of 1863, the prison's conditions came to the attention of the Northern media and were thereafter used as a major source of propaganda regarding Confederate cruelty to prisoners. According to the diary of 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." In his entry for February 11, 1864, Ransom implies that prisoners were robbing each other of rations and blankets: "… a good deal of fighting going on among the men … [They are] "just like so many hungry wolves penned together."
In February 1864, Confederate authorities began to evacuate Belle Isle, sending its inmates south to Andersonville, Georgia; Danville, Virginia; or Salisbury, North Carolina, in order to relieve overcrowding in Richmond. By October 1864, all of Belle Isle's inmates had been transferred south and the prison was closed. Confederate authorities then returned Belle Isle to its previous owners, and in 1900 the site was sold to the Virginia Power Company.
June 1862 - Confederate authorities purchase a fifty-four-acre island in the James River and establish Belle Isle Prison for Union privates and noncommissioned officers.
July 22, 1862 - The Dix-Hill cartel, allowing for the exchange of prisoners, takes effect, alleviating Richmond's prisoner-of-war crisis.
August 1862 - Captain Henry Wirz replaces Norris Montgomery as commandant of Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond. A Swiss-born medical doctor, Wirz will be hanged after the war for his treatment of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia.
September 23, 1862 - Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond closes as Union prisoners are exchanged.
January 17, 1863 - Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond temporarily reopens after the Battle of Fredericksburg, but is soon closed.
May 13, 1863 - Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond is reactivated after the Battle of Chancellorsville.
May 25, 1863 - The Dix-Hill cartel, allowing for the exchange of Union and Confederate prisoners, breaks down.
February 1864 - Confederate officials begin evacuating Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond and sending Union prisoners of war south.
October 1864 - Belle Isle Prison on the James River in Richmond is completely evacuated.
- Civil War, American (1861–1865)
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First published: July 27, 2010 | Last modified: June 8, 2011