Media: Slideshow

Military Prisons in Richmond

Richmond Prisons and Hospitals during the Civil War

A map of the Richmond warehouse district along the James River indicates the location of various prisons in pink—Castle Thunder, Libby Prison, Scott's Factory Prison, and Crew & Pemberton's Prison—and in yellow the hospitals designated for Union captives. This watercolor drawing was made by Union private Robert Knox Sneden, who was captured by John Singleton Mosby's rangers at Brandy Station in November 1863, and incarcerated in Crew and Pemberton's Prison (shown bottom right) that winter.

Original Author: Robert Knox Sneden

Created: 1863

Medium: Pen-and-ink and watercolor

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Libby Prison Exterior

In a photograph taken after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond in April 1865, men and boys—including a boy hanging onto the lamppost at center—pose in front of Libby Prison at the corner of Cary and 20th streets. In March 1862, Confederate officials converted L. Libby & Sons, a shipping and grocery company located in an isolated section of Richmond, into a prison for captured Union soldiers. Originally built as tobacco warehouses, the three-building complex was interconnected by inner doors.

At first, Libby Prison housed Union soldiers of varying rank, but within several months only officers were confined there. Harsh conditions in the prison—including disease, overcrowding, and hunger—made it a cause célèbre in the North. Editors of the Richmond Enquirer, however, angrily refuted those charges, claiming that the Libby inmates enjoyed "sumptuous living" compared to the "poor and scanty fare" endured by their Confederate counterparts.

In March of 1864, the Union officers at Libby were transferred to a new facility in Macon, Georgia, due to security issues and the scarcity of provisions in Richmond; nonetheless, when this photo was taken the following spring, the corner building still bears the sign "Libby Prison." After the war ended, federal authorities used the buildings to incarcerate former Confederates.

Original Author: Unknown

Created: ca. April 1865

Medium: Albumen silver photographic print

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Libby Prison Key

The key to the main door at Libby Prison in Richmond remains in a shadow box at the Virginia Historical Society. This key was taken from the main entrance door by Union soldier Hiram G. Brandow, Company H, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, on April 10, 1865, just days after the fall of Richmond. An affidavit signed by Brandow accompanies the artifact.

Original Author: Unknown

Created: 1861–1865

Medium: Key

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Libby Prison Artifacts

Three artifacts carved out of ivory—a cross, a stiletto (a pointed instrument used in embroidery) topped by a closed fist, and a ring—represent the handiwork of a Union soldier held at Libby Prison in Richmond. These pieces were made by Nicholas H. Boyce an Iowan who had been captured at the Third Battle of Winchester, for a Miss Sallie Barnett, perhaps a girlfriend back home.

Original Author: Nicholas Hall Boyce

Created: 1861–1865

Medium: Carved ivory

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Libby Prison Interior

This engraving published in Harper's Weekly on October 17, 1863, shows an interior view of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, where Union officers were held during the Civil War. The rooms were only lightly furnished and generally open to the elements, with bars over the windows. Any officer who approached a window risked being shot by Confederate guards. Harper's credits the engraving to Captain Harry E. Wrigley of the Topographical Engineers, "who was several months in Libey Prison, and had ample leisure to make drawings and observations."

The magazine also reports that the Wrigley portraits, in the upper left and right of the image, are of "Captains Sawyer and Flynn, the two officers who were selected by Jeff Davis to be murdered in retaliation for the execution by General Burnside of two rebel spies. The despot of the Slave Confederacy has not yet carried his threat into execution; but the sentence of death still hangs over the two officers, and must be hard to bear." Union officials responded by threatening to execute two prominent prisoners of its own, the sons of John Winder, provost marshal of Richmond, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the end, the executions did not take place, and in March 1864, Henry W. Sawyer was exchanged for Fitzhugh Lee.

Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew lived just six blocks from the prison and although she was never able to gain entrance there, she bribed guards for various purposes, such as having prisoners transferred to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, as the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler, she may have assisted some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby. Fifty-nine eventually reached Union lines.

Original Author: Harry E. Wrigley

Created: October 17, 1863

Medium: Engraving

Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

Libby Prison Window

A window from the old Libby Prison in Richmond bears witness to the days when Union soldiers were held behind its bars. E. L. W. Baker from the 21st Michigan Infantry, Company B, whittled his name and army affiliation on the upper left hand side of the frame. Rough Georgia pine encloses three flat iron cross bars in this prison window, which weighs about 300 pounds.

Original Author: Unknown

Created: Second half nineteenth century

Medium: Barred window

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Map of Richmond Virginia. A.D. 1863.

A pen-and-ink and watercolor map displays the street grid and major landmarks of 1863 Richmond. The city, which served as the capital of the Confederacy, grew from a town of fewer than 40,000 residents (more than a quarter of them slaves) in 1860 to more than 100,000 in three years' time. By the end of the Civil War population estimates reached as high as 150,000. Laborers, bureaucrats, war refugees, spies, Confederate soldiers, journeymen, prostitutes, gamblers, and speculators, all poured into the capital during the conflict.

This map was based on sketches made by Union prisoner of war Robert Knox Sneden while he was jailed in Richmond. He shows the complex of prison buildings along the water at lower right (one of which he was held in), as well as Belle Isle in the middle of the James River where, the mapmaker notes, "10,000 U.S. Prisoners of War" were incarcerated. The industrial heart of Richmond is clearly delineated with its rail lines, mills, and the South's largest iron manufacturer, the Tredegar ironworks (located between the James River and the Richmond & Kanawha Canal), which armed and equipped the Confederate military for four years.

Original Author: Robert Knox Sneden

Created: 1863–1865

Medium: Pen-and-ink and watercolor

Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, Robert Knox Sneden Diary (Mss5:1 Sn237:1)

Belle Isle Prison

A rare Confederate photograph taken in the field shows tents where Union prisoners of war were housed on Belle Isle, an open-air prison located on an island in the James River across from Richmond. The photographer, Charles R. Rees, took the image from a high point on the island; in the distance, at center left, is the Capitol.

Original Author: Charles R. Rees

Created: ca. 1863

Medium: Mounted photographic print

Courtesy of The Valentine

Belle Isle, Opposite Richmonnd, Va.

The open-air prison camp for Union captives known as Belle Isle can be seen in this 1866 color lithograph printed in Washington, D.C. Located on an island in the James River opposite Richmond, Virginia, the camp became infamous for its mistreatment of prisoners, who were housed in tents and had to withstand blistering heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. The prison's primitive and unhealthy conditions made it a major source of Northern propaganda regarding Confederate cruelty to war captives. In 1864 the prison was closed, and in 1900 the Virginia Power Company bought the site.

Original Author: F. Dielman

Created: 1866

Medium: Lithograph

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Castle Thunder After the Fall of Richmond

Union soldiers, a trio of barefooted children, and a young black man stand along cobblestoned Cary Street in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the infamous Confederate prison Castle Thunder. On the third floor, several men, perhaps prisoners, stick their heads through the barred windows. This image was made not long after the fall of the Confederate capital to Union forces. The Union occupiers took over the prison and used it to incarcerate former Confederates. Former Union prisoners claimed to have made off with the key to Castle Thunder as well as the immense dog, called variously, Hero or Nero, who had menaced the incarcerated soldiers. The May 19, 1865, edition of the Richmond Whig described the dog as follows:

Hero is a dog about seven feet in length from tip to top, weighing nearly two hundred pounds. He is a splendid cross between a russian bloodhound and a bull-dog, and combines the faithfulness of the one with the ferocity of the other. We have seen him seize little dogs that came around his heels, shake them and cast them twenty feet from him. The stoutest man he would bring to the ground by one gripe on the throat, and it was always a difficult matter to get him off if he had once tasted or smelled blood.

Original Author: Unknown

Created: 1865

Medium: Wet collodion glass-plate negative; one half of stereograph

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Castle Thunder Prison

A colored lithograph published in Washington, D.C., shows a brick industrial building in Richmond that had been converted into a prison during the Civil War. Known as Castle Thunder, the jail was first used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners, deserters, and those who opposed the Confederate cause; later in the war, it housed Union soldiers. After Richmond fell, Union military personnel took control of the prison and used it to hold former Confederates. This print was probably published shortly after Union forces had taken over the city and shows the prison located in a somewhat open section of town; in fact, Castle Thunder was set amid a crowded warehouse and factory district.

Original Author: F. Dielman, artist; F. E. Sachse & Company, lithographer

Created: April 1865

Medium: Lithograph

Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Castle Thunder

Union soldiers stand outside Castle Thunder in this photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell in April 1865, shortly after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond. Russell was a famed Civil War and railroad photographer.

A former tobacco warehouse on Richmond's Tobacco Row, Castle Thunder was used as a prison by the Confederates from August 1862 until April 1865. The prison was established to incarcerate political prisoners, Unionists, and deserters, but its use quickly expanded to include women, spies, and African Americans.

Original Author: Andrew J. Russell

Created: April 1865

Medium: Albumen silver photographic print

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Zoom In
  • Richmond Prisons and Hospitals during the Civil War

    A map of the Richmond warehouse district along the James River indicates the location of various prisons in pink—Castle Thunder, Libby Prison, Scott's Factory Prison, and Crew & Pemberton's Prison—and in yellow the hospitals designated for Union captives. This watercolor drawing was made by Union private Robert Knox Sneden, who was captured by John Singleton Mosby's rangers at Brandy Station in November 1863, and incarcerated in Crew and Pemberton's Prison (shown bottom right) that winter.

    Original Author: Robert Knox Sneden

    Created: 1863

    Medium: Pen-and-ink and watercolor

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Libby Prison Exterior

    In a photograph taken after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond in April 1865, men and boys—including a boy hanging onto the lamppost at center—pose in front of Libby Prison at the corner of Cary and 20th streets. In March 1862, Confederate officials converted L. Libby & Sons, a shipping and grocery company located in an isolated section of Richmond, into a prison for captured Union soldiers. Originally built as tobacco warehouses, the three-building complex was interconnected by inner doors.

    At first, Libby Prison housed Union soldiers of varying rank, but within several months only officers were confined there. Harsh conditions in the prison—including disease, overcrowding, and hunger—made it a cause célèbre in the North. Editors of the Richmond Enquirer, however, angrily refuted those charges, claiming that the Libby inmates enjoyed "sumptuous living" compared to the "poor and scanty fare" endured by their Confederate counterparts.

    In March of 1864, the Union officers at Libby were transferred to a new facility in Macon, Georgia, due to security issues and the scarcity of provisions in Richmond; nonetheless, when this photo was taken the following spring, the corner building still bears the sign "Libby Prison." After the war ended, federal authorities used the buildings to incarcerate former Confederates.

    Original Author: Unknown

    Created: ca. April 1865

    Medium: Albumen silver photographic print

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Libby Prison Key

    The key to the main door at Libby Prison in Richmond remains in a shadow box at the Virginia Historical Society. This key was taken from the main entrance door by Union soldier Hiram G. Brandow, Company H, 4th New York Heavy Artillery, on April 10, 1865, just days after the fall of Richmond. An affidavit signed by Brandow accompanies the artifact.

    Original Author: Unknown

    Created: 1861–1865

    Medium: Key

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Libby Prison Artifacts

    Three artifacts carved out of ivory—a cross, a stiletto (a pointed instrument used in embroidery) topped by a closed fist, and a ring—represent the handiwork of a Union soldier held at Libby Prison in Richmond. These pieces were made by Nicholas H. Boyce an Iowan who had been captured at the Third Battle of Winchester, for a Miss Sallie Barnett, perhaps a girlfriend back home.

    Original Author: Nicholas Hall Boyce

    Created: 1861–1865

    Medium: Carved ivory

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Libby Prison Interior

    This engraving published in Harper's Weekly on October 17, 1863, shows an interior view of Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, where Union officers were held during the Civil War. The rooms were only lightly furnished and generally open to the elements, with bars over the windows. Any officer who approached a window risked being shot by Confederate guards. Harper's credits the engraving to Captain Harry E. Wrigley of the Topographical Engineers, "who was several months in Libey Prison, and had ample leisure to make drawings and observations."

    The magazine also reports that the Wrigley portraits, in the upper left and right of the image, are of "Captains Sawyer and Flynn, the two officers who were selected by Jeff Davis to be murdered in retaliation for the execution by General Burnside of two rebel spies. The despot of the Slave Confederacy has not yet carried his threat into execution; but the sentence of death still hangs over the two officers, and must be hard to bear." Union officials responded by threatening to execute two prominent prisoners of its own, the sons of John Winder, provost marshal of Richmond, and Confederate general Robert E. Lee. In the end, the executions did not take place, and in March 1864, Henry W. Sawyer was exchanged for Fitzhugh Lee.

    Union spy Elizabeth Van Lew lived just six blocks from the prison and although she was never able to gain entrance there, she bribed guards for various purposes, such as having prisoners transferred to hospitals where she might visit them. In several cases, she passed information to inmates using a custard dish with a secret compartment. In 1864, as the head of a Richmond spy network managed by Union general Benjamin F. Butler, she may have assisted some of the 109 prisoners who tunneled out of Libby. Fifty-nine eventually reached Union lines.

    Original Author: Harry E. Wrigley

    Created: October 17, 1863

    Medium: Engraving

    Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society

  • Libby Prison Window

    A window from the old Libby Prison in Richmond bears witness to the days when Union soldiers were held behind its bars. E. L. W. Baker from the 21st Michigan Infantry, Company B, whittled his name and army affiliation on the upper left hand side of the frame. Rough Georgia pine encloses three flat iron cross bars in this prison window, which weighs about 300 pounds.

    Original Author: Unknown

    Created: Second half nineteenth century

    Medium: Barred window

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Map of Richmond Virginia. A.D. 1863.

    A pen-and-ink and watercolor map displays the street grid and major landmarks of 1863 Richmond. The city, which served as the capital of the Confederacy, grew from a town of fewer than 40,000 residents (more than a quarter of them slaves) in 1860 to more than 100,000 in three years' time. By the end of the Civil War population estimates reached as high as 150,000. Laborers, bureaucrats, war refugees, spies, Confederate soldiers, journeymen, prostitutes, gamblers, and speculators, all poured into the capital during the conflict.

    This map was based on sketches made by Union prisoner of war Robert Knox Sneden while he was jailed in Richmond. He shows the complex of prison buildings along the water at lower right (one of which he was held in), as well as Belle Isle in the middle of the James River where, the mapmaker notes, "10,000 U.S. Prisoners of War" were incarcerated. The industrial heart of Richmond is clearly delineated with its rail lines, mills, and the South's largest iron manufacturer, the Tredegar ironworks (located between the James River and the Richmond & Kanawha Canal), which armed and equipped the Confederate military for four years.

    Original Author: Robert Knox Sneden

    Created: 1863–1865

    Medium: Pen-and-ink and watercolor

    Courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, Robert Knox Sneden Diary (Mss5:1 Sn237:1)

  • Belle Isle Prison

    A rare Confederate photograph taken in the field shows tents where Union prisoners of war were housed on Belle Isle, an open-air prison located on an island in the James River across from Richmond. The photographer, Charles R. Rees, took the image from a high point on the island; in the distance, at center left, is the Capitol.

    Original Author: Charles R. Rees

    Created: ca. 1863

    Medium: Mounted photographic print

    Courtesy of The Valentine

  • Belle Isle, Opposite Richmonnd, Va.

    The open-air prison camp for Union captives known as Belle Isle can be seen in this 1866 color lithograph printed in Washington, D.C. Located on an island in the James River opposite Richmond, Virginia, the camp became infamous for its mistreatment of prisoners, who were housed in tents and had to withstand blistering heat in the summer and bitter cold in the winter. The prison's primitive and unhealthy conditions made it a major source of Northern propaganda regarding Confederate cruelty to war captives. In 1864 the prison was closed, and in 1900 the Virginia Power Company bought the site.

    Original Author: F. Dielman

    Created: 1866

    Medium: Lithograph

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Castle Thunder After the Fall of Richmond

    Union soldiers, a trio of barefooted children, and a young black man stand along cobblestoned Cary Street in Richmond, Virginia, in front of the infamous Confederate prison Castle Thunder. On the third floor, several men, perhaps prisoners, stick their heads through the barred windows. This image was made not long after the fall of the Confederate capital to Union forces. The Union occupiers took over the prison and used it to incarcerate former Confederates. Former Union prisoners claimed to have made off with the key to Castle Thunder as well as the immense dog, called variously, Hero or Nero, who had menaced the incarcerated soldiers. The May 19, 1865, edition of the Richmond Whig described the dog as follows:

    Hero is a dog about seven feet in length from tip to top, weighing nearly two hundred pounds. He is a splendid cross between a russian bloodhound and a bull-dog, and combines the faithfulness of the one with the ferocity of the other. We have seen him seize little dogs that came around his heels, shake them and cast them twenty feet from him. The stoutest man he would bring to the ground by one gripe on the throat, and it was always a difficult matter to get him off if he had once tasted or smelled blood.

    Original Author: Unknown

    Created: 1865

    Medium: Wet collodion glass-plate negative; one half of stereograph

    Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

  • Castle Thunder Prison

    A colored lithograph published in Washington, D.C., shows a brick industrial building in Richmond that had been converted into a prison during the Civil War. Known as Castle Thunder, the jail was first used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners, deserters, and those who opposed the Confederate cause; later in the war, it housed Union soldiers. After Richmond fell, Union military personnel took control of the prison and used it to hold former Confederates. This print was probably published shortly after Union forces had taken over the city and shows the prison located in a somewhat open section of town; in fact, Castle Thunder was set amid a crowded warehouse and factory district.

    Original Author: F. Dielman, artist; F. E. Sachse & Company, lithographer

    Created: April 1865

    Medium: Lithograph

    Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

  • Castle Thunder

    Union soldiers stand outside Castle Thunder in this photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell in April 1865, shortly after Confederate forces evacuated Richmond. Russell was a famed Civil War and railroad photographer.

    A former tobacco warehouse on Richmond's Tobacco Row, Castle Thunder was used as a prison by the Confederates from August 1862 until April 1865. The prison was established to incarcerate political prisoners, Unionists, and deserters, but its use quickly expanded to include women, spies, and African Americans.

    Original Author: Andrew J. Russell

    Created: April 1865

    Medium: Albumen silver photographic print

    Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division