Belle Island Prison "Like So Many Hungry Wolves"
"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." So wrote captured Union soldier John Ransom in his November 27, 1863, diary entry from Belle Island Prison. On February 11, 1864, the 20-year-old brigade quartermaster wrote that there was "a good deal of fighting going on among the men;" they were "just like so many hungry wolves penned together." Bands of predatory prisoners roamed the encampment, robbing their fellow prisoners of rations, blankets, and anything else they wanted. The commandant admitted that he could do nothing to stop the gangsters, as he had only enough men to try to prevent escapes.
Beautiful Belle Isle, in the James River at Richmond, became a Confederate prison after 1st Bull Run, confining Union noncommissioned officers and enlisted men. No barracks were erected; Belle Isle and the Union prison at Point Lookout, MD, were the only major Civil War prisons that were made up of clusters of tents. Although Belle Isle Prison was intended to hold only 3,000 men, with tents provided t house that many, its population swelled to double that number and more. The island's location in the rapids of the James River made escape very perilous. Many of the men who tried it drowned before reaching safety.
All Civil War prisons were deadly and Belle Isle was no exception. "Can those be men?" was Walt Whitman's query when he saw some prisoners who had returned from Belle Isle. "Those little livid brown, ash streaked, monkey-looking dwarves? - are they not really mummified, dwindled corpses?" Civilians and soldiers alike went hungry in wartime Richmond, and the subsistence provided to the Union prisoners proved such a drain on the area's resources that most were shipped out to new and better facilities, with more food resources, in an area untouched by the war- Camp Sumter, near Andersonville, GA.
Fascinating Fact: A London correspondent disagreed with the negative reports about Belle Isle, attesting, "On the day I visited the island, out of the 7,000 of these 'cruelly-used captives', there were only 13 in the hospital."
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