Author: Angela M. Zombek

a doctoral student in American history at the University of Florida

Libby Prison

Libby Prison, in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, housed Union prisoners of war during the American Civil War (1861–1865). A three-building complex that had been a tobacco factory and then a shipping supply and grocery store, Libby became a prison in March 1862. It was later converted into an officers-only facility, while also serving as a processing center for all Union prisoners. (Union enlisted men were often routed to Belle Isle on the James River.) The officers who stayed at Libby were crowded inside a three-story former tobacco factory in sparsely furnished rooms that exposed them to the elements; they often also suffered from severe food shortages. Their guards, in turn, struggled with controlling a large prison population. In February 1864, 109 prisoners escaped by tunnel, with 59 eventually reaching Union lines. A few weeks later, Union cavalry general H. Judson Kilpatrick and his one-legged protégé Colonel Ulric Dahlgren mounted an ambitious but disastrous rescue attempt, prompting Libby officials to dig a mine, fill it with explosives, and threaten to destroy the facility if any prisoners attempted to escape. Shortly thereafter, Confederate officials began transferring Libby’s population to Georgia, with the facility being used as a place of temporary confinement for the next year. After Richmond fell on April 2, 1865, former Confederate officials became Libby’s newest inmates.


Castle Thunder Prison

Castle Thunder in Richmond (not to be confused with the prison of the same name in Petersburg) was an infamous Confederate military prison during the American Civil War (1861–1865). In service from August 1862 until April 1865, the facility was established for political prisoners, Unionists, and deserters, but its use quickly expanded to include women, spies, and African Americans. Castle Thunder’s keepers—particularly Commandant George W. Alexander, who presided over the prison from October 1862 until February 1864—earned a reputation for brutality and were subject to investigation in 1863 by the Confederate House of Representatives. At the end of the war, Union military personnel took control of Castle Thunder and used it to incarcerate former Confederates.


Belle Isle Prison

Belle Isle Prison, located on an island in the James River and connected by footbridge to Richmond, was a Confederate military prison during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Opened in June 1862 and closed in October 1864, the facility was subject to multiple closures and re-openings, which were contingent upon prisoner exchanges. While Richmond’s Libby Prison was set aside for Union officers, Confederate authorities used Belle Isle to hold noncommissioned officers and privates. It was originally intended only as a holding facility until more adequate prisons were available. A hospital for prisoners and an iron factory were located on the island, but no barracks were ever built for the prisoners. They were sheltered only by tents,and forced to withstand excessive heat in the summer, frigid temperatures in the winter, and multiple disease epidemics.