In the summer of 1862, Richmond suffered from an overpopulation of Union prisoners of war. To remedy the situation, Confederate officials purchased a fifty-four-acre island in the James River from Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works. The island, formerly a vacation spot for the people of Richmond, was located at the fall line of the James River, and Confederate authorities reasoned that the site’s swift rapids would discourage escape attempts. In the meantime, the bridge connecting the island to the city could facilitate the movement of prisoners to the Richmond and Danville Railroad for easy transfer to points outside Richmond.
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.
The prison’s first commandant was Captain Norris Montgomery. Considered lenient with the prisoners, he was replaced in August 1862 by Captain Henry Wirz, a Swiss-born medical doctor who was hanged after the war for his treatment of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia. Wirz revoked all privileges, in part due to overcrowding. On July 11, 1862, the Richmond Enquirer reported that 5,300 prisoners were held in the 3,000-capacity facility, although the paper noted that “their friends in the North may be perfectly satisfied that they will pass a pleasant summer at Richmond.”
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.”
Confederate authorities established officer and guard tents outside the prison compound, in addition to hospital tents, a graveyard, and a wooden cookhouse. Confederate guards placed tight restrictions on the actions of Union inmates, allowing them to bathe in the river only under strict guard; preventing them, for security reasons, from using the latrines during the night when the prison became significantly overcrowded in 1864; and bucking and gagging inmates for stealing food. (Bucking and gagging was a type of punishment in which one piece of wood was tied in a prisoner’s mouth, and another piece of wood was tied behind his knees, thus rendering the prisoner unable to move.) In 1864, Belle Isle inmates were not adequately supplied with food due to overcrowding and Confederate authorities’ inability to supply the prisoners because of Richmond’s dire economic conditions. Swelling numbers of prisoners drove up the price of food in Richmond and consequently caused a cut in their rations. At this time, the average ration consisted of a square of cornbread and thin soup that the men claimed was almost inedible.
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.