Carrington, Isaac H. (1827–1887)


Isaac H. Carrington served as provost marshal of Richmond during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Born in Richmond to an influential family, Carrington practiced law in Pittsylvania County before the war. He served in various staff and administrative positions in the Confederate army before, in 1863, the Confederate Congress appointed him a commissioner of prisoners in Richmond. The next year the secretary of war named him Richmond’s provost marshal with responsibility for issuing passports to all persons leaving the city. Just prior to the Union occupation of Richmond in 1865, Carrington set fire to military stores in the city, but despite taking precautions, the fire spread and destroyed much of the capital. He was later exonerated on charges of misappropriating funds sent by the U.S. government for prisoner relief. After the war Carrington practiced corporate law, served on the University of Virginia board of visitors (1873–1875), and served as president of the Richmond Bar Association (1886–1887). He died in 1887.

Early Years

William H. Cabell

Isaac Howell Carrington was born on March 7, 1827, in Richmond at the residence of his great-grandfather, Robert Gamble. He was the son of Paul S. Carrington, a Charlotte County planter, and Emma Catherine Cabell Carrington. Well connected to the influential families of Virginia, he was a grandson of William H. Cabell, a former governor and then judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals, and of Paul Carrington, a Speaker of the Senate of Virginia and judge of the General Court. Carrington was raised in Charlotte County and studied in local schools before attending the University of North Carolina from 1842 to 1844 and the University of Virginia, where he studied law, from 1845 to 1846. He read law with James M. Whittle in Pittsylvania County and practiced with him until the Civil War began. On April 19, 1853, Carrington married a cousin, Mary Claiborne Coles. They had two daughters and two sons. One of Carrington’s sons was stillborn, the other drowned as a child, and his wife died of liver disease on March 8, 1860.

Civil War

On June 12, 1861, Carrington was commissioned a major in the 38th Virginia Infantry Regiment and was mustered into Confederate service on the same day. The regiment arrived too late to participate in the First Battle of Manassas and saw little action before going into winter quarters. Carrington was ill and absent from January 13 to the end of February 1862, but he was present in April when the regiment was posted to the Middle Peninsula. At the election of officers on May 12, 1862, Carrington was not reelected. He served as chief of staff to Brigadier General John B. Floyd for several months and then late in May 1863 applied for a position as a judge of the courts-martial established under a recent act of the Confederate Congress. On June 16, 1863, Carrington was appointed assistant quartermaster with the rank of captain to date from May 29, but soon thereafter he declined the position.

Military Prisons in Richmond

  • Libby Prison Window
    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.

  • Libby Prison Interior
    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.

  • Libby Prison Artifacts
    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.

  • Richmond Prisons and Hospitals during the Civil War
    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.

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

  • Castle Thunder After the Fall of Richmond
    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.
  • Libby Prison Key
    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.

  • Castle Thunder Prison
    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.

  • Belle Isle
    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.

  • Libby Prison Exterior
    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.

  • Belle Isle Prison
    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.

  • Castle Thunder
    Castle Thunder (1865)

    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.

On July 14, 1863, the Confederate secretary of war appointed Carrington a commissioner of prisoners in Richmond and instructed him to report as well on persons suspected of disloyalty to the Confederacy. The health of the prisoners of war provoked censure from Carrington’s counterparts in the U.S. Army and from the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Carrington reported in November 1863 that the prisoners were being properly provided with food and shelter, but throughout the war prisoners died, and criticism continued. The condition of the prisoners remained a subject of intense debate long after the war ended.

In March 1864 the secretary of war appointed Carrington provost marshal for the city of Richmond with responsibility for issuing passports to all persons leaving the city. He signed such a pass on June 15, 1864, for President Jefferson Davis. Carrington also tried to monitor the actions of suspected deserters, spies, stragglers, and other people who might threaten local security. In mid-February 1865 his commanding officer, Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, ordered him to make plans to destroy the cotton, tobacco, and military and naval stores that might be in danger of capture. On April 2, 1865, Carrington was also appointed superintendent for recruiting African American soldiers for the Confederate States Army, but on that same day the Confederate government abandoned Richmond, leaving the city undefended.

The Fall of Richmond

Carrington prepared to burn the warehouses and posted guards to prevent interference. He notified the city fire chief and requested that firefighters and equipment be ready to prevent the flames from spreading. Unfortunately, the wind began to blow soon after the first warehouses were set ablaze. Aided by disorderly residents and soldiers, who were drinking the capital’s alcohol supply as city officials tried to destroy it and who even chopped up the fire hoses, the flames spread unchecked during the night. Much of the business district of Richmond was destroyed in the fire and accompanying riot.

Carrington left the city soon after dawn on April 3, surrendered in Danville, and was paroled as a prisoner of war on May 4, 1865. He escaped blame for the Richmond fire, which fell on Ewell, but he was accused of complicity in the improper use of thousands of dollars in U.S. funds and gold that Union prisoners of war in Richmond had turned over after their capture. The army arrested Carrington on May 12 after his return to Richmond and investigated the fate of the money sent for relief of the prisoners. Exonerated, he was released on June 29 and took the oath of allegiance on the following day. Carrington then applied for a pardon and enclosed documents indicating that he had been cleared of suspicion in the misappropriation of the prisoner funds. On September 20, 1865, he received a presidential pardon.

Later Years

Robert Ould

On November 7, 1865, Carrington married Anne Seddon Smith at Glen Roy in Gloucester County. They had three sons and four daughters, but death struck his second family as it had his first. Only two sons and two daughters lived to adulthood. Carrington resumed the practice of law in partnership with the Richmond attorney Robert Ould, the former Confederate agent for prisoner exchange, who also had been arrested during the investigation of the prisoner fund. They earned a high reputation in the emerging field of corporate law. After Ould’s death in 1882, Carrington practiced law with Edward Henry Fitzhugh for several years. A member of the board of visitors of the University of Virginia from 1873 until 1875, Carrington became president of the Richmond Bar Association in February 1886 and was holding that office at his death.

In August 1886 Carrington suffered an attack of Bright’s disease and died in Richmond on January 30, 1887. He was buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery.

March 7, 1827
Isaac H. Carrington is born in Richmond.
Isaac H. Carrington attends the University of North Carolina.
Isaac H. Carrington studies law at the University of Virginia.
April 19, 1853
Isaac H. Carrington and Mary Claiborne Coles marry. They will have two daughters and two sons.
March 8, 1860
Mary Coles Carrington, the wife of Isaac H. Carrington, dies of liver disease.
June 12, 1861
Isaac H. Carrington is commissioned a major in the 38th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
January 13—February 28, 1862
Major Isaac H. Carrington is ill or absent from the 38th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
May 12, 1862
Major Isaac H. Carrington is not reelected an officer of the 38th Virginia Infantry Regiment.
June 16, 1863
Isaac H. Carrington is appointed assistant quartermaster but declines the position.
July 14, 1863
The Confederate secretary of war appoints Isaac H. Carrington a commissioner of prisoners in Richmond.
March 1864
The Confederate secretary of war appoints Isaac H. Carrington a provost marshal for the city of Richmond.
Mid-February 1865
Confederate general Richard S. Ewell orders Isaac H. Carrington to make plans to destroy the cotton, tobacco, and military and naval stores that might be in danger of capture in Richmond.
April 2, 1865
Isaac H. Carrington is appointed superintendent for recruiting African American soldiers for the Confederate States Army.
May 4, 1865
Isaac H. Carrington is paroled as a prisoner of war.
May 12, 1865
The U.S. Army arrests Isaac H. Carrington on charges of misappropriating U.S. funds intended for Union prisoners in Richmond. He will be exonerated.
June 29, 1865
Isaac H. Carrington takes an oath of allegiance to the United States.
September 20, 1865
Isaac H. Carrington receives a presidential pardon.
November 7, 1865
Isaac H. Carrington and Anne Seddon Smith marry in Gloucester County.
Isaac H. Carrington serves as a member of the University of Virginia board of visitors.
Isaac H. Carrington serves as president of the Richmond Bar Association.
January 30, 1887
Isaac H. Carrington dies in Richmond and is buried at Hollywood Cemetery.
  • Salmon, Emily J. “Carrington, Isaac Howell.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 39–41. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
APA Citation:
Salmon, Emily & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Carrington, Isaac H. (1827–1887). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/carrington-isaac-h-1827-1887.
MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Carrington, Isaac H. (1827–1887)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 27 Nov. 2021
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