Belle Isle Prison, Virginia

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Originally I had thought that my third great grandfather James Donigan was imprisoned at Libby prison after being captured at the battle of Gettysburg. After reading a letter written to his wife by a friend of the family I realized that he was actually imprisoned at Belle Isle prison located west of Richmond, Virginia.


The six acre Belle Isle prison designated for Union enlisted men was situated in a section of the James River where the rapids made escape almost impossible by swimming. Earthwork three feet high would surround the prison as walls and later be increased to five feet high. Many of the men that attempted to escape by swimming drowned before every reaching the opposite bank and safety. Belle Isle became a prison after the first battle of Bull Run. The intention for the prison was to only hold 3,000 men in tents. That limit was reached two weeks after opening. At one point the number of men living in tents and sleeping on the ground swelled to more than 10,000. Fifteen to twenty men a day would die from exposure to the elements. Men were buried outside the prison, wrapped in canvas. Many of the men buried outside the prison area would eventually be re-interred at Richmond National Cemetery.


Fighting between men was common and gangs of prisoners robbed other prisoners for whatever they could take, rations, blankets and tents. The prison was manned with only enough guards to keep the men contained, not to stop the looting.


Belel Isle was opened and closed during the war. The camp had been reopened just prior to my grandfather’s arrival there. By the time of his move to a Richmond hospital, prior to his death in November of 1863 the population has risen to 10,000 and there were reports of the prisoners being intentionally starved. By late November 1863 the prisoner count was 16,411 with 952 officers. Belle Isle would be closed and briefly reopened again in July of 1864.


In total the prison would operate for about 18 months out of the war, house 20,000 prisoners and cause the death of somewhere near 1,000. Few escapes were made successfully with most having drowned or been shot by guards.


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