The conflict was supposed to end quickly. However, as the war dragged on into 1862 both Union and Confederate governments needed prisoner of war camps to hold the growing number of captured men. An estimated 400,000 prisoners were held in harsh and squalid conditions of deprivation at Union and Confederate camps during the war. Roughly 56,000 of these prisoners, ten percent of the war’s dead, perished in these camps. As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond was a center of activity during the war. Numerous prisons were established in and around the city to accommodate the large influx of Union prisoners from both the Eastern and Western theaters. Libby Prison, Castle Thunder, Castle Lightning, and Belle Isle are representative of the prisons in Richmond, distinct in the captives they held and in the daily life of those imprisoned.
- Libby Prison
In 1861, Confederate authorities confiscated a three-story brick warehouse at Cary and Canal Street that would become Richmond’s most notorious prison: Libby Prison. This isolated and easily guarded location was ideal for a prison, and it was accessible by both railway and water. Soon after the first prisoners arrived in March of 1862, Libby Prison quickly became overcrowded and additional prisons in the city were needed. Libby Prison served as the headquarters for the Confederate States Military Prisons and was the depot where all captured POWs were brought before being transferred to surrounding prisons. Although Libby Prison primarily housed imprisoned Union officers, it did not offer any advantage in quality of life over other prisons. Inmates suffered from cramped quarters, poor sanitation, outbreaks of disease, and extreme temperatures during winter and summer months.
When General Lee abandoned Petersburg and advised Jefferson Davis to evacuate Richmond in April of 1865, Libby Prison also evacuated, leaving only a few sick or wounded POWs behind. The building survived the evacuation fire, was dismantled in December of 1888, and was taken to Ohio to be set up as a museum. By 1895 it had been dismantled again for the purpose of relocating it to Washington D.C. The project went bankrupt, and Libby Prison remained disassembled with its parts distributed as souvenirs.
Libby Prison was not as inescapable as Confederate authorities believed it to be – follow this link to read about one of the most successful prison escapes of the Civil War.
Gleanor’s Tobacco Factory and two smaller brick buildings, Palmer’s Factory and Whitlock’s Warehouse, were seized by the Confederate government and repurposed as a prison. This complex was aptly named for its extreme brutality: Castle Thunder. The three buildings housed 1,400 political prisoners and deserters who were segregated by gender, race, and criminal offense. Conditions at Castle Thunder were particularly inhumane with extreme physical punishment and abuse. It has been noted that on principal, prison officials would often give 50 to 100 lashes to newly arriving Confederate deserters.
Like Libby Prison, Castle Thunder survived the evacuation fire that destroyed nearly all other tobacco factories and warehouses in the city. Following the war, the property was returned to its original owners, who set the compound on fire in 1879.During its existence, Castle Thunder held roughly one hundred women, including one who would become the only female to receive the Medal of Honor. Follow this link to read her story, and the story of two other women imprisoned at Castle Thunder
Across the street from Castle Thunder stood Castle Lightning, a prison established to hold criminally accused Confederate soldiers and civilians. This prison primarily housed deserters from the Confederate Army as well as overflow prisoners from Castle Thunder. Castle Lightning appears to have closed in 1863 and was converted into barracks for the accommodation of several companies engaged in guard duty within the city. The prisoners confined here were removed and most likely placed in Castle Thunder.
Some imprisoned deserters never lost their desire to escape the war. Read their stories here.
This popular recreational area for 19th century Richmonders was converted into a training sight for new recruits at the beginning of the Civil War. By the second summer of the war, however, Belle Isle opened as a prisoner of war camp to ease overcrowding at Libby Prison. Belle Isle closed by September of that same year because a prisoner exchange system enacted between the Union and the Confederacy decreased the number of soldiers needing long-term confinement. However a breakdown of this system made the space on Belle Isle needed once again, and the prison was reactivated in May 1863.
Located near a fall line in James River, the swift currents surrounding Belle Isle served as a deterrent against prisoner escape. The camp consisted of prisoner tents, officer and guard quarters, a cookhouse, five hospital tents, and a graveyard. Although its intended capacity was 3,000, there were only 300 prisoner tents for shelter. At its peak, there were 10,000 prisoners on Belle Isle, and many prisoners suffered from lack of shelter. During the cold winter of 1863, up to fourteen people would freeze to death each night.
The elements were not the only threat in camp. Diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, and small pox raged through Richmond and the prisons. Sick inmates on Belle Isle were treated in the nearby hospital tents, with severe cases being sent to a hospital in the city. The meager and inconsistent supply of food was not enough to sustain the captives, and desperate prisoners resorted to stealing. Hungry soldiers were known to steal the guards’ pets, such as chickens and dogs, and devour them.
By February 1864 prisoners on Belle Isle were moved to a newly established prison in Andersonville, Georgia. The men who left Belle Isle were dirty, poorly clothed, and almost all of them weighed less than 100 pounds. In its eighteen months of periodic operation between 1862-1864, roughly 20,000 prisoners were received and nearly 1,000 died. Today Belle Isle is a popular recreational area for local residents, much like it was prior to the Civil War. By simply looking at the beauty and serenity of the island today, one would not expect it witnessed such horror and suffering.
Some prisoners kept diaries of their experiences. Read about one man’s experience on Belle Isle here.