National Tribune, 1/29/1903

Home
Written Accounts
Photographs
Maps
Hospitals
Prisons
Other Sites
Events
Search
Links

 


From the National Tribune, 1/29/1903

HORRORS OF BELLE ISLE.
A Connecticut Comrade Takes Up Capt. Beecham’s Account and Continues the Narrative to May, 1864.

EDITOR NATIONAL TRIBUNE: Capt. Beecham’s account of Belle Isle in August, 1863, in which he describes the pen, prisoners, etc., is accurate. I was there, so let me continue the story after Capt. Beecham left. The gates were closed to any going out, but often opened to others coming in. As the war continued the resources of the Confederacy became smaller, and the conditions surrounding the unfortunate prisoners grew worse from day to day until the end.

I had been taken prisoner at Mine Run, Nov. 29, 1863, and arrived on Belle Isle at midnight, Dec. 2. The night was cold. I was sick. As we marched in, the space by the gates was clear; a short distance inside, a dense mass of prisoners blocked our way. The faces and forms of these men are in my memory still. When daylight came, the scene was more horrible to look upon. There were some old tents in the center, and the spaces between them were crowded with men trying to sleep; some had gone into that long, last sleep.

For some days we could get but little rest, for the men crowded around us, asking questions about their regiments and what the news was from the front, and whether or not we had heard of any exchange to take place, and whether Uncle Sam knew how they were being treated, etc. At this time 16,000 prisoners were crowded on that small space of ground, less than five acres. This mass of men was never still day or night. They had to keep moving about in order to prevent freezing to death. This Winter was a bitter cold one. I counted one morning 125 dead. I tried to find some members of my regiment and company, as we lost some at the battle of Bristol Station, Oct. 14. I never would have known them. I was looking for robust forms in blue, not the dirty, ragged, starving forms that claimed me as their comrade; but such was the case. I was glad to meet them, and they made room for me in their already overcrowded tent. There were two men in this tent belonging to a Wisconsin regiment, whose names were Frost and Snow. They had been at Belle Isle a long time, but left alive.

Through my comrades I received my first ration, a piece of corn bread, three inches by four and one inch thick; it was made of coarse meal with bran in it. Some days we would get sweet potatoes, a piece of cabbage and two spoonfuls of rice or beans, with one stick of cord wood to 100 men to cook with, and no ax with which to split it.

The men were divided into squads of 100 men, in charge of a Sergeant. Up to Christmas the death rate was large. Some squads were reduced to 60 men. The prison officials thought the men were getting too much to eat, so on Christmas morning all the prisoners were marched outside; there was not room for all on land, and some had to stand in the river. I got on a rock and was in the last squad to be recounted back into the pen. This is how 16,000 prisoners spent their Christmas Day on Belle Isle.

About the end of January, more prisoners were brought in; some from my own regiment and company, who had been taken at Morton’s Ford, on the Rapidan River. I was glad to meet them, but grieved to know that soon they would become the same wretched beings as the rest of us. Like Capt. Beecham, I cannot describe what I witnessed from day to day.

About the end of March we were told that an exchange was to take place. This gave new hope; all anxiously looked forward each day to the roll call. At last it came. We fell in and marched out by squads. It was a continuous column. As the men passed the pen they gave up their tins and blankets; they did not want them; they were going home to God’s country and friends. Yes, boys, you went home, via Andersonville. The exchange was from Belle Isle to Georgia. When the gates were again opened, all crowded to the gate, hearing that all were not going to be exchanged. The crush became great. A rebel Sergeant, with red hair - I have forgotten his name - stood at the gate, and taking a gun from the guard, thrust with the bayonet at the men struggling to pass out, until the gateway was full of wounded men. After the wounded were removed, he gave the order to come out. No one moved; he again gave the order, still holding the gun. A comrade by the name of O’Neil and myself were the first to advance. A Sergeant of a squad was standing beside him. As we reached the gate, he asked if we were of his squad. No. Up went the gun at shortened arms, and struck O’Neil on the side of the head. I caught him as he fell and dragged him back from the gate. Blood was running from his ears; he was unconscious for a long time. When he revived he did not know me. How long I cared for him I do not know, for I, too, lost consciousness. How long I slept, I cannot tell; I awakened as from a long sleeps. All was still; the pen was empty; they were all exchanged but me. No, I see some others lying there still. Why had they left us? Soon someone came over and lifted me up. I, with some others, was placed in a flat boat and taken over the river to Richmond. I was placed in a large tobacco warehouse. Here, for the first time, I saw a doctor. He gave me some hot tea. He was a kind man, and did all he could to cheer us up. He told us we would be exchanged in a few days. His name I cannot recall. Then came a flood, and we had to wait until the river went down.

About the end of April we were taken down to a steamboat bound for City Point. On the boat I met another comrade from my regiment, Capt. F. B. Doten. He had come from Libby Prison, and looked as bad as the rest of us; his clothing was in rags and he appeared careworn and wan. If three months in Libby reduced me to his condition, you can draw you own conclusions about the conditions of the prisoners from four to eight months on Belle Isle. We arrived at City Point about 4 p. m. The sight that greeted us was as Capt. Beecham described it. A gangplank connected the boats. The kind doctor from Richmond handed us over the gangway, and a Union doctor received us. At once I was lifted up and placed on a clean bed. I protested that I had vermin on me, but they did not heed me. The doctors were cutting looses the rags from the frost-bitten feet of some of the men, and as the last rag was removed, the bones of the feet fell on the floor. Some of you have seen that picture, “Killed Under the Old Flag.” Such were the scenes on that boat on its way to Baltimore. There were 600 on the boat, of which 16 died that night and over 400 of the 600 died later. How we came to be exchanged I could not learn.

We were placed in Westoe Hospital in Baltimore. A commission was appointed to inspect and take down our statements, which were published in a book, with the history of Fort Pillow. For two years I was a sick man. I was never able to rejoin my regiment. Some of those who were exchanged from Belle Isle to other Southern prisons lived through it. My tent mate, O’Neil, lived; I heard from him after the war, but he never told me his story.

As I have given an account of Belle Isle after Capt. Beecham left it, perhaps some comrade will continue the story from May, 1864, to the fall of Richmond. - WM. LUDGATE, Co. I, 14th Conn., Winnie, Texas.

 

Page last updated on 07/01/2008