OR, Ser. II, Vol. VI, pp. 1087-1090

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Report on the sanitary condition of Belle Isle and the causes of mortality among the patients by Surg. G. W. Semple.

MARCH 6, 1864.

Surg. WILLIAM A. CARRINGTON, Medical Director:

SIR: After inspection of the prison camp on Belle Isle I respectfully submit the following sanitary report:

Into the camp containing an area sufficient for the accommodation of about 3,000 men have been crowded for many months past from 6,000 to 10,000 prisoners. To prevent escapes they have not been allowed to visit the sinks at night. These deposits of excrement have been made in the streets and small vacant spaces between the tents. The streets are so greatly crowded during the day as greatly to interfere with the working police parties, so that nearly the whole day is consumed by them in the imperfect removal of the filthy accumulations of the night. The whole surface of the camp has thus been saturated with putrid animal matter. Surrounded by such circumstances the prisoners have been totally careless of personal cleanliness. The rations now consist entirely of bread, rice, and peas or beans. The bread is made of corn-meal, unsifted or bolted. Not separating the bran from the meal tends greatly to cause and continue the two diseases (diarrhea and dysentery) most prevalent among the prisoners. Many of them are badly clad and destitute of blankets, having sold the articles lately <ar119_1088> furnished them by their Government. Under these circumstances, though they have been furnished with fuel, there has been great suffering from cold during the unusually cold weather of January and February, to which the brutal conduct of the prisoners in expelling their comrades from their tents at night has greatly added.

To the crowded and necessarily filthy condition of the camp, the absence of personal cleanliness of the prisoners, the meager rations, and the effects of cold may be added the depressing effect of long-continued confinement without employment, mental or physical, and with little hope of an early termination of the imprisonment, which together make up a sufficient sum of causes to account for the report during the month of February of a sufficient number of cases to amount to one-fourth the average number of prisoners in the camp. The diseases have been such, consisting principally of typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, and catarrh and the diseases of the respiratory organs, as might be expected to result from the causes stated. But great as is this amount of disease, it is not greater than the average sickness among the U.S. troops in the field on the Atlantic coast, as reported by one of their own surgeons. Much difficulty has been experienced in procuring the regular attendance of the sick at sick-call. Patients have been brought out on litters, unable to walk and greatly emaciated, who have never before attended sick-call, and several deaths have occurred in camp without the prisoners having been seen by or reported to a medical officer, the sergeants in charge of squads alleging that they could not attend regularly to the duty of bringing the sick up to sick-call, because of the necessity of at the same time drawing and distributing rations. A sergeant has been selected from each squad to attend to this duty alone, and it is hoped that a more regular attendance of the sick at sick-call will thus be secured. There is not space enough in the camp to establish as large a temporary hospital as desired, but five hospital tents have been pitched, which afford the means of treating temporarily the sick ordered to general hospital when prevented by the rising of the river or ice or the non-attendance of ambulances from being sent. The overcrowding of the camp is now being rapidly reduced by transfers and exchange of prisoners. The number of prisoners being sufficiently reduced, the irregularities of the surface of the camp are to be filled up and the ditches and drains cleaned out. I have recommended to the commanding officer, and shall urge it most strongly on his attention, to have a sufficient number of sinks dug within the camp to water, which rises within a few feet of the surface. In consequence of vaccination having been so generally practiced among the prisoners previous to their capture, it has been found impracticable to continue to propagate vaccination among them. But varioloid, which has prevailed to some extent, seems to attack indiscriminately those who have been vaccinated early in life and those recently vaccinated. The reports show a great diminution in the number of variola and varioloid cases, giving ground to hope they will soon cease. The commanding officer and his subordinates have done all within their power to carry out [what has been] suggested toward the sanitary condition of the camp, but the number of officers and the guard and police seem too small to reestablish and enforce such system of police as would enable the medical officers to discharge their duties with as much efficiency and satisfaction as amongst our own troops in the field.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Surgeon in Charge U. S. Prisoners on Belle Isle and in Barracks.




Respectfully forwarded to the general commanding. The causes of the mortality are clearly deduced from the fact here shown in relation to the diet and surroundings of the prisoners.

Medical Director.


[Inclosure No. 8.]

GENERAL HOSPITAL No. 21, Richmond, March 7, 1864.

Surg. W. A. CARRINGTON, Medical Director:

SIR: In obedience to your order I have the honor to submit the following report of the deaths, diseases, and condition of the patients received into this hospital: The daily list of deaths is regulated by the number admitted each day from Belle Isle. During the past month twenty-five cases died before they had been in the hospital twenty-four hours. It is so common an occurrence for the patients sent from Belle Isle to be speechless or delirious and unable to give their names, &c., that I have requested the surgeon in charge, in addition to the list forwarded by the conductor of the ambulances, to pin their names, companies, and regiments of desperate cases on the lapel of their coats. The majority of cases die of chronic diarrhea. During the past month 337 cases suffering with this disease were admitted. The deaths from this disease during the month sum up to 265. Of typhoid fever cases for the last month 64.5 per cent. have died; from diarrhea 59.7 per cent. The commissary department for five weeks has not been able to furnish me with flour. The meal furnished in lieu thereof is ground with the husk and will produce diarrhea. I have ordered it to be sifted, but it is ground too fine to separate the husk from the meal. The medical purveyor does not furnish the hospital with a sufficient quantity of medicines. I made a requisition on the 1st of March, which has not been filled as yet. I would be most happy to receive suggestions from you in the treatment of diarrhea. I believe the medical officers have tried all known and approved remedies for the disease. In the case of other diseases, as pneumonia, &c., they generally occur in constitutions already enfeebled by diarrhea, and are generally in the second stage when admitted. In conclusion, the prominent character of all cases is emaciation.

Respectfully submitted.

Surgeon in Charge.




Respectfully forwarded to the general commanding. The report of Surgeon Semple at Belle Isle and this is approved. The quantities and quality of the food, the crowded condition of the camp and hospital, the uncomfortable condition of the men from want of sufficient fuel, shelter, and clothing, and the depressing effect of homesickness account for the great mortality; 590 died out of 2,200 in hospital last month. I have placed a competent physician in charge of the hospitals and wards as report to me. The want of space for exercise increases the sickness.

Medical Director.


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