Southern Opinion, 8/10/1867

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From the Southern Opinion, 8/10/1867

BELLE ISLE IN THE JAMES – ITS OCCUPATION AS A PRISON ISLAND – PRESENT APPEARANCE OF THE ISLE, AND INCIDENTS OF THE YANKEE OCCUPATION – VIEW FROM THE ISLE, ETC. – Belle Isle is one of the accursed trinity of Southern spots invoked by Yankee orators and newspapers when they seek to be particularly caustick in their denunciation of the South and “Southern barbarity,” as demonstrated in their treatment of prisoners of war. The companions of Belle Isle, classed in these same anathemas, are the Libby and Andersonville.

Now Belle Isle is not such a terrible place. It is less barren and rock-bound than St. Helena or Elba; it is a Paradise compared to Johnson’s Island and Point Lookout, swept over by the keen winds of winter and parched by the torrid sun of summer, without shelter or shade.

In fact, Belle Isle is susceptible of being converted into a lovely[?] watering and bathing place, environed as it is on all sides by the river, and overshadowed by willows and poplars. So the Yankee prisoners thought in the summer of 1862, when they were transferred from the close walls and stifling heat of the Libby to the delightful coolness of Belle Isle. It was an excursion to them – only their stay was too prolonged, and the novelty of the scenery cloyed on the vision and imagination. The Isle is formed by the river, which divides at a point above the Tredegar Works, and comes rushing down on either side, forming a junction at the extremity nearest the city. This point lies in the shape of a triangle, formed by the two converging currents. In this triangle, crowned by an immense precipitous promontory, the prison camp was made, extending over some ten or twelve acres. The trenches, or circumvallations by which the boundaries of the camp were defined, still remains in part, but the main portion is under cultivation, cut up into gardens, where are growing luscious corn, tomatoes, beans and other vegetables.

Before this part of the Isle was made a prison depot, the ground was poor, barren and worthless – now it is rich, loamy and productive – made so by the offal of the camp. Life is imparted to the Isle by the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Works, now in full blast. Some of the workmen have habitations on the ground, cultivating patches and gardens.


The tract of ground designated the “Cemetery,” established to receive the dead among the prisoners, is located on the west slope of the elevated hill looking towards the Tredegar Works. The dead were few in number, thanks to the salubrious nature of the location. They have already seen the day of resurrection, and excavations now mark the places that once were graves. All have been removed to the National Cemetery, established near Malvern Hill.

The winter and spring freshets, to which the James is addicted as regularly as the toper is to his sprees, sometimes puts the cemetery and lower portions of the old camp ground under water. These inundations never occurred while the Island was a prison depot, and if they had, the elevated hill, eighty or one hundred feet above the river level, would have afforded ample space for the accommodation of the prisoners.


Belle Isle was first constituted a prison post in the latter part of May, 1862, upon the occurrence of the series of battles that followed up that of the Seven Pines, in which thousands of prisoners were taken. The Libby was overcrowded, and it was necessary to select some place into which a portion of the Yankee hive could be “swarmed.” The choice with the military authorities was divided between Haxall’s great flouring mill, then inactive, and Belle Isle, and the latter was decided upon.

The island post was first commanded by the unfortunate Captain Henry Wirtz or Werz, who was hung at Washington by a military commission in expiation of the sufferings of Federal prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, for which he was not responsible. Werz was transferred, and was succeeded by Major Thomas P. Turner, the commandant at the Libby Prison Pose. He exercised supervision over both posts, and had an assistant to take charge and control affairs on the Island.

The greatest number of Yankee prisoners held on the Island at any one time was eleven thousand five hundred. At that period only prisoners who were commissioned officers were retained at the Libby.


The accusation that Confederate prisoners were starved – some of them to the point of actual death – in Yankee prisons, and that too in the midst of a land teeming with plenty, has ever been met by the Yankee press and orators with the countercharge of starvation of their kin in Southern prisons, where, in a land devastated, wasted, and a commissary overtaxed, there really existed some palliation for such a state of things. But it was not so, and when rations were scanty the soldier in the field obtained less than the prisoner at the prison post.

The prisoners at Belle Isle were all fed according to the army regulation ration up to within a short time of the surrender of Richmond. The manner of serving the rations was through sergeants selected from among the prisoners, the whole number being divided into squads of one hundred each, in charge of a sergeant, who drew the rations cooked, and then distributed them to his squad. The prisoner’s ration consisted of one and a quarter ounces fresh beef, two ounces white wheat bread, potatoes, peas and rice.

The full ration served the prisoners caused complaint among the Confederate soldiers who guarded them, and who received only a quarter of a pound of rancid bacon and a little meal, or, in lieu of meal, a morceau of rye coffee and sugar.

Then they were informed that the prisoners were fed by Captain Warner, Prison Commissary, and not by Commissary General Northrop, and that Captain Warner was authorized in his action by an appropriation made by the Confederate Congress expressly to supply food for the prisoners, and that, so long as that appropriation held out, they should receive the full army regulation ration. In many instances, when the officers caught the sentinels conversing with the prisoners, or the prisoners with the sentinels, which was contrary to rules, it was discovered that the half-starved offender in grey was endeavoring to negotiate for the surplus of the meat and bread remaining with the well fed “boys in blue.”

These are facts, not the idle indulgence of words. It was not the Yankee soldiers who were starved, but rather the Confederate soldiers who stood sentinels over them.


Among the prisoners on the Island were some of the most abandoned wretches that ever wore the blue blouse – convicts, thieves, highwaymen, murderers – and they practiced their villainy upon their fellows in the prison camp, such as robbing, beating and maltreating them.

Complaint made to the guard secured the infliction of some slight punishment, such as bucking, gagging, riding a wooden horse, etc., but the outrages continuing, the prisoners determined to rid themselves of their tormentors, organized a vigilance committee, and were proceeding to hang the outlaws of the camp, some eight or ten in number. They were rescued by the sentinels, taken out, and shipped to Andersonville, where they were afterwards hung by their fellow prisoners for a repetition there of gross offences against the laws of the lawless.


About the time of the Dahlgren raid, the high hill overlooking the camp and other points bearing upon the prison camp were planted with artillery, and held by troops, to guard against any attempt to liberate the prisoners by the one-legged General, who it was rumored, had crossed the James and Mannakin’s Ferry, and was coming down like a lion on the fold to liberate the lambs and eat up the shepherds.

Though it was no easy matter to escape from the prison isle, there were among the prisoners a number desperate enough to attempt it by swimming to the opposite shores in either direction. These attempts were made at night, or while the prisoners were bathing in squads. Several were shot and killed in the vain attempt, and not more than one or two ever got away successfully.


Standing upon the mount, rising abruptly out of the Island, the spectator enjoys a beautiful view, looking towards any of the four cardinal points. Northward the city, the Capitol building, the Capitol Square, Church steeples and prominent edifices; eastward, Rocketts, the river and the hills beyond; nearer, in the same sweep, the great Petersburg railroad bridge, hanging between earth and sky, and along which travels backward and forward, the sure-footed engine, like a great black spider testing the strength of his delicate strand; westward, solemn, somber Hollywood, and the James, tumbling from rock to rock; southward, the fair fields and long stretch of woods, here at you feet almost the green collection of Brown’s, Mayo’s and Vauxhall’s Islands, dipping their green willow wands into the waters.

Belle Isle and its smaller sisters are beautiful spots, and susceptible of being rendered twice as beautiful and attractive by the aid of a little art and enterprise, and made to steal the fairest of the “Fairy Isles” that float in the poet’s dream.