DeForest, B. S. (81st New York); Random Sketches and Wandering Thoughts; or, What I Saw in Camp, on the March, The Bivouac, The Battlefield and Hospital, While With the Army in Virginia, North and South Carolina, During the Late Rebellion. Albany: New York, 1866. pp. 302-310.


THE following description of Southern war prisons, and of the treatment of Union prisoners confined in them, taken from the Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Military Record, of the State of New York, cannot fail to interest the general reader, and more especially all who had friends who suffered or died in them. The Author believes the narrative to be truthful, having received nearly the same statement himself from returned prisoners who had been confined in these dens, while with the army in the South:


The most liberal rations issued to men incarcerated in the earlier prisons, tobacco warehouses, consisted of a small piece of cold beef, (or some rice in lieu of it,) and five ounces of bread, at ten o’clock A. M., and at seven o’clock P. M., about a half pint of soup and five ounces of bread. The rice was often wormy, and the meat (cooked two days before consumption, and kept in a trough) was dirty, stale and hard, its juices having been extracted for the previous day’s soup ration. So goaded by hunger were the prisoners here that they have been known to hunt for a bone in the pile of filth, and gnaw eagerly upon it. The Federal officers were confined on another floor of the warehouse, and, having funds in their possession, were enabled to purchase additions to their daily rations; their condition was more endurable, as rank and station usually commanded some consideration on the part of rebel officers. They continued to get a sufficiency of food, such as was purchaseable, and were able to send some surplus fragments to the destitute occupants of other floors. Every day, from early morning until late at night, emaciated soldiers may be seen waiting longingly for the surplus bread and meat from the officers’ table. It is a scene of piteous sadness when a steward brings forth a pan of bread to distribute among them. As he appears, every soldier’s eye glares with a hungry look, arms are stretched forth beyond the sentry’s musket, and each man jostles with his neighbor for a trust of bread, and crunches his share with eager, ravenous haste.

In this primary prison-House of the South, seven Federal soldiers were shot dead by sentinels for inadvertantly approaching the windows. There was but one hydrant for the use of five hundred and fifty men, and every day they were kept hours waiting in here before they could obtain water. The same buckets used in the distribution of meat and soup, were furnished to them for the washing of their bodies and clothes. One small stove was placed in a room eighty feet long, by fifty wide, with open windows, and the men were often forced to walk half the night, to reanimate their chilled frames. The dirt, bones and other refuse matter, accumulated in disgusting piles in a corner.

Such was the condition of enlisted men in the first prison at Richmond. When the defeat of our forces at Manassas threw a large number of Federal officers and privates into rebel hands, there was no distinction made between them. Six hundred enlisted men were thrust with the officers into a warehouse-where, sweltering under the heat of midsummer, with closed windows, and n sufficient room for them all to lie, wedge-packed, upon the floor, they remained suffering and without food for nearly twenty-four hours.

There was some pretension, at this time, to furnish medical treatment in hospitals adjacent to the prison warehouses. The hospital buildings contained three floors, each receiving eighty camp cots. Twelve nurses were allotted, eight during the day, and four at night; two sergeants having charge of the medicines and alternating on post. The wards were kept in good order at that time, the attendants being prisoners of war themselves. Supplies of clothing and necessaries were received from the Federal authorities, and distributed to our sick and wounded, and it is reported (unofficially) that the entire stock of lint and bandages in the hospital was sent in by the Unionists of Richmond, after the battle of Manassas.


The Libby Prison, at Richmond, comprised a row of brick buildings, which had formerly been used as tobacco warehouses. The structure was three stories in height, and overlooked the canal and James river. The buildings were made to communicate by doorways opened in their partition walls. Each loft or room was one hundred feet in length, by forty in breadth. In six of these rooms there were confined at one time twelve hundred Federal officers of all ranks, from that of Brigadier General to that of Second Lieutenant; allowing a space of about twenty superficial feet of floor to each man, (ten feet by two,) wherein to cook, eat, wash, sleep, and exercise. In the quarters of these officers there was a sufficiency of water, a tank for bathing purposes being placed on each of four rooms. Seventy-six windows in the six apartments admitted air, there being no glass or shutters in winter or summer. A sink was constructed outside the building, the upper portion of its sides being left open for ventilation.

Under the primary rules of Libby prison the occupants were allowed no furniture or bedding, but were obliged, (as a prisoner expresses it,) to “huddle upon their haunches like so many slaves on the middle passage.” Subsequently they were permitted to construct chairs and stools for their own use, out of barrels and boxes in which clothing had been brought from the North. Two stoves were allowed to a loft during the winter season, but the supply of wood was insufficient to warm an apartment which remained exposed to the cold from open windows. The ration of daily food in the officers’ quarter was a small loaf of corn bread, weighing about half a pound, and about two ounces of beef: The quality of the bread ration is suggested by the remark of an officer, who said: “I would gladly have preferred the horsefeed in my father’s stable.” It is testified by prisoners that the quantity of daily food was at no period enough to support healthful life, and during the greater part of the period of incarceration the inmates of Libby were subjected to slow starvation, except in cases where “extra” food was sparsely admitted for purchase by those who could command the means to buy. During these terms of compulsory famine, it is proved that there was an abundance of superior provisions in the possession of rebel authorities, much of it having been received from the North and withheld from the prisoners for whose use it had been forwarded. On one occasion, as is related, the inmates of one of the rooms were enabled, by removing a plank in the flooring, to penetrate to a cellar under the building, wherein was stored supplies of the finest wheat flour, potatoes and turnips. During months the famishing inmates of Libby were aware that boxes of food and clothing from Northern friends, sent for their use, were piled in neighboring warehouses, to the number of three thousand, while a mere pretence of delivery was made of a single box, perhaps, daily, Often, when permitted to buy necessary clothing or food, at exorbitant prices, our officers found the purchased articles stamped with the mark of the United States Sanitary Commission, which had contributed them for the prisoners’ relief. The regulations or rather caprices of rule in Libby prison, were tyrannical in the extreme. Dungeons were contrived beneath the buildings, fit only for dens of reptiles, and into these places our imprisoned soldiers were thrust, by order of the prison authorities, for the most trivial offences, or assumed offences. The commander of the department, during the existence of these abuses, was Major General Winder. The commandant of the prison was Major Turner, and Richard Turner was prison inspector. The arbitrary will of these men was law without appeal.


Belle Isle is a small insulation on the James river, opposite Richmond. In time of peace, and during the vernal season, its name may properly describe it, for the place is not destitute of natural beauty. To Union war prisoners, however, Belle Isle must always be a reminiscence of misery.

During the rebellion, Belle Isle was appropriated, or rather the barren portion of it was used as a place of confinement for the rank and file of Federal prisoners. There was no regular stockade, but an enclosure of about six acres, surrounded by an earthbank, some three feet in height, having a ditch on either side. The space, thus bounded was destitute of trees or verdure, the ground being low and sandy, exposed in winter to wind and storm, and in summer time scorched under the heat and glare of noonday, or dank with the malarious fogs of night. On the edge of the exterior ditch was a sentry line, which extended around the prison ground. On this line, guards walked their beats, at distances of forty feet from post to post, commanding the enclosure with their guns, by day and night. A provision for shelter was attempted by the laying out of a sort of encampment, of ragged Sibley tents in rows, with streets or passage ways between; but these tents only sufficed to contain the first prisoners of war, and became totally inadequate for the protection of thousands who were afterward brought to Belle Isle. This prison yard speedily became a torture field and grave of Union soldiers, within sight of Richmond, and under the immediate notice of the self-styled Confederate Government.

No variety or even regulation of rations seems to have been known at Belle Isle. The prisoners were fed as the swine are fed. A chunk of corn bread, twelve or fourteen ounces in weight, half baked, full of cracks, as if baked in the sun, musty in taste, containing whole grains of corn, fragments of cob, and pieces of husk; meat often tainted; and a mere mouthful; two or three spoonfuls of rotten beans; soup thin and briny, with worms floating on its surface; the whole ration never one-half the quantity necessary for a healthy man, and no two articles being given together. The prisoners at Belle Isle gnawed refuse bones or broke them in pieces to make soup. They begged for stale bread from the guards; they caught and ate rats: they devoured a dog which had strayed into the enclosure. It is unnecessary to dwell further upon what must have been the suffering of our soldiers at Belle Isle, by reason of hunger alone.

It has been mentioned that tents were arranged for the shelter of earlier prisoners. These tents were old and rotten at first, and were capable of containing only a small portion of the prisoners, there being at some periods of the war as many as twelve thousand turned into the enclosure, like so many cattle, to find what resting place they could. When crowded thus, the average space apportioned to each man, was from two feet-by seven to three feet by nine. Most of these unfortunates were obliged to lie upon the ground, to be drenched by rain, and often frozen by the cold. During the severe winter months, while the mercury ranged below zero at Richmond, and ice formed on the James river, our gallant boys at Belle Isle endured the days and nights, shelterless, unclothed, sick and disease-smitten. Some crawled for protection into the ditch, heaped against each other, and of those the “outer row” often froze to death during sleep; some dug holes in the sand, and burrowed in them; hundreds passed the cold nights in running to and fro, to keep their blood from coagulation. Every morning numbers were found frozen stiff in the embrace of death. The hospital and death carts were constantly bearing out loads of dying and dead. The men lost strength, spirits, and sometimes reason. Blindness and dizziness made them faint on the least exertion. Diarrhea wasted them, scurvy ate into their bones, vermin tortured them, and mad with fevers. A broad beach sloped to the water in front of the encampment, and the prisoners might have enjoyed cleanliness, if denied all other indulgences. But the rules permitted only about seventy-five men to bathe in one day, in squads of half a dozen at a time. Hence, a man’s “chance” to wash his person, when the person was least wounded, might come but once in six months. Their condition from filth became horrible. Being forbidden to approach the sinks at night, the densely populated quarters became loathsome with filth. The wells were tainted, the air was filled with disgusting odors. Such was the prison at Belle Isle.

[remainder of memoir not transcribed]

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