Skip to content

1863 November 21: Starving Union Prisoners from Belle Island

November 21, 2013

The following article is from The Prescott Journal of November 21, 1863.  Belle Island is a 54-acre island in the James River in Richmond, Virginia, which was the Confederate capital.  It was used as a prisoner-of-war camp for Union soldiers between 1862 and 1865.  As many as 1,000 prisoners died from starvation, disease, neglect, and exposure.



Death from Starvation.

A Baltimore correspondent of the New York Times visited the hospital at Annapolis in order to see [for] himself the starved Federal prisoners recently brought from Richmond.  His story is an awful revelation of the atrocities of the rebels :

On arriving at the hospital at Annapolis, we found the Matron just starting on her tour of inspection, and she kindly allowed my friend and myself to accompany her.  Wishing to prepare us for what we were to see, she gave us an account of the arrival of the prisoners by boat, on the 26th ult.  The men landed at 5 A. M. in the chilly dawn, and it seemed a fitting time for so mournful a procession.  They numbered 180 men brought from Belle Island,¹ near Richmond.  Many were unable to walk, and were carried to the hospital.  Those that could walk must have presented a sight never to be forgotten; for, before leaving, the rebels not only stripped them of socks, shoes and blankets, but took from them their shirts and pantaloons, except where the rags could scarcely hold together.  Men came in without hats or caps, with thin cotton drawers, and bodies bare to the waist—their nakedness and bleeding feet covered only with what tatters their cruel captors had left them, not from mercy, but because they were too filthy to keep.  These men had been on Belle Island (which seems to be a barren waste) without any protection against the weather, except what they had themselves constructed.  They had lain on the sand which was to them as bed and cover, exposed both sick and well, to all extremes of heat and cold, without clothes, without food, (except small portions of the most repulsive kinds,) for weeks and months, many having been taken prisoners at or before the battle of Gettysburg.  Many are suffering from what are called sand sores, and the surgeons in vain attempting to produce general circulations of blood, the cuticle in many instances seemingly dried on the bone from exposure, and nearly the color and consistency of parchment.  If food was denied them, it would seem as if the veriest barbarian would give them shelter to die beneath.

With this preparation we visited the wards.  On entering the first room, some sick men, sitting in silence near the fire, lifted their hands to show us, that with us was entering the unseen, but not unexpected visitor—death.  Before us lay a young man just breathing his last, a mere skeleton, whose dying throes seemed to place a stronger relief in frame which must once have belonged to a strong and vigorous life.  We turned away in our horror, only to look upon another who would soon follow his martyred comrade.  Near them stood two male nurses, who, after witnessing horrors of all kinds, both on the battle field and in the hospitals, stood perfectly subdued and heart wrung, in witnessing that most tearful of all deaths—death from starvation.

Belle Island prisoner, from the Library of Congress

Belle Island prisoner, from the Library of Congress¹

In another room was a poor young boy, equally squalid in appearance a network of bones, perfectly crazed, and tossing his arms about and talking wildly and indistinctly :  he, too, could live but a few hours, and most probably never be sane again.  The next patient was a respectable looking middle aged German, with the bedclothes drawn tightly over his head, moaning and writhing in his agony.  My friend begged me to listen.  I could only distinguish these words :  “I am so tired, something to eat, what torment,” and then the ejaculation, “Oh, Holy Christ!”  Then we saw others, emaciated to the last degree, several of whom were trying to eat—their kind nurses tempting them with delicacies and such food as they could bear.  Some, after taking the longed-for article and putting it to their lips, would turn away with an agonized loathing expression, as if eager to swallow, but incapable of the effort. Others, after eating with famished haste, would, after a few moments, eject it all, their stomachs being too much weakened to bear nourishment either solid or liquid.  Could anything be more fearful than this living death ;  this famishing, with food before their eyes and within their reach.  There were other patients who were better, they could digest food and had some hope of life.  It was then the sixth day since they came, and out of 180 men 53 had died of ill-treatment and actual starvation.  The Surgeons said at least two thirds of the 180 would die, and if any recovered it would be with broken constitutions, utterly incapable of supporting themselves.  Many had died on first arriving, unconscious, from their sufferings, that they were among friends and in the land they had died for.  Others were too far gone to say much, but thankful to feel that they might die under the old flag and be taken home to be buried with their kindred.

1.  Photograph of a Union prisoner in 1864: “A Richmond prisoner, [now at the] U.S. General Hospital, Div. No. 1, Annapolis, Md., Private Jackson O. Broshears [i.e. Brashears], Co. D, Indiana Mounted Infantry. Age 20 years; height 6 feet 1 inch; weight when captured, 185 lbs.; was in rebel hands three and one-quarter months, 2 months of which were passed on Belle Isle. Under treatment in U.S. Hospital 8 weeks—constantly improving—now, May 19th, 1864, weighs 108-1/2 lbs,” in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: