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Camp of Federal Prisoners on Belle Isle, Richmond, Virginia

The Illustrated London News, vol. 44, no. 1252, p. 354.

April 9, 1864


The late raid of General Kilpatrick and Colonel Dahlgren in the neighbourhood of Richmond, which resulted in a disastrous check and the death of Colonel Dahlgren, is still fresh in the minds of our readers. It will also be remembered that one of the prime objects of the expedition was to effect the release of the Federal prisoners now held in the capital of the Southern Confederacy. The Engraving which we publish this week shows the camp in which these Federal prisoners are confined. Our Special Artist and Correspondent gives the following description of his Sketch:--"For some time the cartel regulating the exchange of prisoners between the North and South has been in abeyance, the Federal and Confederate commissioners being at issue on a point of objection raised by the Lincoln Administration. The result of this misunderstanding has been a large increase of the captives on each side, and in Richmond especially the prisons are full to overflowing. In fact, those buildings originally set aside for the accommodation of prisoners of war in the Confederate capital have been found insufficient for the purpose, and the authorities, to provide a remedy, have established a camp of d├ętenus on Belle Isle. This is the largest of the numerous islands that intersect the channel of the James River, in the immediate neighbourhood of Richmond, and is well adapted for the purpose to which it has been destined. A swift and turbulent current separates it from either shore, and bold, indeed, would be the swimmer who would risk himself amidst the eddies that hiss and boil on their way to the deeps below. Besides, its position allows of a cordon of sentries around its entire circumference, and these are within challenging distance of each other, making it next to impossible to pass through them unperceived. In addition to this, the camp occupied by the prisoners is intrenched, and there is an inner line of guards pacing around its outskirts, with imperative orders to shoot the first man who attempts to cross the embankment. On a commanding eminence close at hand is a detachment of artillerymen, with a shotted gun frowning on the tents beneath, and at the first sign of an outbreak the iron messengers of death would plough their way though the confused mass of insubordinates. Again, on each bank of the river, are other guns, placed in a position to enfilade the island, and they are kept in readiness for any emergency that may arise. When I visited Belle Isle, at the latter end of January, there were more than 7000 prisoners in the camp, all of whom were rank and file from the Federal armies of Virginia and Tennessee. The officers are confined in the "Libby," a large and well-ventilated building formerly used as a tobacco warehouse--since it has been found politic to separate the private soldier from his commissioned superior. At the time I mention, the Northern journals were filled with accounts of barbarities practised by the Confederates upon those whom the fate of war had placed in their hands, and I was anxious to judge for myself of the correctness of these statements. Let your readers determine from my statement whether the charge of cruelty can he established:--The rations which I saw distributed to the prisoners were in every respect the same as those issued to the Southern soldier; possibly the former may get more fresh meat, and that, I apprehend, is scarcely a ground for objection. They certainly do not get such luxuries as coffee or sugar, but then the Confederates themselves are no better off with respect to these condiments, which, indeed, are only to be procured in the Southern States at such ruinous blockade prices as to prevent their finding their way into the commissariat of the Southern army. The doctor's report, on the day I visited the island, will also serve to indicate that the treatment to which the prisoners are subjected is not such as to affect their health. I am convinced your readers will be astounded when I tell them that, out of 7000 of these cruelly-used captives, the sick-list only gave thirteen in hospital. Why, I have known, in one morning's report, as many as seventy-five or a hundred to be returned as unfit for duty out of a skeleton brigade of fifteen hundred, in Bragg's army. After six months' confinement of these Federal prisoners at Belle Isle, there were only seventy-five graves to indicate the number of those who had died under the privations to which they are said to have been subjected! Any Adjutant-General of a division of 5000 men in Lee's army could show a very different bill of mortality from sickness and hardship embracing a corresponding period. I think that these statements should go a great way to disprove the charges made by the Northern press. The Northern journals have undoubtedly been misinformed in this particular, and it is only an act of justice on my part to dispel from your readers' minds any wrong impressions they may have formed as to the treatment which the Federal prisoners meet with at the hands of the Confederates. The point from which my sketch is taken affords a capital view of Richmond; and this must be my excuse for almost repeating a drawing of the city which appeared in your Journal many months ago. The bridge that crosses the river just below Belle Isle is known as the Petersburg Bridge, and it connects the Southern Railroad with the metropolis of the Southern Confederacy."

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