Belle Isle was originally known as Broad Rock Island. It was first explored by Captain John Smith in 1607. The island has served several purposes over time. In the 18th century, it was a fishery. In 1814, it was utilized as a nail factory ran by the Old Dominion Iron and Nail Company. During the 1860s, the island was home to a small a village with its own school, church, and general store. During the Civil War, the island served as a prison for Union soldiers. Between 1904 and the 1963, the island was home to the Virginia Electric Power Company.
Today, Belle Isle is a 540-acre historic site and park for the city of Richmond, reachable by foot or bicycle via a suspension bridge that runs under the Robert E. Lee Bridge. Belle Isle has several bike trails and offers historic markers, walking trails, and attractions such as rock climbing.
Belle Isle was originally called Broad Rock Island when first explored by John Smith in 1607. From there until the Civil War it served as a fishery, location for a nail factory, a milling and slitting manufacturing site, and a village (which contained a church, a school and and store).
Between 1862 and
1865, Belle Isle was home to approximately 30,000 Union prisoners of war. Of this number, an estimated 1,000 soldiers perished while in captivity on the island. Rather than construct an actual prison, Confederate military officials housed captured Union prisoners in tents
surrounded by a stockade, with the wall and the river serving as a deterrent to escape.
In 1863, the prison held 10,000 Union soldiers but only had enough tents to accommodate 3000 men. While the site's swift rapids discouraged escape attempts and the bridge
connecting the island to the city made for easy movement of prisoners, the atmosphere endured by the prisoner’s was anything but
favorable. The prisoners’ long exposure to the atrocious elements, along with
the smallpox outbreak of 1863, was a large factor in the astounding death toll
on the island. The island’s second commander, Captain Henry Wirz was actually hanged after the war for his maltreatment
of prisoners at Andersonville in Georgia.
The large numbers of prisoners
on the island caused a large increase in the price of food in Richmond. This consequently
caused a cut in the rations of the prisoners leaving the average ration to a
square of cornbread and thin soup that the soldiers claimed to be nearly inedible.
Union troops attempted to liberate men from the prison in a skirmish known as the Battle of
Walkertown. The failed campaign started with Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick leaving on February 28 with 4,000 men, with intentions to raid Richmond,
penetrate the defense, and free the POW’s. In 1864, Assistant Surgeon of Jarvis
Hospital, Peter DeWitt, performed services on several prisoners who were recently
released from Belle Isle. His description pertaining to the majority of the
patients was as follows:
a semi-state of
nudity...laboring under such diseases as chronic diarrhoea, phthisis
pulmonalis, scurvy, frost bites, general debility, caused by starvation,
neglect and exposure. Many of them had partially lost their reason, forgetting
even the date of their capture, and everything connected with their antecedent
history. They resemble, in many respect, patients laboring under cretinism.
They were filthy in the extreme, covered in vermin...nearly all were extremely
emaciated; so much so that they had to be cared for even like infants.”
In May, 1864 President Lincoln sent his Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
to conduct an investigation concerning the freed prisoners of Belle Isle. Assistant
Secretary of the Treasury gives his eyewitness account in, Recollections
of President Lincoln and His Administration, which was published in the
late 1890s and still available today. He narrates how shocked President Lincoln
was when he learned of the devastating circumstances in which the Union
prisoners had been left by the CSA.
Finally, in February 1864, Belle Isle was evacuated by Confederate
authorities and prisoners were sent to Andersonville, Ga, Danville, VA, or Salisbury,
NC. By October 1864, the POW’s of Belle Isle's transferred and
the prison was officially closed. Belle Isle was then returned to its previous
owners by the Confederate authorities. In 1900 the site was sold to the
Virginia Power Company.
Belle Isle was made into a park in 1973 and offers
those in the Richmond, VA area a serene location only a short distance from the
heart of the city. Belle Isle offers trains, swimming, rock jumping/climbing,
birdwatching, kayaking, and other activities to the public. Having held a once
dark past, Belle Isle is now a beautiful, serene place with tons of history.