Directly in front of you, in mid-river, is Belle Isle. Despite the large number of Union prisoners brought to Richmond during the Civil War, the city had only two full-time prisons. Libby Prison for Union officers, a mile and a half downriver, was the more famous of the pair, but Belle Isle, designed for Union enlisted men, was the most miserable.
Confederate authorities realized that the island would make an ideal site for holding captured enlisted men from the Union army. The first prisoners arrived from the battlefields in July 1862. Overcrowding soon became the prison's primary problem. At times as many as 6,000 men occupied the portion of the island that had been set aside for prisoners. The absence of wooden buildings increased the suffering of the incarcerated soldiers. Poor sanitation, winter's cold and summer's heat and sun, malnutrition, and an insufficient number of tents plagued the prisoners. By 1864, about 20,000 men had spent some time on the island. The precise number of deaths is not yet known, but the sum could approach 1,000 men.