Sunday, February 07, 2016

Exploring photo of soldiers' graves at Rebel prison in Richmond

A graveyard for Federal POWs on Belle Isle in the James River.
(Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress collection)
An enlargement of the background of the original image reveals heaps of dirt and headboards.
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On April 8, 1865, days after the fall of Richmond, Alexander Gardner captured scenes on Belle Isle, a 54-acre island in the James River opposite the former Confederate capital, where thousands of Union soldiers were imprisoned from 1862-65. Among the images Gardner shot was the poignant photograph at the top of this post of a graveyard for Union soldiers, many of whom died of disease, starvation or other inhumane treatment on the island that was home to nearly 10,000 prisoners of war at its maximum capacity. In the image, heaps of earth and crude, wooden headboards mark the final resting places of dozens of soldiers.

Belle Isle POWs lived in tents or without any shelter at all because there were no barracks or other buildings to house them. Sanitary conditions were equally primitive, according to 39th Massachusetts Corporal Thomas Bean, who survived imprisonment at Belle Isle in 1864 and described the brutal conditions there in a post-war letter:
"The water in the river at this time was about two feet deep. This was the privy, as also the only place where we were allowed to get any water, to either drink or wash with...the river was full of filth from houses and mills of the men from my Regt got crowded off into the ditch and the guard shot him dead....About the fourth week of our stay here, the sick men were taken out and sent down the river and man that was able to fight, was allowed to go, for they could destroy them here faster than they could in the field." 

A digitized enlargement of the original, glass-plate image reveals remarkable details. Easily seen in the background is the Virginia State Capitol building, which served as home for the Congress of the Confederate States of America and where Robert E. Lee assumed command of the state's forces on April 23, 1861. Near the Capitol Building appear the spires of two churches as well a portion of the "Burnt District," skeletons of buildings that were destroyed when a fire set by retreating Rebels blazed out of control. ...

... and then there is this hauntingly sad scene, a cropped enlargement of the original image, and probably Gardner's prime subject: a man with his head in his hand, kneeling at a soldier's grave. Does he mourn for a comrade ... or a close friend ... or his brother? Cynically, I wonder if Gardner, who was not above staging photographs, posed the "mourning" man. (See these Gettysburg images.)

Even upon enlargement of the high-resolution TIFF image available on the Library of Congress web site, the names on most of the graves are tantalizingly out of focus. An examination of the original glass negative at the Library of Congress in Washington might be more revealing.

Gravestones of John Burns, William Hoffman and P. Wolf at Richmond National Cemetery.
A cropped enlargement (above) of the foreground of the original image is especially interesting and revealing. From left, the last names on the headboards are Burns, Hoffman and Wolf. Quick research indicates these soldiers are most likely 1st Kentucky Private John Burns, 11th New Jersey Private William Hoffman and 1st Tennessee Private P. Wolf. Hoffman died of scurvy and diarrhea at Belle Isle in the spring of 1864, and Burns succumbed because of starvation and inflammation of the lungs in late winter of the same year; Wolf, whose first name is unknown, died of unknown causes on Jan. 5, 1864.

After the war, soldiers buried at Belle Isle were disinterred and re-buried at Richmond National Cemetery, about three miles east of the city. Marked by pearl-white, government-issued tombstones, the remains of Burns, Hoffman and Wolf are buried there today. Unfortunately, the remains of the majority of  Union soldiers re-buried at the national cemetery are unknown, despite the efforts of comrades such as Briscoe Goodheart, who noted in the Nov. 10, 1892, edition of  The National Tribune, a Union veterans newspaper:
"When a prisoner would die we would always give his name, company, and regiment to the Confederates, who would write it out on a piece of paper and pin or stick it in a buttonhole, or lay it on the body, but when as many as 200 at a time would lay out in the rain and snow for two weeks, before burial, nearly all the names would be blown away or lost. Hence so many unknown."

                                                    CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE.

Of the three identified Belle Isle graves, information was most readily available on Burns, who was unmarried and in his late teens or early 20s in 1864. On July 8, 1861, John enlisted as a private in the 1st Kentucky Volunteers, a three-year regiment, at Camp Dennison, Ohio. Mainly comprised of men from the Buckeye State, the regiment saw hard fighting on April 9, 1862, at the Battle of Shiloh, where John apparently escaped unscathed physically.

Shortly after his death, his mother filed for a "widow's" pension. Documents from that file are in the National Archives in Washington, and digitized versions are available on An enlargement of Burns' headboard image (above) shows a date of death -- Feb. 5, 1864 -- that matches the death date in an affidavit (second image above) from David Jones, the captain of the dead private's Company D in the 1st Kentucky. Burns, Jones noted, "was captured while on duty during a skirmish near Graysville, Ga.," on Sept. 10, 1863, during the Chickamauga Campaign and sent to Belle Isle.

Other documents found in Burns' pension file reveal more details about John's short life. His 44-year-old mother, an Irish immigrant named Mary, filed for the pension on March 23, 1864. The claim document (above) includes her age (1), cause of her son's death (2), date she was married in Ireland (3) and address where she lived in Cincinnati (4). One can only imagine the thoughts that went through the grieving mother's mind when she signed the bottom of the document (5), perhaps by merely writing an "X."

In poor health when her son joined the army, Mary was "wholly" dependent on John, who regularly sent home to Cincinnati his army wages for her rent payments and other support. She had been a widow since July 1859, when her husband James died. After John was captured, Mary's rent went unpaid "for awhile," according to an acquaintance, and she received aid from a fund that helped the families of soldiers. Mrs. Burns had "three or four children," but they were too small to help her much after John's death.

A private in the 7th Ohio Cavalry, Martin Hegney was imprisoned at Belle Isle with Burns, with whom he was "well-acquainted." According this Hegney affidavit dated Aug. 2, 1865, Burns died from "exposure to the weather and from starvation." Hegney assisted in carrying Burns to his temporary grave at Belle Isle, where his name appeared on a wooden headboard photographed 14 months later by Alexander Gardner, the renowned Civil War photographer.

Shortly after Mary Burns' pension claim was filed by her attorney, Horatio King, it was approved. The widow initially received $8 a month from the government, a pittance for the sacrifice she and her son made for their country.

No image of John Burns is known to exist.

Have more info on these images or the soldiers in this post? E-mail me here.


  1. I don't know if you'd be interested, but I believe I have an article written by the son of Col. RTW Duke of the 1st Battalion Virginia Reserves. They were stationed on Belle Isle for time guarding prisoners. It's tells of the conditions on the isle.

  2. Hi, Chris. Would love to take a me at

  3. John, great article. I visited Belle Island last fall for the first time. My gr-gr-grandfather was a prisoner there from June '63 until I believe Sept '63. Nas was John Johnson, 18th Connecticut Volunteers, Co. E. He was captured at 2nd Winchester.
    The old photos you shared are so interesting. I recognize most of the landmarks, including the ridge, where Confederate artillery was placed.