Charles Miller
6th U.S. Cavalry
November, 1863
Belle Isle, Richmond, Virginia

Charles tells his story in his own words (continued)


Winter Faces the Prisoners

The month of November had arrived and the Commissioners have done nothing towards releasing us. Clothing had been sent by our Government to be issued to the destitute, and those longest imprisoned. All that were taken in July were called out of camp and issued such articles as most needed. I drew a blanket, some underclothing, a pair of socks, which added greatly to my comfort. This indeed did not look favorable for an early exchange. Many of the men thought that if they had to remain until the close of the war, they might as well give up and die at once, or join the Confederacy and save their lives.

While lying in the tent one day, I was startled by a familiar voice from the opening saying, "Is Charlie Miller in here?" "Yes, yes," is answered three or four times, and looking up, to my great surprise there stood before me Christopher Shortall, a comrade and member of my own company. He had recently been captured and had just arrived at Belle Isle. I was then a member of the 3d squad, domiciled in a Sibley tent with 19 others, twenty men in each tent. I cannot say I was glad to see him, under the circumstances, but his account of what had transpired since my capture, within the Union lines, and especially of my own company, was of much interest. I was anxious to secure him for my bunk mate so I went to the Sergeant of the squad, and for the sum of one dollar, received the promise that my friend should be admitted to the first vacant berth. A man by the name of Evans was soon removed from our tent to the hospital, and Shortall took up his bed and board in what we called "Winders Hote[l] & Starvation Squad 3." He having a blanket, and with mine, we managed to keep comfortably warm.


This image of Belle Isle shows the tents from the hill where artillery stood watch over the prisoners. Photo taken after Richmond fell. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02817

The weather was getting cold and disagreeable. The heavy rains so saturated the ground that it was impossible to keep dry. Rheumatism became more prevalent, all chronic diseases were greatly aggravated, and coughs were general. I felt that my health was failing fast. Besides other ailments, I had contracted a cold which had settled into a most aggravating cough. Night after night I would lie and cough until completely exhausted, my clothes wringing wet with sweat. The tears were streaming from my eyes and blood from my nose, my voice above a whisper was gone. The situation did indeed look dark and unfavorable. But hope, the balm of life, darts a ray of light through the thickest gloom. Ought I to complain when hundreds of others were worse off than myself? I was advised to ask for admission to the hospital, but my faith was weak in their medical qualifications. I had previously received prescriptions from the camp surgeon, and I always thought he gave me what he had the most of, the nearest at hand, whether it be Calomel, Senna, Salts, Castor Oil or OPium, it was the same for one and all. I resolved that so long as I could get around, I would be my own physician and nurse.

The Confederates had allowed a Sutler to establish a shop on the island, and those having money could purchase many articles, both for health and comfort. I now secretly drew forth one of my twenties, and going to the Sutler, presented it in payment for some articles which I had purchased. He did not have U.S. currency enough to make the change, but said, if I desired, he would take the bill to the City, get it broke, and return the amount of money to me in smaller money. I thought it quite a risk, but after some hesitation, concluded it was the only thing I could do, and agreed to his proposition. True to his word, he returned to me the currency, deducting therefrom two dollars and fifty cents for his trouble.

Knowing that onions were good for coughs and colds, I purchased five, the price being 25 each, or five for one dollar. I also purchased a few drawings of tea and some sugar. Under Miller's treatment my cough was somewhat alleviated but I did not regain my voice while on Belle Isle.

The camp was already crowded and prisoners were continually arriving, and many were without shelter. A limited supply of wood was occasionally given them. At night fires were built and they would hover around them until the last spark had died out, and then nestle together in the ditch, with blankets fastened from one bank to the other, to shield them from the wind, and there worry through the balance of the night. One morning after a bitter cold night, on looking out of the tent, I saw a sight I can never forget. The ground was frozen hard, and a little distance away where a fire had been built the night previously, laid a human form in the ashes which had been gathered as closely together as possible, thinly clad and without covering. The vital spark was extinguished and the body cold and stiff.

Day after day, it was the same monstrous routine of cruelty, suffering, starvation and death. I will not attempt to describe them further, more than to mention a party that we called "the raiders." They were a [sic] strong, reckless, unprincipled, fiendish wretches who had banded together to plunder the weak for their own support, and many were the victims of their cruelty. One day they sought to make a sweep of the whole camp and take everything they fancied might be of use to them. They however met with serious opposition. They had reached about the middle of the camp, carrying out their nefarious plans, when the cry "the raiders are coming" was heard in all directions. The camp seemed to rise enmasse, [sic] with such weapons of warfare as they possessed (principally clubs) a general melee ensued. I think it would have ended in a massacre of all the raiders had not the Confederate guard rushed in, and at the point of the bayonet, quelled the combat and took the raiders from camp. Peace reigned once more within our borders.

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Charles F. Miller was about 22 years old when these events occurred. He died in 1892 at the age of 51. His story here is told in his own words, published January 1966 in Historical Wyoming.