Category Archives: Belle Island Prison

1863-65: William Buford Ayers to his Family

The following letters were written by 43 year-old Pvt. William (“Bill”) Buford Ayers (1820-1892) of Co. B, 28th Virginia Infantry who was recruited into the regiment on 17 August 1863 at Bedford, Virginia, for the duration of the war.

A middle-aged Reb holding a flintlock musket

William was the son of John Wesley Ayers (1787-1848) and Mary C. Powers (1788-1859) of Bedford county, Virginia. He was married in 1856 to Charlotte Morgan Lukens (1839-1920). Several of William’s brothers fought for the Confederacy. Pvt. James Wayne Ayers (1812-1890) of Lowry’s Company, Virginia Light Artillery. John and Samuel served in Co. I, 58th Virginia Infantry. Another brother, Elijah Quarles Ayers served with William in the 28th Virginia, Co. K, from the time of its formation until his death on 10 August 1862 from wounds received at the Battle of Seven Pines on 1 June 1862. A younger brother, Richard P. Ayers, served in Co. I, 58th Virginia Infantry and later transferred to Co. F, 2nd Virginia Cavalry until he was taken prisoner at Gettysburg and died of disease as a POW at Point Lookout, Maryland in January 1864. Jonathan Hersey (“Herse”) Ayers (1824-1887) served in Co. B, 14th Virginia Infantry.

Letter 1

Union prisoners being guarded by Rebel troops on Belle Isle at Richmond, Virginia.

Camp Lee (west side of Richmond, Va.)
November 8th 1863

Dear Wife & Brother [Jonathan Hersey (“Herse”) Ayres],

I again take my seat to drop you a few lines to let you know how we are a getting along. I and Cap are both well and hearty & have been & I hope when these few lines come to hand, you may all be enjoying the same great blessing. I have no strange news to write. We have moved in to our winter quarters. They are very comfortable plank houses with brick chimneys in the middle. They are set in the rear of head quarters. There is about one hundred men to a house. There is six men to a bunk, 3 in a berth. I and Cap & Wm. B. Jones sleep together. We sleep very warm. We have 12 blankets. I have 3 and a oil cloth. Cap has 2. Jones has 7.

We are guarding. The Yankees has little now down close to the Rocketts [Landing]. We have a long walk. We leave our camp at 8 o’clock in the morning & get back about ten next day. It is a very good place to stand guard. We have good quarters when off of post. I had rather kept going down to Belle Island for we could of made as much money as we wanted. Some men made some two hundred dollars a day. I made $50 one day out of what cost me 13. I expect Cap has made upwards of $100 dollars. They talk of sending some of the Yankees to Danville & some to Lynchburg and if any of our men have to go with them to Lynchburg, I do intend to try to come with them.

I am very well satisfied here. We are drawing corn meal sometimes & bread some days. Bacon some days, beef and rice & peas. Sugar has run out. We are living very well now but I don’t think it can hold out. Everything is selling so high in Richmond. Flour rises from 15 to 20 dollars a day. It is worth $1.25 per barrel now. Pork $2.25 per pound. Beef $1.25 & everything else is high according that is to eat. I do expect that meat will be pressed in the country soon though I am in hopes it will not be done.

I did expect to of got a letter last week from someone in the neighborhood but was disappointed. I have not heard from anyone since I got one from Charl[otte] dated the 25th of October. I wrote to James last week 7 to Sam. I thought that Ab or John would of written to me before now and let me know how they were a getting along.

Cap is on the guard today. He says he wants to hear from home and hear how Mat is a getting along and whether Tom has left for the army or not.

Well, Herse, I want you to write me how you are a getting along with your work. Do not be afraid of a little paper. I would like to be at home a few days but there is no chance yet. You never said anything about whether you got my answer to yours respecting the land sale though I reckon S.W.O. told you what I thought about it. Confederate money will not buy land about here now.

Well, Herse, if I had the chance of being free now and had the chance to trade here, I could make as much money as i would want. Shoes are worth from $20 to 50. Boots $15 to 75. If I had my leather made in shoes and here, it would bring a pile. Well, Charl[lotte], I want to see you very bad. I hope I have your prayers to sustain me this out of trouble. [I’m] hoping the time will soon come that we will soon see each other on earth. But if it is not our lot, I hope to meet you in heaven. Take care of the children. I must close hoping to hear from you all soon. You have my best wishes. May God bless you all is my prayer. So no more but remain your husband and brother till death. — Wm. B. Ayers

to C. M. Ayers & J. H. Ayers

You must excuse mistakes for there is so much fuss and bustle here.

Letter 2

Camp Lee
June 9th 1864

Dear Brother & Wife,

I take this opportunity to let you know that our company has been disbanded & the most of us have to go to the field. I expect to go to the 28th Regiment & all the rest of the Bedford boys will go there too.

Well, Herse, I have sent another box to Liberty by the express. I started it today & I want you to get it home as soon as you convenient so they may be saved. They are packed very tight and are sort of damp. You will see a list of each man’s things sent in the box. you can open to take out my & Cap’s things. The box is J. B. Miles, his wife, so when it comes. Also E[dward] T. Nances’ wife also, so they may get them.

I am sorry to have to leave here on account of being convenient to the Post Office. I fear I cannot hear from you all often when I leave here. I don’t think anything will hurt me if I can shun the balls. I can hope for the best if the worst comes. I do not want any of you to be uneasy about me for I am going to try to take care of number one. Those lines leave me well and hope when they come to hand, it may find you all well.

Cap was sent before the board today & was sent back to the hospital again. He is about like he has ben for some time. I do not know where to tell you where to send your letters to till I get to my command. you can write to Cap. He may stay here some time. Our army is close round Richmond. I expect you know as much about the war news as I can tell. I have seen all of the late cavalrymen here so I will sign off hoping you all may be spared to live & make out well.

Well, J. H., I hope you will take care of Charlotte and the children. So no more but as ever, remain your brother and wife [husband] till death. May God bless and spare us to meet again on earth. If not, may we meet in heaven. — Wm. B. Ayers

to J. H. Ayres & C. M Ayers

[List of clothing sent in box belonging to W. B. Ayres, E. Q. Ayres, E. G. Nanees, and J[oseph] R. Miles.]

Letter 3

Camp near Chester Station
June 19th 1864

Dear wife,

I take this chance to send you a few lines as Mr. Wi____ K______tt is in camp. I have no good news to write. I left Camp Lee [the] 9th & got to the Regiment the 12th. Then started the next day on a march. We went some 15 miles that day & rested 2 days. Then we had a forced march across the south side of the James River where we met up with the Yankees & gave them a hot time for awhile & drove them out of our breastworks. We lost some few killed & some wounded. We are right in front of them now in our breastworks firing into each others pickets. We had a hot skirmish fight yesterday. We had several killed & some wounded. I guess we will have a hot time here soon.

I was in one skirmish fight. The balls whistled like bees round me but none never touched me. One ball went through E[dward] T. Nance’s pants & burnt his skin a little. We have had a very hard time since I have been with the company though I have stood it very well. I feel very well today & I hope I may have good health so I may be able to do my duty as a soldier.

Dear wife, I do not want you to make your self uneasy about me. If I ever have the misfortune to never see you again. I hope you may be spared to have good health so you can raise our children [even] if we are run over with the Yanks. I hear the Yankees is up in Bedford [County] now. I am afraid they may come in to our neighborhood & destroy all you have to live on though I hope they may be drove back from there.

I am in the 28th Regiment, Company B, from Craig county. They are quite clever men & I am very well pleased. All of our Bradford boys are here with me. I saw J. M. J. Ayers the 11th but did not have the opportunity of talking to him. He was well. I left Cap at the hospital at Camp Lee. He was no better. Tell [my brother J. H. [Ayres] I am in hopes he can stay at home so he can make something to go on.

Well I must close for this time as I am in a hurry. My respects to you and to all who may enquire after me. May God bless and spare us to see each other again is my prayer. So goodbye for this time. From your true husband, — Wm. B. Ayres

to C. M. Ayres

Direct as follows:

William B. Ayres
Richmond, Virginia
Pickett’s Division
Hunton’s Brigade
28th Regiment Va. Vol.
Company B

N. B. I sent a box of clothes by the express to Liberty the 9th and sent you a letter to that effect. if you did not get it, you can send for the things—i.e., mine and Caps, Jo Miles, and E. T. Nance’s.

Letter 4

Camp Chester
October 16th 1864

Dear Wife,

I again seat myself to drop you a few lines to let you know that I am tolerable well and hope when this comes to hand it may find you all enjoying the best of health. I am at a loss of what to write to you at this time for it has been so long since I have got any letter from Bedford that I do not know what to think is the cause. I received yours of the 24th of September. That was the last I have heard from anyone up there. This is the 4th letter I have written since I have got one. I am more than anxious to hear from you all & the relation generally.

I can say we are at the same place where we have been ever since we crossed the James River. It is thought now we will stay here this winter. We have put up very good log huts for winter quarters. I have a good one with a brick chimney to it. It is very good cool nights. We have had some very heavy rains of late & some very heavy frosts.

As for war news, I do not know what to say but it does seem like the men are becoming very tired now & I fear from the present prospect it will go on for a long time yet if we can hold out with men & provisions. But the most of the men say they will not stay any longer than next spring. Times here is very hard & from what I learn, it is getting so in the country. I fear the women and children will suffer this winter as well as the soldiers. There is a good many desertions now but if men have their wives and children in want, I fear the army will be broken up.

There has been no fighting in our front. There was a fight on the north side of the Darbytown Road [see Battle of Darbytown Road] Wednesday and we whipped the Yanks.

Well, Charl[otte], under the late order, I guess [my brother] Herse has left for the army by this time & all the rest of the detailed men & I do not [know] how you will make out. I want you to write to me what for a crop you all have made this year & how the molasses & corn turned out, and what is the chance for another year’s meat. I have most forgot about the killing of hogs. If you think you will be scarce of meat and you have not sold those two little steers, you had better fatten one and kill it for a beef though I want you to do what you think is the best for I have [no way to] help you now. I do not know what Herse is a doing or has done; consequently I cannot advise much what you had better do. If Ab has not gone in the service, I am in hopes he will write me soon and give me the points. Also tell Cap to write and let me know how he is a getting along. Tell him B. Leftwih is [in] our company.

Well, as I cannot get any letters by the mail, Mr. R. Debo is at home and if you can contrive a letter to him when he comes back, he will bring it. Well, I will close for this time as I do not think of more than will interest you at this time. I have written so often since I have heard from you all I do not want to say more.

J[oseph] R. Miles sends his respects to you all. He looks somewhat thin but is well except a bad cold. E[dward] T. Nance is improving. C. W. Allen is well.

Charl[lotte], you do not know how bad I do want to see you and the children. you must take care of them & do the best you can. May God bless us and grant us the privilege of seeing each other once more in peace is my prayer. From your true friend and husband, — W. B. Ayers

To C. M. Ayers

Letter 5

Chester Hospital
December 19th 1864

Dear Wife,

I again seat myself to drop you a line to let you know how I am. I can say to you that I feel very well this morning. My bowels have got nearly well. I am somewhat weak yet & quite lame. I think I shall be able to go to the regiment in a few days. I was in hopes I could of gotten a furlough to come home but it is very doubtful now as my health is improving fast. I looked for a letter from you this week but have not got any yet. You must not be worried about me for I will take the best care of myself possible. I do hope this may find you all well and doing well.

I have not much news to write. I heard from John & Sam this week. They were bother well. There is not many sick here now. Joseph Dalles left here last Saturday very bad off with the rheumatism. He was sent to Richmond. There has been two divisions of troops here last week from the alley to join Lee’s army. I think there will be fighting all the winter along this line.

I wrote to you in my last letter in answer to yours concerning the steers. Do not trade neither till I write concerning them. Try and keep them in good order. I think you can do better than you have been offered. I think I shall come home before you will need a horse. Then I will be my own judge. Let me know what became of Ab. Give me the news of the neighborhood. So I will close hoping to hear from you son. Give my respects to all enquiring friends & accept a full portion for yourself. Kiss the children for me. So I will close for this time. May God spare us to see each other once more is my prayer. I still remain your true husband till death. — Wm. B. Ayers

To C[harlotte] M. Ayers

N. B. Direct your letters as usual.

Letter 6

Camp near Chester
January 22, 1865

Dear Wife,

I am glad to inform you that I received yours of the 14th & of the 7th & was glad you was beset with health. I received those things you sent by Jas. A. & Cap alright. Jas. got here yesterday. Cap went to Camp Lee. I am in hopes he will have the luck to come back home again from what Jas. said about him. I was much pleased with your present to me as a Christmas & New Year’s gift. I do not know when I can pay you for it but I am in hopes I can come & bring it myself though I do not know when it will be. I was glad to have [my brother] Herse had the good luck to come home. I tried to get a furlough to come home while he was there but there is no chance now for me. I’m at a loss to know what to say to him to do as he has been so dilatory about writing to me. I guess he does not want me to know what he is a doing with things at home else he would of let me know. He has done such sorry business, he is ashamed to let me know that I think is the case from what I learn from the men from Bedford. I am sorry it is so. I did expect he would be of made a good crop from what he said to me when I was at home last year. I think he had better hire out his hands if they cannot do better than they did last year. He grumbled at me & I think I have room to say more but I will stop. you can show him this for men have told me everything is going to rack in the plantation. I am sorry to hear it is so. I would like for him to write to me. Then I wouldn’t have to say.

I think I shall get to come home sometime this spring. I am in hopes there will be peace made so we all can get home soon though we do not know what is to take place but something will have to be done for men are very much split up in sentiment now. I do not know what to say will take place this spring. I am in [hopes] from what I can learn that things will change soon. If not, I do not know what the people in the country will do for I learn the press masters are taking most everything that the women and children will do to live. But I believe everybody is for self now and I fear that God is for not many. Tell [my brother] Hearse to write & give me a history of his travels if he will not of home & our business.

This leaves me quite well at this time hoping it may find you & all enjoying the best of health. I have not much news to tell. Everything has been very still down here for some time till last night there was some firing on the picket line. I was on picket yesterday and have not talked with Jas. A. not ten minutes yet. He is as well as usual. Well, I will close for this time. Continue to write. May God bless us is my prayer. I am as ever your true husband & friend till death, — Wm. B. Ayers

to C. M. Ayres

Letter 7

Camp near Chester
February 5, 1865

Dear wife,

I again will try and answer yours of 22nd and of the 30th. I was very uneasy when I heard [our son] Milton was sick though you said you would attend to him. That I was satisfied you would do. You said [my brother] Herse had been to Lynchburg & had got 100 dollars [ ] for the Brandy. That looks like a big price but if he has to buy anything, it will not count much—at least from what you said in your last. Herse had not gone back when you wrote.

You said you all was laid up with bad colds. I was sorry to hear that but its common with as cold winter like this has been. Last Friday and Saturday was as cold here as I ever saw. The James River was frozen solid from bank to bank. It would of bore a man to of crossed on it. I saw it myself. I went to see John & Sam at Chaffin’s Farm. I guess they are both at home now from what I have [heard] since I left them. They looked like they were very well smoked & was sick of their hard times [I] am down with the same complaint but I cannot help myself. But I am in hopes there is a better day coming soon. If not, it will be a heap worse. Some men are hope up with the idea of peace as there is men gone to Washington on that business. I fear it will be to no effect.

There is not much [fighting] on our lines. Looks like peace. But the boys have a good deal of fun playing ball. Times is hard & rations scarce. But the men looks very well. From what I learn, we are doing better than some in the country. We never eat but twice a day. I have had plenty for some time but Old Jeff did not furnish it….You said in one of your letters to me something about sending Laura to school. I want her to go all good weather. Tell her she must be smart and learn how to read for Pap when he comes home.

You said I must come and bring you a present. I would so to do but I do not know when that will be but not before April if they do not give more furloughs. You said you had got a nice present from Herse & you was sorry I had written such a letter as I did. I should of not but he would not write to me so I could know what he was a doing or going to do and I think he has treated me with very little respect or he would have written to me sometimes and let me know how things was going on. You said he was writing and would give me the points. I have not received it as yet. I would of have gave a heap to of been there while he was so I could of made some arrangements but I do not care for I think we are all ruined anyhow. It looks like the [ ] has got the reigns in his hands & men so submit to his rules. We have churches all along our lines & a theatre too. The men flock to the theatre & care not much for meeting. That is what has brought us to what we are. The most of head rulers are worse than the old boys, the most of them.

There has been some very heavy shelling over towards Petersburg for the last two days. That does not sound much like peace. Well, Charl[lotte], you must not be uneasy about me. Try and do the best you can for yourself & children till I can come. I am in hopes [brother] Herse will write to me before he goes back. This leave me well as common. I am gaining in flesh very fast. The health of our company is very good now. You must excuse bad writing for my eyesight is so I cannot see to write. I guess I have said enough for this time as I said too much in my last. I want you to tell John I want him to not to forget to do what he promised he would do for me concerning a [ ]. Jas. & T is well. I have not heard from Cap yet [or] what he is doing. My love to you. Kiss the children for me. Give my respects to all. — Wm. B. Ayers

to C. M. Ayres

1864: Judson Wayland Oliver to Edwin M. Stanton

I could not find an image of Jud dating to the time he was in the Civil War but here is one of John H. Simpson of Co. C, 39th Massachusetts Infantry (Photo Sleuth)

The following letter, addressed to Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, was penned by Judson (“Jud”) Wayland Oliver (1832-1908) of Co. E, 39th Massachusetts Infantry. As he states in his letter, he was taken a prisoner of war near the Rapidan River on 10 October 1863 and held in prison on Belle Island in Richmond through the winter of 1863/64 until exchanged after five months. After more time regaining his health in Union hospitals, he was returned to his regiment where he remained until taken prisoner again in February 1865 at Hatcher’s Run. He was exchanged not long after and mustered out in June 1865.

Judson was the son of William Oliver, Jr. (1795-1880) and Lydia Neagles (1810-1890) of Somerville, Middlesex county, Massachusetts. He was married in 1853 to Sarah Fessenden Hobart (1836-1878) and was the father of two children born before the Civil War began; three more after the close of the war.

Prior to Jud’s capture in October 1863, the 39th Massachusetts had spent the entire previous year performing guard duty in the defenses of Washington D. C., on the upper Potomac River, and near Harper’s Ferry. They were advanced to the Rapidan river and posted there in August and September 1863, but were pulled back to join other commands for the Bristoe Campaign. It was during this retreat from the Rapidan that Jud and the others in his squad were captured by rebel cavalry.

A rare Confederate photograph taken in the field shows tents where Union prisoners of war were housed on Belle Isle, an open-air prison located on an island in the James River across from Richmond. The photographer, Charles R. Rees, took the image from a high point on the island; in the distance, at center left, is the Capitol.


Somerville, Massachusetts
July 20th 1864

To Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War

I enlisted in the military service of the United States in Co. E, 39th Regt. Massachusetts Volunteers in August 1862 and served to the best of my ability without punishment, reprimand, or reproof until October 11th 1863 when with ten others of our regiment I was taken prisoner by the rebels. I was paroled and arrived at Annapolis, Maryland, from Richmond, Va., on the 24th of March last, having been in prison at the latter place five months. The names of our party who were captured are:

Sergt. Richard J. Hyde, Co. E
Corp. George W. Bean, Co. E
Private Henry Howe, Co. E
Private Washington Lorett, Co. E
Private Joseph W. Whitmore, Co. E
Private Francis J. Oliver, Co. E
Private Judson W. Oliver, Co. E
Private Samuel M. Perry, Co. D
Private J. T. Churchill, Co. G
Private Jno. A. Mead, Co. K
Private F. Norton

The circumstances of our arrest are as follows. With the exception of Mead and Churchill, we had all been out on picket duty near the Rapidan River, Va., and on the evening of the 10th, after dar, we were ordered by Capt. Brigham who was in command of our post, to fall back to the reserve picket, a distance of a mile or more. We marched in good order as directed by Capt. Brigham. When we arrived at the “reserve,” there was considerable noise and confusion. The night was very dark and what officer was there in command, I do not and never did know. There was a general talk among the men (but I heard no order) that we were to “fall back to our regiment camp, get rations, pick up our knapsacks, and such things as we had left there, and follow the regiment which had marched in the direction of Pony Mountain the afternoon before. The whole picket force numbering as I understood one hundred and fifty men did fall back to the camp—a distance of two or three miles—in much disorder. There was much noise and no attempt at military order to my knowledge.

When our squad under Sergt. Hyde arrived at the camp, there was great disorder and confusion. It was about midnight and extremely dark. Some were leaving in squads and others arriving, some trying to find their knapsacks, &c., and many hurrying off without them. So far as I know, there was no attempt to enforce order or discipline by any officer in command. I heard no order whatever from any such officer after the order from Capt. Brigham to “fall back to the reserve.”

Sergt. Hyde appeared annoyed at the want of order and objected to our squad’s recklessly hurrying off as many did, without “picking up our luggage, getting our rations, and starting fairly.” Sufficient time was taken for this purpose and when by aid of lights our luggage had all been selected from the mixed mass, our rations taken, and the men refreshed with coffee, Sergt. Hyde ordered us to march, the hallooing of those who had already gone, being still within our hearing through the woods. Privates J. T. Churchill and John A. Mead were still at the camp with us, but had not been on picket duty. Mead had been left by the regiment in charge of the rations as he said, and Church had been left behind with a written permit to “follow the regiment as best he could, as he was sick.”

I had been sick all the day before and had on that account been excused from duty on that night by Capt. Brigham who had given me medicine when I turned in early in the evening. This medicine affected me disagreeably and I was quite sick and exhausted when we arrived at the camp. I had wrapped myself in my blanket and laid down on arriving there and one of my comrades searched out my luggage for me.

When Sergt. Hyde ordered us to march, I at once told him he would have to leave me as it was impossible for me to go. I was too sick and Church said the same. He appeared perplexed and disappointed at this, and he and others spoke of carrying us along, but on account of the strange route through the woods, this was decided to be impossible in the darkness of the night. Sergt. Hyde then inquired of myself and Churchill if we felt that we would be able to go on after sleeping and resting till morning, and upon our answering in the affirmative, he said, “then we will not leave you but we will all lie down till morning, and then take you along somehow.” We did all stop till morning ad after the rest and refreshment, started off together. But after traveling several hours and getting near to the regiment, we were captured by the rebel cavalry who took us to Culpeper and from there to Richmond.

While we were at Culpeper, Private Charles A. Spaulding of Co. G of our regiment was brought there a prisoner and was taken to Richmond with us, but where or under what circumstances he was taken, I do not know. He was not on picket duty to my knowledge and he was not of our party till he was brought into Culpeper the day after we were captured.

Our privations and sufferings in Richmond (from which Private Henry Howe died in December) were probably as extreme as those of an of our Union prisoners. I was sick and considered beyond the hope of recovery for some weeks in February and early in March and on getting out of the hospital but a short time before being paroled, I learned that the rest of my comrades of the 39th Regiment except Mead—who was also paroled—had been sent to Columbus, Georgia. Since I was paroled, I have been in the hospital at Annapolis and Annapolis Junction, Maryland, and Mason Hospital [in] Boston, and a furlough and “Pass” till the present time. Myself and unfortunate comrades are branded on the return rolls or “reports” of the regiment as “Deserters” and this as I am informed for the reason that we did not leave the regimental camp and follow the regiment more promptly.

I have nothing to add to what I have already said in regard to those circumstances and the want of military order and command except to declare that insubordination or wrong doing was wholly and entirely foreign from the intent and purpose of anyone of us. From what we heard of the requirement of the picket force (in absence of any actual order), we were fully impressed with the belief that to collect and carry along our knapsacks and spare luggage was but to do our duty and that to recklessly hurry off without taking this property was to violate our duty. This was Sergt. Hyde’s honest feeling in the matter and he so avowed in presence of some who left their knapsacks behind, and I most solemnly declare that I believe he would have started with his squad and followed the regiment that night, after having collected the luggage as before described, but for the impossibility of taking Churchill and myself along with them. I feel that my sickness and that of Churchill was really the cause and the only cause of the others remaining till morning, and that while it was the feeling of humanity which induced Sergt. Hyde to remain, neither that nor any other impulse or motive would have induced him to violate any known military order.

Our hardships, privations, and sickness in Belle Isle prison, grievous as they were, were mild compared with the sufferings of myself and comrades in the feeling that we are branded as the worst of criminals and our dependent families thereby deprived of all legal aid and support. I refer with confidence to my company officers, and to the entire regiment for the previous good conduct of our squad and our standing as dutiful, trustworthy soldiers, and I respectfully pray that we may be relieved from this reproach and disability, and restored to our former standing and position in the regiment, so far as this charge is concerned.

—Judon W. Oliver

In the presence of Charles S. Lincoln [Justice of the Peace, Somerville, Mass.]