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My call on Friday for more information on Civil War era prisons bore an unexpected rich harvest. A single reply but an absolutely riveting one.

Imagined Prisons responded with this:

These images are fascinating and haunting, and the idea of the modern prison as “a permanent abstraction of earlier jails” is a compelling one.

As for the carceral spaces – makeshift and otherwise – of the Civil War, some authorities have cited Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus rights as a precedent for the Bush Administration’s policies in today’s war prisons. E.E. Hale’s classic short novella, “The Man without a Country,” written in response to Lincoln’s controversial move, tells the story of a man sentenced to spend the rest of his life aboard U.S. Navy ships, in the extralegal zone outside the boundaries of the nation-state.

You might also be interested in this poem by Herman Melville, from the 1866 volume “Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War”:

In the Prison Pen

Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
‘Tis barren as a pelican-beach–
But his world is ended there.

Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think–to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.

Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil’s shore–
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.

A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair–
A den that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,

Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead–
Dead in his meagreness.

Imagined Prisons is the accompanying website for the book The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith, which will appear from Yale University Press in September of 2009.

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Carr. Yale University Press, September 2009

The Prison and the American Imagination, by Caleb Smith. Yale University Press, September 2009

The book examines the history of the U.S. prison system and its imaginative life in nineteenth – and twentieth – century culture. Caleb Smith argues that the dehumanization inherent in captivity has always been at the heart of American civil society.

Imagined Prisons is a forum for conversation about the book and the questions it raises;

What is the history of incarceration in America? What roles do prisons and prisoners play in our political life and in our culture? How have artists and writers, both inside prisons and in the world at large, invited us to imagine the institutions of captivity? Visitors to this site might be interested in the sprawling prison system of the twenty-first century, including the scandals of American war prisons overseas. They may also wish to explore the long, sometimes tortured history of jails, penitentiaries, plantations, and other dark places that have haunted the new world, with its promise of liberty and justice for all.

What a significant new resource with which to reassess the prison within America’s cultural landscape. Prison Photography, too, is attempting (admittedly ham-handedly on occasion) to define the current representation/consumption of prison imagery within our society.

May I suggest that books such as Caleb Smith’s and sites such as mine exist because sites of incarceration – “dark places” – have been over-zealously operated by controlling minorities and not adequately discussed by the at-large majority?

Lewis Payne

Lewis Payne, seated and manacled, at the Washington Navy Yard about the time of his 21st birthday in April 1865, three months before he was hanged as one of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Photograph by Alexander Gardner, probably taken aboard the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk or Saugus.

Quick post & a request. We all know about the relentless Shorpy and the site’s daily dose of long gone photo ephemera. It is indeed a treat.

Today, two images from the 1920s went up. Shorpy’s keen to focus on the visual narratives that arrest the attention. Consider it a human interest archive if you will. It is my guess is he/she/it chose these two photographs relating to crime and punishment because they deal with women and children. If there is still one thing true today as was back then, these two groups are distinguished from, sometimes condescended to, and likely protected and abused in equal measure by, prevailing patriarchies.

Women Jail

Washington, D.C., circa 1920. “Jail, Women’s School.” Alternate title: “Complete this sentence.” National Photo Co. Collection glass negative.


Washington, D.C., circa 1922. “House of Detention, Ohio Avenue N.W.” Equipped with a nice playground. National Photo Company glass negative.

These came at an opportune moment because I’ve been wondering what to do with the following four images from the American Civil War. It is not an area I am well read up on. I guess the make-shift nature of jails and prisons in the vicinity of battlefields and front lines attests to the constant flux and shroud of unpredictability across a bloodied young nation.

Prison Photography blog is often concerned with inflexibility and pursuant damage it can cause as applied to institutions. But the modern prison is merely a permanent abstraction of earlier jails. ‘Transitory’ sites of incarceration, especially in times of war, are even more contested as sites than the Supermax prisons of the 21st century.

It’s got me thinking how Castle Thunder and Belle Isle relate to the the GWOT prisons – namely the early incarnation of Abu Ghraib prison, Bagram Airbase and other as yet unknown ‘Black Sites’ of detention and interrogation.

Castle Thunder

Richmond, 1865. “Castle Thunder, Cary Street. Converted tobacco warehouse for political prisoners.” Main Eastern theater of war, fallen Richmond, April-June 1865. Wet plate glass negative, photographer unknown.

Prison run by the Confederacy. Used for civilian prisoners, Castle Thunder was generally packed with murderers, cutthroats, thieves & those suspected of disloyalty, spying or Union sympathy


Spring 1865. Belle Isle railroad bridge from the south bank of the James River after the fall of Richmond. Glass plate negative from the Civil War collection compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge.

One of the first Confederate prison camps. Opened after the First Battle of Bull Run and held Union Army NCO’s and enlisted men. There were no barracks constructed, the only shelters were tents. Intended to hold only 3,000 but numbers grew to double that and led to many prisoners being shipped further south to other camps, most infamously Andersonville.

And finally, this site is described as a “slave pen”. This document of slave incarceration is gut-thumping and, however agonising the means, justifies the Civil War and its righteous ends.

Request: I am keen to know more about prisons and jails of the Civil War era. If you’ve any resources I should absolutely be aware of please drop me a note. Thanks


Built in 1812 as a residence for General Andrew Young, this was the office building of the former interstate slave trading complex which stood on the site from 1828 to 1861. By 1835 Franklin and Armfield controlled nearly half the coastal slave trade from Virginia and Maryland to New Orleans. In 1846 the property was sold to a Franklin and Armfield agent, George Kephart, whose business became “the chief slave-dealing firm in [Virginia] and perhaps anywhere along the border between the Free and Slave States.” After 1858, the slave pen was known as Price, Birch, and Co., and their sign can be seen in a Civil War era photograph. The business was appalling to many, especially to active abolitionists in Alexandria, where the large Quaker population contributed to a general distaste for slavery. Several abolitionists’ accounts survive which describe the slave pen and the conditions encountered therein. Male slaves were located in a yard to the west, while women and children were kept in a yard to the east, separated by a passage and a strong grated door of iron. The complex served as a Civil War prison from 1861 to 1865, and housed the Alexandria Hospital from 1878 to 1885.


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