Wednesday, July 8, 2020

What was the "Bull Ring" at City Point?

While conducing my research into the experiences of Union and Confederate prisoners of war who were captured during the Petersburg Campaign, I've come across several mentions of the "Bull Ring" or "Bull Pen" located at City Point. What was this Bull Ring?

Officially the Bull Ring was the Union provost marshal's jail. Originally intended to hold recalcitrant federal soldiers who included bounty jumpers, deserters, drunkards, thieves, mutineers, and other degenerates. Located along what is today Hopewell's Cedar Lane, the Bull Ring consisted of three single-story wood barrack buildings, which were enclosed with a tall wooden wall and armed guards. 

However, when large numbers of Confederate prisoners were taken during various combat actions during the Petersburg Campaign, which was quite often, the Bull Ring also held enemy prisoners. 

After being captured at the Battle of Weldon Railroad (Globe Tavern) on August 21, 1864, James Johnson Kirkpatrick, a 1st sergeant in the 16th Mississippi Infantry mentioned the infamous Bull Ring in his diary. Captured with about 75 of his comrades after an attempt by their brigade to penetrate and recapture the V Corps earthworks, which cut the Weldon Railroad, Sgt. Kirkpatrick and his fellow prisoners were "escorted to the rear under fire of our [Confederate] artillery, counted and started for Bermuda Hundred under a squadron of cavalry." After their names were taken they drew rations of coffee, sugar, and hardtack. 

On the following day, August 22, and from behind the Union lines, instead of marching the few miles to City Point, the prisoners were placed on the United States Military Railroad. Arriving at City Point, Kirkpatrick wrote, "Our names were again taken here, and we were put in a place styled the Bull Pen. Feel very uncomfortable. Clothing all dirty and none to change. We left everything behind previous to making the ill-fated charge. Day warm. Received bad treatment. The soldiers at the front treated us well. Only a few were permitted to go after water at a time, consequently, the many had to endure thirst. No protection from the sun. Our crowd is mixed with consisting of Rebel prisoners, Yankee deserters, criminals, and Negroes. Rain this evening after dark. Took it as it came. Slept on the ground."

On August 23, the Confederate officers were put enroute to Johnson's Island, Ohio, while Kirkpatrick and other other non-commissioned officers and enlisted men were shipped via the Utica to the Point Lookout, Maryland POW camp.

E.B. Wise of the U.S. Sanitary Commission visited City Point and wrote an article for the January 11, 1865 issue of The Soldier's Journal. He located the Bull Ring "about two hundred yards South from the Hospital." He described it as thus: "This is a large building divided into three apartments, - the two end one being known as Bull Ring number one and two, while the middle apartment is more mildly, as well as justly appellated, Convalescent Barracks, where convalescents are detained to await transportation, &c., to convey them to their proper destination."

Wise estimated that "the whole building is calculated to accommodate about two thousand men, - the two Bull Rings five hundred each, leaving the remaining one thousand for the Convalescent Barracks. - Each bunk is made to accommodate three men. They are now in both Rings about four hundred and fifty prisoners." The majority of these men were likely Union prisoners due to it being winter and active campaigning at a standstill. "The greater number of these men are confined for very trivial offenses, and many of them are no doubt perfectly innocent judging from those who have already been discharged," Wise related.

Wise went on to call the Bull Ring a "Hell on earth." He wrote that "Great destitution prevails among the prisoners. Many have scarcely enough clothing to hide their nakedness, while the vermin is actually knawing into the flesh of some. I was told yesterday by a nurse in the hospital who was obliged to cut the hair off the head of a man from the prison, that his head was actually eaten into. This statement may seem untrue, but one only has to visit the place to be convinced of its veracity."
According to Wise the army did not provide the prisoners with clothing, however the Sanitary Commission was providing underwear to the most destitute.

As the Peterburg Campaign neared completion, thousands of prisoners made their way through the Bull Ring at City Point. Confederate prisoners from Fort Stedman, Five Forks, and the Breakthrough experienced brief stays at the Bull Ring, much like Sgt. Kirkpatrick had months before, then moved on to Northern POW camps before pledging the oath of allegiance and receiving releases in June and July 1865.

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