Journal of Sgt. Jacob Osburn Coburn
Editing and narration by Don Allison
A compelling human drama of the Civil War, Hell on Belle Isle is based on the journal kept by Sgt. Jacob Osborn Coburn of the 6th Michigan Cavalry, a unit in the famed Michigan Cavalry Brigade of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Much of Coburn's time as a captive was spent in Richmond's Belle Isle prison camp. Although not so well known as the infamous Andersonville prison, Belle Isle rivaled Andersonville in terms of the squalid conditions of neglect and starvation endured by its prisoners. Hell on Belle Isle features editing and narration by award-winning journalist Don Allison, supplemented by letters Coburn wrote before his capture detailing life and battles with the 6th Michigan Cavalry.
Softcover ISBN 978-0-9659201-0-0
192 Pages; maps and illustrations; notes and bibliography; appendix; index; biographical listings
"It is three months since I was captured," Union cavalryman J. Osborn Coburn wrote from Richmond's Belle Isle prison in January 1863.
"Then I expected that all enlisted men would be paroled and exchanged and returned to our lines. We were full of health, heart, hope and spirits. We were fleshy, having known but little of hunger. We were confident in our ability to endure almost anything. Now we are down, clear down, starved out. Our flesh as well as hope and spirits are all broken or nearly so. We get peevish and irritable, cross, dirty and careless. Eat like beasts, our faces and hands begrimed with dirt and pine smoke and but little inclination to wash them or strength if we had."
Coburn's diary is perhaps the closest a reader can come to experiencing the horrors of Civil War prison life. His journal is the focus of a new book from Faded Banner Publications, "Hell on Belle Isle: Diary of a Civil War POW."
An uncommonly talented writer, Coburn was an attorney before joining the Sixth Michigan Cavalry in the summer of 1862. He turned his pen to describing life as cavalryman in George Armstrong Custer's famed Michigan Cavalry Brigade, and later as a POW in Richmond in late 1863 and early 1864.
Editing and narrating "Hell on Belle Isle" is newspaper editor Don Allison, whose two decades of journalistic work have attracted honors from both the UPI and AP wire services. In preparing "Hell on Belle Isle" Allison has drawn on a lifelong interest and study of the Civil War. His ancestors fought on both sides during the conflict.
"Belle Isle is not as well known as the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia," Allison said, "But Belle Isle rivaled Andersonville in terms of the squalid conditions of neglect and starvation endured by its prisoners."
"It was actually a fluke that I learned Coburn's journal existed," Allison said. "A friend working with me on a history of the 38th Ohio Infantry copied a 38th Ohio reference from a newspaper microfilm, and by chance a brief story about the diary appeared on the photocopy.
"I was able to obtain a transcription _ the original diary was lost in a house fire about 25 years ago _ and I knew Coburn's story needed to be told. I was definitely certain I had to do the book after finding Coburn's photograph in a Michigan antique shop, a store I stopped at on an unexplained whim."
Life on Bell Isle was a terrible hardship. Leaky, worn-out tents were provided for the men, but overcrowding often left men with no shelter at all. Rain and cold brought terrible suffering, as did illness, homesickness and an almost continual hunger.
On the evening of Nov. 2, 1863, Coburn and his comrades were marched from a Richmond warehouse prison to Belle Isle: "About 8 o'clock we were ordered to pack up and commence marching. When we were halted it was upon the celebrated Belle Island. A part, about 2½ acres devoted to our camp. I'll leave a description of this horrible filthy place to some other time. Suffice it now that we were turned into its dirty streets to “Get along the best we could till morning”, without overcoats, blankets or shelter of any kind and only one small stick of wood to ten men.
"We shivered out the night with but little and some no sleep. I succeeded myself in crawling in a tent door and lay close to a man so that our latent heat permitted me to sleep three hours. After that I walked around till day."
Later that month he wrote: "A little rain and very raw cold day. No wood and nothing for supper but the usual two ounces of meat. It does almost seem as if this infernal Confederate government desires the reduction of our numbers and was accomplishing it in this slow and barbarous manner of murdering us. I know they are hard pressed by our armies on all sides and their means cut very close, but they might certainly furnish us with wood to warm us and our rations..."
On Feb. 4, as he neared the end of his ordeal, Coburn wrote that "Hereafter I shall not try to keep a daily record of events as this book is nearly full and I don't know how to keep another. Suffice it to say here that general prospects of our release do not increase except as time passing brings us nearer to an end _ perhaps our own in time."
Unfortunately his end came, about a month later in a Richmond hospital as a victim of chronic diarrhea. Coburn lies buried in an unmarked grave in Richmond National Cemetery.
Although Coburn didn't survive his ordeal, his story lives on.
"Hell on Belle Isle" (ISBN 0-9659201-0-0) is a softcover book and contains 192 pages, maps, illustrations, photographs (many never before published), notes and bibliography, appendix, index, and biographical information on other Sixth Michigan Cavalry troopers captured with Coburn. Price is $15.95 from Faded Banner Publications, PO Box 101, Bryan, OH 43506-1010, toll-free 1-888-799-3787.