Mention Belle Isle to a Civil War buff and images of the prison camp on the island near Richmond will probably come to mind. But…over Labor Day weekend I took a drive along the Rappahannock River to find a different Belle Isle and take a long bike ride.
Tracking down the Civil War connection for this Belle Isle has been a challenge—especially since the visitor center was closed and the only historic interpretive signage I found featured Captain John Smith’s exploration expeditions in Virginia. But…there is a Civil War connection that I’ve been able to piece together this week!
First, the mansion. Despite the lack of signs (except the one advising that the building is closed), I was pretty sure this architectural beauty pre-dated the 1860’s. And indeed it does.Built around 1759 or 1760, the brick mansion served as the plantation manor for two centuries and a family home beyond the Civil War years. In 1786, the Rawleigh W. Downman purchased the plantation, and members of the Downman family resided there through 1918. Records in the online guide for African American papers at suggest that a large number of enslaved men, women, and children worked in the fields and mansion or were hired out to neighbor plantations.
I haven’t been able to track specific information about Belle Isle’s mansion and fields during the Civil War years, but likely it had a similar experience to the rest of the Northern Neck region and Lancaster County. The voters in the region had cast their ballots primarily for John C. Breckinridge, giving insight to the political views of the area, and when the war began in 1861, the home guard (militia) organized to defend the area. In addition to the home guard, Lancaster County recruited two military units: 40th Virginia Infantry “Lancaster Grays” and the “Lancaster Cavalry.”
The Anaconda Plan—restricting maritime commerce in and out of the Confederacy—had an almost immediate affect on the area. With the Rappahannock River connecting to the Chesapeake Bay, fisheries and tidewater commerce had become mainstays of Lancaster County’s economy in the antebellum period. During the war, it was one of the easily patrolled areas, and Federal gunboats became a common sight.
Occasionally, crews from the gunboats landed and raided plantations—creating wildly frightful rumors and keeping the home guard on constant alert. I think it’s quite possible that Belle Isle plantation may have had this fate, but with the resources currently available have not been able to confirm facts. Elsewhere along the river, the southerners set up signal stations and a system for helping river blockade runners past the Union vessels. (There’s a trail within Belle Isle State Park called Watch House Trail, and I can’t wait to go back and ask some questions to see if there’s a direct Civil War connection.)
By 1862, accounts suggest that Lancaster County was stripped of supplies and there had been occasional skirmishes between raiding parties, civilians, or home guards. In May 1863, Union troops took final control of the region and liberated 800 enslaved and destroyed 50 boats carrying goods valued at $30,000.
Today, Belle Isle State Park is best known for hiking, canoeing, and camping. It’s about an hour south of Fredericksburg and offers a great way to see the land of the Northern Neck area. I enjoyed renting a bicycle and pedaling along the quiet roads and trails. Sitting by the river and watching the weekend boats moving along the water, I thought about the river blockaders and the local, maritime economy that had been directly impacted by the Civil War. I thought about the gunboats that went upriver, trying to reach Fredericksburg, but stopped at Port Royal in 1862. Belle Isle Mansion is not open and signs restrict a closer view or examination of the building, but open fields with growing crops surround the old building—a silent nod to the history of when this site was a plantation in the colonial and antebellum periods.
Is there more that I’d like to learn about the site? Absolutely. But I thought it would helpful to suggest the state park for a weekend trip for those who are planning some autumn travel or live in the area and are wanting somewhere quiet, pretty, and with traces of history to do some outdoor social distancing. I was glad to explore somewhere new…and, as usual, I left with questions and ideas to research when the local archives reopen.
Belle Isle State Park – Lancaster, Virginia
Be sure to pack bug spray! And check the state park website for additional information about hours and COVID restrictions.
Fredericksburg Free Lance Star, September 14, 2019: https://fredericksburg.com/news/local/manor-house-is-the-historic-heart-of-belle-isle-state-park/article_50eabfff-f9c7-5f11-99e2-6f1bf79ba224.html
The House and Home Magazine, January 13, 2020: http://thehouseandhomemagazine.com/culture/the%20beauty%20of%20the%20belle/’
Chapman, Jr. William Hathaway. Yankees, Blue Pigs, and a Castle: The Northern Neck And The Civil War. http://www.enonhall.com/html/civilwar.html
Guide to African American manuscripts in the collection of Virginia Historical Society: https://www.virginiahistory.org/sites/default/files/uploads/AAG.pdf (See Downman Papers Summaries)