August 2003

Rock Island Prison, Illinois
submitted by James L. Walker

This is a gathering of historical information about the Rock Island prison in Illinois.
Main source of information was gleaned from Lonnie R Speer's most excellent book "Portals to Hell".

As prison populations steadily increased after the Battle of Gettysburg, in July of 1863, it became apparent to Federal officials that the combination of original and reactivated prison facilities was unable to hold the number of captives coming into Union hands. Since no major facilities had been established since the February 1862, capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, Quartermaster General Meigs directed Brigadier General Daniel H. Rucker, chief quartermaster, to establish a holding facility at Point Lockout, Maryland, which could confine up to ten thousand captives. At the same time, Meigs ordered Captain Charles A. Reynolds, assistant quartermaster, to establish a prison for POWs on Rock Island in the Mississippi River to help relieve overcrowding in the western facilities.

In the meantime, a number of eastern state penitentiaries were pressed into use. These places seemed ideal for a number of reasons: they were close to a recent battlefield, they had the additional space available, and in some cases, they had the additional security that was necessary.

Some of the major locations used were the Allegheny Penitentiary at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Moyamensing Penitentiary at Columbus, Ohio. Of these locations, the Ohio facility became the most well-known to the general public because of the notoriety of one of the POW's confined there.

On July 30, Governor Tod notified Nathaniel Merion, the warden of the Ohio Penitentiary, of the impending arrival of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgon and thirty of his men, who were recently captured near New Lisbon, Ohio.

In November 1863, Colonel Hoffman inspected the newly completed, but still empty, prison at Rock Island, Illinois. He then notified Secretary Stanton that construction of the prison was finished and that he intended to transfer one thousand POW's from Camp Douglas, which had suffered a recent barracks fire.

At the same time, a large group of POW's who had been recently captured at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Tennessee, were being held in a Louisville, Kentucky prison. Eventually they would be transferred to Rock Island, about two weeks before those from Chicago, making them the first prisoners incarcerated at the new facility.

Rock Island was a government-owned island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. It was about three miles long and a half mile wide, with a solid foundation of limestone rock, from which it got its name. The island had been appropriated by the U.S. government back in 1804 but had remained unoccupied until 1812, when war broke out with Great Britain. By 1816, a fort named Fort Armstrong, in honor of the then-current Secretary of War, was established on the west end of the island. It remained garrisoned by troops until May 1836. In 1840 the government-owned bridge and to the Illinois side by two bridges, one to the town of Rock Island and the other to the town of Moline.

Colonel Hoffman had furnished the plans for the prison, which called for eighty-four barracks surrounded by a rough board fence. Each barrack was to be one hundred feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and twelve feet high with twelve windows, two doors, and two roof ventilators. At the west end of each building was a kitchen or cookhouse eighteen feet long. The remaining eighty-two feet would be living and sleeping quarters for the prisoners. Sixty double bunks had been moved into each building so that each barrack could house 120 POWs, setting the planned capacity at 10,080.

A site at the center of the north side of the island, facing the Iowa side of the river, had been chosen, and construction began at the end of August. At that time, Meigs informed the builder that the barracks “should be put up in the roughest and cheapest manner, mere shanties, with no fine work about them.” The barracks, six rows of fourteen buildings each, were erected thirty feet apart facing 100-foot- wide streets, except the fourth row, which fronted a 130-foot-wide avenue, one of two that bisected the prison. The stockade fence enclosing the site was twelve feet high with a board walkway along the outside, four feet from the top, with sentry boxes every one hundred feet. Double-gate sally ports were constructed on the east and west ends of the prison and were the only openings into the facility. Guardhouses were built outside the fence at each gate.

On December 3, 1863, the first prisoners -- 5,592 in all -- arrived at the new facility. On the day of their arrival, the temperature stood at thirty-two degrees below zero and two feet of snow lay on the ground. Worse, it was discovered that ninety-four of those prisoners had smallpox. Hoffman had neglected to include any construction plans for a hospital at his new prison camp. Consequently, the sick had to be left in the barracks among the healthy. By the end of the month, 245 were sick, from smallpox and pneumonia, and 94 had died. Before long, there would be an average of more than 250 deaths a month in the prison’s first four months of operation.

By the end of January 1864, little more than seven weeks into its existence, 635 of the 8,000 POWs confined at the Rock Island facility were sick, and 325 had died. During the same period, seven of the guards had perished. The POWs, as at nearly all the facilities by this time, no longer cared, or were unable to properly police the grounds or make any substantial effort at any kind of sanitary practices. Rock Island was in the midst of coping with an epidemic and was still without a hospital. When Surgeon and Acting Medical Inspector Augustus M. Clark arrived on February 10, he immediately directed that certain barracks in the southwest section of the compound be designated as hospital facilities and that pesthouses be erected about a half mile outside the prison along the south shore of the island. By end of February, there were still 708 sick and another 346 deaths. The 671 burials took place in a graveyard established about four hundred yards south of the prison. The site was then moved in mid-March, at Clark’s suggestion, to a new site one thousand yards southeast of the prison. Union guards, who were succumbing to the smallpox in increased numbers, were buried one hundred yards northwest of the POW cemetery.

The pesthouses were completed that same month and all prisoners suffering from smallpox were moved there. The eleven barracks previously used for them were thoroughly cleaned and whitewashed and, afterward, used as noncontagious disease wards. Meanwhile as prisoner rations were reduced and the savings placed in a prison fund, a hospital was built from $30,000 that was eventually accumulated in the account.

Rock Island’s first commandant was Colonel Richard H. Rush, Invalid Corps, an Englishman from Pennsylvania who, early in the conflict, had commanded the only regiment of Union lancers to see active service in the Civil War. He was relieved in mid-January 1864, by Colonel Andrew J. Johnston of the Invalid Corps, later designated the 4th Regiment, Veteran Reserve Corps, who would remain in command until the war ended.

Unique among the Civil War’s prisons, rations at Rock Island were issued in bulk. “Each company of prisoners receives ten days at a time,” declared Colonel Johnson, “they having the entire control of the distribution among themselves.” One forty-gallon cauldron was placed in each cookhouse and the POWs cooked their own food. Water for the prisoners was supplied by a stream pump which drew it from the river. Whenever the pump malfunctioned, water became scarce, although there was a small artesian well in the compound that supplied some water. Two coal burning stoves in each barracks supplied heat for the prisoners.

By the time Clark left in mid-March the number of sick in the camp had climbed to 1,555 including 420 cases of smallpox, out of the total prison population of 7,260. “Almost all the suffering that has actually occurred,” noted Medical Inspector Norton S. Townshend, “has been in consequence of the transportation of prisoners during the extreme cold weather and from the breaking out of the smallpox among them."

As warmer weather arrived, the smallpox declined and cases of pneumonia subsided. Then sanitation became the big concern. “Already the twelve large sinks have been filled and the privies removed three times,” advised Captain Reynolds, the assistant quartermaster. “In the spring, the camp will unavoidably be muddy and filthy. In the summer, the stench caused by excrements will be insufferable."

Reynolds suggested the construction of a reservoir on a small bluff overlooking the prison to help flush out soon-to-be-built open sewers throughout the camp. He also recommended using prison labor to complete the project, paying forty cents a day to be credited to the prisoners’ sutler accounts. Hoffman eventually approved the project but insisted that the pay be lowered to only ten cents a day for mechanics and five cents for laborers. Reynolds got the project going, but the system provided little benefit to the POW camp because its completion wasn’t until just three months before the war ended.

In the meantime, the antiquated steam pump in the northwest corner of the enclosure, which used a three-inch wooden supply pipe to pump water into four cisterns, stopped working on several occasions, leaving only the artesian well, with a nine-inch bore and 125 foot depth, located just inside the prison’s west gate, as the only source of water for more than 8,000 men.

Although the barracks at Rock Island were elevated anywhere from one to three feet off the ground, escape by tunneling was often attempted. On June 14, 1864, ten POWs tunneled out from beneath their barracks and escaped under the south wall. The last two POWs to emerge from the hole were captured by the sentry, who quickly gave the alarm. Guards spread out in all directions and apprehended three more on the island, while a fourth drowned attempting to swim the 400-foot-wide south channel of the Mississippi River. Four more were captured later near the Rock River in Illinois.

In all, forty-one POWs successfully escaped during the prison’s existence. Many more would try but fail. In one case, on October 24, 1864, a POW was shot and killed while desperately attempting to escape under the north wall at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Additional security at the prison included a barge fitted with a six-pounder field piece, a twenty-four-pounder howitzer, and a guard crew of thirty-five men anchored in the river with full view of the compound.

By late 1864, conditions at the camp would become even worse. The poor drainage of the island resulted in a small marsh forming in the southwest corner of the enclosure into which the camp sludge would accumulate. Throughout the summer the prison population remained at around eight thousand captives, and by late in the year, the total number of deaths reached 1,623.

Northern newspapers, led by the local Rock Island, Illinois, Argus and carried by the New York Daily News, ran articles comparing the Rock Island Military Prison to some of the worst Southern prisons, later calling it the Andersonville of the North. “Many have taken ‘the oath’, any oath, “ reported one letter published in the newspaper, “to save themselves from actual starvation. All the released ones say that no man can live on the rations given, and there are men who would do anything to get enough to eat. Such is the wretched, ravenous condition of these poor starving creatures that several dogs which have come to the barracks with teams have fallen victims to their hunger, and they are trapping rats and mice for food.

In order to escape these conditions, many POWs did take the oath. In fact, by December, 1864, nearly 1,800 would -- more than at any other prison, North or South. These men were placed in quarters separated from the others by a highboard fence and, reportedly, received better rations and care. During this same period a group of POWs attempted to counter the defections by reenlisting prisoners into the Confederate service. By February 1865, they had signed up and formed ten companies of 130 men each. Apparently the other 5,000 or so POWs no longer cared one way of the other. They were probably too busy just trying to survive until their release.

Colonel Johnson was finally compelled to write a response to critical newspaper editors in defense of his prison administration. “The treatment of them here and all issues to them.” declared Johnson in his letter to the Argus, “are made strictly in accordance with orders from the War Department.... instead of placing them in fine, comfortable barracks, with three large stoves in each and as much coal as they can burn both day and night. I would place them in one with no shelter but the heavens, as our poor men were at Andersonville. Instead of giving them the same quality and nearly the same quantity of provisions that the troops on duty receive, I would give them, as near as possible, the same quantity and quality of provisions that the fiendish rebels give our men; and instead of a constant issue of clothing to them, I let them wear their rags, as our poor men in the hands of the rebel authorities are obliged to do; in other words, had I the power, strict retaliation would be practiced by me. Again if discretionary power rested with me, I would arrest and confine the known sympathizers with the rebellion residing in Rock Island and Davenport, and quite a large number would be quickly added to our list of prisoners, and those communities would be relieved from a more dangerous element than open rebels in arms.

Whether Johnson meant to lie or just got carried away is uncertain, but the fact was that coal and clothing were never issued so easily, and there were never more than two stoves in a barracks building. By the time of his letter, prisoner rations were far from the quantity issued to regular troops. the had been reduced under orders of the War Department twice by then.

The true conditions at the prison, and, for that matter, at any of the Civil War’s prisons, can best be gauged by its death rate. By the end of the war, 1,964 Rock Island POWs had succumbed to smallpox and exposure out of a total of 12,400 confined over its twenty month period of existence. Thus, the facility’s death rate ran nearly 16 percent of the total confined.

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