Thursday, May 28, 2020

Life And Death At the Rock Island Military Prison During the Civil War

Confederate prisoners working at Rock Island Military
Prison. (Public domain image sourced from 
Wikimedia Commons)
During the Civil War years, imprisonment in the Rock Island Military Prison was almost like receiving a death sentence; only the execution was more prolonged and painful. Things there were so bad, people began to call Rock Island the “Andersonville of the North.”

Getting to the true story of life at the prison is almost impossible. Northern papers, notably The New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune, tended to write glowing articles about life at the camp as compared to the wretched treatment Northern boys received in Southern prison camps. 

What they overlooked was the death rate at Rock Island. The camp’s first year of operation was the worst. Depending on which report you rely on, nearly a thousand prisoners died during its first six months of operations, half that number from diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, and pneumonia.

In May 1864, the Muscatine Weekly Journal reported 6,586 prisoners were confined at the Rock Island prison. ”1132 have died, 668 have enlisted in the United States Naval Service, and 171 have been released by order of the President.”[i]

The Cedar Falls Gazette published a weekly tally of deaths at the camp. Forty-nine prisoners died in the first week of April 1864. “Since the 22nd of December (1863), there have been 969 deaths among the prisoners, 415 of which were from smallpox.”[ii]

Every paper joined in the act, publishing a tally of the dead and dying at the Rock Island Military Prison. On March 26th, 1864, the Burlington Hawkeye reported 790 prisoners had been killed in the first four months there. The Davenport Gazette said 102 rebel prisoners died at the Rock Island prison in December 1864.[iii] The Cedar Falls Gazette said 97 prisoners died the last week of February 1864, 47 from smallpox.[iv]

Death was a constant companion at the Rock Island Prison. Over the eighteen months, the island served as a prison camp, 12,215 men passed through the gates. Of those, 1961 died—mostly from disease—smallpox, pneumonia, and scurvy. They were given simple burials in rough wooden coffins and buried in trenches.[v]

The situation improved in late January 1865 when a new waterworks was completed at the cost of $20,000. The water was supplied through a series of five hydrants located along the main avenue of the prison, and one more in the wash house. “The excrements and offal of the prison are deposited into a sewer 4 feet wide and 250 feet long, leading into the river.” The contents were flushed into the river daily.[vi]

Proper sanitation was a lifesaver. After the new water system was installed, and the cemetery moved from outside the barracks to a more distant location, the number of prisoners who died from disease decreased considerably.

For the number of men imprisoned there, the Rock Island Prison was not very big. It measured 1250 feet x 878 feet, or about 25 acres.[vii] The prisoners were housed in eighty-four barracks, 22 x 100 feet long. Each building housed 120 men and had its own kitchen, cook stove, and two heating stoves. The barracks were surrounded with a crude wood fence twelve feet high. A walkway ran across the top for guards to patrol the camp.[viii]

A reporter for The New York Herald described the prison late in 1865 after the prisoners had been released. The camp was located at the center of the island, “in a beautiful grove, and contained forty acres. This was enclosed with a high board fence, with a platform around the top for the guard. The barracks were built of wood, measuring one hundred by forty feet, handsomely laid out on streets and whitewashed. There was comfortable accommodation for something over ten thousand prisoners.” It even had a “comfortable” hospital “provided with every convenience and luxury for the sick.”[ix] 

Unlike other prison camps, no “dead lines” existed, where men were shot for crossing an imaginary boundary. The reporter obviously didn’t read any prisoner accounts of the camp. They all recounted men shot to death for crossing the “dead line.” The correspondent also misrepresented the mortality rate, saying it was less than five percent when all known accounts put it closer to seventeen percent.

Water was plentiful.

There was a bathhouse with hot and cold water where up to two hundred men could bathe at the same time. That was true, but only after the new waterworks was installed in January 1865. Before that, disease and death took a terrible toll on the prisoners.

The funny thing was the reporter said the prison keeper, Colonel Adolphus Johnson, has “proved to be the right man in the right place.”[x] The correspondent didn’t read Johnson’s report on how to best care for the prisoners.

Johnson said he would place the prisoners “in a pen 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 the 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, for clothes, he would give them rags, just like Johnny Reb gave our men.[xi]

When it was all said and done, The New York Herald article made the Rock Island Prison sound more like a health spa than a prison camp.

As if to spite the Southerners, the army assigned the 108th Colored Infantry to guard the prisoners. Most of the troopers from the 108th had been slaves in Kentucky before joining the Union Army. That caused a lot of problems with the Confederate prisoners who were used to bossing blacks around, not taking orders from them. The Tipton Advertiser suggested none of the prisoners should attempt to cross the “dead line,” because the “darkies are mighty careless with their guns.”[xii] They were known to shoot at any and everything, especially their former masters.

Life wasn't any easier for the guards, either. Fifty members of the 108th Colored Infantry died during their nine months on the Island. Before that, the prisoners were guarded by the 37th Iowa Infantry Regiment, more commonly known as the Gray Beards because of their age. Most of the regiment was between 45 and eighty years of age. 

In the Road to Freedom, Edwin Reiter says there is no evidence to prove the guards accepted bribes to let the prisoners escape then shot them anyway. It was just talk against the black troops.[xiii]

Punishment at the prison was severe. Flogging was against the rules, but just about anything else was okay—solitary confinement, thumbscrews, or being hung by the thumbs. Riding the mule (also known as Morgan’s Mule) was another hated punishment. It consisted of a wooden horse, high enough off the ground, so the men’s feet didn’t touch the ground. Prisoners sat back to back for hours on end with their feet dangling in the air—unsupported.[xiv]

The ultimate, or final punishment, involved crossing the “dead line.” It lay four feet inside the stockade walls and was marked off by white posts. Any prisoner caught crossing the “dead line” could be shot on sight. One source said the shootings increased after the arrival of the 108th Colored Infantry. The prisoners hated them so much; they crossed the line and dared the black soldiers to shoot them. The troopers were only too happy to oblige.[xv] After the camp had been open a while, a trench was dug along the wall. It became the new “dead zone.”

For the prisoners, escape was the name of the game. Overall, 41 to 45 men escaped. Most of them were recaptured or shot while escaping—still, many prisoners felt it was better to die attempting to escape rather than rot away in prison.

The barracks ranged from one to three feet off the ground, but that didn’t stop the prisoners from trying to tunnel their way out. Ten inmates escaped that way on June 14, 1864. The last two out were captured as they emerged from the tunnel, guards arrested three more after searching the island, and one man drowned trying to swim across the Mississippi. Soldiers discovered four more of the escapees hiding on the Rock River.[xvi]

Two rebels got away in June by burrowing under a drain, then made their escape under cover of a dark and rainy night.[xvii]

In February 1864, the Muscatine Weekly Journal reported: “There is considerable small-pox among the rebel prisoners at Rock Island.” That same day, ten prisoners on their way to the Rock Island prison from Camp Chase escaped by cutting a hole in the bottom of a train car while it was running.[xviii]

Henry Damon, a prisoner at The Rock Island Prison, said it was “perhaps the strongest prison in the west.”[xix] A ditch three to ten feet deep dug down to bedrock, prevented the prisoners from tunneling out. The trench also served as the “dead line.” The guards warned prisoners if they crossed it, they would be shot. And, in case anyone got an idea to escape after dark, large kerosene lamps and reflectors were placed by the fence at night to light the area up.[xx]

Tunneling was the preferred method of escape until the ditch ended that. A few prisoners tried bribing the guards, but most of the men didn't have the money. Those who did, most often wound up getting shot dead by the guards who took their money, then killed them anyway.[xxi]

Damon said the food served to the prisoners wasn't enough to feed a small child. His fare was “a pone of bread so small that it could be squeezed into a pint cup and a piece of beef three inches long and one inch thick... Occasionally, but not oftener than three times a week, a pint of soup was added.” The prisoners were “always hungry as ravenous wolfs.”[xxii]

Damon escaped in the fall of 1864 and made his way to Chicago, then Indiana. Unfortunately, he was captured there and imprisoned in Camp Morton at Indianapolis. Things were no better there. “The rations were as skinny as at Rock Island.”[xxiii]

Charles Wright was taken to Rock Island prison on January 16th, 1864. That winter was “intensely cold.” Many of the men were without blankets or shoes. At night they huddled around the stoves and tried to sleep. Because it was so cold, many prisoners didn't bother keeping clean, and that resulted in the outbreak of disease. Over 500 men died of smallpox that winter.

Wright thought the main problem was the guards. At night they shot indiscriminately into the barracks. The sinks (bathrooms) were on the “dead line,” and many men were afraid to go near them for fear of being shot.[xxiv] Food was scarce, or non-existent, from June 1864 on because Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered prisons to cut back on food to match what he thought Confederate prisons were feeding Union soldiers. The usual fare was “twelve ounces [of] cornbread, four and a half ounces salt beef (usually unfit for human food).[xxv] Rats and mice made a great treat when the prisoners could find them. Some prisoners bribed the guards to bring them stray cats or dogs.

After the war, the Rock Island Argus said the prisoners were “treated with shameful cruelty... They were starved in the hospitals and in the barracks... They were cruelly and inhumanly punished, and numbers were shot down without the slightest provocation.”[xxvi]

To emphasize their point, the Argus said, “Two thousand dead Confederates, now moldering to dust, on the island, attest that greater numbers died here than in Andersonville or any other Southern prison, in proportion to the number confined and the time occupied.”[xxvii]

The last prisoners were released on June 23rd, 1865. Before being released they had to sign an oath of loyalty to the Union, then they were turned loose in the city of Rock Island. 

After being discharged from the Rock Island prison, James De Friece wandered the streets of Davenport—sick and homeless. A man found him lying on the bluff and took him to Third Street House and cared for him. Unfortunately, De Friece was too far gone. He became deranged and died in his room five days later.[xxviii]

Such was the fate of many discharged prisoners. They had no food or money, and home was a thousand miles or more away. When the army released prisoners, they turned them loose as is, without money or provisions. It was a heartless system made worse by the suffering they had already been through.



[i] Muscatine Weekly Journal. May 27, 1864.

[ii] Cedar Falls Gazette. April 8, 1864.

[iii] Reprinted in The Iowa Transcript. January 21, 1864.

[iv] Cedar Falls Gazette. February 26, 1864.

[v] Anonymous. Past and Present of Rock Island. 1877. P. 141.

[vi] Daily Davenport Democrat. January 26, 1885.

[vii] Janowski, Diane and Holmes, Clay W. The Elmira Camp, A History of the Military Prison at Elmira, New York, July 8, 1864-July 10, 1865. 2017. P. 254.

[viii] England, Bryan Otis. A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks (Revised Edition). 2004. P. 1-3.

[ix] The New York Herald. August 13, 1865.

[x] The New York Herald. August 13, 1865.

[xi] Wood, Robert. Confederate Hand-Book. 1900. P. 39.

[xii] The Tipton Advertiser. September 29, 1864.

[xiii] Reiter, Edwin. The Road to Freedom: A History of the 108th Infantry Regiment (USCT). 2017. Kindle Edition. Chapter 3.

[xiv] Eaton, George. Rock Island Arsenal. 2014. P. 37.

[xv] Eaton, George. Rock Island Arsenal. 2014. P. 37.

[xvi] Speer, Lonnie R. Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War. 2005. P. 176. The Weekly North Iowa Times (July 6, 1864) said twelve men escaped. Three were captured, and one drowned attempting to cross a slough. The Daily Gate City (June 28, 1864) explained the three escapees were caught in Henry County, Illinois.

[xvii] The Daily Gate City. June 6, 1864.

[xviii] Muscatine Weekly Journal. February 5, 1864.

[xix] Damon, Henry G. “A Florida Boy’s Experience in Prison and Escaping.” Southern Historical Society Papers. September 1883. P. 395.

[xx] Damon, Henry G. “A Florida Boy’s Experience in Prison and Escaping.” Southern Historical Society Papers. September 1883. P. 395.

[xxi] Minnich, J. W. Inside and Outside of Rock Island Prison, from December 1863 to June 1865. 1908.

[xxii] Damon, Henry G. “A Florida Boy’s Experience in Prison and Escaping.” Southern Historical Society Papers. September 1883. P. 396.

[xxiii] Damon, Henry G. “A Florida Boy’s Experience in Prison and Escaping.” Southern Historical Society Papers. September 1883. P. 399.

[xxiv] Wright, Charles. Rock Island Prison, 1864-5. In Jones, William D. Confederate View of the Treatment of Prisoners. 1876. P. 287.

[xxv] Wright, Charles. Rock Island Prison, 1864-5. In Jones, William D. Confederate View of the Treatment of Prisoners. 1876. P. 287.

[xxvi] The Evening Argus. July 24, 1867.

[xxvii] The Evening Argus. July 24, 1867.

[xxviii] Daily Davenport Democrat. September 2, 1864.


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