Rock Island Civil War Prison Barracks

Excerpt from Rock Island Confederate Prison Deaths - Compiled by Clifford W. Stephens (Command Historian of Rock Island Arsenal) and Printed by Blackhawk Genealogical Society of Rock Island, Illinois. Generously transcribed by Diana Hanson.

One of the westernmost federal prisons for confederate prisoners of war during the Civil War was located on Rock Island, a government owned island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. In the frontier era from 1816 to 1836, Fort Armstrong was located on the western tip of this island. For more than a century the island has been widely known as the site of the Rock Island Arsenal. Constructed in mid-1863, the Rock Island prison camp received its first prisoners in December 1863. In the months that followed the camp received a mixed reputation - to some it was a northern "Andersonville"; others felt that it offered more than the necessary comforts.
 On July 14th, 1863, Captain Charles A. Reynolds of the Quartermaster Department was ordered by Quartermaster General M. C. Meigs to construct a depot for prisoners of war at Rock Island.

The constructions plans were furnished by the office of the Commissary General of Prisoners. The plans called for the erection of 84 prisoners' barracks and a rough board fence to enclose them.
Construction began during the last of August 1863 and by the following October 15th the camp was ready to receive prisoners.
Each barracks building was one hundred feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and twelve feet high. All barracks faced eastward. Each barracks had twelve windows, two doors, and two roof ventilators four feet long and two feet wide. The kitchen for each building was located at the west end and separated from the sleeping quarters by a wall located eighteen feet from the west end. The remaining eighty-two feet were taken up by living and sleeping quarters; sixty double bunks were constructed, enabling each barracks to house one hundred-twenty prisoners. There were six rows with fourteen barracks in each row. The buildings were thirty feet apart and faced onto streets one hundred feet wide, except that the fourth row opened on an avenue one hundred and thirty feet wide which was one of the two avenues bisecting the prison.

 The barracks were enclosed by a stockade fence 1300 feet long, 900 feet wide, and 12 feet high. A board walk was constructed on the outside of the fence, four feet from the top and sentry boxes were placed every one hundred feet. There were only two openings into the enclosure; these consisted of double gate sally ports located on the east and west ends of the fence. A strong guard house was erected outside the enclosure at each of the two gates.

 The Commissary-General of Prisoners, Colonel Hoffman, made an inspection of the prison in November 1863 and in his subsequent report to the Secretary of War reported the prison at Rock Island had not as yet received prisoners. Just a few days before Colonel Hoffman's inspection trip a large fire had destroyed several of the prison barracks in Camp Douglas located near Chicago, Illinois. Colonel Hoffman, in his report to the Secretary of War stated it was his intention to transfer one thousand of these prisoners left without shelter to Rock Island Prison Barracks.

This transfer did not occur, however, and it was not until December 3, 1863 that the first group of prisoners arrived at the Rock Island prison. These men, numbering 5,592 in all, were a part of the group of prisoners captured by General Grant's Army in the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge on November 24th and 25th.
 There must have been a great deal of suffering in this group on their arrival. They were far from their homes and the coldness of the climate must have left them half frozen for on the day of their arrival the temperatures dropped to 32 degrees below zero. This condition was aggravated by sickness among them, the worst disease being the dreaded small pox. The prison doctors found 94 cases of this disease in the group and all had been exposed to it. The prison surgeon in charge, Doctor J.J. Temple, his assistant Surgeon Iles - an old man, and Doctor Moxley were faced with the responsibility of checking this terrible disease without hospital wards or adequate medicines. According to the report made by the Assistant Surgeon General A.M. Clark, after making his inspection of the prison in February 1864, Doctor Temple was not aware of the extent of his authority or duties as a surgeon in charge, Doctor Iles, although skilled professionally, was completely bewildered; and Doctor Moxley was a very young officer only commissioned a short time, anxious to do his duty but entirely unfitted both by temperament and experience for a charge of such magnitude.
 .......Many entries have left out. Please see Diana Hanson or BlackHawk Genealogical Society for access to the complete manuscript.
 The life of any prisoner of war at the best is very monotonous and this was the case at Rock Island prison. Prisoners passed their time in making trinkets for sale, using shells and whatever came to hand. Plots of escape were many but only 41 escapees managed to elude capture. On June 14, 1864 ten of the prisoners tried their luck by tunneling from under barracks number 42 and under the south wall. The last two prisoners coming up out of the tunnel were discovered by the sentry and the alarm was sounded. Guards hurried out, capturing three prisoners on the island; one drowned when attempting to swim the south channel of the Mississippi river which was about four hundred feet wide. The remaining six crossed the river without being caught and made their way over a high ridge which separates the Mississippi from the Rock River. Four were captured near the latter river but two made their escape good.
 The troops making up the garrison at the prison consisted of the 4th Regiment, U.S. Veterans Reserve Corps; the 37th Iowa Volunteer Regiment (Silver Grays); the 48th Iowa (100-day men) three companies of the 2nd Battalion; 133rd Illinois 100-day men; 197th Pennsylvania Volunteers; and, the 108th U.S. Regiment Colored Infantry. This last group arrived for duty at the prison on September 23, 1864.
 Lafayette Rogan, prisoner of war at Rock Island Barracks, captured November 24, 1863, in the Battle of Lookout Mountain, kept a diary. A copy of this diary has been made available and several prints have been made by the Arsenal. From Rogan's diary we get a good idea of the prison as seen by one of the less fortunate inmates. Rogan's penmanship was good enough to have him chosen as a recorder for the prison. As such, he was confined only to the limits of the island and was quartered outside the stockade. Rogan does not dwell on ill treatment of prisoners other than the usual hardships of imprisoned men, lack of clothing and bedding is mentioned and of prisoners enlisting in the Union. Rogan had hopes for an early exchange or parole but he was not released until after Lee's surrender. Naturally, Rogan didn't like not being selected among those exchanged or paroled but his loyalty to the South would not let him sign the Amnesty oath which would release him from prison. Rogan's penmanship and his ability to keep records of prisoners was no doubt a factor in keeping him at the prison.
During the twenty months, the active period of the prison, 12,409 prisoners had been confined. Of these, 730 were transferred to other stations; 3,876 were exchanged; 1,960 died while confined. 41 made their escape good; 5,581 were released after taking the amnesty oath; and approximately four thousand enlisted in the Union forces. There were 213 civilian or citizen prisoners in prison at Rock Island Barracks, according to available records, who were discharged in the last few months before the prison closed. The strange thing is that there are no records of these civilians on the sick, escape, or death list, although the Confederate Cemetery register does list a few burials of civilian prisoners. One hundred ninety-seven of the citizen prisoners were from Missouri. The presence of the latter group caused some trouble for Colonel Johnson, the prison Commander, because they were visited by many of their friends and relatives from Missouri. It became so bad that Colonel Johnson wrote to General Dodge at St. Louis requesting the publication in the Missouri newspapers of regulations concerning visits to prisoner of war camps.
Two months after Lee's surrender to Grant, Rock Island Barracks still had 1,112 prisoners in confinement. During this month 1,090 were released, 8 escaped and 12 died. Two were sick in the hospital but by the 11th of July they had been discharged leaving the prison free of prisoners. At this date all that remained in the prison command was one company of 40 men and Colonel Johnson who remained to close out his records.

So a historical period in the history of Rock Island came to a close, a period remembered with bitterness by many, by a few, more pleasantly. Stories grew out of this period, greatly added to and exaggerated as the years passed. Like so many historical periods, certain facts became distorted and others are lost or forgotten. This is generally true of the prison period on the island. Very few visitors to the island ask about the Union soldiers who died doing their duty for their country. Even the records of these men are incomplete and very little can be found. On March 14, 1866 Major Kress, of the Arsenal in a letter to the Quartermaster General reported the graves of 137 Union dead. In 1868 Quartermaster General Meigs in a letter to the Secretary of War, mentioned that there were 136 Union dead at Rock Island and he concurred with the recommendation of General L. Thomas that these bodies be removed to the upper part of the island. He did not concur on the removal of the Confederate dead to the same location. These Union dead were removed to the site recommended, the present Rock Island National Cemetery.

Nothing remains of the prison buildings today. Visitors on the island, as they view the island's beautiful scenery, see nothing to recall this period in the island's history. Where once the Headquarters buildings of the prison was located stands the mansion of the Commanding General of the Ordnance Weapons Command. The stockade and the prison barracks area is now a part of the Rock Island Arsenal Golf Course and officers quarters. The non-contagious disease hospital is the present site of two Arsenal shop buildings. The pest houses of the day have given way to a huge shop building. All that remains of the period of the island's history are the Confederate and National Cemeteries, which lie in quiet and peaceful groves of elms and oak trees. Perpetual care of the graves give these peaceful sites with their rows of white headstones in long straight rows, completely encircled by the towering trees, a serene and peaceful resting place for those who died so far from home and friends.