Friday, July 30, 2010

The Rock Island Prison

"Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said 'Rock Island!' in the same voice they would have said 'In Hell!' For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVI

While the above-quoted paragraph may not be the absolute truth in what concerns the Illinois Rock Island Prison, it does sum up the general attitude towards prisoner-of-war camps at the time, on both sides. And it was not an unjustified attitude either. Due to poor organization, lack of resources and sometimes just vindictive measures, military prisons during the Civil War were, as one author calls them, true "portals to Hell." The Rock Island Prison, where Ashley Wilkes was held, was no exception, though the conditions there were by no means comparable to the ones at the Confederate Andersonville or the Union Elmira prisons.
Bell tower outside entrance at Rock Island Prison
The camp at Rock Island was built during the summer and autumn of 1863. The number of Confederate prisoners of war had steadily increased with the collapse of the prisoner exchange system and after the Union's victory at Gettysburg, and the existing facilities were proving insufficient, so new prisons had to be added. One of the Union's westernmost, the Rock Island Prison was located on a government-owned island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, to which it was connected by 3 bridges. The island, as you can see in the image below, was not big--only half a mile wide and about 3 miles long. From 1862, it also hosted an arsenal for the Union (hence its modern name--Arsenal Island).

Rock Island and its prison in 1864. Iowa to the right.

What did the prison look like?
Well, at first it consisted of 84 barracks and the rough board  fence that enclosed them. The large square on the right side of the island in the picture above is the barracks section of the prison. As you can see there were 6 rows, each consisting of 14 barracks, separated by streets 100 feet wide. Each building was 22 feet wide and 100 feet long, out of which 18 feet at the west end were occupied by a kitchen. The remaining 82 feet were the prisoners' living and sleeping quarters. Each barracks housed 120 men, sleeping in 60 double bunks.

The most important issue these accommodations had was the lack of an efficient heating system. The barracks had two stoves, placed at each end of the building. It is unclear whether coal was allocated in sufficient quantities for them or not. The ex-prisoners vehemently claimed that it wasn't or that the prison commandants always made it so that it was a hard commodity to get. Some modern historians claim that coal was always aplenty, only that the way the barracks were built didn't ensure proper circulation of air, and prevented the middle sections of the rooms from ever getting warm. Either way, men suffered.
Rock Island prisoners allegedly punished by their own courts
Another controversial aspect of this prison was the existence of a "dead line." The prison had a stockade fence 12 feet high, with a board walkway built along the outside, four feet from the top, on which armed guards were on duty. Sentry boxes were placed every 100 feet. The only openings were the double-gate sally ports on the west and east sides of the fence, with strong guardhouses outside. Twenty five feet on the inside, the stockade was paralleled by a dead line, marked with white stakes. Men who passed the dead line were shot. Ex-prisoners claimed that the guards would sometimes use this rule as an excuse to shoot people who were near the line but had no intention of crossing it, especially at night. The Union authorities, on the other hand, denied that this line ever existed.

The white stakes marking the dead line
The first prisoners arrived at Rock Island on December 3, 1863. They were over 5,000, came from  a prison in Louisville, Kentucky and had been captured at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Tennessee by Grant's army. That, and they had smallpox. What followed is not hard to guess. The camp had not been designed with any quarantine facilities--it had no pest-houses and no hospital. It was only in the spring of 1864 that some barracks would be designated to play those roles. But by January of 1864, 325 of the 8,000 prisoners had died and 635 were sick. By mid-March the latter number would climb to 1,555. To add to the smallpox epidemic, the winter of 1863/64 was an especially harsh one and pneumonia claimed its victims as well.

Rock Island prisoners during roll call
It was certainly not a good start for this prison, and it probably got it an early bad name, but things during the first half of 1864, as warmer weather finally set in and the epidemics abated, were not actually looking so grim, compared of course to the standard of other Civil War prisons. But then here is how Margaret Mitchell describes Rock Island and how it was indeed seen after the war and for the entire 20th century:
"When Lincoln refused to exchange prisoners, believing it would hasten the end of the war to burden the Confederacy with the feeding and guarding of Union prisoners, there were thousands of bluecoats at Andersonville, Georgia. The Confederates were on scant rations and practically without drugs or bandages for their own sick and wounded. They had little to share with the prisoners. They fed their prisoners on what the soldiers in the field were eating, fat pork and dried peas, and on this diet the Yankees died like flies, sometimes a hundred a day. Inflamed by the reports, the North resorted to harsher treatment of Confederate prisoners and at no place were conditions worse than at Rock Island. Food was scanty, one blanket for three men, and the ravages of smallpox, pneumonia and typhoid gave the place the name of a pest-house. Three-fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVI
What happened to turn this name into such a feared one? Admittedly, Mitchell greatly exaggerates the proportions of casualties at Rock Island. Only 16% of its prisoners died in its 3 years of existence, which is of course a lot, but not when compared to other Civil War prisons that got to over 25%. And for the point in time she's describing above, April of 1864, conditions weren't yet so bad--or so well known by the general public.

Rock Island prisoners making clam shell trinket
The problems that would give this prison its reputation of Andersonville of the Union started later that year. Up until that point, the food rations had been decent, especially since they were supplemented by packages from home or things bought from the sutlers. Any money the prisoners had the moment of their capture was put into an account they could use to buy food, and labor for the waterworks/sewers was remunerated, albeit poorly. Some prisoners would make and sell clam shell trinkets. But early in the summer of 1864, the rations were dramatically cut, presumably as the Union found out of what was going on at Andersonville.

What also helped the scandal spread was that in the spring and then autumn of 1864, prisoners were offered the opportunity to take the Oath of Allegiance, fight for the Union Army and earn their freedom. A great number of them, greater than at any other prison, North or South, were less gentlemanly than our Mr. Wilkes and grasped onto this chance. Once they were out though, they shared their stories--mainly stories of hunger so great that men resorted to eating dogs, rats, mice, anything they could find.

Rock Island prisoners taking the Oath of Allegiance
The local newspaper Argus and the New York newspaper Daily News (Southern sympathizer) ran articles condemning this Andersonville of the North and arguing that men took the Oath of Allegiance simply to escape starvation. The prison commandant, Colonel A. J. Johnson, replied--and didn't help his case at all in doing so. He got carried away and declared that if he and not the Government held the ultimate decision, these men would be treated like the Union prisoners were treated at Andersonville. 

The period after the war saw the publication of a couple of accounts from ex-prisoners., like the piece Charles Wright of Tennessee wrote for the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1876, relying on his journal entries from 1864-65, when he was detained at Rock Island.  It was accounts like this one that probably inspired Margaret Mitchell's description of Rock Island and it was the above fragment from Gone with the Wind, one historian argues, that did more than all of these accounts together in sealing the prison's image in the public's memory. 
41 men escaped from the Rock Island Prison. Some of them were later caught or died in their attempts, others got their freedom. 

My sources for this post and for all of the pictures were: 
Portals to Hell: The Military Prisons of Civil War by Lonnie R. Speer
Civil War Prisons by William Hesseltine [The author of the Rock Island section is T.R. Walker, curator of the John M. Browning Memorial Museum at the Rock Island Arsenal. This book and Portals to Hell seem to rely on the same sources.]
Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners by James Gillispie [This is an attempt of presenting an image of Rock Island Prison outside the Lost Cause frame. Something I agree with in principle, but I think that in this case, taken too far in the other direction, it skirts on whitewashing.]
Rock Island Prison 1864-1865 by Charles Wright
Rock Island arsenal, in peace and in war : with maps and illustrations (1898) by Benjamin Tillinghast [It covers other aspects of the island's history as well. Worth checking out if only for the pretty period images.]


  1. Grim post, but then war is never pretty. Having read my share of WWII horror stories I am familiar with gloomy descriptions of its excesses and yes, there are moments in the book that make you flinch but I am glad that MM did not include too many back stories like yours. Not that it would not have been interesting but writing more about the people that lived through that war instead of the gory details made for far entertaining reading. I am sure she would have gotten more acclaim from the snobs in this world and possibly many more male readers had she included details on these prisons and the lengths people must have gone through to feed themselves when the South was suffering famine. I am happy that next to Scarlett lying in the dust eating bitter-tasting vegetables we had nice scenes that included a woman in a green frock trying to con a wealthy (and handsome!) friend ;-).

    But again, thanks for this very interesting post. The next time I read that scene where Melly receives the news about Ashley's whereabouts I will understand her fears so much better

  2. Now I'm compelled to do a bit of research on the Louisville Military Prison, of which I previously knew nothing. It was apparently located smack in the midst of what is now downtown, near the present convention center and a pricey hotel.


  3. Thanks for this post! I hadn't seen so many photos of the Camp in one place before. My gggg-grandfather, First Sergeant Thomas A. McCullough (Also known as T.A. McCullough and "Uncle Maxey" McCullough) of Haralson, Coweta County, Georgia, and the Fourth Georgia Cavalry was among the batch of first arrivals, having been taken at Lookout in the buildup to Chickamauga. I have been hoping to potentially find a picture of him among Rock Island photos. I wasn't aware that they had been offered early release with allegiance and enlistment. Makes me even more proud to know my forebear had the courage of his convictions, as his oath of allegiance is not dated until after the War's sad conclusion.

  4. If you're interested, the last book I linked to at the end of the post (the one from 1898) is available online in its entirety and has a few other images from Rock Island (some of them including prisoners of war).


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