A Brief Timeline of the Rock Island Prison Barracks
Original Author: Jenna Bounds, ENG348 FL09

On December 3, 1863, the very first group of Confederate soldiers arrived at the Arsenal Island Civil War Prison. That arrival date was certainly unfortunate for those prisoners, considering the fact that the prison in Rock Island was very ill-prepared for their arrival. They were lacking many essential supplies, like water, and there was a shortage of clothes and blankets for the arriving prisoners (34-35). This was a big problem, because December in Rock Island never is pleasant, and that year’s winter would become particularly unbearable, as the end of the month would soon prove.

Despite the Arsenal’s own problems, many of the prisoners brought their own problems with them, one of which was especially severe. A group of prisoners from Kentucky was transported to the Arsenal in December of 1863, and they had brought smallpox with them. Three days after their arrival, on December 6th, there were already cases of smallpox evident (50). Even when a skilled doctor is available to treat the disease, it is a dangerous threat. But the threat of disease on the Arsenal was surely multiplied because of the inadequacy of the surgeon on the island at that time, T.J. Iles, who was “an old man … completely bewildered … without the slightest idea of his duty” (51). For the month of December, it was only Iles and two assistants who were caring for the entire population of 6,000 prisoners, and nearly 800 of those prisoners were ill by the middle of the month. When a new, better surgeon named Temple arrived at the Arsenal prison on December 20th, he was astounded at the condition of the men he found. The illnesses that were recorded included “diarrhea and pneumonia …typhoid, purpura [which has to do with abnormal condition of blood or blood vessels], rheumatism, bronchitis, tuberculosis, syphilis, inflammation of both the bowels and the brain, congestion of the brain and lungs, softening of the brain, erysipelas …” (52).

If the smallpox epidemic and other illnesses weren’t bad enough, December 29th would prove to be the ‘last straw.’ That day brought about a “historic storm” for the QC area, with a combination of snow and rain for 48 hours straight, coupled with temperatures in the -20 range (45). This intense storm, along with the utter and complete lack of necessities the prisoners were experiencing at the prison was the recipe for disaster – and lots of deaths. Frostbite set in quickly for the prisoners who didn’t have enough bedding, blankets or heat to protect them from the elements. The storm only made illnesses worse and helped them to spread more rapidly. Sicknesses like pneumonia and diarrhea had claimed 86 lives before the new year arrived, and in the first month alone of the new year, January of 1864, 232 prisoners perished. May of those who died froze to death in the subzero temperatures (47).

In February of ’64, a young new surgeon, Clark, was assigned the task of coming to the Arsenal prison to inspect the conditions of the sick in the prison and hospital (and suggest changes to be made as he saw fit) (55). When he arrived he was appalled to find 38 men with smallpox living in the barracks with the other prisoners (instead of in quarantine which would’ve been the appropriate thing to do with smallpox patients). The general condition of the place was deplorable to Clark; he immediately began demanding that things change. The biggest issue Clark had was the hospital accommodations – mainly, there were none. He said a hospital was an absolute necessity to house the ill on the Arsenal, and he promptly submitted a proposal for one which would hold 700 beds and cost $18,000 (56). The man who would have to approve the plan, the Commissary General of Prisoners, was William Hoffman. He had always been very careful with the money and supplies for the prison camp, but he soon acquiesced to some of Clark’s suggestions, and conditions in the barracks began to improve mildly (but slowly). At first Hoffman refused to spend the $18,000 for the hospital, but by March 4 of 1864, when as many as 25 new cases of smallpox were reported in a single day, he finally gave in (61). When the weather began to improve that spring, the work on the hospital started to take shape (83). By that time, there were over 7,000 men living on the island (85). Of course, as the Confederates began experiencing more and more defeat, that number grew; by June of 1864 there were more than 8,600 prisoners at the Arsenal prison (100).
June through November of 1864 was the time period at the prison when food was most scarce. Prisoners who had their rations cut back often resorted to hunting and eating rats that ran about the compound. When the rat supply ran short, dogs who made their way into the camp were the next unfortunate victims (149-150). Many men starved and those who didn’t die from hunger were emaciated because of it.

With the year winding down, the camp was releasing more and more prisoners as well. In October alone, 2,294 prisoners were discharged from the camp. Between that time and July 7 of 1865, when the last two prisoners walked free from the compound, the problems already discussed continued to plague the unfortunate men in the prison, leaving the Rock Island Arsenal with a seedy reputation around this area and elsewhere. Records indicate that as many as 12,000 prisoners of war lived in the prison during its lifetime, and there are markers for 1,960 graves on the island, although those numbers are almost certainly skewed. Regardless of the accuracy of the facts we have, it is certain that many men lived and died in harsh conditions at the Arsenal prison. Although the prison wasn’t the worst of the Civil War, it certainly wasn’t the best. The last of the original buildings was demolished in 1907, but the stories that came from the island remain. They serve as a dreary reminder of the suffering that thousands went through during those painful few years in American history.

Works Cited
McAdams, Benton. “Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison.” Northern Illinois University Press (Dekalb: 2000). Print.