Rock Island’s gruesome Civil War prison


Andersonville prison is the most infamous prison camp in the Civil War. But it wasn’t the only Civil War camp to leave a stain on American History. 2000 Confederate prisoners died at Rock Island Prison.


Andersonville prison is the most infamous prisoner of war camp of the Civil War. But it wasn’t the only Civil War camp to leave a stain on American History. On an island on the Mississippi River, between Davenport and Rock Island, IL, sat 84 shanties used as barracks to house over 12,000 Confederate prisoners.

The three miles long by half-mile wide island was originally used as a Union Army Arsenal. However, with an influx of POW captures, the island was transformed into a prison in November 1863.

Prisoner Conditions

The Confederate prisoners captured from battles including Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge were subjected to inhumane conditions. Ultimately, 2000 would die on the island.

The prison’s builder described it as “put up in the roughest and cheapest manner, mere shanties, with no fine work about them.” Life in Rock Island’s Civil War prison was tough.

Temperatures dropped below zero when the first prisoners arrived in December 1863. During the winters, the weather would tumble down to a cruel 30 below 0, while the prisoners froze wearing scant clothing.

Eventually, sanitation became a problem. Smallpox outbreaks spread throughout the close quarters. The soldiers’ food rations were lowered, resulting in scurvy and starvation. The dead were tossed into a mass grave until a surgeon suggested a cemetery for sanitary reasons.

By 1864, the Union built a hospital and installed a sewage system, while converting barracks to quarantine prisoners with smallpox.

Some prisoners risked Alcatraz-like prison escapes.

Photograph shows one identified prisoner on far left with one prisoner directly in front of him possibly identified as Private Claudius Buchanan and six unidentified prisoners, all of the 20th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, who were captured at Missionary Ridge, Tennessee. Rock Island prison.
Sergeant Joseph Kennedy Marshall of Co. D, 20th Tennessee Infantry Regiment, with prisoners at Rock Island Prison, Illinois. 1863. Source: LOC

Rock Island’s Prison Site Today

When the war ended in 1865, the prison was abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. Today, the island is called Arsenal Island and houses the biggest arsenal in the United States. The only remnants of the gruesome camp are the Confederate cemetery and the Rock Island National Cemetery, which contains the remains of over 18,000 Union soldiers.

Other Civil War stories:

Jesse James during the Civil War

General Grant’s treatment of Jews during the Civil War


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