Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 01/April/Rock Island Prison
The following statement can be vouched for as strictly accurate:
Rock Island Prison, 1864-5.
By Charles Wright, of Tennessee.
I record here my experience in Rock Island Prison, simply as a contribution to history. For the truth of what I state, in some cases I refer to official documents, and in others I refer to thousands of witnesses yet living.
The treatment of prisoners in Northern prisons is a subject that has received little attention from the press, and consequently is little understood. The charges of cruelty to prisoners, made with such confidence against the South, on a recent occasion, for the purpose of political aggrandizement, and which recalls the old story of "Stop thief," where the thief bawled the loudest, makes it necessary in common justice to ventilate the Northern prisons. This could not have been done within the past eleven years for obvious reasons.
The Federal soldier returning home to a land of plenty, his necessities anticipated by benevolent associations, his spirits cheered by the sympathy of a grateful people, and his services rewarded with bounties and pensions by a generous Government, found leisure and encouragement to recount his sufferings and privations to eager listeners, and the air was filled with cries for vengeance on his jailors. But the Confederate soldier returning home from a Northern prison to a land of famine, found his substance wasted and his energies enfeebled; disfranchised and beggared, he forgot his past sufferings in his present wretchedness; he had neither the time to lament, nor the inclination to talk about his treatment in prison; he was thankful if his health permitted him to labor for those dearer to him than himself, and for the cripple and the invalid there was no resource. There was no lack of sympathy, but his friends were the poor. Thus it happened that the cruelty practised in Northern prisons never came to light. The victor monopolized the story of suffering as well as the spoils.
I arrived at Rock Island prison, Illinois, on the 16th January, 1864, in company with about fifty other prisoners, from Columbus, Kentucky. Before entering the prison we were drawn up in a line and searched; the snow was deep, and the operation prolonged a most unreasonable time. We were then conducted within the prison to Barrack No. 52, and again searched—this time any small change we had about our persons was taken away and placed to our credit with an officer called the Commissary of Prisoners. The first search was probably for arms or other contraband articles. The prison regulations were then read, and we were dismissed. Rock Island is in the Mississippi river, about fifteen hundred miles above New Orleans, connected with the city of Rock Island, Illinois, on the East, and the city of Davenport, Iowa, on the West, by a bridge. It is about three miles in length.
The prison was 1,250 feet in length by 878 feet in width, enclosing twenty-five acres. The enclosure was a plank fence, about sixteen feet high, on the outside of which a parapet was built about twelve feet from the ground. Here sentinels were placed overlooking the prison. About twenty feet from the fence, on the inside, was what was called the "Dead Line"—at first marked with stakes, afterwards by a ditch—over which it was death to pass. The barracks were sixty feet from the fence, the width between each barrack thirty feet, and streets one hundred feet wide between each row of barracks. Two avenues, one the length of the prison, and ninety feet wide, the other in length the width of the prison, and one hundred and thirty feet wide, divided the space enclosed, into four equal divisions each containing twenty-one barracks, making a total of eighty-four. These barracks were each one hundred feet long by twenty-two feet wide, and contained three tiers of bunks—platforms of rough plank for sleeping. About fifteen feet of the rear of the room was partitioned off for a cook-room, and was furnished with a stove and boiler. The main room had two stoves for burning coal—this article being cheap and abundant. Each barrack was constructed to receive one hundred and twenty men. The sinks were first erected in the centre of the streets, but afterwards built on the dead line; there being no sewerage, tubs were used, and details of prisoners every morning carried the tubs to the river, a most disgusting duty. Towards the end of the war a sewer was made in one of the avenues extending to the river, the prisoners being employed in blasting rock for that purpose.
The chief executive officers were a commandant of the post and a provost marshal, the latter having the immediate care and government of the prisoners, assisted by a number of deputies. The parapet was first guarded by a regiment of old men, called Greybeards, afterwards by the 197th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and from July, 1864, by the 108th United States Colored Infantry. The duty of calling the roll of prisoners was performed by several companies of the Fourth Veteran Reserve Corps. These men were soldiers who had seen service in various regiments, and on account of wounds or other disabilities were formed into corps for prison duty. Each barrack was in charge of a prisoner appointed by the provost marshal, called the orderly of the barrack. All orders concerning the prisoners were communicated to these orderlies by the provost marshal. The roll was called three times a day, and the barracks inspected every morning. One letter only could be written each week, not to exceed a page, and no subject concerning the prison or its regulations could be referred to. Newspapers were prohibited. The last two precautions were, however, frequently evaded. Thrifty Federal soldiers employed in the prison would receive a number of letters collected by a prisoner, and mail them outside the prison for a fee of twenty-five cents on each letter. Newspapers were brought in by the same parties and sold for twenty-five cents a number. Occasionally they were searched and discovered, and tied up by the thumbs. Frequent searches were made of the barracks for clothing. In these searches the provost marshal's men would carry off whatever they considered surplus clothing, leaving scant wardrobes to those unfortunates who had not prepared for the visit by secreting their extra drawers, shirt, &c. The sutler of the post supplied prisoners who had money to their credit with the commissary of prisoners with such articles as they needed. This was done through orders, the sutler's wagon delivering the goods once a week. This arrangement, however, ceased as regards any article of food, in August, 1864. I refer to the order in another place.
The winter of 1863-4 was intensely cold. During this time some poor fellows were without blankets, and some even without shoes. They would huddle around the stoves at night and try to sleep. The feet of those who had no shoes, or were poorly protected, became sore and swollen, and in one case that I saw, mortification no doubt ensued, for the man was taken from my barrack to the hospital and died in a few days.
The severity of the weather caused cleanliness of person and clothing to be disregarded by some, and as a consequence scarcely a man escaped the itch. Early in 1864 the small-pox broke out in the prison. The authorities were not prepared for the appearance of this fearful disease—the hospitals not being finished. The infected and the healthy men were in the same barrack. The disease spread so rapidly there was no room in the buildings outside the prison, and certain barracks within the enclosure were set apart for small-pox hospitals. Prisoners who had had the small-pox were detailed for nurses to those who were sick. The surgeons vaccinated the men at intervals, but apparently with little effect. The death rate at this time was alarming. On the 9th March, 1864, twenty-nine men had died in the hospital from my barrack, which did not have its full complement of men. I noted the names of the men to that date. They are the following:
R. Shed, T. J. Smith, Allen Screws, D. W. Sandlin, Joe Shipp, D. L. Trundle, J. H. Wood, J. J. Webster, J. J. Akins, Thomas Pace, William Tatum, W. H. Dotson, W. R. Jones, C. E. Middleton, R. R. Thompson, William T. St. John, Samuel Hendrix, Jere. Therman, E. Stallings, E. Sapp, Thomas Burton, M. E. Smithpeter, J. M. Ticer, J. L. Smith, John Graham, T. W. Smallwood, Jonathan Faw, G. L. Underwood, C. R. Mangrum.
Now assuming the barrack contained one hundred and twenty men, which was its full complement, the death rate to March 9, 1864, was twenty-five per cent.
The provost marshal's abstract for May 12, 1865, has the following figures:
|Number of prisoners received,||12,215|
|Entered United States navy,||1,077|
|Entered United States army, (frontier service),||1,797|
|Remaining in prison May 12, 1865,||2,164|
As all the prisoners were discharged in June, 1865, this date (May 12) is near enough for our purpose. It shows that nearly sixteen per cent. died during the eighteen months Rock Island was used as a prison. This number (1,945) includes those who were killed by the sentinels—the killed not being classified by the provost marshal.
The number released (1,386) includes those who having offered to join the United States navy or army were rejected by the surgeons as physically disqualified. More than fifty per cent. of the released were of this class. The balance were principally Missourians, captured during Price's last raid. These claimed to be Union men, and having proved their loyalty to the satisfaction of the Secretary of War, were released by his order. The prisoners transferred were officers originally brought to Rock Island, but afterwards sent to Johnson's Island or other military prisons.
In April, 1864, the sentinels on the parapet commenced firing at the prisoners and into the barracks, and this practice continued while I remained. I am ignorant as to the orders the sentinels received, but I know that the firing was indiscriminate, and apparently the mere caprice of the sentinels. Going to the sinks at night was a most dangerous undertaking, for they were now built on the "dead line," and lamps with reflectors were fastened to the plank fence—the sentinel above being unseen, while the man approaching the sink was in full view of the sentinel. Frequently they would halt a prisoner and make him take off his pants in the street, and then order him to come to the sink in his drawers, (if he had any). I have heard the cocking of a gun presented at myself while going to the sink at night, but by jumping into an alley between the barracks I saved myself the exercise of walking to the sink in my drawers or from receiving the contents of the gun. I find this entry in my diary on June 10, 1864: "Attacked with in the night. Afraid to go near the sink." I cannot say that the sentinels had positive orders to shoot on each occasion, but that they received encouragement to do so, and were relieved of all responsibility for such acts, is certain from the following orders, which were publicly promulgated to the orderlies of barracks by the provost marshal, to wit:
May 12, 1864.—Ordered, that no prisoner be out of his barracks after "taps."
May 13, 1864.—Ordered, any prisoner shouting or making a noise will be shot.
It was noticed and discussed among the prisoners, that the shooting was most violent immediately after a Confederate success. I noted some cases that came under my own observation, but by no means a complete list; in fact, the prisoners became so accustomed to the firing from the parapet, that unless it occurred near his side of the prison, a man would take little notice of it.
|April||27—||Prisoner shot by sentinel.|
|May||27—||One man killed and one wounded in the leg.|
|June||9—||Franks, Fourth Alabama Cavalry, killed last night at barrack No. 12. He was shot by the sentinel on the parapet as he was about to step into the street. His body fell into the barrack, and lay there till morning. The men afraid to go near him during the night.|
|22—||Bannister Cantrell, Co. G., 18th Georgia, and James W. Ricks, Co. F., 50th Georgia, were shot by the sentinel on the parapet. They were on detail working in the ditch, and had stopped to drink some fresh water just brought to them.|
|26—||Prisoner shot in leg and arm while in his bunk at barrack 55.|
During August, and part of September, I was confined to my bunk with dysentery, and have few entries in my diary.
|September||26—||William Ford, Co. D, Wood's Missouri Battery, of barrack 60, killed by sentinel on the parapet. He was returning from the sink, and shot through the body at the rear of barrack 72.|
|26—||T. P. Robertson, Co. I, Twenty-fourth South Carolina, shot by sentinel on parapet, and wounded in the back, while sitting in front of barrack 38, about 8 o'clock this morning.|
|26—||T. J. Garrett, Co. K, Thirteenth Arkansas, shot by sentinel on parapet during the night while going to the sink.|
|27—||George R. Canthew, of barrack 28, shot by sentinel on parapet.|
|28—||Sentinel shot into barrack No. 12 through the window.|
|October||4—||Man killed in the frontier pen by negro sentinel.|
|21—||I was taken out of the prison and paroled, to remain at headquarters of the post.|
In none of the above cases were the men attempting to escape or violating any of the known rules of the prison.
The firing of the 26th September was regarded as the parting salute of the 197th Pennsylvania Volunteers, that regiment being relieved at guard-mount by the 108th United States Colored Infantry.
The first call for prisoners to join the United States service was in March, 1864. It was proposed to release all who offered to enter the Navy, and were rejected by the surgeon. According to the provost marshal's abstract 1,077 recruits were obtained. The next call was on the 11th September, 1864. This was for the purpose of organizing regiments for frontier service, that is, for the Indian country. For a time very few availed themselves of this chance to get something to eat, and repeated calls were made. At length, a separate enclosure being built, it was announced that the gates would be open all night, and candidates would be received at any time. Then a remarkable change took place. "The frontier service became quite popular. Men who had ridiculed others for joining, decamped during the night and enrolled themselves in the frontier service. This latter arrangement partook rather of the character of a private speculation. A certain Judge Petty, of the oil regions of Pennsylvania, came to Rock Island with authority from the President of the United States, and offered a bounty of $100 to each man enlisted, with the assurance that such as were rejected by the surgeon should be released. Each man enlisted was a substitute for a citizen of Venango, Clarion, and other adjoining counties of Pennsylvania, who had been drafted to serve in the United States army. It was reported that these citizens paid $300 each to Judge Petty to obtain a substitute, but whatever he received, I know that only $100 each was paid the enlisted men for the frontier service. Captain H. R. Rathbone, United States army, came from Washington, and mustered the men into service. I was detailed to assist in preparing the muster-rolls, and can vouch for all the foregoing except the $300, which I leave with the citizens of Venango, Clarion, and other counties represented in the war by the prisoners of Rock Island. If the report be true, Judge Petty "struck oil" at Rock Island for 1,797 times $200, or $359,400.
Until June 1st, 1864, no reasonable complaint could be made in regard to the food furnished the prisoners; but from that date until June, 1865, the inmates of Rock Island were subjected to starvation and all its attendant horrors. I know that this charge was denied by the officers of that prison at the very time the atrocity was being perpetrated. God may forgive whoever caused the deed to be done, but surely there is little hope for whoever denies it now. The following is a copy of a circular from the Commissary General of Prisoners, dated June 1st, 1864. It is the ration ordered for each prisoner per day:
|Pork or Bacon.||10 ounces, in lieu of fresh beef.|
|Fresh beef||14 ounces.|
|Flour or soft bread||16 ounces.|
|Hard bread||14 ounces, in lieu of flour or soft bread.|
|Corn meal||16 ounces, in lieu of flour or soft bread.|
|Beans or peas||12½ pounds,||to 100 rations.|
|Or rice or hominy||8 pounds,|
Now all this means only bread and meat—sixteen ounces of the former, and fourteen ounces of the latter; and we will add one-hundredth part of eight pounds of hominy. For let the reader observe that if hominy is issued, rice or peas or beans is not issued. Here, then, we have only three articles of food according to the official document, but in so far as that represents the quantities and the kind of articles issued to the prisoners, it is a fraud; as Paul wrote the, "Behold, before God, I lie not." Here is what the prisoners actually received:
Twelve ounces corn bread, four and a half ounces salt beef (usually unfit for human food). No man can conceive the effect of this diet. To realize what he would eat at the end of a month he must experience this treatment for a month. Did the prisoners eat rats and mice and dogs when they could get them? What would they not eat? The cravings of hunger were never relieved. One continued gnawing anguish, that sleep aggravated rather than appeased was ever present. They did eat rats and mice to my knowledge.
The dogs were missing, and who will doubt that the starved wretches, who ate rats, had feasted on the dogs. What difference is there between my statement and the official circular? I say twelve ounces bread; it says sixteen ounces. I say four and a half ounces salt beef; it says ten ounces salt pork. I say two articles of food, the circular mentions three. The bread we received was made of corn meal, in loaves shaped like bricks, and about as hard. The salt beef had a most offensive odor. An orderly asked an officer of the prison to step into his barrack and smell the beef; he did so, but merely remarked he had often eaten worse. Depravity had reached its limit in his case, for he was doing violence to his stomach in even smelling that beef.
I find this note in my diary July 10, 1864: "Nothing to eat till one o'clock," and again September 18th: "Nothing to eat at all this day." For some reason the bread wagon did not come in; the bread was issued daily, and the meat which was issued every ten days, had been consumed. There is not at first glance very much difference between my statement and the commissary's circular, and for a few days the difference in quantity would be immaterial, but when the quality of the food, and the weary sameness through many months is considered, even the commissary's allowance would have been a sumptuous repast. Think of it for a moment. We will take his bacon, and his beans, and his soft bread, that is all to be sure, but what a meal, when compared with the stinking salt beef, and the hard corn bread.
When the order reducing the ration, dated June 1st, 1864, went into effect, those prisoners who were fortunate enough to have money to their credit with the commissary, could still obtain flour from the sutler, and large quantities were brought in every week. The commissary's journal would prove this, and at the same time show the scarcity of bread within the prison.
Prisoners who had no money wrote to their friends for food; and those who had no friends who were able to send them food, were not all neglected; for the Christian women of the North came to their assistance, with food and clothing; and continued active and untiring, even in the face of official insolence, until the order from the Commissary General of Prisoners, dated Washington, August 10th, 1864, cut the prisoners off from the outside world, and all hope of assistance. No more food from friends; no more flour from the sutler; no more clothing; no prospect of exchange; no hope of release, no more visits from wife or mother. Under these circumstances the wonder is that more men did not join the United States army. Disease followed as a matter of course, and the death rate is fully accounted for.
On the 10th October, 1864, being a British subject, I addressed a protest to Lord Lyons, then the British minister at Washington, from which I make the following extracts:
* * * I further declare that the food issued to us is unwholesome, insufficient and productive of disease; * * * that we are strictly prohibited by circular No. 4, dated Office of Commissary General of Prisoners, Washington, D. C., August 10th, 1864, from receiving, by purchase or otherwise, vegetables or other provisions, in consequence scurvy is prevalent and other diseases generated. * * * Subject as I am to the pangs of hunger, to disease, to a violent death, I appeal to your lordship to demand a mitigation of the rigor of my present situation."
This was made known to the United States Government, by the British minister, in a letter to Mr. Seward, dated October 20th, 1864, in these words: * * * "Wright complains very much of the quantity and quality of the food he gets as being insufficient and generative of disease. I hope that his case may be attended to, and that I may hear something soon upon the subject."
A few days after this I was paroled to assist in the clerical duties of the post adjutant's office, and remained there until released in June, 1865.
It must not be supposed that my correspondence with the British minister left the prison in the prescribed channel. I had tried that, and found that certain letters of mine did not reach him. My communications were smuggled out in the manner I have described in this paper, and sent under cover to friends in St. Louis and Albany, who mailed them. I mention this because the Secretary of War took some credit to himself for liberality in my case, as will be seen from the following extract of a letter addressed to Mr. Seward:
War Department, Washington City,
October 12th, 1864.
* * * * * * * * *
Mr. Wright makes no complaint of harsh treatment, and the papers which he presents show that the officers who have had him in charge have rendered him every facility in submitting his appeal.
* * * * * * * * *
If Mr. Seward was misled by this statement in regard to my treatment, he was certainly undeceived when he received the British minister's note, dated October 20th, of which I have given an extract.
The wretched condition of the prisoners at Rock Island was well known to the citizens of Rock Island City and Davenport.
At the request of Judge Grant of the latter city, on the 20th of September, 1864, I made a faithful statement of the treatment and condition of the prisoners; and for this purpose, in company with others, I visited a number of barracks. The bread and the meat were carefully weighed, and the quality of the food truthfully reported. The judge desired a plain statement, without exaggeration or comment, to use in an effort he was about to make at Washington to ameliorate the condition of the prisoners. As no change for the better took place, the presumption is that Judge Grant did not succeed in his benevolent mission. I have mentioned that the officers of the prison denied the charge of cruelty, at a time when the poor wretches within the walls were sinking under the starvation diet I have described. That denial was made necessary in consequence of the following letter, which appeared in the New York News in January, 1865:
[From a Private Letter.]
Chicago, Illinois, December 27, 1864.
* * * "The condition and suffering of the Rebel prisoners at Rock Island is a source of agony to every heart not absolutely dead to the feelings of common humanity and the scantiest Christian mercy. There are from six to eight thousand confined here. Many have taken 'the oath'—any oath to save themselves from actual starvation. These released prisoners, though liberated at different intervals of time, all tell the same story. The allowance to each man has been one small loaf of bread (it takes three to make a pound), and a piece of meat two inches square per day. This was the rations! Lately it has been reduced. Think of it reduced! All the released ones say that no man can live on the rations given, and that there are men that would do anything to get enough to eat! Such is the wretched, ravenous condition of these poor starving creatures, that several dogs which have come to the barracks with teams have fallen victims to their hunger, and they are trapping rats and mice for food, actually to save life. Many of them are nearly naked, bare-footed, bare-headed, and without bed-clothes; exposed to ceaseless torture from the chill and pitiless winds of the upper Mississippi. Thus, naked and hungry, and in prison, enduring a wretchedness which no tongue can describe, no language tell, they suffer from day to day—each day their number growing less by death—death, their only comforter—their only merciful visitor!
God in heaven! Shall these things continue? Can we hope for success in our cause? Will a merciful and just God bless and prosper it, if such cruel inhumanity is practiced by our rulers? May we not provoke a terrible and just chastisement at His hands? No Christian heart, knowing the facts, can feel otherwise.
Many charitable persons, influenced by no other motives than common humanity and Christian duty, have sent supplies of clothing to these prisoners, but they have not been permitted to reach them. I have heard of sales of such clothing having been made across the river at Davenport, at very low prices. Is it possible that the authorities at Washington know of and approve these things.
A good many have taken the oath, stating afterwards to citizens that they did so really to save them from starvation. I learn that there are about five thousand confined here, who have resolved to die rather than do so. Although they are wrong, is there not a sublime heroism in the adherence of these men, amid such trials, to a cause which they believe to be right?"
This exposure was denounced by a Chicago paper as "An infamous Rebel falsehood," and "an attempt to justify the Rebels in starving our prisoners." The Chicago journalist may be excused on the ground of ignorance, but not so the officers of the prison; as principals or as tools they committed this outrage on humanity for the sake of their commissions, like the Irish jurors portrayed by Curran, "Conscience swung from its moorings, and they sought safety for themselves in the surrender of the victims."
But hunger was not the only cause of suffering, clothing was prohibited. The provost marshal took possession of all boxes and packages addressed to prisoners—these were opened and examined—and until August, 1864, with the exception of some pilfering, usually reached the owner; but after that date, the prisoners were not permitted to receive anything sent by friends or relatives. How much clothing and provisions fell into the hands of the provost marshal and his men after August, will never be known. What they did with the booty may be readily guessed. On the 22d February, 1865, three Confederate officers arrived, and distributed clothing to the prisoners, but the worst part of the winter had then been endured, for want of that covering the jailors had taken away. I have given my own experience until October, 1864, but I know that the suffering was even more terrible during the following winter. In a climate where the well clothed sentinels were relieved at short intervals to prevent their freezing to death, nature demands a generous food to sustain life; but the last winter in Rock Island prison presented a scene of destitution only to be equaled by a crew of cast-aways in the frozen ocean, and this too where the sound of Sabbath bells were heard. It was a pleasant sound to many who felt that their troubles were nearly ended; it seemed a prelude to the melody that awaited them in a better land. But to those who could not die, whose vitality doomed them to suffer, what a mockery the sound seemed to them; what rebellious thoughts of God's injustice took possession of their souls, and would not down while tortured with the cravings of hunger. I have realized these things. I have noted one day that I tasted no food. It was Sunday the 18th September, 1864. I was recovering from a severe attack of dysentery. I was very hungry. The church bells were ringing as I eagerly watched the great gate of the prison hoping it would open, and the bread wagon would come in, but hour after hour passed away, and there was no sign, evening came on and I gave up all hope. I had lingered near that gate all day. Hunger is delirium, and the gospel is not for the famished body. The good men who sometimes preached for us had had their breakfasts. The Government that sent us preachers would not send us bread.