This is the first article in a series of six articles looking at 160 years of the history of Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. The first article will look at the arsenal from its inception as a military fortress until the end of the Civil War. The second article will focus on the role of the arsenal in supplying the army during the Spanish-American War, and in the lead up to World War I. The third article will look at the history of the arsenal from 1917 to 1942. The fourth article will look at the arsenal during World War II. The Second War and the Korean War. The fifth would look into the arsenal from the mid-1950s until the end of the Cold War. The last article will focus on the Gulf War to the present.
Rock Island Arsenal, IL. On May 10, 1816, the US Army established a fort on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River known as Rock Island. The new facility, named Fort Armstrong after John Armstrong, Secretary of War under then-President James Madison, was built as part of a series of Western Frontier Defense outposts established after the War of 1812.
In 1832, the fort became the logistic headquarters of the US Army during the Black Hawk War. After the war ended, the fort fell into general neglect, and was largely abandoned by the army by 1836. However, the fort is still a federal reserve.
On July 11, 1862, the deserted fort and the entire island were renamed the Rock Island Arsenal by an act of Congress Establishing a National Armory and Depot for the United States On September 1, 1863, the grounds were cleared for the First Building.
Rock Island was chosen as the site of the National Arsenal due to its strategic location in the Mississippi River and the readily available source of the river’s natural strength. Brigadier General. General George D. Ramsay, president of Ordnance, explained this in a letter to Edwin Stanton, the U.S. Secretary of War, in 1864.
From a military point of view, it is completely safe from the enemy advancing either by lakes or by a river. Supplies from it can be transported in any direction and in any season of the year. It is in the middle of a country teeming with coal and wood, especially adapted to agriculture. The site is high above the floods of rivers, the climate and situation are healthy; While the island is well located to secure it from surprise attacks, it is close enough to the cities of Rock Island, Davenport, and Moline to provide ample accommodations for all necessary personnel.”
From 1863 to 1865, the arsenal played two important but largely different roles in the Civil War. The first, as mandated by Congress, was to serve as a shipping and warehousing supply center for Union forces; The second served as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers.
While Rock Island was not intended to be a prisoner of war camp, it was an ideal location. The island was far from combative, owned by the government, sparsely occupied, and safe.
Reynolds, in August 1863, by orders of Brig. General Montgomery C. Meggs, the U.S. Army Logistics Commander, began surveying and building a camp to hold 10,080 prisoners of war.
However, Union victories during the summer and fall of 1863, combined with the overcrowding in existing POW camps, forced the Rock Island prison barracks to be occupied before the camp was ready to accommodate prisoners.
The first 468 prisoners arrived in December 1863. They had been captured at the battles of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee the previous month. By the end of the month, there were approximately 5,600 prisoners held on Rock Island.
The rapid influx of prisoners, many of them sick with various diseases, into an unfinished camp meant that conditions were not great at first. According to a 2014 article published in the Des Moines Register, the camp was “rudimentary at best, and many prisoners arrived in poor physical condition.”
Complicating matters further for the prison administration, western Illinois was dealing with one of the worst winters on record. Low temperatures and a lack of supplies meant that the camp ran out of blankets and warm clothes, as well as fuel to heat stoves in the barracks.
Over the next few months, however, the prisoners’ conditions generally improved as they received medical care and adequate food and clothing.
The prisoners were allowed a great deal of freedom inside the camp. They were allowed to read newspapers and books, exchange letters with their families and friends back home, and receive care packages. They also received the same shares as the Union soldiers guarding them. The food rations the prisoners got were so good that many of them started to gain weight and a diet of 3/quarters of the rations had to be followed to help control the weight gain.
Many prisoners also made ornaments to sell to the local community, or earned money to help build the camp’s tank and sewage system. The prisoners were paid a biscuit that they could use to purchase “luxury” items such as cards, tobacco, and other amusements from local tailors who were visiting the camp.
Illness was always, often a losing battle for both the captives and the guards. By early 1864, nearly 700 prisoners and guards had died due to an outbreak of smallpox. In response to the outbreak, the director of the prison, Colonel Adolphus Johnson, quarantined sick prisoners, and built a hospital on the grounds, as well as an insect house to quarantine sick prisoners. As a result of these efforts, the smallpox epidemic ended within a few months.
Although Johnson and his guards did their best to treat the prisoners humanely, Rock Island earned an unfounded notoriety as a hell pit, thanks to the efforts of a local newspaper editor and author.
Johnson’s efforts to attend to his charges were not enough for JB Danforth Jr. Rock Island Argus editor. According to a Des Moines log article, Danforth published “undocumented stories of the ‘willful’ killing of prisoners in the camp” through starvation and disease. Danforth was against the war, targeting prison as the focus of his anti-war efforts.
Over the next year, Danforth continued to publish articles about the camp; Even if they went so far as to suggest that the supervisor and the guards were war criminals.
After the war, as the myth of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” began to take hold in the South, rumors about the horrific conditions at the Rock Island Barracks continued to circulate as former Confederate prisoners on Rock Island began telling stories about the camp. However, these stories should be taken with caution because historical records do not support most of the claims.
The Cause of the Lost Confederacy attempted to portray the cause of the war as heroic and fought to protect its economy and people from northern aggression. It was also claimed that the Confederate states, which had greater military morals and skill then the North, only lost due to the Union having more industrial capabilities. Modern historians have largely lost the credibility of this movement.
In 1936, Margaret Mitchell reintroduced the idea of alleged brutality in prison barracks to a new generation of Americans. In her bestselling book, “Gone with the Wind,” she referred to the camp as “Andersonville of the North” and repeated the many rumors about RIA imprisonment spread by those wishing to rewrite the Confederacy as, “a noble cause.”
Andersonville Prison was a Confederate POW camp best known for being the most famous of any Civil War POW camp, due to the guards’ brutality, overcrowding, and a 27% death rate from disease, starvation, and exposure.
In Mitchell’s book, Confederate soldier Ashley Wilkes is captured by the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to Rock Island as a prisoner of war. Mitchell wrote that the Wilkes family, while relieved that he was alive, were terrified of being sent to Rock Island, where he was seen by many citizens of the Confederacy as hell on earth.
Conditions were nowhere worse than on Rock Island, Mitchell wrote in her account. “The food was meager, and one blanket was enough for three men, and the damages of smallpox, pneumonia, and typhoid gave the name of House of Insects. Three-quarters of the men sent there did not come out alive.”
Historical records prove that Mitchell’s writing about 75% of the death toll is incorrect. During its two years of operation, 12,192 Confederate prisoners of war were held on the island. Of these, 5,581 prisoners volunteered to join the Union as Yankees movers, and died 1964. A cemetery, which still stands today, was established to bury them on the grounds of the arsenal.
With the end of the Civil War, a national cemetery was established on the arsenal. The first soldiers detained here were Union soldiers who died while serving as guards. Since then, the cemetery has expanded to 66.8 acres and is the final resting place for soldiers who have served in each conflict since.
After the camp was closed in July 1865, the barracks were demolished and building an arsenal of ordnance resumed. All that remains of the POW camp at the Rock Island Arsenal today is the Confederate cemetery and a historic plaque on the corner of Blunt Drive and East Street.
Information for this article was found in the Rock Island Arsenal archive.
|Announcement date:||06.02.2022 14:25|
|Site:||Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, United States|
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