Remembering the Rock Island Prisoner Barracks

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Rock Island Barracks. We remember this event in conjunction with Veterans’ Day.

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“A Depot for Rebel Prisoners – The Government has concluded to make Rock Island a depot for rebel prisoners and will at once proceed to build prison barracks to accommodate twelve to fifteen thousand of the gentry. We are informed by a prominent military gentleman that it is prepared to make this a permanent depot, and that none but first class substantial barracks will be built. The work of erecting the buildings will be commenced at once, and pushed ahead as rapidly as possible.”

The Daily Democrat and News, July 27, 1863.

The news that a Confederate prisoner of war camp was about to be established in the middle of the Mississippi River (“Rock Island” in this case meant the island, not the city) may or may not have come as a surprise to local citizens by July of 1863. Davenport and surrounding towns had seen the designation of the Arsenal in 1862 and the creation of several local Union military training camps since the start of the war.

In addition, one camp, Camp McClellan, had already been divided to create Camp Kearny, which between April 1863 and April 1866 imprisoned just over 300 members of the Minnesota Territories Sioux tribe captured by the United States Army after the attack on the Lower Sioux Indian Agency in 1862.  So the idea of a prison wasn’t new, either.

On July 29th the Daily Democrat and News reported a site had been chosen on the island near the Colonel Davenport property. This put the prison on the north side of the island facing the Mississippi River and Davenport. Soon work was begun by 150 men to clear timber and build barracks.  Wells were also dug with great difficulty as limestone had to be broken through before the water table was reached.

Along with barracks, the newspaper noted that warehouses to store supplies for the camp were also being erected. A slaughter house was constructed and hogs moved onto the island in preparation for the arrival of prisoners and guards.  It was good timing as one hundred and fifty soldiers from the Invalid Corps arrived on November 13, 1863 in preparation for guarding the camp.

It wasn’t until November 1863 that work began on twelve buildings that would house guards, officers, and administrative offices. The Daily Democrat and News reported on November 20, 1863: “It will be several more weeks yet before everything is ready for the accommodation of the rebels.”

On December 1, 1863 the Daily Democrat and News ran a column describing what still needed to be built in the camp. The list included eight guard barracks; 10 officers’ quarters; headquarters for the Post Commandant, Provost Marshal, and clerical force among positions mentioned; another store house; coal house; and two stables. On December 2nd the Democrat published a call for donations of straw for the bedding of the Invalid Corps guards who had been stationed at the camp since November 13th.

The camp was still not prepared on December 3, 1863, when 468 Confederate prisoners arrived at the camp from the battles of Chattanooga, Tennesee. Most of the new prisoners were originally from Mississippi and arrived ill-prepared for the harsh winter of Illinois. By December 31, 1863, five thousand prisoners were in camp with more coming daily.

The Rock Island Barracks held Confederate prisoners from December 1863 until July 1865. Eventually, it sat on 12 acres of land that included prisoner barracks, guard barracks, officers’ quarters, administration buildings, supply buildings, and several hospitals.

Just over twelve thousand Confederate prisoners were held at the camp and nearly two thousand of them died. They are buried in the Confederate Cemetery on  Arsenal Island. One hundred and twenty-five guards also died at the camp, and are buried in what became the Rock Island National Cemetery, which is still active today.

(posted by Amy D.)

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*Later called the Veterans Reserve Corps.

Sources Used:

Daily Democrat and News, August 11, 1863

Daily Democrat and News, August 18, 1863

Daily Democrat and News, October 23, 1863

Daily Democrat and News, November 13, 1863

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