From the pages of

Civil War prison camp on Arsenal

ARSENAL ISLAND -- On a crisp winter day, the Stars and Stripes lapped softly in the icy breeze coming off the Mississippi River. The sunlight bathed a field of uniform white stones marking the graves of American patriots -- graves many Americans don't know exist.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Todd Mizener

The American flag flies over the hundreds of graves of confederate soliders buried in the Confederate Cemetery on Arsenal Island. The soliders were prisoners of war who died while in captivity on the island. The island housed prisoners for 20 months, starting in December of 1863.

It's not that soldiers in the graves are unknown. Each grave is identified. It isn't that they're historically insignificant. They fought and suffered valiantly.

They were just fighting for what many say was the wrong side.

The Civil War was long ago, and to northerners, far away. However, in 1863, the Union brought the war to a small, rocky island in the Mississippi.

Two days before Christmas, a train rustled into Rock Island and passed over a wooden bridge to the island where a landmark clock tower was being built, and unloaded 468 Confederate soldiers captured in battles near Chattanooga, Tenn.

They were the first prisoners of war incarcerated on the 12-acre Confederate prison camp on the northern side of the island. Before the camp closed 20 months later, 1,964 prisoners died and were buried in the cemetery on Rodman Avenue.

Dan Whiteman is director of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum and resident expert on the cemetery's history. He said it has a fascination for the 50,000 people who visit the site each year.

``The romance of the Confederacy has been, even for northerners, a rather persistent thing,'' Mr. Whiteman said. ``Americans love the underdog. It's interesting to walk through, but it is all the same. That's part of the drama of it, of course.''

The white marble gravestones, in rows of 100, contain only the soldier's name, regiment and grave number. Unlike the rounded stones in the National Cemetery down the road, the tops are pointed. Mr. Whiteman isn't sure why.

``The story among (Confederates) was it was to keep the Yankees from taking their ease'' atop the gravestones, Mr. Whiteman said.

The camp wasn't operating long before a cemetery was needed. The winter of 1863 was exceptionally cold, something Southern soldiers weren't accustomed to.

To make matters worse, prisoners on the first train were infected with smallpox, pneumonia and dysentery. Ninety-eight died within the month. Before spring, the Confederate cemetery held more than 900 graves. Nearly 30 Union guards also died.

The first prisoners to die were quickly buried adjacent to the prison grounds. Not long after, in February 1864, the bodies were moved to the present site to improve sanitary conditions and end the plague. The prisoner death rate then dropped considerably.

In June, the Secretary of War ordered prisoner rations cut in response to conditions Union soldiers faced in the infamous prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

Malnutrition contributed to the scurvy deaths of at least 12 prisoners, and while it remained a problem, the subsequent drop in the death rate belied rumors of starvation.

After the war, prison buildings were razed. Ornate stone officers' quarters were erected along what is now Terrace Drive.

In following years, the camp gained an allegedly unearned reputation as a place of suffering, torture and death. Many referred to it as the ``Andersonville of the North.'' The myth was fed by articles written by Confederate veterans and published in Confederate magazines.

In her epic Civil War novel, ``Gone with the Wind,'' author Margaret Mitchell noted these accounts in a paragraph which claims ``at no place were conditions worse than at Rock Island.'' The fictional character Ashley Wilkes was said to have been held at Rock Island, in the ``hellhole of the north.''

Although camp conditions certainly were not pleasant, many of those ``memories'' were proven false. ``The death rate here was not extraordinary,'' Mr. Whiteman said, ``compared to what the soldiers would have faced in the field.''

While nearly 2,000 Confederate soldiers died at Rock Island, more than 13,700 Union soldiers died in Andersonville.

The Union kept fairly good records of prisoners who came through the camp, which Mr. Whiteman said he refers to often, particularly when he's contacted by prisoners' ancestors, trying to trace their genealogy.

Sometimes, he can't help them, he said. ``They want to know if (their relative) was married, what was his wife's name,'' information that isn't in the records, he said.

Over the years, families of about a dozen of the dead Confederates moved their relatives' bodies from the cemetery to family plots. Most however, remain in the cemetery. On Memorial Day, a Confederate flag is placed at every grave and ``Taps'' is played.

Through it all, the American flag flies. For the Confederates, it's perhaps an insult to forever lie in the shadow of the flag they defied. However, Mr. Whiteman said it is there to claim them as our own, although they died swearing allegiance to another banner.

He said the men are honored as Americans who gave their lives for a cause they deemed sacred.

-- By Marcy Norton (January 22, 1998)

Return to top

Copyright © 1998 Moline Dispatch Publishing Company, L.L.C.
All Rights Reserved

Return to Quad-Cities Online home page.