Rock Island was one of the largest and most notorious Union prison camps during the Civil War. The prison was opened in November 1863. The first groups of prisoners arrived at the prison on December 3, 1863. There were 5,592 prisoners in all. They were from Camp Douglas and a captured Confederates from the battles at Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.
Rock Island was a government-owned island in the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois. The island was 3 miles long and 1/2 mile wide, with a solid foundation of limestone rock. In 1862, the island was converted into an Union arsenal. The site on the island for the prison was at the center of the north side.
The prison consisted of 84 barracks surrounded by a rough board fence. It was described by their builder as "put up in the roughest and cheapest manner, mere shanties, with no fine work about them." Each barrack was to be 100-feet long, 22-feet widw, and 12-feet high wit 12 windows, 2 doors, and 2 roof ventilators. At the west end of the barrack was a kitchen or cookhouse that was 18-feet long. The remaining part of the barrack was to be the sleeping/living quarters for the prisoners. Each barrack would have 60 double bunks and would house 120 prisoners. The barracks were built anywhere from 1 foot to 3 feet above ground. The planned capacity of the prison was to be 10,080 prisoners.
There were 6 rows of 14 barracks, built 30-feet apart, facing 100-foot wide streets. The fence surrounding the prison was to be 12-feet high with a boarded walkway along the outside, 4-feet from the top, with guard boxes spaced out every 100 feet. Double-gate sally ports were built on the east and west ends of the prison and were the only openings into the prison. Guardhouses were built outside of the fence at each gate.
In early 1864, a few barracks in the southwest corner of the prison were turned into the hospital barracks. Also, some "pesthouses" were built to house prisoners who got smallpox.
LIFE & CONDITIONS:
The water supply and drainage were deficient, creating a sanitation problem. Yet, even though the new camp was not ready, 5,000 Confederate prisoners were delivered there in December 1863, when the temperature was 32 degrees below zero. The prisoners were immediately beset by a smallpox epidemic that sickened thousands and killed more than 600 within 3 months.
Perhaps because of the smallpox outbreak and its attendant publicity, conditions improved, with laundries, sewers, and a large hospital being built. Prisoner laborers were paid between 5 cents for for laborers and 10 cents for mechanics, per day, allowing them to buy food, and packages from home supplemented their clothing allowance.
In 1864, with the population increasing, the daily rations began to suffer and get smaller. Rations were issued in bulk at the prison. Each company of prisoners received 10 days ration evry 10 days instead of a daily ration every day. In every barrack, there was a 40-gallon cauldron was placed in each cookhouse. The prisoners cooked their own food. Water was supplied by a steam-pump, which drew water from the river nearby. Whenever the pump malfunctioned, the water would come from a small artesian well in the prison compound. Each barrack had 2 coal burning stoves used for heat.
By late 1864, conditions at the prison became even worse. A small marsh formed at the southwest corner of the prison because of poor drainage. This was a breeding ground for disease. Some Northern newspapers compared Rock Island prison to the Andersonville prison of the South. The prison had a "dead-line" inside the prison compound. Prisoners who crossed it would be shot regardless of any reason.
Between February and March 1865, over 3,000 prisoners were exchanged and released from the prison. The remainingprisoners were released on parole throughout May, June, and July.
Out of the 12,400 men confined during Rock Island's 20-month operation, 1,964 prisoners and 171 guards died from disease. This was a death rate of about 16% of the total population.