The Alton penitentiary was the first state prison built in Illinois in 1830-31. It was opened in 1833, a city on the Mississippi River. It was too near the river and in an undrained and ungraded area, and the prison aroused much criticism. There was an investigation, resulting in a decision to abandone the operation as soon as a new prison could be completed at Joliet. It was closed in 1860, when the last prisoners were moved to a new facility at Joliet. By late in 1861 an urgent need arose to relieve the overcrowding at the Union's Gratiot State Prison.
On December 31, 1861, Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck, Commander of the Department of the Missouri, ordered Lt-Col. James B. McPherson to Alton for an inspection of the closed penitentiary. Halleck asked Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas for authority to take over the abandoned penitentiary at nearby Alton, Illinois, provided he could obtain the consent of the state governor, Richard Yates. Thomas gave permission and Yates gave consent.
McPherson reported that the prison could be made into a military prison and house up to 1,750 prisoners with improvements estimated to cost $2,415. With the Joliet facilities in use just before the Civil War, the abandoned Alton Prison was taken over by authorities early in 1862 for use as a 'military detention camp".
The first prisoners arrived at Alton Prison on February 9, 1862 and members of the 13 th U.S. Infantry were assigned as guards, with Lt. Col. Sidney Burbank commanding. By February 12, the prison was already overcrowded.
The prison had a main, 3-story penitentiary building containing 256 cells. Each cell measured about 4x7 feet. There were also 5 large rooms divided by partitions, this provided 2 enclosures each. Of the 2 enclosures, one measured 7x4 feet and the other one was 20x4 feet.There were several other buildings in the yard, enclosed by a large stone wall. One of the buildings was a 2-story wood-frame measuring 46x97 feet on the first floor and 46 sq. feet on the second floor. There was an old 2-story stable measuring 29x49 feet on each floor. Two other buildings were used for confining Union troops held under court-martial, 50x103 foot building, and some civilian prisoners, 50x36 foot building.
The maximum capacity was estimated at 800 prisoners. Throughout most of the war, it held between 1,000 and 1,500 prisoners. By 1865, it held nearly 1,900 prisoners.
During the next 3 years over 11,764 Confederate prisoners would pass through the gates of the prison. Of the 4 different classes of prisoners housed at Alton, Confederate soldiers made up most of the population. Citizens, including several women, were imprisoned here for treasonable actions, making anti-Union statements, aiding an escaped Confederate, etc. Others, classified as bushwhackers or guerillas, were imprisoned for acts against the government such as bridge burning and railroad vandalism.
The prison hospital began as a room in the main prison building. As illness among the prisoners increased, the hospital grew and included 2 converted workshops in the prison yard. The bodies of the dead prisoners were kept in the prison deadhouse until they could be buried.
LIFE & CONDITIONS:
Most of the prisoners remained in their cells and had limited access to the prison yard. Those confined in the buildings of the yard were allowed certain periods for outside recreation.
The prison did not have a regular water supply. A well was located on the prison grounds, but as soon as the first prisoners were transferred in, the well-water was discovered to be non-potable. A system was developed in which water from the Mississippi River would be hauled in casts back to the prison.
Heat was supplied wood-burning stoves set up in the hallways of the main buildings and gaslights were used for light. The buildings in the prison yard had stoves in the rooms for heat and coal-oil lamps used for light.
Conditions in the prison were harsh and the mortality rate was above average for a Union prison. Hot, humid summers and cold Midwestern winters took a heavy toll on prisoners already weakened by poor nourishment and inadequate clothing. The prison was overcrowded much of the time and and sanitary facilities were inadequate. Pneumonia and dysentery were common killers but contagious diseases such as smallpox and rubella were the most feared. The bad sanitation produced a small-pox epidemic that raged for weeks, When smallpox infection became alarmingly high in the winter of 1862 and spring of 1863, a quarantine hospital was located on an island across the Mississippi River from the prison. The smallpox caused 6-10 prisoners to die daily.
Fearing that the disease might spread to the town, Alton's citizens demanded that ill prisoners be removed from the city area, and many were taken to the north end of McPike's Island in the Misissippi River. McPike's Island was a small uninhabited isle in the Mississippi River directly across from the prison. There was a deserted summer cottage that been converted to a hospital pest house, a ward to quarintine those having highly contagious diseases. The ward soon became overcrowded.
There is not any records kept of deaths at the prison or on the island, known by locals as "smallpox island", but it was estimated that several thousand Confederates were buried on the island in 1863-1864, and many were buried in the Confederate Soldiers' Cemetery in North Alton. Up to 300 soldiers and prisoners that died there, and were buried on the island, which is now underwater. About 1,534 prisoners died there. An additional number of civilians and Union soldiers were victims of disease and illness.
There were constant escape attempts from the prison, some successful. On November 17, 1862, after a fire was set, a group of 4 prisoners got over the wall during the confusion. They used a braided bedclothes cord tied to a ladder against the outer prison wall.
On the night of July 25, 1862, Col. Ebeneezer Magoffin of Missouri and 35 other prisoners crawled into a tunnel they had cut through 8 feet of masonry and excavated for 50 feet, only 3 feet below the the ground surface; then they cut through the 3-ft. thick limestone foundation of the outer prison wall. They used a herd of cattle in the area to cover there escape. Only 8 were recaptured. Because of this, Burbank and the 13th Regiment were transferred to the front-lines and the 77th Ohio Volunteers replaced them as guards, with Col. Jesse Hildebrand commanding.
During the war several different units were assigned to serve as guards at Alton. The 13th U.S. Infantry was followed by the 77th Ohio Infantry, the 37th Iowa Infantry, the 10th Kansas Infantry and the 144th Illinois Infantry. Formed at Alton specifically to serve as prison guards, the Illinois 144th was almost completely made up of Alton area residents.
The prison closed July 7, 1865 when the last prisoners were released or sent to St. Louis. As the war closed, the prison was evacuated; later it was demolished, the buildings torn down. Over the next decades, and the land was eventually used by the city as a park.