Friday, June 3, 2011

Illinois Civil War POW Camp - Part 2

Alton Penitentiary and Smallpox Island
This series highlights the four (4) Illinois Civil War POW camps - Camp Butler; Alton Penitentiary; Camp Douglas; and Rock Island.  As mentioned in Part I, Camp Butler - Union and Confederates researchers would be remiss if they failed to discover Civil War POW camp records.  These POW records are especially a good resource for Confederate soldier researchers since there were more than 647,000 prisoners captured during the Civil War. Many were paroled in the field, but 215,000 Confederate soldiers (and citizens) were held in Union prisons and 26,000 died while being held.  Of the 195,000 Union soldiers (and citizens) held in Confederate prisons, 30,000 died while imprisoned. The four Illinois facilities held approximately 53,000 Confederate prisoners of war and as many Union guards passed through the POW camps.

Alton Penitentiary
Alton Penitentiary was built in 1833 with only 24 cells. It's early fortress construction took on the Quaker's idea of incarceration where "penitence" (penitentiary) would prescribe a combination of hard labor and isolation for criminals.  Perhaps, the visionaries realized that located on the Mississippi River between Alton, Illinois and the State of Missouri, just north of St. Louis, that escapes would be common.  However, cells were added and by the close of the Civil War there were 256 cells 4ft'x7ft.

This infamous penitentiary, known for maltreatment, disease and death, was opened to Confederate loyalist in 1862.  The 256 cells held up to 1500 soldiers (some reports claim 1900 soldiers by the end of the war) approximately 1300 Union guards (Alton Telegraph, Nov. 1862).  Prisoners were commonly stacked 3 to a bed.

Records were poorly kept and prisoners were clever in their escapes. Thirty five prisoners escaped through a tunnel August 1862; in 1863 some escaped using a ladder; and a less than successful attempt of overtaking guards in 1864 resulted in 2 escapees. Of the 80 plus prisoners who escaped, few were recaptured.  Approximately 2000 Confederate detainees escaped the Alton facility by death from dysentery, malaria, pneumonia and smallpox. The exact number is unknown, and burial plots were not identified. The smallpox epidemic killed many of the prisoners (6-10 per day) in 1863.  The actual number of prisoners who succumbed to the epidemic is unknown; at best guess 1300-1400. 

Smallpox Island
Sunflower Island, where Abraham Lincoln and James Shields fought a duel, was converted into a place to quarantine patients and bury the dead to prevent spread of the smallpox into the town of Alton.  This small island was located on the Mississippi. Burial plots were not marked and the island was later dredged to build a new lock and dam system in 1938. The island no longer existed by 1940. A monument was erected to acknowledge the Smallpox victims.

Researching The Camp Alton  Interred
The Alton Penitentiary was ordered closed 20 Jun 1865, and torn down in 1870. Researchers can turn to records, diaries and newspaper accounts to learn more of those interred on the penitentiary land or at Smallpox Island.  But if your soldier was one of the last 50 held in Alton Penitentiary, he would have been transferred to the St. Louis Gratiot Street Prison. A great resource: American Civil War Stories.

Union Guard Research
Be sure to look at the following regiment records if searching for Union Guards:
13th U.S. Infantry
77th Ohio Infantry
37th Iowa Infantry
10th Kansas Infantry
144th Illinois Infantry (mostly Alton city residents)

Confederate Prisoner Research
Roll of Honor of Burial Places o f Solders, Sailors, Marines and Army Nurses of All Wars of the United States Buried in the State of Illinois may be found at the Illinois State Archives microfilm 1956.  Confederates are identified as Confederate, Rebel, or CSA.

NARA microfilm, M598 - Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861- 1865Captured confederate sailors information may be found in Microfilm Publication M598, additional information may be found on the NARA blog referencing: Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861 -1865. Alton: rolls 13-20.

For More Information
Kathleen Brandt

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