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The north’s Andersonville

February 4, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

The American flag blows in the breeze coming off the Mississippi River at Arsenal Island, Illinois. Sunlight reflects down on a field of uniform white stones marking the graves of soldiers many American's don't know exist. The soldiers are known, each grave is identified. It isn't that they're historically insignificant. They fought and suffered valiantly. It's that they were fighting for what many say was the wrong side, and ended up in a northern prison for it.

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 unloaded 468 soldiers, confederates captured in battles near Chattanooga, Tennessee. 5,000 more would soon swell the population of Rock Island prison in that month alone. Before the war was over there were over 12,000 prisoners imprisoned there during the war.

The prison was built on a 12 acre island. Orders were that the barracks should be put up in the roughest and cheapest manner. So, six rows of fourteen buildings were erected, thirty feet apart. The stockade fence enclosing the site was twelve feet high with a broad walkway along the outside, four feet from the top, with sentry boxes every hundred feet.

Temperatures when the prisoners began arriving in December 1863 were below zero and sanitation was deplorable. Disease broke out quickly, including smallpox, which killed hundreds in the first few months of the prisons existence. Unfortunately when the prison was constructed, there were no plans for a hospital; consequently the sick had to be left in the barracks among the healthy. Before long there was an average of 250 deaths a month in the first four months of operation.

In June of 1864 the government ordered the rations be cut at Rock Island in response to the treatment of Union prisoners at Andersonville. Many took the oath to the Union to save themselves from starvation. Malnutrition and scurvy resulted from the cut in rations and greatly contributed to the death toll.

In the years following the war the camp maintained the reputation as a place of suffering, torture and death. In fact, in the epic novel "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell wrote "at no place were conditions worse than Rock Island". The fictional character Ashley Wilkes was said to have been held at Rock Island in the "hellhole of the north".

Nearly 2,000 prisoners died at Rock Island (compared to 13,700 Union soldiers at Andersonville) and most are buried in the cemetery there. Through it all, the American flag flies. For the Confederates it's perhaps an insult to lie in the shadow of the flag they defied, but the men are in fact honored as Americans who gave their lives for a cause they deemed sacred.



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