Rock Island held Confederate prisoners for less than 2 years, from late 1863 until the end of the Civil War in 1865. But even though that Illinois prison is long gone, a surprising controversy lives on.
As late as 1999, for example, Civil War News castigated Rock Island as “the Andersonville of the North,” thereby linking it to a notorious prison camp in Georgia.
The charge is false if not slanderous. While more than 30 percent of the prisoners at Andersonville died there, only 16 percent of the inmates died at Rock Island, and that percentage can be qualified because of a smallpox epidemic introduced by a small group of prisoners.
So, what accounts for the persistent myth of cruel treatment at Rock Island? It’s the result of a slow government response to the smallpox, rash comments by a prison official, the bias of a local newspaper editor, and a few passages in “Gone with the Wind.”
There is no dispute that Rock Island was primitive at best, and many of the prisoners arrived in poor physical condition. By the end of February 1864, smallpox, pneumonia and diarrhea had claimed nearly 700 lives in the camp, guards as well as prisoners.
This is not to say that the prison superintendent, Adolphus Johnson, was indifferent to the crisis. He quarantined infected prisoners and vaccinated the healthy ones. He constructed a hospital to care for those with chronic and infectious diseases, and by July, the epidemic had passed.
But the rumors of mistreatment did not die, thanks to J.B. Danforth Jr., the editor of the Rock Island Argus, who published undocumented stories about the “deliberate” murder of prisoners at the camp. Danforth claimed that prisoners were being starved to death and speculated that disease was rampant on the island.
A steady drumbeat of articles throughout 1864 condemned the prison administrators as little more than war criminals.
Even though Johnson mounted a vigorous defense, the rumors persisted. And in November, he gave momentum to the controversy by insinuating that Danforth was a traitor who should be incarcerated. The superintendent was quickly excoriated in the Argus and other newspapers.
Circumstances on Rock Island changed in 1865. The war ended in April, the prison closed in July, and the property was sold to the Army for the construction of an ordnance arsenal. The barracks were torn down, and all that remained were the graves of 1,960 prisoners and 171 guards, all who were victims of disease.
Interest in Rock Island faded after the war, and statistics revealed that mortality there was far lower there than at all but one Union prison. More important, facts also revealed that the death rate at Rock Island was nowhere close to the horrendous losses at Andersonville.
Although the myth of cruelty on Rock Island was dormant for several decades, it did not die altogether. It took only a few passages from Margaret Mitchell, the author of “Gone with the Wind,” to bring the myth back to life.
It was in her blockbuster novel that Mitchell relayed the news that Ashley Wilkes was not dead, that he was in prison on Rock Island.
“In their first joy,” Mitchell wrote of the Wilkes family, “they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said ‘Rock Island!’ in the same voice they would have said ‘In Hell!’”
Mitchell goes on to repeat many of the rumors that had swirled around Rock Island during the war.
“At no place were the conditions worse than at Rock Island,” she wrote. “Food was scanty, one blanket did for three men, and the ravages of small pox, pneumonia and typhoid gave the place the name of a pesthouse. Three fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive.”
The passages on Rock Island constituted little more than two pages in a novel of more than 1,000 pages, but they became conventional wisdom after the book was published in 1936.
Certainly for those who believed that there was equal nobility in the service of Union and Confederate soldiers in the field of battle, so also apologists for the South argued that there was equal horror in the prison camps of the North and the South.
Although historians have proved this argument to be false, the myth, like the island and the cemetery, lives on. No one said that history was fair.
Note to readers: Timothy Walch is a member of the Iowa Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission and the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.