Book Review: The Rock Island Civil War Prison: Andersonville of the North?

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by Ezra Sidran, directed by Ed Isenberg

Heritage Documentaries, Inc., 2120 12th St., Moline, Il., 61265 . 31 minutes . Video. $10.00. ISBN:

Many are they myths of the Civil War, and one of the most enduring is that the Union prisoner-of-war camp at Rock Island, Illinois, was “as bad as” or even “worse than” the Confederate hell hole at Andersonville.  This documentary explores the history of the Rock Island prison and how it acquired its reputation as “the Andersonville of the North.”

The Rock Island Civil War Prison opens the myth, using excerpts from the 1936 novel Gone With the Wind and clips from the 1939 motion picture, which asserted that “three fourths of all the men sent there never came out alive.”  There follows a short critique of this assertion, noting that while death rate from disease among Confederate prisoners at Rock Island, 15.9 percent, was actually less than that for Confederate troops in the field, about 18 percent, and almost half that of Union prisoners held at Andersonville, which was 29 percent.

After that brief introduction, the documentary begins to deal with the history of the camp, in a series of “chapters” that deal successively with different aspects in the life of the camp.  So get a look at the building of the camp, which comprised 80 austere barracks with heating, cooking, and sanitary facilities (all lacking at Andersonville),  plus walls, guards quarters, a hospital, and administrative buildings.  We then get a look at the first batch of 5,000 prisoners to arrive at Rock Island, from Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, using quotations from Union officers and guards, and some from the prisoners themselves, who seem to have found the facilities satisfactory, though in fact the camp was not yet fully completed, lacking a proper hospital.   There follows an account, with rather graphic illustrations, of a smallpox outbreak that ran through the camp in the winter of 1863-1864, as many of the inmates had not been properly vaccinated (a requirement for induction by both the Union and Confederate armies), an epidemic that claimed some 900 prisoners (and some guards), more than half of all prisoner deaths from disease in the 22 months that the camp operated. 

The section which follows is one of the two most important and interesting in the documentary.  It deals with the role of Illinois “Copperheads” in fabricating the nefarious reputation of the prison, and particularly J. B. Danforth, a local newspaper editor, who editorialized about abuse of the prisoners and was the first to claim deaths among them were higher than those among Union prisoners at Andersonville (oddly, his paper published the correct figures!), which touched off a press war with the local Unionist paper, and prompted an investigation from Washington.  As the narrative notes, Danforth’s groundless charges were – and are – often cited by advocates of the “Lost Cause” as “proof” Rock Island was a chamber of horrors, and serves as a reminder that newspaper accounts are not necessarily reliable.

There follows a section on prison life, which seems to have been boring but not arduous, some prisoners making and selling small articles, while others earned a small wage working for the camp administration, so that they were able to buy goods from a sutler or even have their pictures taken. 

We are then treated to a look at the guards, several different regiments passing through the post.  The first three units to perform guard duty at the post were rather poorly disciplined, but there does not seem to have been any systematic abuse of prisoners.  The last regiment to take up the assignment, however, delivered what was from prisoner comments a major psychological blow, the 108th U.S. Colored Troops, served from September of 1864 through the end of the war.

We then have a section on the parole-and-exchange process, and the recruitment of some 2,700 Confederate personnel into the Union forces, as “Galvanized Yankees,” and then a section of the final months of the prison, which closed in mid-1865, when the last prisoners were released.

The final section is titled “The Battle for History.”  It discusses how the myth that Rock Island was “as bad as” or “even worse than” Andersonville was developed during the post-war years.  The narrative fits this into the large picture of the construction of the myth of the “Lost Cause” which is still so strongly held by some.

The Rock Island Civil War Prison uses to excellent effect a variety of excellent illustrations drawn from prisoner sketches, photographs, maps, newspaper engravings, and official plans, combined with some modern video techniques, supplemented by film of modern memorial ceremonies.  The music is also very good, consisting of well chosen recordings of period music, some a century old, plus more recent recordings, and even some composed for the occasion.

This is an excellent documentary, laying out the issues, making use of real evidence, rather than hearsay or tradition, to demonstrate an important point about the history of the Civil War and the construction of memory, and reminding us that despite the hoary adage, history is not always written by the victors.

Note: The Rock Island Civil War Prison is available for $10.00 plus $3,00 for shipping and handling from  Heritage Documentaries or the Rock Island County Historical Society.  It is also for live video streaming from Amazon.

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Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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