Home Reference & Education The Horrors of Alton Civil War Prison

The Horrors of Alton Civil War Prison


Positioned near the intersection of William and Broadway can be found the remnants of the Alton’s dark fleeting moment of glory. All that remains of Alton’s previous Civil War penal complex is a small state marker and a few leftover bricks derived from the cell blocks of Illinois’ first Penitentiary.

No prison is a pleasurable location to take a vacation to, even if that holiday is escaping from a war zone. As the Civil War waged on, this Union prison acquired a ghastly and lingering reputation as the death center for thousands of Confederate army soldiers taken as prisoner by the opposing Union forces. Their prison conditions were deplorable as the cells were nothing short of breeding grounds for anguish, disease and malnourishment. The pent-up resentment felt by the conflicting forces produced unheard of acts of cruelty among the guards and the prisoners. This prison from its moment of activation endowed a series of horror accounts from those who came home afterwards.

Alton prison was a construction project like no other. It embodied the state’s first penitentiary and opened its doors to receive prisoners in 1833. The men who were incarcerated there would be forced to labor during the daylight in the local quarries while they were housed in their prison cells as nighttime approached. This unique structure was the only Penitentiary in America at the time and was in existence for twenty-seven years before finally closing its doors only to be revived into another life.

The first building of the penitentiary was concluded in 1833 and held 24 cells, however, as further prisoners were incarcerated, funds were made available for expansion with additional cells. As of 1846 there were 96 cells added with more scheduled to follow. At the time of its closing the prison had grown to 256 cells. The actual size of its cells has been determined to be 4 feet wide and a little over 7 feet long. Most reports seem to indicate that there were three men in each of the cells. Even though the quantity of cells had been significantly augmented the prison was still extremely overcrowded and consisted of acute unsanitary conditions. As the year 1841 was ushered in, Dorothea Dix’s reform movement centered upon prisons as they targeted Alton for its unhealthy environment. Her group exposed a grim and horrific picture of rats and vermin while the prison population was continually plagued by various diseases. Although she proposed closing the facility in 1847, it remained open until 1860 when it was finally abandoned.

During the initial years of the Civil War the prison had been transformed into a military post. This demonstrated to be a beneficial advantage for the Army since it was located along the Missouri border making it accessible by river. The original military garrison to be stationed at the former prison consisted of several companies of the 13th U.S. Regulars who were at the time under the command of none other than General William T. Sherman with local troops commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Burbank, a West Point graduate with seasoned infantryman’s experience. In December of 1861 an assignment was given to Lieutenant-Colonel James B. McPherson to scrutinize and provide his recommendations for the possible use of the facilities as a military detention center. The proposed numbers of prisoners were estimated at 1,750 with a final cost of the planned improvements amounting to $2,415. In February of 1862, the first prisoners arrived and the complex was placed under the authority of the 13th U.S. Infantry division with Burbank as the commanding officer. There were several Army units assigned to Alton upon the departure of the 13th Infantry. They were followed by the 77th Ohio Infantry, then the 37th Iowa Infantry, the 10th Kansas Infantry and finally the 144th Illinois Infantry. Of interest is the fact that the Illinois 144th was composed entirely of Alton area citizens.

The prison was constructed as a fortress style and made entirely of stone. The walls attained a height of 30 feet, which were just about escape proof. Since the prisoners were maintained in solitary confinement in most prisons, those in Alton had limited access to the prison yard where the latrines and drinking water was located. As a consequence of this limited freedom the public viewed the prison as extremely humanitarian for its time. Unfortunately for the prisoners, shortly after they had been relocated to Alton the water supply was found to be highly contaminated.

During the subsequent three years there were in excess of 12,000 Confederate soldiers incarcerated within the prison walls. Being a military detention center, it still had a diverse populace with the majority of the prisoners naturally being Confederate soldiers. Common citizens were not above being detained within the confines as well. Several women have been listed for crimes relating to treasonable actions while it is known that two of them eventually died while incarcerated in the prison. Other crimes which would initiate imprisonment were spying, making anti-Union comments, saboteurs, southern sympathizers or those aiding escaped Confederate soldiers. A third group of prisoners held at the penitentiary consisted of the bushwhackers or Civil War guerrillas who were imprisoned by the Union government for acts such as bridge burning or vandalizing railroads.

The conditions found in the prison were exceptionally harsh and oppressive with the death rate at an above average level. Punishments were dealt out ruthlessly for any infraction and these penalties could range from a brutal beating to outward flogging. Being inmates were undernourished and disease ridden, the high temperatures of summer and the bitter cold of winter took a heavy toll on the lives of the prisoners at Alton prison.

It was not unusual for outbreaks of serious consequences to occur. Pneumonia, dysentery, smallpox and rubella were continually taking its share of the prisoners, while scurvy, fever and malnutrition plagued the prisoners on a continual basis. The inmates suffered greatly from a lack of clean clothing, edible food, fresh water and proper medical care. It was the dreaded smallpox, which averaged 6 to 10 deaths daily resulting in prisoners being sent to the quarantine hospital on a Mississippi River island once known as Sunflower Island and later changed to Smallpox Island. The island is now hidden underwater, but previously one could find the graves of 300 Union officers and their prisoners who died of smallpox infections.

The death toll for Alton Prison is estimated at 1500 to 2200 Confederate soldiers. The nearby Confederate Soldiers Cemetery in Alton was never properly tended to and as a result, most of the graves are unidentifiable.

On July 7th of 1865 the prison closed its doors as the last of its inmates were released. The building was eventually torn down and the land reclaimed as a city park. Stones of the buildings within the prison walls ended up in structures located around the Alton area.


Previous articleIndustrial North Versus Agrarian South
Next articleWhy Native Americans were vulnerable to conquest by European adventurers
My name is Joseph Parish. I am also known as "Word Writer", a freelance writer who specializes in a host of subjects from survival and emergency actions to gardening. Over the years, I have found that many people involved in the subject of survival claim an attraction towards the subject they practice. A few of them have really meant it. Fewer still have put their life into it and shown their true feelings about the subject. I attended the American Public University, specializing in Emergency Management and Terrorism. I have written one book on terrorism entitled “The Mind of a Terrorist”, and it is available on Amazon. I was brought up in southern New Jersey and attended school in the Millville area, graduating from the Millville Senor High school in 1966. By the time I graduated, I was hooked upon entering the United States Air Force. I was determined to enter the military and pursue a field of study in the area of electronics. I initially attended a course in Aircraft Radio Repair at Kessler Air Force Base in Mississippi. Later, I was trained as a Ground Radio Repairman. Little did I realize that this course of training would eventually lead him into the Forward Air Control Career field. I remained in the military for 21 years, at which time I visited many foreign countries as well as just about all 50 states in America. In 1987, I decided that it was time to get out of the military and retire from active duty. It was at this time that I made a quantum career leap; combining my, military electronics training with my love of Aircraft, I became employed by TRW Aerospace in Redondo Beach California. The company was involved in developing and manufacturing various space craft units and satellites for the government. I will readily admit that the company was one of the greatest places I had ever worked, and really hated to leave the company, but I decided to depart the area. I have developed many interesting and cherished friendships while learning survival techniques, particularly those that dealt with earthquakes. Unfortunately, the area was not the best place to bring up children in and upon the conclusion of my contract with TRW, I returned to the east coast. Upon my return to the New Jersey area, I began teaching school for several years. I generally taught Junior High subjects, such as science and math. After getting involved in the teaching of young minds, I was informed that a close relative in Florida was ill and required help. Without hesitation, I headed to the sunshine state to assist. While in Florida I was employed as an RF Amplifier Engineer. Eventually the crisis which had brought me to Florida was over, and I was once again heading back up north, only this time to the state of Delaware. Here I worked as a mainframe computer operator for a major chicken producer until I decided that it was time for me to permanently retire. I decided to take a slightly different route. I was attracted to the topic of survival because of my love for the military and my field of work while I was active duty. When 9-11 took place in America, there was a rise in the popularity of survival preparations which led to both government and private citizens being concerned about survival. These people and agencies had the freedom to select the various topics relating to the subject and the followers began to flock to them because of their knowledge and values. By the end of 2007, various internet websites began cropping up relating to survival. One such website was mine. Being a part-time newspaper reporter in New Jersey years ago, I would create my own form of written articles. My first exposure to "survival" came as an Air Force Forward Air Controller (ROMAD) during my 21 years in the military. I have served as a unit Safety NCO, Emergency Preparedness NCO and other related duties. Some of my safety related articles had been published in the Air Force Safety Manual. Over the years I have taken courses ranging from FEMA sponsor classes to “Aircraft aviation” courses in my efforts to become more informed on survival techniques and procedures. I am a firm believer that you must be ready for any sort of emergency and above all you simply cannot rely upon the government to help you during times of crisis. I am a follower of the philosophy that you should continue to learn as much as you possibly can and believe that when you stop learning you are simply dead. I am currently an active volunteer in the Delaware Medical Reserve Corp, participating in the Delaware Bat Monitoring Program and the Terrapin Rescue. I previously was a Red Cross volunteer working with the Emergency Management Section of the organization. My hobby is gardening and I have my own greenhouse. I love experimenting with the propagation of plants. Many of my articles center around the topic of gardening. I look forward to accepting assignments from potential clients. Feel free to contact me at (302) 404-5976.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.