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 cellblocks of Illinois’ first Penitentiary.
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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.


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