A Civil War scholar sets the record straight on a POW camp in Illinois.
Rock Island Barracks was one of a half-dozen large Northern prisons during the Civil War. Oddly, it was Margaret Mitchell who made it famous. In Gone with the Wind, her character Ashley Wilkes was among the Confederates sent there to await the war’s end, incidentally creating the myth that conditions for POWs in the North were just as bad as those in the South’s notorious camp at Andersonville, Georgia—a myth that lingered until now. McAdams tries to correct the perception: according to him, the death rate on Rock Island was half that of Andersonville, all prisoners there had shelter, and citizens near the camp were generous. Yet there certainly were horrors to be found. The prison, which was built late in 1863 on an island in the Mississippi between Iowa and Illinois, was not nearly ready to receive the 5,000 starving and ill men who were sent the first week it opened, nor to deal with the local political climate. Ice storms hit during the first winter and temperatures dipped below zero; the river froze, coal was scarce. Inmates began to die. Local citizens started a rumor that the prison was a death factory—rumors that seemed confirmed when smallpox made its appearance. Yet more prisoners kept coming. Other problems arose from undisciplined guards and “Copperheads” (Confederate sympathizers) who sneaked onto the island to free the prisoners. Control was lacking and rations were short, but by 1865 it was all over; the prison emptied out and the buildings were used for storage. By 1907, there were few clues to what had happened there. If not for the mention of Rock Island in Gone with the Wind, might have been utterly forgotten.
Civil War buffs will welcome this enlightening chapter. (rare photos and maps)