Alton's Disaster in War Between the States

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Alton's Disaster in War Between the States - A-8 ALTON EVENING TELEGRAPH fAttmOAV, OCTOBER...
A-8 ALTON EVENING TELEGRAPH fAttmOAV, OCTOBER 1,1966 Alton's Disaster in War Between States EDITOR'S NOTE: This article U • departure. It is written to capture a flavor—to focus on a moment In Alton history without the restrlc- tloris usually Imposed on news features features of this type. The reader will have no difficulty recognizing fact here, nor will he give historical valua to the touches the writer has devised to make the old prison live again. Uriah Stewart actually lived and Is buried In North Alton. The events that happened to him are real, though telescoped for facility of handling.) By DON MORRISON Telegraph Staff Writer A 22-year-old Confederate infantryman, infantryman, Uriah Stewart, watched the wooded river banks below Alton drift by him as he stood a captive on the steamboat Artemus Lamb. One year before, the Artemus Lamb had made the weekly Alton-to-Paducah run loaded with dry goods — barrel staves and Altonians. Today, July 31, 1863, the twin smokestacked river river boat was bearing 200 prisoners prisoners of war. Stewart had heard of Alton before his capture. While squirming in a one-room elementary elementary school at Crockett's Bluff, Ark., he learned about a meddling newspaper editor who was shot in Alton for writing against slavery. While crouch- Ing in a narrow trench near Milford, Ky., before his capture, capture, Stewart had overheard a comrade say he would rather be killed than captured and sent to Alton. There was a Union Union prison in Alton, the soldier had told him. All 200 prisoners in the boat knew that the prison would be the end of their steamboat ride. They had not been officially notified of the destination, but Union guards liked to trade in- rormation for money and jewelry. jewelry. One such broker, a member of the 13th Illinois who claimed claimed he had lived near Alton, told Uriah the prison had once been a state penitentiary. "But they closed it because of the rats," the guard said. "Some female from out East named Dorothy Dix walked right into the state legislature one day back in '47 and said those poor old thieves and murderers murderers at Alton were sufferin' terrible," he explained. "That place was a high class hotel in '47 compared to what it is now. But, you'll see soon enough." The Artemus Lamb steamed steamed into Alton that day. The flat wooded river banks below the city had given way to steep hills covered with the unpainted unpainted wooden stores, houses and warehouses of Alton. The town had survived a frantic frantic exodus of business and industry industry following Elijah P. Lovejoy's Lovejoy's murder. Now, with an impressive impressive population of 9,000, Alton Alton was in the midst of unprecedented unprecedented prosperity. Altonians believed their city would soon replace St. Louis as the most important metropolis on the Mississippi. Stewart noticed a long, low stone fortress that stood near the river in a corner of the town. There was the prison. It measured nearly 100 yards on a side and its 30 feet high walls were broken only by occasional narrow, paneless windows. After Stewart's boat docked, he was herded single-file with his fellow prisoners down a gangplank and between two lines of Union soldiers to the prison gates. Once inside the walls, Stewart Stewart and a dozen of his fellow soldiers were prodded by an elderly elderly Union guard across two acres of dust that served as the prison yard. Small groups of ragged inmates inmates lounging in the sun glared glared at Stewart's group as it crossed the yard. The veteran prisoners' unwashed uniforms had long begun to deteriorate past the point of any usefulness except to accent their misery. Almost all of them wore long, scraggly beards. Stewart saw one nearly naked naked man silently retching. The wretch lay doubled over in a ditch near a corner of the yard. Stewart never saw him alive Lower Alton In 1861 Showing The Old Penitentiary again. He died several hours later of acute amoebic dysentery. dysentery. Stewart saw another man plucking gnats out of a festering festering wound in his right foot. Several prisoners sat combing lice from their beards or picking picking at scabs on their scalps. The youth expected to be housed in a cell, but when he was led to the third floor of the main cellblock, he saw an endless endless row of makeshift wooden bunks stacked three tiers high down a long narrow corridor. There were cells along one side of the corridor, but they were already filled with listless prisoners. prisoners. "You three sleep there," the old guard said and pointed to a single greasy, straw-filled mattress mattress on the top tier of one of the bunks. It had been over a month since Stewart had last slept on his soft bed roll, so he didn't mind sharing a real bed with two other men. He brushed brushed mouse droppings from the mattress and settled down to prison life. • • • Stewart had a sweetheart back home in Arkansas but she began to fade from his thoughts after a month in the Alton penitentiary. Dreams of food were taking her place. The youth had been in cap- tivtiy for two months now — one month spent in cattle cars and makeshift prison camps while being shipped to Alton, and one month at the prison itself. itself. He was seldom fed while in transit and never had more than one meal a day in prison. prison. So far he had been spared from the scurvy and anemia that struck many of the inmates inmates at Alton. But he was not spared hunger. Alton had no food shortage. The rich farmlands of surrounding surrounding regions had already made the city as important a produce and livestock center as St. Louis. But a tightfisted businessman businessman named Samuel Buckmaster Buckmaster was the prison's warden. Buckmaster was not a military military man. He was a politician- promoter, and had been leasing leasing the prison from the state and farming out the convicts for a profit from 1846 until 1860, when the state abandoned abandoned the structure. He still held the lease when the Union Army decided to fill the prison with Confederate soldiers in 1861. It was said that he influenced the decision. The Army paid Buckmaster a flat sum of $20,000 a year with which to maintain the prison and care for the prisoners. Any money left over, after paying a part-time physician and providing providing a watery stew, was his to keep. It was said that Buckmaster Buckmaster became a rich man during during the war. On some days Buckmaster's cooks did not have to prepare any meals for the prisoners. Col. Jesse Hildebrand of the 77th Ohio, the prison commander, commander, was respected by his superiors superiors as a ruthless "secesh" hater. When the inmates caused caused trouble, he canceled their rations. Two weeks after Stewart arrived arrived at Alton a heavy rain turned the dusty prison yard in- BUCKMASTER ... he had a tight fist to a swamp. Shortly after the rain had subsided, a strong wind blew the Union flag off its pole and into the mud. Two dozen ragged inmates rushed out of the cellblock and began to trample the flag in the mud. They were singing "Dixie" "Dixie" as they trampled, but a prison prison sentry heard them and shot one of the demonstrators through the head. The rest fled. Col. Hildebrand ordered all meals stopped for a week because because of the incident. Twelve prisoners died during t h e period. period. Stewart's bunkmates, two cheerful fellows from the Blue Ridge Mountain region of West Virginia, liked to enliven the early days of starvation with vivid vivid descriptions of the tables their mothers used to set. Detailed accounts of golden- crusted fried chicken, light brown chicken gravy with specks of pepper floating on top, buttery mashed potatoes and chewy biscuits, hot apple pie and gallons of fresh milk, all helped in some inverse way to buttress their morale. Stewart reveled in these delusions delusions for about a month. Then he began to realize that his inadequate inadequate diet was slowly killing killing him. WITHIN THESE WALLS WAS MISERY This drawing by an engineer, Tom Long, ton prison where Uriah Stewart and hunter hunter the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1902, dreds of other miserable men languished in the austere, bleak aspect of the Al- filth and hunger. 'f. i Stewart's gums started aching aching early in October. He would lie in the prison yard, watch the trees on West Fourth Street' turn brown, and run his tongue along the backs of his teeth. The molars and premolars simply hurt, but the front teeth were loose. Stewart didn't need a dentist to know he was contracting contracting scurvy. Fourth Street was a long, steep ridge that rimmed the northeast side of the prison. If he stared at the Fourth Street trees for a minute or so he could pick out the glint of sunlight sunlight on crabapples, pears and even peaches—all of which his scurvied body needed. In mid-October of 1863 Stewart's Stewart's craving for fresh fruit capriciously germinated into a full blown resolve to escape the prison. The desire to break out had touched few prisoners at Alton. Almost every man lived in daily daily hope that he would be exchanged exchanged "like they did last month at Butler and Morton," two prisons in Indiana, so why risk one's neck to escape? There never were exchanges at either Indiana penitentiary, but prison life was dull without such myths. Stewart, having realized that he would probably never be exchanged, exchanged, sought out the ranking Confederate officer in the prison, prison, Col. Ebenezar Magoffin. Magoffin, whose brother, Samuel, was governor of Kentucky, Kentucky, was one of the most colorful colorful figures in the prison. He had been captured at a minor battle in Missouri. He had killed killed three men and escaped twice before he was finally caught hiding in a warehouse in St. Louis and sent to Alton. Alton. His cell was in the maximum security section of the main cellblock's north end. The corridor corridor was patrolled regularly, but prisoners could converse with Magoffin through a grate in the cell door. "We can use you," Magoffin told Stewart, after the youth had revealed his intention to escape. escape. The colonel directed Stewart to contact Capt. John 0. McClusky, a Nashville well- digger, who had enlisted in the Confederate army as an engineer. engineer. Stewart asked around for a whole day before he found a soldier who could point out McClusky. McClusky. The well-digger told Stewart that about three dozen men, under McClusky's direction, direction, were in the process of digging digging an escape tunnel under the prison's northeast wall — the one that bordered Fourth Street. The men had already dug down seven feet into the bottom of an abandoned bake oven in the prison wash house. Dirt taken from the hole was sprinkled over the dirt floor in the wash house and trampled down immediately. The men always always kept old uniforms strung up on clotheslines in the shed to hide their activities. One man was assigned to wet down !he clothes periodically, lest a Union guard wonder why dry clothes were being left on the line. Stewart was assigned to work for three hours on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the tunnel. tunnel. After the seven-feet depth had been reached, digging proceeded proceeded to the northeast. The youth's work partner was a man named Lester Buchanan. Buchanan. He was Stewart's own age and from his home state of Arkansas. Arkansas. The two became close Mends after several weeks of digging. The guards apparently never became suspicious of the activity activity in the wash house because each digger's visits were so widely spaced (never more than twice a week). The work went smoothly, and within two months the tunnel had stretched 50 feet beyond the prison walls. When he was not digging, Stewart searched the prison grounds for wood to shore up the sides of the tunnel. None of the prison guards and apparently few prisoners ever realized that slats were missing from many of the prison's 1,200 bunks. The northeast sentinel's beat, McClusky observed, ended at 44 feet outside the walls; so the diggers poked upward at 50 feet. Their exit was behind a tree, six feet from the end of the beat. Stewart and Buchanan planned planned to stick together after their escape and make it back to Arkansas. Arkansas. The prisoner in charge of intelligence gave them maps and train schedules to get them out of Union territory. The prisoner in charge of clothing, apparently a one-time professional professional tailor, gave them each a made • over Confederate uniform, uniform, dyed brown with pilfered coffee and tailored to resemble a farmer's Sunday suit. On January 13, 1864, shortly after midnight, 35 civilian • clothed Confederate prisoners, ied by Col. Ebenezer Magoffin, climbed out of the tunnel's trapdoor trapdoor exit and scattered into the neighborhood around Fourth St. Some of the escapees struck north along State Street toward the homes of Southern sympathizers in Jerseyville. Others stole down Second Street (today called Broadway) to catch a train to Cairo at the riverfront depot. Stewart and Buchanan ran up State Street hill to Prospect then crossed over to Henry on their way to a train station in Edwardsville. They wanted to avoid the strip of taverns and gambling houses on East Broadway, so they chose to walk the deserted residential streets of Alton's Midtown area. Buchanan had trouble keeping up with Stewart's brisk walk. As they crossed Henry Street, Buchanan collapsed and fell to the ground clutching his stomach. stomach. Stewart dragged him behind behind a shrub and asked him what was the matter. Buchanan Buchanan was shaking so violently he could not answer. But in the dim moonlight Stewart saw the cause of Buchanan's Buchanan's agony and almost shouted shouted in horror. Tiny red spots covered covered Buchanan's arms, neck and face. He had smallpox. Stewart recognized it immediately. immediately. Buchanan had kept his arms stiff at his sides and had kept his face hidden from Stewart nil evening. Now Stewart had to pin down the stricken man's arms to keep him from scratch, ing his sores and spreading the infection. Stewart sat behind the shrub for nearly an hour trying to decide decide what he should do. He knew the prison break might have been discovered by now, and soldiers might already be combing combing the city's hills. But he couldn't leave Buchanan. Stewart heard a voice behind him and he jumped to his feet. "Put your hands behind your head, Reb," the soldier said. The decision had been made for Stewart. He was trundled back to a vacant prison cell and Buchanan Buchanan was carried to the filthy prison prison hospital. Stewart soon learned learned that he and Buchanan were the first to have been captured. When search parties reported back two days later, not one additional additional prisoner had been caught. The escape was a success, but Stewart was immediately sentenced sentenced to die before a firing squad four days after the escape. escape. Buchanan would be allowed allowed to recover from his illness illness before he was shot. But he did not recover. On the day after the escape he died of smallpox. The next day Buchanan's bunkmates both died in the hospital. His entire corridor had contracted the disease. disease. Prisoners from other parts of the penitentiary were also coming down with smallpox smallpox — and dying. Stewart's execution was postponed postponed indefinitely when the death toll rose to about three a day later that week. The mayor of Alton, Edward T. Drummond, Drummond, refused to let any of the stricken prisoners be transferred transferred to hospitals outside the prison. prison. Patients were quartered in woodsheds, stables, hallways and storage rooms. A now-unknown physician from the city took up residence inside the prison and vowed to work there until the disease was eliminated. He might not have been so generous if he had known anything about the conditions conditions at the penitentiary. Smallpox is spread by direct contact with an existing case of the disease. The men in the Alton Alton prison, who at the time of the outbreak of smallpox probably probably numbered about 5,000, were crowded together in a penitentiary penitentiary that was built to accommodate accommodate no more than 1,300. They slept three in a bed, ate standing up in the prison yard and used a common latrine. Cleanliness was unknown at the Alton prison. There were no bathing facilities, the burlap- covered mattresses were never changed, and the prison yard was covered with pools of stagnant stagnant water and urine daring most of the year. The prison hospital was pitifully pitifully small, (five beds) and staffed with only a visiting physician physician who called on Saturdays. The hospital was inadequate even to care for the wounded . prisoners that arrived at Alton. Before the outbreak of smallpox smallpox there were already a half- dozen deaths a week, most of them from minor wounds and illnesses that went unattended. Once the disease got started in the prison, there was no stopping stopping it. Weakened by filthy living living conditions and an inadequate inadequate diet, the prisoners were defenseless. The death toll climbed *to about five a day during the second second week. Prison guards started started coming down with smallpox, and Col. Hildebrand had to threaten court martial to get his soldiers to serve on burial details. Men who died in the A11 o n prison had previously been carted carted off to a small meadow in North Alton fo, burial. When news of the smallpox epidemic reached the city a week after the first death, residents of North Alton for burial. When the prison find a new cemetery. cemetery. Col Hildebrand decided to have the bodies of smallpox smallpox victims removed to an unused, unused, mosquito - infested island in the middle of the Mississippi, about 200 yards upstream from the prison. A temporary hospital hospital was set up on the island, which soon became known as Smallpox Island. Hildebrand soon ordered healthy prisoners to serve as hospital attendants and stretcher stretcher bearers. The 400-man troop detachment at the prison had been thinned by the illness, and Hildebrand feared a prisoners' uprising. But few prisoners were well enough to contemplate a revolt. At the end of the third week of the epidemic, about 70 prisoners nad died and at least 600 were ill. Stewart would awaken every morning and quickly examine his face and arms for signs of small red spots. One of his bunkmates had died in the island island hospital. The other, whom prison records list as Hartwick Bentnackle, contracted the disease, disease, but jumped overboard and drowned as he was being ferried to the island. Bentnackle perhaps foresaw that not one of the several thousand smallpox victims taken to the island would ever return. Stewart lived in constant dread that one day his temperature temperature would soar, his eyes would start to burn and his skin would crawl with itchy red pimples. He had seen diseased men delirious with fever try to pull the skin off their bodies to stop the itching. Stewart had watch- r-d the pimples turn into large watery blisters and then into crusty scabs. Most victims died shortly after the scabs formed. A few broken men who had survived a case of smallpox stumbled around the prison wearing white scars that they would carry for life. Stewart was soon assigned to a burial detail on the island. He boiled a fresh piece of bedsheet every day and fashioned himself a mask to protect himself from infection. His work party dug a four- feet-deep, 50-feet-long trench every week on a different part of the island. They would heap 50 or 60 blanket-wrapped bodies bodies in the hole and quickly cover cover them over. The epidemic raged throughout throughout the winter of 1863 and into the spring. Prison officials gave up trying to keep accurate records records of the number dead. Estimates Estimates carried after the war in i.ewspapers throughout the nation, nation, ranged from 1,000 to over 5,000 deaths, although the Army officially lists only 1,354. In the summer of 1864 a handful handful of nuns, Sisters of Charity from St. Louis, arrived at the prison, they demanded better medical supplies and permission permission to conduct burial services. Hildebrand complied. Late that summer, almost a jear since it had started, the epidemic began to subside. Stewart was digging smaller trenches every week, and by September he was sinking only individual graves. The hospital on Smallpox Island Island was closed in mid - September. September. The few patients who remained were transferred to a newly remodeled prison hospital. hospital. Stewart dug his last grave early in October and returned to life as an idle prisoner of war. Hildebrand was replaced by an energetic young colonel named Robert Weer of the 13th Kansas. Stewart, for the first time in months, turned his thoughts to the future. He started seizing any bits of war gossip he could. Things were going badly for the South. Vicksburg had fallen, fallen, and Sherman was cutting a 60-mile-wide swath right through the heart of the Confederacy. Confederacy. Despite his ideological dedication dedication to states' rights, Stewart Stewart longed for the war to end. It was for him a vain longing. The young man who had endured endured 16 months of hunger, hard labor, and fading hope now found time had run out. One day late in October, Stewart Stewart picked up a lingering smallpox smallpox virus and was confined to the prison hospital. He suffered for two weeks through pimple, blisters and scab, as he had seen hundreds of his friends do. Finally, on Nov. 10, 1864, the Civil War was over for Uriah Stewart. He was buried the same day in the North Alton cemetery and his mattress and clothing were burned. EPILOGUE Samuel Breckinridge of Murfreesboro, Murfreesboro, Tenn., visited Alton one week in 1937. He said he was the living survivor of the infamous Alton penitentiary. He had come to secure a headstone for his grave out of the prison ruins. Breckinridge recounted for a Telegraph reporter how he hid overnight in 1863 in an empty coffin that was delivered to the North Alton cemetery for burial. burial. Breckinridge said he waited waited until the wagon had left the cemetery and then sprang out of his coffin. "The poor sexton thought I was a ghost," Breckinridge said. "He ran faster than I did, only in the opposite direction." Probably many readers did not believe Breckinridge's tale. But some followed the old man around in small crowds as he toured the gleaming public buildings, schools and hospitals of the city where he had languished languished in a filthy prison 70 years earlier. He picked out a suitable stone from a crumbling wall of the prison and arranged for it to be shipped to his farm in Tennessee. Tennessee. He went to the Confederate Confederate cemetery in North Alton and found his name on a plaque listing men buried there. On the last evening of his visit, Breckinridge took in a band concert at Uncle Remus park, a grassy field on the site of the old penitentiary. When the concert was finished, finished, Breckinridge sat and scowled while the entire audience audience stood and sang the "Star Spangled Banner" along with the band. Then, to the Confederate veteran's veteran's amazement, the audience audience remained standing and the Alton Municipal Band, as was its custom in thos edays, struck up "Dixie." Breckinridge, according according to a newspaper account, account, climbed to his feet and sang with the crowd. Prisoner Cells Shown During Rasing

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  1. Alton Evening Telegraph,
  2. 01 Oct 1966, Sat,
  3. Page 8

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  • Alton's Disaster in War Between the States

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