Hunger a Curse at Alton Prison
Wednesday* March 26, IWV THE EDWARDSVILLE INTELLIGENCER ^ Â» ' " . ' I - I Alton Prison This is a print of one of the oners during the Civil War. The Mississippi River on the right, end of Alton's business district, torical Museum, was provided earliest and best pictures taken penitentiary can be seen in the This picture was taken about The picture, part of the collec- by the Alton Evening Tele- of the old Alton penitentiary, foreground, bordered by the 1860, looking east over the west tion at the Madison County His- graph, used to house Confederate pris- Civil War History in Madison County Hunger the Curse at Alton By Jackie Lautarct Of the Intelligencer Many people are lamiliar with the horrors connected with the Confederacy's Andersonville Prison during the Civil War, About 30,000 Union prisoneis were confined in a 27-acre plot near Anderson, Ga. But not so well known or infamous is the Union prison lo cated at Alton during the Civil War years. Perhaps by grace of the North's better economical posit.on during the war, the Con ederates at Alton iarcci much better than their Union counterparts. They were at least better fed and had some protection from the elements. Andersonville had a death rate in August, 18G4, of 2,993 out of 31,693 prisoners. Conditions were deplorable, almost unspeakable. The prisoners had no shelter except crude "she- bangs" they made from anything they could lind, such as overcoats, blankets and scraps of wood, and their food was disgi acefully maggot-ridden. Perhaps this was due in part to the poverty of the South at that time. The Confederate troops themselves had little to eat Conditions at Andersonville were hopeless for many. Once they became ill, it was almost impossible to recover in the filthy conditions. They were not only overcrowded, but there were no sanitary facilities. A clear little brook running through the compound soon became a filthy quagmire of human excrement. The prisoners suffered Irom scurvy, dropsy, diarrhea, dysentery and gangrene, and any small infection meant almost certain death. The prison at Alton was considerably belter. Although the prisoners didn't get enough to eat, they were fed better than those at Andersonville. And it was apparently the intent ot Army officials and citizens ot the area to provide for the prisoners as best they could. But many of the Rebels at Alton never went home cither. The greatest scourge was a smallpox epidemic in 1863 which killed approximately ] ,400, many of them Union guards and personnel. The Alton prison was originally built in 1830-31. It was almost abandoned in 1859 when the Legislature passed a bill to erect a new state penitentiary at Joliet. By I860, all t h e prisoners had been moved to Joliet. In 1861, the military became aware ot Alton's border position in the conflict between t h e North and the South and the case with which military prisoners could be transported there. The idea was greeted with a torient ot negative opinion from a large number of Alton- ians. There was fear the town, with its close proximity to St. Louis--a city with strong Southern leanings--would be subject to raids which would put the citi'/ens in danger. There were those, however, who supported the proposal and declared it was but a small contribution to the Northern cause. Without very much regard for this local debate, the military moved ahead, and in February, 1862, the first military prisoners arrived from St. Louis. The occupants of the prison were now Southern gentlemen rather than thugs and criminals, young men fighting for a cause in which they deeply believed. A deplorable number of these men would never return home. In April of 1862, there were 791 prisoners at tho military prison. They had been captured at Pea Ridge, Fort Henry ond Milford. On Aug. 1, 1862, 35 of these men escaped. Among them was Col. Ebenezer Magoffin of Kentucky, under sentence of death for killing a Union man. His escape was the most puzzling, since he had been in solitary confinement. He and the others escaped through a 50-foot tunnel which began in an unused wash house. The men dug seven feet down and continued the tunnel under the west wall, making then- exit some six feet from the end of the sentinel's beat. It was felt Col. Magoffin's escape necessitated help from the inside. Two of the men were captured. However, Col. Magoffin returned to Kentucky to reach a ripe old age. Conditions at the Alton prison were lar from pleasant One young soldier related that upon his arrival at the compound, he saw a nearly naked man lying doubled over in a ditch near a corner of the yard, He heard later the man died of acute amoebic dysentery. lie said he saw another man picking gnats out of a festering wound in his right foot. Several 'Sound and Song' Musical Set Here "Living Sound and Song," a dramatized musical production of Evangel College, Springfield, Mo., will be presented ait Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville Saturday at 8 p.m. in Meridian Hall of the University Center. The program features t h e Evangel College Concert Choir In an original production. Evangel is the national college of the Assemblies of God. The program opens with the theme, "Living Sound and Song," by composer Harold J. Smith of the Evangel music faculty. Choral selections include traditional music, spirituals and classical numbers. The college band will be featured in this part of the program, and speaking voices will lend drama to the music. The second section of the program, "An Answer to Nancy Hanks," examines the American dream of freedom for every man through the upheaval of the Civil War. Narration Is an original arrangement of in- cidents in the life of Abraham Lincoln. It is centered about the poem by Stephen Vincent Benct in which Nancy Hanks, Lincoln's mother, is represented as returning to earth to inquire about her son. The third section, "How Big is God," Is a contemporary view of religion with testimony by scientists and astronauts. "Repentance is the launching pad where the soul is sent on its eternal orbit with God tit the center. God asks us to be astronauts at heart--to rise ' to high Ideals, high thoughts, high ambitions, high morality," the students conclude. Tho choir is directed by Dr. J. M. Nicholson, head of the Evangel fine arts department. Band director is John Shows, Instructor in music at Evangel. Local coordinators of "Living Sound and Song" are A. E. Cope, Granite City, and E. P. Bell, Bethalto. Area Assemblies of God churches are sponsoring the production. prisoners were combing l i c e from their beards. This young man related later that he never had more than one meal a day in prison. Whilo he was spared from the scurvy and anemia which struck many of the inmates, he was hungry all the time. Alton had no food shortage. The rich farmlands of surrounding regions had already made the city as important a produce and livestock center as St. Louis. But a tightfistcd businessman named Samuel Buckmaster was the prison's warden, He was a politician-promoter who h a d been leasing the prison from the state and itarming out the convicts for a profit from 1846 until 1860, when the state abandoned the structure. He still held the lease when the Union Army decided to use the prison for Confederate soldiers. The. Army paid Buckmaster, $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 a watery stew, was his to keep. He didn't waste any money on the prisoners. In 1935, a 93-year-old man visited Alton. He was Samuel A. Harrison, grand nephew of President William Henry Harrison and cousin of President Benjamin Harrison. He was born in 1841 and at 21 enlisted in the Eighth Missouri Volunteers (Confederate). Harrison was captured near Rolla, Mo., and sent to the prison in October of 1864. There were 6,000 prisoners there at the time, he related. "The prison was terribly crowded. Bunks had been built up in tiers, seven or nine tiers high in the prison buildings," he said. Smallpox "Smallpox was still prevalent and the first night I slept between two men, one of whom broke out with smallpox the next day. Somehow, I didn't catch it. Sisters of Charity were helping to care for the sick, but the death rate Â«nder the crowded conditions w a s high. One night I remember carrying out 20 who had died. "Because of the epidemic conditions," Harrison said, "the moving of many coffins gave a chance nt times for escapes. There was one occasion I know of when I helped carry o u t some prisoners who had concealed themselves in coffins, but they failed 'to succeed. They beat off the lids and jumped from the cart at the graveyard but the guards caught them and took them back. "The treatment of prisoners was probably as good as could be expected. The guards were ikind and treated us well, but the main trouble was the food--we just didn't get enough. The crowding too was a hardship, "I got a bit of exercise now and then by being sent out to work, digging away material from under the bluffs. B u t there wasn't much freedom in this, since the prisoners who were let outside the walls wore a ball and chain lest ties'"make a break for freedom," Harrison said that when he was released, after spending eight months in the prison, he was given transportation to Rolla. From there he had to walk 45 miles to reach home. In his weakened condition, it took him four days. Stories Handed Down The stories of attested escape still linger in the City of Alton, having been handed down from grandfather, great uncles and elderly citizens. Among these tales is one of a Mr. Swanson, who was caught at Baker's Creek in 1863 and sent to Alton. He tells of the time when "two of our boys removed two men from their coffins and climbed in themselves. The undertaker stopped en route to the cemetery to talk with a friend. When the hearse stopped, one prisoner sprang out and ran. So did the undertaker and his friend. "When the man in charge regained his composure," Swanson continued, "he hastened back and forced the second man who was making his escape to climb back in his coffin. He nailed it shut, shouting he was going to bury it anyway. In ten minutes, he removed the top and returned the man to the prison. He was the whitest looking man I ever saw." The military officials and surgeons intended to keep the prison in good shape and make the southerners as comfortable as possible. However, because of the large number of prisoners shipped to Alton, a miserably crowded condition always prevailed. The prison was supplied at all times with competent doctors. One of them was Dr. John Weir, who built the house on North Main Street in Ed- wardsviUe, which houses t h e Madison County Historical Museum. Another doctor, Dr. T. Hope, a prominent Altonian, former mayor and candidate for governor, was confined for his outspoken secession sentiments. Although a prisoner, he assumed full duties as a doctor. The other surgeons taken as prisoners also worked day and night. Again, however, the crowded conditions plus the smallpox epidemic were too much to battle. As fear of the epidemic surrounded not only the prison but the entire city, the guards and prisoners began to transport dead bodies on large rafts to Sunflower Island for burial. The island was situated directly across from Alton, about 700 feet above the dam. The island was also known as Smallpox Island during t h e Civil War. The dead were taken there in blankets for burial in a common grave. Sometimes as many as 60 persons were put in one grave. Those working in the prison were also ill and weak, and it was hard to get the raft across the river. So weekly, instead of daily, burials were held. In a desperate attempt t o stop the spread of the disease, the prisoners were moved to the island the minute they were suspected of having smallpox. They were sheltered in an abandoned building. It is believed that none survived. In March of 1864, three sisters of the Daughters of Charity arrived in Alton from a St. Louis hospital. Within two weeks there was improvement. Only the dead were moved to Sunflower Island. The nuns demanded daily burials and services. The official dead list from 1862 to 1865 was 1,434. This included 235 in 1862; 623 in 1863; 302 in 1864, and 274 in 1865. This number Is conservative, since the records were jumbled and haphazard. Also, in 1863, nearly everyone was too sick to keep adequate records, and it is thought the 623 total is ridiculously low. It is estimated that 1,000 or more were buried on Sunflower Island. After the war, the prison was put on the market in 1866 at price of $26,666. In 1868, Buckmaster, the former warden, and Sanger Casey Co. of Joliet bought the prison, price unknown. It is supposed Sanger and Casey purchased all movable equipment, and Buckmaster, the buildings. Buckmaster revealed his intention to level the surrounding wall and establish a tannery on the site. His plans seem to have failed. In 1894 the remains were torn down. The area was later a park known as Uncle Remus Park. But it is no longer in use. News Briefs Names and Places By Jackie Lautaret Of the Intelligencer Robert E.DeWeiif, son o f Mr, and Mrs. Edwin DeWerff of Route 1, Moro, has been named to the dVn's honor list for the winter tei.n at Concordia Senior College, Fort Wayne, Ind. Robert is a graduate of St. Paul's College, Concordia, Mo., and is presently enrolled in the pre- theological program at Concordia Senior College. The youth group in the confirmation class of the First United Methodist Church in Staunton will take church vows for full membership on Palm Sunday. There will be a potluck dinner in their honor following the worship service, Aleta Jane Cress of Edwardsville, a junior at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla., has been selected f o r membership in Zeta Chi, the OBU chapter of Mortar Board. Zcta Chi is an honorary leadership fraternity for senior women. Miss Cress is the daughter Of Mr. and Mrs. William Cress, 710 North Buchanan St. Several members ot the Staunton Rotary Club indicated at Monday night's meeting that they plan to attend the District Rotary conference in Springfield Friday and Saturday. Ed Treadway, in charge of the program for the evening, showed a film, "Monument to a Dream." The film was on the building of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Warrant Officer candidate Randal D. Storey, 18, son of Mrs. Melba P. Walker, Troy, has completed a helicopter pilot course at the Army Primary Helicopter School Ft. Wolters, Tex. He will now undergo advanced flight training at the Army Aviation School, Ft, Rueker, Ala. His wife, Linda, lives la Troy. Legionnaires of Post 70S, Troy, plan to hold an Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday in the City Park, beginning at p.m. If weather is not suitable, the egg hunt will be postponed until the following Sunday. Children up to and including fifth- grade age can participate. The Philaithea Class of the First United Methodist Church in Staunton will sponsor an "attic to basement" sale, Friday, April 25, in the church basement. Those having articles to donate to the sale Â·sked to take them to t church April 23 and 24. The Woman's Club of Troy will sponsor a night art course beginning in April. Charles A. Morris Of Belleville, graphics illustrator at Scott Air Force Base, will teach the class, The class will meet Wednesday nights for 16 weeks.