Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Was Rock Island the “Andersonville of the North”? Um, No.

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 24, 2014

Over at The Historic Struggle, Rob Baker notes that today is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners at Camp Sumter, better known today as Andersonville. Camp Sumter is the most infamous of all prisoner of war camps on either side during the Civil War.

One thing that is sometimes heard is that Rock Island was “the Andersonville of the North.” That assertion is something that interested me personally, since once of my relatives spent almost eighteen months there in 1864-65, a period that includes almost all of Rock Island’s time as a PoW camp. It was a terrible experience, made worse by the vindictiveness of Union authorities who ordered a reduction in rations in retaliation for the treatment of Union PoWs in the Confederacy, specifically at Camp Sumter.

But was Rock Island objectively as bad as Andersonville? I recently watched a documentary, The Rock Island Civil War Prison: Andersonville of the North? (available for purchase here, or streaming here), that laid out some of the data. The documentary is pretty good, although it has an “unfinished” or “almost there” feel to it; there were several subjects barely touched upon that would justify its expansion to a full hour, instead of just 30 minutes. Nevertheless, it’s worth your time if you have an interest in CW prisons.

The documentary specifically challenges the claim that Rock Island was the “Andersonville of the North.” Taking a lead from that, I looked up some detailed numbers, broken out by month, that show the actual rate of deaths among the prisoners at the two camps, by month. Numbers for Rock Island are available for its entire existence from its opening in late 1863; Andersonville opened a few months later, and most of the prisoners were evacuated from the site in the fall of 1864. Although Andersonville remained in operation until May 1865, the vast majority of deaths among its prisoners occurred between February and November 1864. Death rates are calculated by comparing the number of fatalities with the prisoner population for each month:

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Click the little one to get a big one. You can download a spreadsheet of the numbers here. Rock Island data is from the Appendix of Otis Bryan England’s A Short History of the Rock Island Prison Barracks (Revised Edition) (Rock Island, Illinois: Historical Office, U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, 1985). Andersonville data is from p. 321 of John McElroy’s Andersonville: A Story of Rebel Military Prisons (Toledo: D. R. Locke, 1879).

Of course, there’s a simpler way to look at this: more men died at Andersonville than were imprisoned at Rock Island during its entire time as a Civil War prison camp.

So where did this “Andersonville of the North” nonsense come from? The phrase doesn’t show up until the 1940s, and I suspect that, like so many other cherished themes about the war, it originated with Margaret Mitchell, who had Ashley Wilkes survive imprisonment at Rock Island. In Gone with the Wind, Chapter 16, she wrote:

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Ashley was not dead! He had been wounded and taken prisoner, and the records showed that he was at Rock Island, a prison camp in Illinois. In their first joy, they could think of nothing except that he was alive. But, when calmness began to return, they looked at one another and said ‘Rock Island!’ in the same voice they would have said ‘In Hell!’ For even as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, so was Rock Island one to bring terror to the heart of any Southerner who had relatives imprisoned there.​

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No question, Rock Island was a bad place to be, with much unnecessary suffering. But it was not the horrific place Andersonville was, by any objective measure. Mitchell’s plot also underscores her shoddy research in this area: Rock Island was a camp for enlisted men only, and Ashley Wilkes was an officer.

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Escape from Camp Douglas

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 26, 2011

James Knox Thomas (1844-1930) was born in Macon, Georgia. Although his family had subsequently moved to Arkansas, by the spring of 1862 seventeen-year-old Knox, as he seems to have been called, was back in Randolph County, Georgia. There, on May 16, he made his mark in lieu of a signature, and enlisted in Company H of what would become the 55th Georgia Infantry.

The 55th Georgia was sent to eastern Tennessee, where in September 1863 most of its number were captured at Cumberland Gap. Thomas soon thereafter found himself at Camp Douglas in Chicago, one of the more infamous Union prison stockades. There, as he would recall almost 40 years later, he and his comrades plotted an escape on the day after Christmas in 1864:

I was a private in Company H, Fifty-Fifth Georgia Infantry. My company was raised in Randolph and Stewart Counties, Ga.; was commanded by Capt. John Allen, whose field officers were Col. Harkey, Lieut. Col. Persons, and Maj. Printup.

On September 9, 1863, while in Frazier’s Brigade, Buckner’s Division, we were captured at Cumberland Gap, and after a tedious journey, were landed in Camp Douglas, a prison in the suburbs of Chicago. In that prison, on Christmas day, 1864, I was walking across the open premises with Bill James, of Company A. of my regiment, and I remarked that if I could only scale the walls I would turn my head toward Dixie. He replied that he could easily arrange for us to scale the wall, but we had no money and no citizen’s clothes. I was a shifty little red-headed fellow, and could generally raise a small amount in case of an emergency, and had already bought me a suit of citizen’s clothes from a Yankee soldier. I told James that I had the money and would get the clothes, but wished to know how he proposed to scale the wall. His scheme was this: he was a laborer in the kitchen department, and the kitchen superintendent, an old Irishman nick-named “Old Red.” had placed a couple of scantlings parallel along the wall of the kitchen, on the ground, for some barrels to rest on, and James proposed to nail some pieces of plank on the scantlings and thus make a ladder. Seeing that his plan was feasible, I then said : “All right; we will go to-morrow night at seven o’clock, by which time I will have the clothes ready. James then replied that we could not hoist the ladder up on the wall by ourselves, and said we would have to get two more companions. I then said: “You choose one of them, and I will choose the other.” He chose Hope Williams, of his own company (A), and I selected Ben Johnson, otherwise known as “Babe” Johnson, of my own company (H). At the appointed time we met at the kitchen, and I was chosen to walk out and see if any of the inside police were near; and if they were, I was to quietly return; if they were not, I was to walk quickly back, pass the kitchen door, whistle, and pass on toward the prison wall to Barracks No. 72, where they were to follow with the ladder. I quietly took the walk, found no police, hurried hack as agreed, and in a few minutes we had the ladder up against the wall. As we accomplished this a sentinel halted us; Babe Johnson instantly sprang on the ladder, and was killed by the sentinel.[1] As Johnson staggered and fell back, James mounted the ladder, followed by Williams and myself, and we all three escaped amidst a shower of bullets. We were clad with citizen’s clothes, purchased by me from the Yankee soldier, and we safely reached the city, and registered at the Sherman House in our own names, but as hailing from Louisville, Ky.

We remained at the Sherman House until five o’clock, the 27th inst, when we took a train for Detroit. We reached Detroit on the 28th, and immediately crossed the river to Windsor, Canada, where we were under the British flag. From Windsor we proceeded by various points to Halifax. At Halifax we sailed for the Bermuda Islands on a British brig, and reaching them we went to Nassau, on the Bahama Islands, and from Nassau we went to Havana.

At Havana I sat for my “photo,” which is herewith submitted [right] for the inspection of my surviving comrades. We remained in Havana two weeks, and then shipped on the blockade runner Fox for Galveston, Tex. Sometime in March [sic., April 1] we reached Galveston, and in attempting to enter the port our vessel was shot to pieces by the blockading fleet, but we managed to reach the shore safely.[2] From Galveston we went to Marshall, Tex., where James decided to remain.

Williams and I proceeded to Shreveport, and thence down the river by steamer to Alexandria. From Alexandria we took it “afoot” across the country to the Mississippi, and crossed it in a blockade skiff. Continuing, we reached Meridian, and there learned for the first time that the war was ended. [3]

After the war, Thomas married Nancy Elizabeth Cowart (1848-1926), and they eventually moved to Texas, where they settled in Montague County. Knox Thomas died on February 27, 1930, at the age of 85. Both he and Nancy are buried in Restland Cemetery at Olney, Texas.


[1] Private Benjamin “Babe” Johnson was not killed outright; Federal records show he lingered for more than two weeks, finally dying on January 13, 1865. He was buried in Grave 470, Block 2, Chicago City Cemetery. His remains were probably among those later exhumed and reinterred at Oakwoods Cemetery. Benjamin Johnson CSR, National Archives.

[2] Fox was a well-known blockade runner, under the command of Simpson A. Adkins. A detailed account of her dramatic run into Galveston on this occasion appears here.

[3] “Escape from Camp Douglas,” Confederate Veteran, Vol. 9, No. 1, (1901), 30.

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Image: Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois. Via Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, Chicago.

Site of Ft. Lawton PoW Camp in Georgia Found

Posted in Uncategorized by Andy Hall on August 17, 2010

Via RCWEC Dummy Blog, archaeologists in Georgia have found the site of Camp Lawton, near the Georgia-South Carolina border:

Outside of scholars and Civil War buffs, few people have heard of the Confederacy’s Camp Lawton, which replaced the infamous and overcrowded Andersonville prison in fall 1864.

For nearly 150 years, its exact location was not known, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Southern University said.

Georgia Southern students earlier this year began their search at a state park and federal fish hatchery for evidence of the wall timbers and interior buildings. . . .

Life at Lawton, described as “foul and fetid,” wasn’t much better than at Andersonville, with the exception of plentiful water from Magnolia Springs.

In its six weeks’ existence, between 725 and 1,330 men died at the prison camp. The 42-acre stockade held about 10,000 men before it was hastily closed when Union forces approached.

There are no photos of Lawton and few visual stockade details, although a Union mapmaker painted some important watercolors of the prison. He also kept a 5,000-page journal that detailed the misery at Camp Lawton, which was built to hold up to 40,000 prisoners.

“The weather has been rainy and cold at nights,” Pvt. Robert Knox Sneden, who was previously imprisoned at Andersonville, wrote in his diary on Nov. 1, 1864. “Many prisoners have died from exposure, as not more than half of us have any shelter but a blanket propped upon sticks. . . . Our rations have grown smaller in bulk too, and we have the same hunger as of old.”

Images: Exterior and interior views of the Lawton PoW compound, from the January 7, 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Via SonoftheSouth.com.