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Letter from the Rock Island prison


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Letter With Colored Sketch,  Confederate Soldier James W. Duke To An Unidentified Cousin, Written From A Union Prison Camp, 31 August 1864.(Charles Buford Papers)

There were about 150 military prisons on both the Confederate and Union sides during the American Civil War. The type of structures used to house prisoners of war included forts and fortifications, jails, penitentiaries, altered warehouses and factories, and enclosed barracks and tents. Only the South used open stockades. The facilities most dreaded by Confederate prisoners were the bleak and inaccessible fortifications at Fort Delaware in the Delaware River and Fort Warren in Boston harbor, Massachusetts, but no northern prison equaled the horrors of the Andersonville stockade in southern Georgia where more than thirteen thousand men died from exposure, malnutrition, and disease.

This color sketch of the federal prison on Rock Island, a small strip of land in the Mississippi River between Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, was found in a letter written by Confederate soldier James W. Duke to his cousin (presumably a woman) in Georgetown, Kentucky. The sketch was drawn by a soldier identified only as H. Junius, and it apparently is the item described in Duke’s letter as “the picture of our row of Barracks.” Duke likely inserted it as a keepsake and token of his gratitude for his cousin’s “kind letter.” As Duke’s letter suggests, prisoners often sent various items, including prison-made jewelry, to civilians who wrote to them or supplied such comfort commodities as tobacco and baked goods.

Rock Island prison was authorized in July 1863. When finished, it consisted of eighty-four barracks, 82 feet long and 22 feet wide, arranged in six rows of fourteen each, and surrounded by a high fence. Each barrack contained two stoves for cooking, but potable water was scarce and at times nonexistent. From December 1863 until the end of the  war, Rock Island held between five thousand and eight thousand Confederate prisoners, many of whom arrived before the facility was completed. Obviously, this idyllic sketch of men strolling peacefully on the grounds or performing routine chores among the neatly maintained barracks reveals more about the restrictions placed on outgoing mail than on actual conditions within the prison. Knowledgeable viewers can only assume that the artist was obliged to show the prison in as good a light as possible in order to get it by the guards, many of whom also served unofficially as censors.

Words and Deeds in American History

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