West Tennesseans At Rock Island Prison.
By: Bruce Kindig (First Person: Lt. Marsh.) This is very long, but goes into great detail of the battery.
Smith P. Bankhead, a Memphis lawyer, formed an artillery unit in April, 1861 in response to Governor Isham Harris' call for volunteers. The unit was made up of west Tennesseans with recruits from Arkansas added the next year to fill out the company following the Battle of Shiloh and the release of one year enlistment's. William L. Scott, also a Memphis lawyer enlisted with Bankhead and served as 2nd, Lieutenant the first year of war. Scott was wounded in the neck at Shiloh and following his recovery was named Captain of the battery in July, 1862 following Bankhead's promotion to major. The battery served in all major actions of the Army of Tennessee and with particular distinction at Chickamauga in September 1863.
Following the Federal defeat at Chickamauga the Army of Tennessee took up positions on Missionary Ridge overlooking Chattanooga and began a protracted siege of the Army of the Cumberland. Scott's Battery, now part of Hindman's Division of Hardee's Corps, was posted on the right of Anderson's Brigade. The fate of the battery and the men was now in the hands of the actions that happened as a result of the Federal assault upon the ridge.
On November 25, 1863 20,000 Federal troops from the Army of the Cumberland began an assault on Missionary Ridge. Scott's Battery was positioned at the head of a steep gully. One section of guns, under command of 1st. Lt. John Doescher looked directly down the gully facing west. The other section under the command of 2nd. Lt. A.T. Watson flanked the gully about 50 yards to the south of the first section. At the time of the attack, Captain Scott was not present with the battery. This part of the Confederate line was holding off the assault with the men of Scott's Battery firing as fast as they could. However, about 1000 yards south of the battery's position the Federal troops forced their way over the ridge and were sweeping left along the ridge. Soldiers from the 2nd Minnesota Infantry came upon the gunners of Lt. Watson's section from the flank. The cannoneers were caught unaware as the Minnesotans charged in amongst them. Captain Scott commented in 1886 that the men "...stood to their guns until the last, and were literally hewn down at their pieces, dying at their post while attempting to discharge their guns." Although Scott was not present at the time it was a fitting epitaph. Three guns were captured with only one gun under Lt. Doescher escaping. Scott claimed that many men were killed or captured but the records shows otherwise. Scott's Battery was officially disbanded on December 9, 1863.
According to the muster roll's, Scott's Battery had 84 men present for duty on August 30, 1863. This figure does not include officers. With two men killed and three severely wounded at Chickamauga the battery was reduced to 79 effective plus one replacement. Forty-nine men remained in the army following this defeat and were transferred to other units as their were not enough men to reform the company. Only one man, Wiley Smith, was officially listed as killed at Missionary Ridge. Seven men and Lt. A.T. Watson were captured. That leaves 23 men unaccounted. These men may have been killed but more likely went home without leave following the confusion of battle.
Lt. A.T. Watson was separated from the other prisoners and ended up in a prison camp in Delaware until released after the war. The other seven men were taken, along with hundreds of others, by boat to Bridgeport, Alabama and then by rail to Nashville and Louisville destined for Camp Douglas near Chicago. However, on November 15 a fire had destroyed barracks for 1000 men so they were diverted to Rock Island Prison which had been under construction since August 1863 and was nearing completion.
The trains began to arrive at Rock Island on December 3rd. The men were then assigned to one of the 84 buildings. The prison was "...arranged 6 rows of 14 streets, 100 feet wide, 40 feet between barracks. The barracks were one story raised 1 to 3 feet off the ground, 82 X 22 X 12 feet, 10 windows, cook house at each end of the barracks, 2 ventilators (sic.) 4 X 2 feet on roof, 60 double bunks in each barracks, sinks 2 to 6 feet deep." A stockade was constructed around the buildings 1300 feet long and 900 feet wide with a boardwalk around the top and sentry boxes every 100 feet. There was an artesian well inside the camp and a reservoir to collect water and to wash away drainage.
One of seven men from Scott's Battery arriving at Rock Island Prison was Sergeant Charles Cooley. Cooley had been recruited by Bankhead on May 23, 1861 in Memphis. He was present for duty, never absent and served as sergeant throughout the war. He was 27 years old.
Daniel Brennan joined the battery on November 1, 1861 and identified himself to the federal authorities as a sergeant. He had received that rank on December 13, 1861 after only six weeks in the service. Actually he was serving as a private during the Battle of Missionary Ridge, having lost his stripes on September 29, 1862 of an offense that has been lost in the records. He was 28 years old.
A third man captured also identified himself as a sergeant as further proof that the limbers had been overrun during the battle. John Purcell had been with the battery since being recruited by Bankhead on May 18, 1861 in Memphis. He had served as sergeant since his enlistment and had never been absent or ill.
Four privates joined these men at prison. Edward Ford, age 29, from Memphis had been with the battery since July 19, 1861. Michael Kinney, age 36, transferred from the 4th. Tennessee Infantry in July, 1861. Edward Toland, age 39, had joined the battery on January 10, 1862. Nathaniel Holmes, age 18, was only with the battery a few months. He was the sole replacement after Chickamauga.
Life in prison was not particularly harsh. There was a prison library stocked with books and newspapers by local townspeople. Particularly Charles Buford and Kate Perry of Rock Island were known to be Confederate sympathizers and would deliver mail for the prisoners. Sunday church services were held by local ministers and were well attended. There was no lack of money in the camp. Prisoners made buttons and ornaments from shells to sell and poker games were quite common with some guards known to play with prisoners. To relieve boredom prisoners could work for ten cents a day cutting wood and repairing buildings. Although the civilian wage was $1.75 per. day the men would not work for nothing since they considered the work to be government work. One prisoner wrote his wife saying... " I am happy to inform you that my health had been good since I have been here for which I feel very thankful (sic.). I have been kindly treated since a prisoner. I enjoy myself as well as could be expected. We have a nice Prison the beautiful Mississippi River surrounds us nearly... we read and talk on Scripture and pass off out time profitable (sic.) to us and hope and sometime we talk over our courtship's & family trial." A sutler named Dart came to camp every day to sell items to the prisoners and he did a lively business. Rations were satisfactory at first with the men received 14oz. of bread and 12oz. of meat per. day and bought other food items from Dart.
Some of prison life was much more difficult for the southerners. Although they lived in plank buildings there were only 2 stoves in each building to keep warm. The temperature on January 1, 1864 was minus 30 degrees. There were large cracks between the boards and a shortage of blankets and coats. As prisoner W.J. Minnick relates "... I was captured in my shirt sleeves, a light cotton undershirt, with a captured knit woolen overshirt, and many were no better off..." The west Tennesseans were no better off.
There were no proper medical facilities when the prison opened. Small pox, mumps and measles were prevalent and a hospital was not ready until February 1846. Many men died of disease the first few months but after the hospital was built the death rate from disease declined dramatically. Ten prison barracks in the southeast corner were set aside for the sick. Michael Kinney died of Smallpox on December 20, 1863. He was buried in the prison cemetery. (photo of Michael Kinney's headstone)
Men were often punished for infractions of the rules. They could be made to march in place for hours. Sometimes they would be tied by the thumbs to a fence and made to stand on their tip toes or ride "morgans mule" which was made of a one inch board nailed between two posts. Another punishment was to be chained to a 32 pound cannon ball. None of the remaining six soldiers from Scott's Battery were ever disciplined for rules infractions.
On June 10, 1864 life at the Rock Island Prison changed. In retaliation for news about Andersonville it was decided to treat the Confederate prisoners in a similar manner. Rations were cut in half. Soon corn bread and salt pork were the only food to be found. Scurvy became a problem by late summer until potatoes were added to the diet. Dart was no longer allowed to sell items from his sutlery and guards no longer played cards with the prisoners. Elijah Hall, a prisoner wrote home saying "...I have been her eight months I seen a very hard time (sic.)..."
In September, 1864 the 10th. U.S. Colored Infantry became the guards at the prison. This was an insult to the prisoners, some of whom were slave owners, as Lafayette Rogan remarked on September 15, "The Yanks appear to have lost all care for humanity except so far as the Negro is concerned. During this time 12 prisoners were murdered by guards. Minnick states that one guard was even promoted to corporal. None of the men in this study were slave owners but surely shared this concern.
Some men tried to escape. None of Scott's men were involved. Lafayette Rogan stated " If my government cant (sic.) effect anything for me I must begin to devise some way of escape from prison." Although there were 42 successful escapes from the prison, many men that got out often came back when they couldn't get off the island, especially in the winter.
Another way to escape prison was to swear allegiance to the Union. A man would then be assigned to the navy or the frontier army to fight Indians. These men were moved to other barracks and given full rations. This area was called the calf pen and those who remained loyal to the Confederacy were said to be in the bull pen. The men in the calf pen, the name came to mean those who were being fattened up for the slaughter, never actually left the prison. Charles Cooley joined the U.S. Army in October, 1864. The better food and privileges getting the better of him. That same month Daniel Brennan and Edward Ford joined the navy. They were then transferred to Camp Douglas. The will to continue the Confederate cause had weakened with these men.
Some prisoners were upset that their comrade would go over to the other side. So a secret club called the Seven Confederate Knights was formed. These men took an oath to stand together. Their emblem was C7K. They had secret hand shakes and pass words and discussed the possibility of storming the walls. Eventually 1797 prisoners joined the calf pen including Edward Toland and John Purcell in January 1865.
A lively debate in the Rock Island Argus began in the fall of 1864 and was later expanded to the New York Daily News that the prison was as bad as Andersonville. Evidence of comparison is lacking to prove such an outcry. The commander of the post defended the prison accommodations albeit many prisoners suffered. The bribe of better conditions was what disgusted many Confederate veterans. The last member of Scott's Battery, Nathaniel Holmes finally joined the navy on January 24, 1865. The combination of cold winters and short rations becoming too much to bear on the west Tennesseans. More likely these men saw the futility of continuing the struggle and wanted to go home. Two months after Lee surrendered the prison was empty. There were 12,409 men confined to the prison at one time or another, seven from Scott's Battery. Of that, 1960 men died, one from Scott's Battery.
Confederate Services Records, National Archives, Microfilm series 268, rolls 97-98.
Bohon, W.J. "C7K"' Confederate Veteran, 1904, p. 455.
Byars, W.C.B. Letter written to his wife, May 26, 1864 n.p. copy in author's possession.
Hall, Elijah. Letter to his father, Aug. 9, 1864 n.p. copy in author's possession.
Hall, Elijah. Letter to his father, Oct. 24, 1864 n.p. copy in author's possession.
Lindsley, John Berrier. Military Annuls of Tennessee. Nashville: J.M. Lindsley Co., 1886.
McDonough, James Lee. Chattanooga-A Death Grip on the Confederacy. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
Minnich, J.W. Inside of Rock Island Prison, From December 1863, to June 1865. Nashville, Tenn.: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South Smith and Lamar, Agents, 1908.
National Military Park Georgia/Tennessee. National Park Service. Monuments and markers.
Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Prison Files open to public on display.
Rogan, Lafayette. Diary of Lafayette Rogan, C.S.A., Prisoner of War at Rock Island Prison Barracks 1863 - 1865. n.p. (author had copy of one of the original five copy's)
War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. U.S. War Dept. (comp.) Washington: 1880 - 1901, Series I. Vol. VI,XXXI.
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