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Madison County Genealogical Society

Minutes of the Meeting - June 7, 2012

The June 2012 meeting of the Madison County Genealogical Society was held at the Edwardsville Public Library on Thursday, June 7, at 7:00 pm.

President, Robert Ridenour, called the meeting to order.

The following is the Treasurer's report for the month of May:

Financial report for the month of May 2012, as follows:


Do you have a family member that is interested in (or even obsessed with) genealogy? A membership in the Madison County Genealogical Society would be a very thoughtful gift. A gift card will be sent to the recipient of any gift membership.

The following memberships are available:
Individual/Family Annual Membership $20.00
Patron Annual Membership $30.00
Life Membership $250.00

Contact our Secretary, Barbara Hitch, at, about a gift membership.

June Meeting

On June 7, 2012, Don Huber, Alton Township Supervisor and President of the Board of Directors and Acting Sexton of the Alton Cemetery made a presentation on the Alton Civil War Prison.

The Alton Penitentiary was built in 1833 and was the first building in Illinois built with state funds. The money was raised from the sale of some salt marsh lands in current Saline County.

Alton was platted in 1818 by Rufus Easton. Benjamin Godfrey started the Alton-Sangamon Railroad in Alton in 1832. He got it as far as Godfrey and lost his first million dollars getting it up from the river out onto the prairie. Alton was incorporated in 1837; this year marks the 175th anniversary of that incorporation. Elijah Lovejoy was murdered November 7, 1837.

The prison opened in 1833 and was built with prison labor. The prison was built from limestone quarried from the bluffs near where the Indians had painted the Piasa Bird. It started out with 26 cells and had 296 cells when it finally closed. The convicts were contracted to the quarries along the river as a source of income for the prison. The prison was a typical state-run institution - it was designed to hold prisoners 18 years of age and older. William Hess was the first prisoner, he was 16!

In 1857, construction was begun in Joliet on what would become Statesville Prison. By 1860, all the prisoners had moved from the Alton Penitentiary to Joliet.

Prisoner number 83, William Moffet, from Sangamon County whose crime was manslaughter, was sentenced to eight months confinement. Prisoner number 84, Isaac Bell, from Sangamon County whose crime was horse stealing, was sentenced to five years confinement! In December 1838, Mr. Bell escaped from the Alton prison and stole the warden's horse.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, neither side thought the war was going to last very long and made no provisions whatsoever for dealing with prisoners in any way, shape, or form. Two prisons were opened in St. Louis that became absolutely chock full of people arrested in Central and Southeastern Missouri.

Since Missouri was a border state, all the males in the state were required to take an oath of allegiance to the Union. If you did anything contrary to martial law, which had been declared in Missouri, you were in violation of your oath and technically you could be shot - especially if you joined the Confederate Army. They did not shoot anybody but they put a lot of them in prison.

The war in Missouri was a war of attrition. The local Provost Marshal might have been the local sheriff who had a grudge against his neighbor or his neighbor had property he coveted. So he would accuse his neighbor of being a Confederate sympathizer, put him in prison, and take his land. Things quickly got out of hand. For example: Your son joined the Confederate Army and came home to visit. If you were glad to see him and fed him supper, the next day the Provost Marshall could show up and say you had aided and abetted the enemy, take all your horses, and burn your barn down. The next day the Confederate Army might show up and say you gave horses to the Union forces and burn your house down.

The two prisons in downtown were quickly filled. These prisons were at Gratiot Street - the old McDow Medical College, and the second prison, a series of wooden barracks, was built on an old slave-trading pen about where the new Busch Stadium is located. On December 31, 1861, General Henry Halleck sent Lt. Col. James McPherson to Alton to inspect the Alton Penitentiary for use as a military prison. He reported that it could probably be put back in shape for about $2,300. They started fires in all the stoves trying to dry it out, which was futile - it never dried out.

The first prisoners arrived on February 9, 1862. The Alton Telegraph ran a story when the first prisoners arrived that stated "Altonians were amazed how similar they looked to their own sons." The first prisoners came from Fort Henry. When Fort Henry fell, about 2,000 people were taken prisoner. Fort Donnellson fell a few days later and they had 17,000 soldiers they did not know what to do with.

The prisoners from Fort Henry were sent to Alton by packet boat; Fort Henry was on the Tennessee River. This group included Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman. The General did not stay in the prison; he stayed in the Alton House Hotel along with his staff. Officers were paroled to the city limits of Alton as long as they were here. This caused all kinds of trouble. There was a Southern sympathizing tailor in town. If you were an officer in the Confederate Army, he would give you a brand new uniform free of charge. So there were all these sharply-dressed Confederate officers walking around town, sitting in hotels or bars, doing basically whatever they wanted. The Union soldiers standing guard in the prison were thoroughly upset about the situation. To solve the problem, the Confederate officers were sent to Jefferson Barracks and confined to riverboats there.

There was a major escape from the Alton Prison in 1862. Thirty-six prisoners escaped by digging a tunnel about 60 feet in the very rocky soil. They all got away but two, both were caught in Jersey County, Illinois, one in Fidelity and one in Jerseyville. The one in Fidelity got shot; the one in Jerseyville was hung for murder, having shot a man after escaping.

There were never more than 800-1200 prisoners in the prison at one time. This prison was designed with 296 cells. The warden's house and several outbuildings were also used to house prisoners. One of the outbuildings was reserved for women that were imprisoned and their children. There were two or three women who died while prisoners, one died on Smallpox Island and one died in the prison.

During the period of the war, there were 11,700 soldiers who went through the prison; there were about 1400-1500 civilians who were arrested for all kinds of things. There were also Federal prisoners who had been convicted of rape, theft, murder, etc. These prisoners were sent to Alton because they had cells to lock them in.

The cells were seven feet by four feet. There were nine men and three bunks per cell - three men per bunk. It is no wonder the prisoners got sick. During the Civil War, 620,000 people died; two of every three deaths were caused by disease. The mortality rate at the Alton prison was about 14%. Sandusky Island, Ohio, was about 4%, while Elmira, New York, was about 20%, and Andersonville, Georgia, was about 33%.

In November 1862, Henry Farmer was a prisoner in Alton; he was the first to die of smallpox. Alton became an incubator for smallpox throughout the prison system because of the transfer of prisoners to other facilities. Smallpox Island opened in August 1863 and closed in March 1865 when the Mississippi River overran the island. For a time, there was a woman and her five-year-old daughter who acted as nurses on Smallpox Island. She and her daughter had both had smallpox and were thus immune. They lived on the island while the woman was a prisoner and nursed the other prisoners.

Many of the prison guards were from units that could not be used elsewhere: the 77th Ohio - they retreated in disorder at the Battle of Shiloh; the 37th Iowa - known as the greybeard unit. They were the fathers and grandfathers of young men who had volunteered in Iowa and asked to be allowed to form a unit so they could serve. They were mostly used as prison guards but had no idea how to run a prison. They also elected inept leaders. The 37th Iowa was replaced by the 10th Kansas Infantry in January 1864. Their leader was William Weir from Carlinville, Illinois. In the 1858 Gazetteer of Macoupin County it says that "It is unfortunate that Judge Weir's social skills do not match his legal skills." It shows in his performance at Alton. There was a petition to run him out of town and there was a petition to keep him. The reason for the second petition was that the 10th Kansas had a fantastic band and they gave band concerts every Saturday night. Weir was eventually court martialed and cashiered (removed from the army). He went back to Kansas and became part of the 7th Cavalry but only lived until 1867. Several of the members of the 10th Kansas became part of the 7th Cavalry. Four of them were with Reno at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

An estimated 1747 people died in the Alton prison of various causes: Smallpox and variola - 368, Pneumonia - 229, Typhoid - 161, Dysentery - 78. The records do not always give a cause of death. Of those who died, 1354 were Confederate soldiers, 210 civilians, and 183 Union soldiers. Some of these Union soldiers were prisoners but the majority were guards at the prison. The monument in the Confederate Cemetery on Rozier Street in Alton, Illinois, has only the names of the Confederate soldiers on it. The legislation passed by Congress in the late 1800s proscribed the marking of the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in northern prisons. There is a monument near the location of Smallpox Island that contains the list of names of those who died of smallpox and were buried on the island.

The Alton prison was demolished starting in the 1880s and the stone was used in other buildings in Alton and elsewhere, as railroad track filler. One Confederate soldier who had been a prisoner in Alton returned in 1935 and asked for, and was given, one of the stones to use as his gravestone.

This interesting presentation was well received and generated quite a few questions and comments from the audience.