Prison Mortality Rate
Rock Island, Illinois - 1864

     In the early spring of 1864 there was an alarming rate of prisoner mortality being reported at Rock Island, through the Medical Director's Office, Northern Department. Having no one at the present to send to Illinois himself, Surgeon Charles S. Tripler reported to the Acting Surgeon General, Colonel Joseph K. Barnes to send a team out there as soon as possible.

     Endorsing Tripler's initial report, the Surgeon General recommended to Colonel William Hoffman that erection of sufficient barracks be immediately ordered for such prisoners that were passing the highly contagious pestilence of smallpox.

     The current living conditions of the prisoners were found to be insufficient in space having crowded hundreds of ill patients into a single ward. In one such ward quarantined with smallpox, four hundred eighty five prisoners had been residing where there had only been three hundred and seventy beds available. Sometimes two pox infected patients would share the very same bed. Fear from the contagious nature of the disease caused hospital personnel to disregard the needed cleanliness, sinks were not being used, clothing was left filthy making for some horrendous living conditions. All of the outbuildings used as the prison hospital had been occupied in one form or another leaving none to be utilized as a laundry. During the short sixty day period between February and March 1864, Rock Island had lost seven hundred sixty four prisoners of 3,590 in their care, an astounding 21 percent death rate.

     The crowded conditions would only allow the hospital staff to likewise share beds that were there for the need of the patients, leaving them to face the terrorizing reality of catching the smallpox themselves. Making the conditions at the prison's hospital all the more worse, was the commanding officer's order to build a high fence around the yard which resulted in the block of proper air flow in and about the wards.

     The old hospital beds made of straw and blankets were soon replaced with iron bedsteads and the United States Sanitary Commission was petitioned to provide clean clothing for the infected prisoners.

     Taken into account, Hoffman ordered the requisitions for clean clothing for prisoners convalescing from smallpox wards and the work on the new outbuildings to properly furnish the needs of the hospital continue with the War Department's blessing.

     It may have taken close scrutiny from Washington to ensure the sickened prisoners at Rock Island were properly looked after. The immediate care of the medically ill had only been a small part of making life in the camp a little more bearable. These medical discrepancies may only have been from the neglect of a commandant, who perhaps overlooked the necessities of the hospital, and likewise acted out of inhumanity towards the rebels residing there.
     Rock Island could afford to bury the historical significance to the high mortality rate of early 1864. To the victors go the spoils of war, courtrooms and convictions are reserved only for the vanquished.

Dan (Aldie) Daniel Moran
© 2003

Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at