Six successive regiments guarded the Alton facility while it functioned as a military prison. The last garrison was composed of the 144th Illinois Infantry. The Madison County Historical Society holds Captain Patrick Joseph (“P.J.”) Melling’s original military records for the regiment’s Company B.
The 144th Illinois Infantry was raised expressly to guard the Alton prison. Company B mustered in for one year on September 7, 1864. Melling started out as first lieutenant. The 35-year-old, Irish-born Altonian carpenter had married his wife Sarah (a widow with two small children) six years prior to joining Company B. They had a three-year-old son together. Melling received his promotion to Captain on April 8, 1865.
Company B was formed with 83 men. Over half described their occupation as “farmer” on the initial muster roll (shown above). About 25% of the volunteers had been born in countries other than the United States — more than half of those were from Ireland. About 25% of the volunteers were born in Illinois. A few hailed from states that had joined the Confederacy, namely Louisiana and Virginia, and from the border states of Missouri and Kentucky. The volunteers ranged in age from 17 to 56: the average age was 27.
Prisoner Griffin Frost, a Confederate captain, was transferred to the Alton Military Prison in October of 1864. He had been incarcerated at the prison the previous February, before the 144th took over garrison duty. Upon his return, Captain Frost wrote:
“Alton prison is very much improved since the time of my stopping here before. Everything is much cleaner; a large hospital has been built, lathed and plastered, and lit with gas, and the authorities, I am told, manifest a greater degree of humanity. So far it is decidedly preferable to Gratiot [i.e. the Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis, Missouri]. The fare is much better and we are permitted to correspond with our friends…”
(Griffin Frost, Camp and Prison Journal, entries for October 4, 1864.)
Company B and Smallpox Island
James Manchester, a carpenter born in Pennsylvania and living in Alton, tied for oldest volunteer at age 56. Private Manchester was on detached service on Smallpox Island for several months. He made it through the ordeal and mustered out with the rest of the company on July 14, 1865, when the war ended.
However, Company B did incur one smallpox fatality: Private Amos A. Bates. He died April 30, 1865. Bates, one of the company’s original volunteers, had joined up as an 18-year-old. He had two months’ pay coming when he died, but he also owed the government $48.18 for clothing received while he was enlisted.
The Melling Papers include records of clothing issued to the soldiers of Company B. They received hats, cords and tassels (for hat trimmings), lined blouses or sack coats, trousers, flannel shirts, flannel drawers, stockings, bootees or shoes, and India rubber blankets (which doubled as waterproof tents in the field). One uniform coat was issued in June. The soldiers had to sign the record acknowledging receipt of the items.
Company B’s tour of duty came to a close early with the end of the Civil War. Captain Melling’s muster-out roll (shown below) documents one dishonorable discharge, two discharges by sentence of general court martial, one resignation, six disertions, and six deaths (due to smallpox, rubella, diarrhea, and measles). The entire regiment of 1,159 soldiers lost 69 men to disease.
A tale of three brothers
Three brothers who all joined Company B when it first formed had diametrically different army experiences. William W., James P., and John W. Rowden grew up together in Jersey County, Illinois. The unusually tall young men (5′-11″ to 6′-2″) were farmers in Alton when they decided to enlist in 1864 as privates with Company B.
William, the oldest at age 24, had blue eyes and light hair. He served as third sergeant for the first few months of his tour. Unfortunately, William fell ill and was unable to fulfill his sergeant duties for much of the time in 1865. He mustered out July 14, 1865, with the rest of the company.
James, 23 years old with brown eyes and light hair, took a very different path. In early 1865, James and his younger brother John (along with about a dozen other privates, two corporals, and the second lieutenant) were on detached service transporting prisoners to another POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland. After he got back to Alton, James was placed under arrest by order of the Provost Marshall. He remained in arrest until he deserted June 20, 1865, taking his gun and accoutrements with him.
The youngest Rowden volunteer — the blue-eyed, brown-haired, 18-year-old John — returned to Alton after the assignment to Point Lookout and stayed out of trouble. But just a couple of months later, in late spring of 1865, he got gravely ill. John ended up in the hospital, where he died of chronic diarrhea on July 6th.
Ideas for Teachers (or anyone who wants to take a deeper dive into the Company B records)
Some relevant essential questions for students to explore:
How are people affected by war?
How do citizens show patriotism?
Possible classroom activities:
Compile statistics for Company B based on the initial muster-in roll and the muster-out roll. For instance: What was the statistical likelihood of desertion? Death? Do either correlate with age or occupation?
The 144th Illinois Infantry Regiment totaled 1,159 soldiers. Sixty-nine of them (or 6%) died from various diseases. How does this figure compare to death casualties for regiments that fought on the front lines?
Research the reasons Union soldiers deserted during the Civil War and discuss which reasons might have been relevant to the deserters from Company B.
Compare the location of the Alton Military Prison to other Confederate POW camps. Discuss how Alton’s geography made it attractive as a military prison location.
Sources for this article include United States federal decennial census records, newspaper articles from the Alton Telegraph, and the following additional sources:
Boatner, Mark M., III. The Civil War Dictionary. Revised ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Cox, Jann. Alton Military Penitentiary in the Civil War: Smallpox and Burial on the Alton Harbor Islands. St. Louis District Historic Properties Management Report No. 36. US Army Corps of Engineers: November 1988. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Frost, Griffin. Camp and Prison Journal. Iowa City: Camp Pope Bookshop, 1994. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois. Revised by J.N. Reece. Springfield, 1900-1901. Available at the Madison County Archival Library. Also available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library at https://www.hathitrust.org/