All week long I’ve been at the National Genealogical Society’s Annual Conference in St. Charles, Missouri. It has been a great week, and I have learned so much about conducting genealogical research.
On Tuesday after Chuck flew back to Florida, I took a little trip across the Mississippi River to Alton, Illinois. I went there to search for the military prison where my great-great-grandfather John Wesley Roe was imprisoned during the Civil war.
I found Alton, Illinois to be a very interesting and pretty city. It sits directly on the east bank of the Mississippi. Near the water is a factory, and later I found out they make flour there. There are many silos around the plant. Once in the streets, though, you do not notice the plant down on the water. They have done a good job of fixing up their waterfront areas.
I drove directly to the corner of Broadway and William Street, which is a street that runs behind the building at the end of the street in the photo above. Up William Street and to the left was a small patch of ground next to a public parking lot. On this ground stood the ruin of a wall, a block wall. This is all that is left today of the Alton prison.
All three men fought under the 36th Georgia as privates. In a heavy skirmish outside of Calhoun, Georgia around 6 p.m. on May 16, 1864, 1,470 Army of Tennessee Confederates were captured during fighting on that day. John Wesley Roe’s brothers Columbus and William were two of those men.
The following day May 17, 1864 John Wesley himself was captured. All three of the Roe men were now prisoners of war. It occurred to me that John Wesley may not have wanted to go home to his mother after leaving his two younger brothers with the Yankees. Like me, he was the oldest.
All three were sent to this prison in Alton, Illinois. They arrived here on May 23, 1864. The prison had been abandoned before the war but had been reopened.
From stories I’ve read of veterans who were brought here, it appears that they came to this place by rail. Since John Wesley and his brothers were probably first taken to Chattanooga, though and since the Tennessee River runs from there all the way to the Mississippi, I’m wondering if they may have been brought here by ship. Both were possible.
John Wesley and his brothers William and Columbus, who was also known as Barefoot, survived their time at this prison. When they first got here, there were about 6,000 other prisoners. Bunks were seven high, and the men slept three to a bunk. I imagine the three brothers shared a bunk and tried to keep each other warm during those cold winter nights. Bed bugs and lice were a constant harassment.
The kiosks did a good job of explaining what prison life was like here. The boys found the prison overcrowded and its sanitation inadequate. Conditions in the prison were harsh, and the mortality rate was above average for a Union prison. There was a constant fear of dysentery, pneumonia, and small pox. Poor nourishment and inadequate clothing were common. The only exercise they got was while wearing a ball and chain on work detail.
They got here in the spring so hopefully the weather was pleasant; but the hot, humid summer conditions that followed probably seemed like hell to these north Georgia mountain boys. The following cold mid-western winter was probably rough because of their inadequate clothing.
The boys were here about eight months, until sometime just before February of 1865, when they were parolled and transferred for exchange at the Bouleware and Cox Wharves in James River, Virginia. The actual exchange, though, didn’t take place until between May 6 and 9th, 1865 at the end of the war. Somewhere while in route, President Lincoln was as killed in April. I wonder when they heard the news.
I took lots of pictures including a self portrait sitting in one of the windows. I wondered if one of the boys might have set here, too.
Then I found a little restaurant right around the corner and enjoyed my lunch. While I was eating my sandwich and salad, I remembered what the kiosk had said about food being a problem. Here I sat in a much better time and a much better place while 149 years ago hardly a block away my great-great-grandfather and his brothers never got enough to eat. One of the veterans remembered that he was always hungry.
My greater east grandpa John Wesley Roe returned from the war to his wife and five children. In 1866, he had another son who he named after his two brothers William and Columbus. William Columbus Roe is my great grandfather. I don’t have a picture of John Wesley, but below is one of his son William Columbus.
Just up the hill from where the small little park now sits with its ruin, once stood the entire prison. It looked down on the Mississippi River about two blocks away. My grandfather and his brothers probably stood at its windows and looked longingly at the river flowing south, wondering if they would ever get back to their homes in Georgia.