True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry:
Excitement at Alton Prison
by Howard Mann
Duty as prison guards at Alton Prison in April 1864 was monotonous and a repetitive daily routine. The Tenth Kansas had drawn the laborious, unrewarding duty in January 1864 after hard marching and campaigning in Missouri, Arkansas and Indian Territory. Not all prisoners at Alton were confederate rebels. Alton was the first Illinois State penitentiary built in 1833 but closed on the eve of the Civil War in favor of the newer and more modern Joliet prison.[ 1] The large numbers of civilian, women and Union soldier prisoners that were kept in the general population distinguished the prison from other military prisons during the conflict. Among the prisoners were a band of horse thieves from Jersey county, Illinois with a penchant for escape.
The regiment was lauded as veteran troops by the local citizenry. Yet by April the Tenth Kansas had been ravaged by smallpox losing twelve men in March alone. The regiment was also undergoing a severe political crisis that would reach a head in April with the arrest and court-martial of Colonel William Weer for misappropriation of prisoner funds and several incidents of drunkenness and neglect of the prison’s needs. In spite of the turmoil the guards had their orders. On April 1st the local newspaper published “Instructions Concerning Prisoners”.
“…The Secretary also enjoins that sentinels shall be instructed in regard to the rules and regulations of the prison, so that when a sentinel shoots a prisoner, the reason for so doing shall be known.”
The same day ended with an attempt at escape on April 1st.
“Strange as it may seem, prisoners are not always content with the reward of their crimes, and now and then there are those who seek to take “French leave” of their quarters, and commit themselves to the world’s cold charities. Such an effort was made last night by several of the prisoners in the military prison here. It seems that soon after dark the guard on the north end of the prison had his fears excited, or rather the vigilance increased by hearing certain ominous sounds in the earth beneath him. About midnight he could distinctly hear the voices of the would be fugitives. He supposed they were coming out in the second ditch from the wall, and was on the lookout for them there, but on turning discovered a man’s head – with body attached of course – rising from the first ditch. The sentinel immediately fired, the ball just grazing the top of said head, causing it to disappear on double quick.”
“The hole was found full of Jersey county horse thieves – seven in number. Had they succeeded, many of their boon companions from the Sunny South would doubtless have followed. But the plan failed and all still remain in “durance vile”. The tunnel is about forty feet long and well suited to the purpose, the only fault with it being that it opened near the beat of one of the watchful boys of the 10th Kansas”
Tragedy increased the tension between guards and prisoners when on April 6th an altercation occurred.
“Some days since, one Hiram Miller, a prisoner in the Military Prison in this city, attempted to escape thro’ the roof of the building, and was shot at by the guard. He afterwards threatened to kill the guard, private Rice of Co. H, and last night made an attack on him with stones when Rice snapped his gun, which refused to go off. Miller then came at him with a bar of iron, when he ran his bayonet into him, and called for help. The guard outside placed his gun through the grating and shot Miller thro’ the heart.”
Private Hiram Miller had been returned from the hospital on February 1, 1864. The Tenth Kansas guard, Private George Rice, Company H, had enlisted from Terre Haute, Indiana on July 16, 1863. He continued with the regiment by transferring to Veteran Company D until mustering out on August 30, 1865.
The announcement of Colonel Weer’s Court of Inquiry must have given the prisoners a nudge towards a second attempt towards freedom. On April 7th a second attempt was made by some of the ringleaders of the Jersey county prisoners. Two are successful, one, Henderson is a guerilla leader from Jerseyville, Illinois.
“It will be seen by the Military Prison Report published in another column – that four prisoners made their escape last night from Bluff Castle. We understand that they filed the iron grating out of one of the cells on the west side of the building and made their escape in that way. There was a number of others all ready to make their exit in the same manner when they were discovered.”
“Henderson and Needham, who are mentioned in the report as having escaped, are old offenders. The former escaped from the prison once before and was afterwards retaken with the Jersey county horse thieves a few weeks since. Needham was sent here a sentenced prisoner from Memphis, and claims to be a British subject. Both of these desperadoes were engaged in the attempt to escape by digging a tunnel, as published by us a week ago last Saturday. It is very much to be desired that they may be retaken and confined again as, it is unsafe to have them running at large.”
The very next night a second malcontent tried to follow suit.
“We have been informed that Mahlon Bright, a citizen of Jersey County, Illinois, tried to bribe one of the guards to let him escape from the Military Prison last night. But the noble soldier reported the matter to his officers, who gave orders for the place to be closely watched. Very soon the prisoner made his appearance at the same grating from which the prisoners escaped the other night, and commenced letting him self out, but when he heard the guard cock his gun, he made an attempt to get back, but too late to escape the effects of the discharge of the piece. He was wounded in several places, but not dangerously, but sufficiently so to keep him quiet for some time.”
Even prisoners incarcerated in St. Louis heard of the escape. Griffin Frost, a prisoner in the Gratiot Street prison noted in his diary:
“April, 12. – Heard last week that a number of prisoners had escaped from Alton. My brother John has been sent from there to Fort Delaware, it seems he finds the later place a little too tough eve for his philosophy. Says he very much prefers Alton.”
Colonel Weer, even though facing pressure from a petition to remove him from his command, must have felt that the Jersey county rebels had inside assistance. He made allegations against a popular and well-known young lady. Unfortunately he incurred the displeasure of his commanding officer, General William S. Rosecrans. Rosecrans was also pushing along Weer’s inquiry. On April 16th Colonel Weer called his female suspect to his office.
“Upon this subject we place before our readers a communication from a mutual friend. We learn that the lady has gone on a visit to her friends in the East. The following is the communication”
For the Democratic Union
Mr. Editor: – I see in your last issue the statement of the arrest of Miss ANNA FLETCHER (with others) by order of Col. Weer. They were charged with assisting the Jersey County prisoners to escape, by furnishing them with a watch-Spring saw. As regards Miss Fletcher, the above charge was not made against her, at all, before the Provost Marshal General of St. Louis, but a mere request of Col. Weer, that she should be made take the oath of allegiance and give bond. “General Rosecrans, being present laughed and said “It was ridiculous,” and released her without complying with Col. Weer’s request.”
J. F. Griggsby
“We hope the assertions in the above communication taken from the Jerseyville Democratic Union, in reference to Miss Fletcher is true. We cannot help but feel a strong interest in this young lady, and a sincere desire that the charges made against her should prove false, from the fact, that we were well and intimately acquainted with her father, whom we knew to be a noble, high-minded, and intelligent gentleman, and a sincere and devoted friend to his country.”
“It will be recollected, by our citizens, that mainly through his efforts, a company of volunteers were raised in this city for the Mexican war. A man by the name of Baker was chosen captain, and Fletcher, Robbins and Ferguson chosen lieutenants. In the battle of Buena Vista all three of the lieutenants were killed, and the captain lost his right eye. The bodies of the brave and noble fellows were brought to this city. A large crowd turned out to their funeral ceremonies. Patriotic and buncombe speeches were made in abundance, and it was resolved to erect a fine monument over their graves. But nearly twenty years have passed, and there is nothing to mark the spot where these patriotic braves are to be found, except a pine board with their names inscribed thereon. But their memories are ineffaceably engraven on the hearts of a few friends, which is far better than a costly monument erected by a cold and unfeeling world.”
“These being the facts in the history of Miss Fletcher’s father, we shall be very lo(a)th to credit any damaging reports against her character, and are rejoiced to learn from the above communication that there was no substantial reason for her arrest.”
By the end of August 1864, Colonel Weer would be court-martialed and cashiered from the service. The notorious Henderson was gunned down with another southern Illinois rebel Colonel Carlin while planning a raid on Jerseyville. The normal tedium of prisoner of war guard duty did not hold true for the Tenth Kansas during the month of April 1864.
Alton Military Penitentiary in the Civil War: Smallpox and Burial on the Alton Harbor Islands, Cox, Jann, 1988, page 47.
Alton Telegraph, “The 10th Kansas”, April 29, 1864
Listing of Alton National Cemetery Interments by Date, Don Huber Collection
Alton Telegraph, “Court of Inquiry”, April 8, 1864
Alton Telegraph, “Instructions Concerning Prisoners”, April 1, 1864
Alton Telegraph, “Attempted Escape from ‘Bluff Castle”, April 1, 1864
Alton Telegraph, “Prisoner Killed”, April 8, 1864
Alton Telegraph, “Escape of Prisoners”, April 8, 1864
Alton Telegraph, “Another Attempt to Escape”, April 8, 1864
Camp and Prison Journal, Frost, Griffin, 1994, page 122
 Alton Telegraph, “The Arrest of Miss Fletcher”, April 29, 1864