During the Civil War, Rock Island Arsenal became the site of one of the largest military prisons in the North, since policy dictated that prisoners be removed as far as possible from the scenes of hostility. This policy was ideal for the arsenal, because it was owned by the government, it was hardly used, and it was secure. Construction of the prison camp began in July of 1863, and the first prisoners were received that December.


During the Civil War, the Union operated 21 prison camps, including one on Rock Island Arsenal. The camp was situated in an area on RIA that now includes half of "Officer's Row" residences, and the golf course west of East Avenue and east of Gillespie Avenue.

The barracks at the camp were 22 x 100 feet in size, arranged in six rows, housing approximately 120 prisoners each. The total capacity for the camp was around 10,000. A total of 12,215 prisoners called the camp their temporary home between December 1863 and June 1865. Of those prisoners, nearly 2,000 died at the camp. Most of the fatalities were due to dysentery and smallpox. Immediately after the first prisoners arrived at Rock Island, a brutal cold snap reportedly led to temperatures dipping down to --30 below zero, which resulted in some prisoners dying of exposure.

After the end of the war, prisoners were released from Rock Island at the gates of the installation. The remaining barracks were turned over to the War Department and Rock Island Arsenal, and were later demolished. Few remains of deceased prisoners were returned to the South, as few were requested or had the means to be returned. Most of those who died in captivity were buried at the Confederate Cemetery on the arsenal.

All that remains of the prison camp today is a stone monument located on the riverfront that sits on the far northeast corner of where the camp used to be located.