Memorial will honor 'Smallpox Island'

Saturday, April 27, 2002

WEST ALTON, Mo. -- The new memorial dedicated today honors Confederate prisoners and others who died of smallpox on a Mississippi River island that washed away long ago.

The stone monument was to be dedicated in a 10 a.m. ceremony at West Alton, Mo., north of St. Louis. The site is on -- or near -- what was known as Smallpox Island during and after the Civil War.

Nowadays, the site is part of the Lincoln Shields Recreation Area, alongside the new Clark Bridge. Over the years, the island blended into the Missouri bank and eventually disappeared beneath Alton Lake.

The island was used as quarantine for Confederates who contracted smallpox while imprisoned in Alton, Ill., which housed captured rebels during most of the Civil War. The monument names 233 soldiers and 16 civilians, including one woman, who died on the island and were buried in its trench graves.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently completed the monument. The memorial slipped easily into the $970 million budget for the new Melvin Price Locks and Dam 26 just below Alton. Federal law requires the corps to commemorate historical sites in the path of its heavy work.

During the ceremony, members of Company C, 9th Missouri Sharpshooters, a Confederate re-enactment group, were to provide the uniformed honor guard and fire a 21-gun salute with their vintage muskets. Representatives of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and others were to lay wreaths.

'Died a miserable death'

"We need to pay proper respects for this unrecognized cemetery," said Don Huber, Alton township supervisor and unofficial historian of Smallpox Island. "The consequence of fighting for the South is secondary. They fought for a cause they thought was honorable, and they died a miserable death."

An old, closed penitentiary in Alton was reopened by the Union Army on Feb. 9, 1862. The first case of smallpox among the prisoners was discovered eight months later. In August 1863, guards began rowing sick prisoners across the river to Sunflower Island, which soon earned its new name.

The prison housed 11,764 Confederate prisoners, plus a few secessionist-sympathizing civilians and lawbreaking Union soldiers. Huber said about 1,800 of them died and were buried in trenches at a cemetery on Rozier Street in North Alton, Ill.

An unknown number were rowed to the wooden shelters on Smallpox Island. Those who died were buried at the downstream end of the 14-acre island.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: