Confederate veteran recalls when prisoners tried escape in coffins from the penitentiary
“They took the bodies from the coffins and climbed in to be hauled away to the cemetery,” related Samuel A. Harrison, 96, who visited the site of Alton penitentiary, June 7, where he had been confined with other Confederate prisoners 73 years ago, says the Alton Evening Telegram of Alton, Ill.
The aged little man with his grandson came all the way from his home near Rolla, Mo., to look again at the spot where he spent the most dramatic moments of his life. He had been brought to the Alton penitentiary in December 1864, and had remained there until June 3, 1865, after an agreement of peace stilled the cannon of the Civil War. Sam Harrison was a prisoner in the penitentiary when the dreaded smallpox epidemic killed off prisoners as fast as they could be buried. He reached this phase of the war vividly. “Some of the prisoners,” he recalled, “went to the prison basement, took the bodies of the dead prisoners from the coffins and got in the boxes themselves.” “An old man who, with a horse and hack, hauled the coffins to the cemetery, came the next day and we piled he coffins on the hack inside the prison. The old fellow hauled the coffins away and when he got to the cemetery, the prisoners kicked the tops off the coffins and scared that old man to death."”
“One night I helped carry 21 bodies outside the prison into the wagon. The men had died of the smallpox.”
According to the Confederate veteran, daring escapes such as he described were not made often. The usual escape was death.
“We had an island across the river,” he said, “where they buried a lot of 'em—smallpox island it was called.”
While Samuel Harrison was in prison, history was being made outside the walls. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Harrison was captured at Rolla, Mo., when he attempted to return to his home near the village. He was with one of two attachments under General Price of the Confederate army when Price was making his famous raids in Missouri. The two detachments were separated from the body of the army and there was nothing left for the scattered groups of Confederates to do but give up.
"Besides," Harrison commented. “I was kind of tired of the war, anyway.”
Harrison gave himself up and remained four or five weeks as a prisoner at Rolla. From Rolla he was taken to St. Louis where he remained a month. Word was received that the captured group would be exchanged for northern prisoners at Richmond, Va., but there was not enough prisoners to exchange so Harrison with the others, was taken to Alton.
“Those German guards at St. Louis were tough,” commented the old man, whose contact with the younger generation is reflected in his speech. “I was tired, and my nerves gave way and when they marched me to the boat that brought us to Alton I could hardly stand up. Every time I'd falter, the guard would stick me with a bayonet. When I got to Alton, my boots were full of blood."
“Here they searched us for knives and guns and money —mostly money. The guards at the Alton penitentiary were not so bad. I remember Jim Boson [one of the Alton's prisoners] used to run his daddy's store, buy a dime's worth of whiskey and give it to the guards after some of the prisoners threw a silver dollar from the wall—the prisoners got the whiskey, I guess after the guards had a few nips.”
Mr. Harrison enlisted in the Confederate army at the age of 20 in 1862. That year, in the Battle of West Plains, Missouri he was wounded. He recovered and before long was back in the Army of the South.
He still carries a ball in his right shoulder.
ROLLA HERALD, June 23, 1938
(Originally published in Phelps County Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol 31 No. 3 Aug 2015)