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Jefferson Davis and Arsenal Island

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Have you ever regretted a decision that seemed absolutely right at the time? Here's a local example.

In 1816, United States troops from St. Louis built Fort Armstrong on a bluff at the western tip of Rock Island, one of five forts built on the Upper Mississippi to protect the American fur trade. When Fort Armstrong closed in 1836, the island became the prize in a tug of war between military and civilian interests. Squatters were already encroaching on the island by 1836.

As early as 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike stopped at the island on an exploratory trip and recommended it be reserved for military purposes. It had water power, transportation, and the safety of being in the middle of the river.

By the 1850s, however, many congressmen had sided with local constituents and were recommending that the island be turned over to the squatters, who now included not only farmers, but woodenware factories, sawmills, and even a small community.

At this point, one man became a strong advocate for reserving the island for military purposes. He had served here briefly as a young Captain in the Black Hawk War and knew the advantages of the location—an especially safe place for a federal arsenal.

First as a U.S. Senator in 1850, and again in 1854 as the Secretary of War, he was instrumental in resisting the bills that called for its sale. Rock Island, he wrote, is "one of the most advantageous sites in the whole western country for an armory or an arsenal."

He was right. Following John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, Congress authorized a new national arsenal on the island where it could be safe. From a single building begun in 1862, Rock Island Arsenal has become the largest arsenal in the world.

In 1863, the Union erected a prison for Confederate soldiers on the island—the notorious Rock Island Barracks mentioned in Gone with the Wind. Nearly 2,000 of these prisoners lie buried on the island.

To whom do the arsenal and the prison owe their existence? To the man who later became President of the Confederate States—Jefferson Davis.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.