Galvanized Yankees

Apr 6, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In August of 1863, Union troops arrived on Rock Island to build a prison camp for Confederate prisoners. Beginning with 468 prisoners captured in the Battle of Lookout Mountain, who arrived in December of 1863, the Rock Island Barracks eventually housed more than twelve thousand Confederates. In Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell called it "the Andersonville of the North."

As in other military prisons of the time, the Rock Island Barracks was set up like a small city, with neighborhoods where one could gamble, visit a library, take French lessons, or work on crafts. But certainly, its most unusual feature was its Union Recruiting Office set up inside the prison in 1864. A Union naval officer arrived that January, and within a week, 660 Johnny Rebs had enlisted in the United States Navy as a way of getting out of prison. "664 traitors to our country," wrote an unrepentant prisoner in his diary. By the end of the summer, more than a thousand prisoners had joined the United States Navy.

In September of 1864, the recruiting office began recruiting prisoners for service in the West. A large section of the prison was set aside for these brand-new Yankees. Prisoners who remained loyal to the South called them "Galvanized Yankees."

Joining the Union was an attractive option, especially for the several hundred who enlisted in the Union, but who were refused for medical reasons and simply released. Since the Galvanized Yankees were now considered enlisted men rather than prisoners, they were allowed better rations of food and clothing, and they were allowed to receive gifts of tobacco and food from relatives in the South as they waited to be assigned to units out West.

Of the more than twelve thousand prisoners who passed through the Rock Island Barracks during the Civil War, only forty-one escaped in the traditional way, through tunnels or over fences. But eventually, more than three thousand escaped by stepping up to the Union Recruiting office in the prison and disguising themselves as Yankees.

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