Civil War POW's got creative even in worst of time

By Steve Long , Crispin Havener

Published 07/24 2014 09:14PM

Updated 07/24 2014 10:26PM

Back to the mid-1800's, hundreds of captured confederate soldiers, crowded into a prisoner of war camp. And while it was no picnic, these prisoners found a way to show their creative side, even during the worst of times.

"There were actually some of the prisoners that came here on December 3rd, 1863 when the prison opened and were here for 20 months." says Kris Leinicke, Rock Island Arsenal Museum Director.

And while there were dozens of pow camps around the country, the one here at the arsenal offered something that many others did not.
"On the Union side there were 21 Prisoner of War camps," Leinicke says. "And in 2 of those camps, one of them being the Rock Island camp, they were able to work for the prison camp."

So they did things like work around the camp, they dug the drainage system for the camp, and with that, they were paid 5 to 10 cents per day. Money that was important, because it allowed them to buy amenities from a settler who came to camp peddling things like stationary, pens, and even pocket knives.

So, what to do with a lot of time on your hands, stuck in a POW camp, with a pocket knife? One man put his to good use.

"We have a letter in our collection that a prisoner wrote to his aunt and he talks about the individual who carves the violins at the camp and how they use the violins so they could have dances," Leinicke says.
That's right...working violins, made from wood he found around the camp, and a pocket knife.
"It's amazing the creativity that occurred at the camp...the vitality and the ability of the human spirit to survive under such dire circumstances," Leinicke says. "There was disease, there was the unknown of what was going to happen in the next battle."

But despite it all, the prisoners found ways to survive, and even thrive at the camp, creating not only violins, but trinkets out of clam shells that they traded with the guards. And much of what we now know about the camp, we've learned from the hobby of another prisoner.

"His name was John Gisch," Leinicke says. "He did watercolors of the camp and they really depict what camp life was like."

To learn about the choices made available to the POW's and why some didn't even stay at the camp, click here for a web extra.

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