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Marshall General, reported to the commanding officer in New York City that two companies under Major George W. Scott were on Riker’s Island and were available for use in controlling the local rioting.
Detached or temporary duty placed some individuals on the island: a June 18, 1863 newspaper article reported that Lt. Col. Markell and Lt. Frost of the 8th New York Cavalry were on duty “at the conscript camp on Riker’s Island.”
In response to the “Copperhead” anti-draft movement President Lincoln issued a proclamation suspending the writ of habeas corpus in certain cases, and in connection with that proclamation and the success of the draft, the New York Tribune was quoted in another newspaper as reporting that
“Several thousand conscripts and substitutes from different parts of the State have been sent from Riker’s Island to the army.”
On August 23, 1863, under General Orders Number 12 of Brigadier General Canby, the brigading of troops in New York City and the harbor was ordered,” but it was provided that “the guards at... Riker’s Island” would be excepted from the brigading. On November 10, 1863, Company I of the N.Y. 13th Regiment Heavy Artillery was mustered in on Riker’s Island. Companies F and G of the 16th Regiment Heavy Artillery were mustered in on December 16, 1863, and the following January 9 respectively; the former was shipped out to Fortress Monroe in Virginia on the same day, and the latter followed on January 13, 1864.
In early 1864 the 98th Infantry Regiment was formed, and Melvin Whitcomb, who was drafted against his will, wrote in a February letter to his father that he was in a conscript camp on Riker’s Island and was attempting to resist being assigned to that regiment.
Earlier he had begged for proof that he was too young to be drafted. A year later, with two years remaining on his term of service, he was living in Ohio and may have been a deserter.
On February 9, 1864, the 20th U.S. Colored Troop was mustered in on Riker’s Island and trained there for about one month before being sent to Louisiana. This regiment of 1,020 volunteers was commanded by Col. George Bliss Jr., and was formed under the auspices of New York City’s Union League Club (a member of which was the father of Franklin D. Roosevelt) despite the disapproval of New York’s Governor Horatio Seymour.
The 26th U.S. Colored Troop was mustered in at about the same time and under the same circumstances. The men of these two units were part of the 180,000 who served in the defense of their country and among the 7496 of the free black men of military age who so served. The black soldiers were paid less than half of what white soldiers were allotted, in New York their wives were refused relief money, their regiments were tagged with the designation “U.S.C.T.” (United States Colored Troops), and in general their service was either denigrated or unrecognized.
Whether the conditions on the island had deteriorated during its three years of use or whether the black soldiers were given special treatment is not clear; however the Union League reported the following:
“The conditions of the camp at Riker’s Island were also terrible: For a considerable time
the quarters provided for the colored men were insufficient and improper. Tents were
furnished by the Government, but... the men were greatly crowded; they were also without
floors or means of warming, causing great suffering from cold. Disease began to appear to
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an alarming extent, while there was no proper hospital in which to treat it. the Club
provided floors for the tents, and small stoves for each. It also built a building to serve as
a hospital .... Click on the above image for more on the Union League Club and its history.
This image and caption do not appear in printed book and have been added to the web version by the NYCHS webmaster.
Click on the above image for more on the Union League Club and its history.
From the summer of 1864 to September of that year the commandant of the Riker’s Island operation was Brigadier General Nathaniel James Jackson who served throughout the war.
He started as colonel of the 1st Maine Militia regiment and ended as a breveted major general.
During his service he was charged with the “draft rendezvous” on Riker’s Island and subsequently on near-by Hart’s Island.
By as early as the end of the year the use of the island changed when it reportedly became a prisoner - of - war camp, although if the example of Hart’s Island is relevant, it was in 1865 close to the end of the war that it became such.
Hart’s [Island] in several months’ time had a total of about 3100 prisoners of, whom about 230 died in confinement. The indicated percentage of deaths was below the average for all camps, but considering the very short time of its existence its death rate far exceeded even that of the infamous Andersonville prison.
“Within a short time (i.e. either in very late 1864 or early 1885) barracks were built for the guard and Confederate prisoners were moved onto the island. Water was eventually supplied by cisterns filled with runoff water from the roofs.” [Quoting from Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War by Lonnie R. Speer.]
Whether the conditions subsequently in the Riker’s Island camp were as bad as those on Hart’s Island apparently were, and whether there was a comparable death rate, has not been discovered. Official records pertaining to this use of Biker’s Island have not been located in either federal or state agencies, but the proposal for it came much earlier in a letter part of which is as follows:
DECEMBER 12, 1863.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of an inspection which I have just made, pursuant to your instructions, for forts on the eastern seaboard, with a view to selecting such ones as may be suitable for the confinement of prisoners of war . . .
For some tune past there has been a camp on Riker’s Island, which is in the East River between the city and Fort Schuyler; but the camp is about being transferred to another island, and it offers an excellent location for a place of confinement for prisoners of a special character, which at this time is much needed.
We have officers under special charges, blockade runners, piratical cases, political prisoners, and women, all of whom should be kept separate from ordinary prisoners of war and from each other, and I respectfully recommend that a suitable prison be erected on this island of sufficient extent to receive 1,000 prisoners and so arranged as to be capable of enlargement if necessary.
There are but two or three buildings on the island, which are now used as store-houses. I am informed by Major Van. Vliet that it costs about $25 per man to erect barracks for soldiers in the vicinity of New York. A prison may, therefore, be expected to cost $25,000 to $30,000. Water is scarce upon the island,
[In printed book, the text continues on Page 45.]
Civil War letters
Civil War prisons
terrorists in NYC