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Over 200 Years of History
The history of the U.S. military presence at Rock Island reaches back much farther than the establishment of the Arsenal in 1862. In fact, American presence in the area harkens back over 200 years. The location began as a resort for local Sauk and Meskwaki (Fox) Native Americans, sat in the middle of a major battle during the War of 1812, served as the forward headquarters for the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War of 1832, and acted as a magnet for numerous business interests in the region. It is a storied past, one that is rich in variety as it is in importance. While we continue to write the history of Rock Island Arsenal as it is today, we continue to reflect on its origins and where it came from. Capturing all of this history is a monumental task, but some of the key points have been summarized here.
The history of Rock Island Arsenal reaches back over 200 years, to 1803, when the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase. The purchase was recognized as a territorial purchase by European powers, but local tribes had separate treaties and purchases that accompanied them. Rock Island was part of an 1804 treaty which ceded portions of Eastern Missouri, Western and Northern Illinois, and Southern Wisconsin from the Sauk and Meskwaki to the Americans. Shortly after this purchase in 1805, the first American explorers navigated the Mississippi River looking for her headwaters. Zebulon Pike, an Army officer, led an expedition up the river in 1805 shortly after the more notorious Lewis & Clark expedition travelled west.
Pike took notice of several natural features in his journey, breaking bread with the locals as he travelled. The first among these features was the Des Moines Rapids, situated near modern-day Fort Madison, Iowa. The second was the Rock Island Rapids which stretched about seven miles from the foot of Rock Island to modern-day LeClaire, Iowa. The third feature was quite a feat for a river, a 946-acre island at the base of the Rock Island Rapids that was rich in vegetation, lumber, and had impressive limestone faces that sprung from the river.
In 1812, American forces clashed with the British after around 30 years of uneasy peace. During the War of 1812, The Battle of the Rock Island Rapids was the westernmost battle in the engagement. In the summer of 1814, and expedition led by John Campbell moved up the Mississippi River to aid American forces near Prairie du Chien. Attempting to negotiate with the local Sauk proved fruitless due to Campbell’s lack of bargaining power. Unbeknownst to Campbell as a storm blew his ship ashore one evening on an island that now bears his name, the British had successfully gained the support of the Sauk. Campbell was ambushed by the locals and was forced to flee with the rest of his expedition back to St. Louis. He died shortly thereafter.
Future president Zachary Taylor subsequently set out to the north shortly thereafter to establish a new fort to the south of the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. Taylor had an ulterior motive, however. He intended to launch a reprisal attack on the Sauk at their village of Saukenuk. Taylor, having run into similar problems as Campbell, was forced to moor overnight on the small Willow Island, adjacent to Credit Island. The Sauk, aided by a single British one-pound gun and two British enlisted men launched a surprise attack on Taylor’s expedition early in the morning. The gunfire was efficient and blew through much of Taylor’s ships before he was able to retreat. Having been beaten on the river, the Americans left the area for the remainder of the war.
Following the successful conclusion of the War of 1812 the Army realized the strategic importance of Rock Island. The War Department ordered a series of forts to be constructed along the Mississippi River to better control the Region. One of the forts would be located on the lower end of the island known as Rock Island due to its unique geology creating a natural fortress. The new fort would be named after John Armstrong, the Secretary of War under James Madison. Fort Armstrong’s mission would be to control navigation, trade, and to monitor the local native population. At its peak, around ten percent of the U.S. Army was stationed at the fort and supported as much as 20 percent of the U.S. Army forces on campaign during the Black Hawk wars. Supporting the fort would be a contractor, known as a Sutler, called George Davenport. During his service to the Army George Davenport would be given an honorary rank of Colonel. COL Davenport’s role at the fort during this time was to supply the fort as well as facilitate trade between local Sauk, Fox, U.S. Army forces, and new settlers in the area.
During the Black Hawk War of 1832, Fort Armstrong acted as the U.S. Army’s forward base of operations. MAJ Zachary Taylor once again led forces in the area to pursue and capture the fleeing Sauk warrior Black Hawk. After months of chase and numerous losses, Black Hawk’s band was intercepted by American forces at Bad Axe, near present day De Soto Wisconsin. Black Hawk would escape along with a small group of warriors and their families to flee north to meet with other loyal tribes. He would be encouraged by those tribes to turn himself in to the Americans which took place near present day Tomah, Wisconsin on 27 August 1832. With the close of the Black Hawk War, Fort Armstrong’s mission is completed, the fort would be converted into an Army depot however was largely abandoned by 1836.
The period that spans from 1836 thru 1862 is a turbulent one for the island of Rock Island and the surrounding budding communities. A series of fires rips through the ruins of Fort Armstrong, mostly destroying it by 1859. Squatters and businessmen alike are drawn to Rock Island, with some receiving token land grants for the development of industry. Some worked to develop the land on Rock Island. Of note is the effort of the Missouri & Mississippi Railroad Company and the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad Company. From 1854 to 1856, these two companies entered a joint venture to build the first rail bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island. Shortly after the bridge opened, a steamboat named the Effie Afton crashed into the bridge and burned the draw span. A young Abraham Lincoln was summoned to represent the railroad company as a part of a legal “dream team” in the landmark Hurd et al. vs. The Railroad Bridge Company case.
During this period, the U.S. government had entertained the ideas of both retention and sale of Rock Island. However, in 1852, Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup reported that due to the presence of rail, river, and foot traffic in the area presented a unique opportunity for the government. The construction of the bridge in 1856 amplified this sentiment. On 11 JUL 1862, after local, state, and federal petitions, Congress passed the bill establishing an arsenal at Rock Island, along with two other sister sites in Indianapolis, Indiana and Columbus, Ohio. These three arsenals, combined, were to be the envisioned “grand national arsenal.” Rock Island was to be a “small arsenal” that was to be a place for “deposit and repair.” The allocated funds to construct the three proposed buildings was approximately $100,000.
Around the same time, the Quartermaster Corps had designated a large space of the island be reserved for the construction of a prison barracks for Confederate prisoners. The Rock Island Prison Barracks operated separate from the budding new arsenal. The barracks housed approximately 12,000 prisoners over the duration of its operation. Poor weather during the first winter combined with limited quarantine capabilities led to a loss of prisoners to illness such as smallpox, pneumonia, and dysentery early in the prison camp’s life. Approximately 1,900 prisoners died during its operation. Many others became galvanized Yankees who swore allegiance to the Union. They were subsequently sent to fight in the western frontier. The prisoners were guarded by a combination of forces from the 37th Iowa Infantry Regiment (known as the “Greybeards”), and the 108th Colored Infantry Regiment.
Meanwhile, the Ordnance Corps had selected MAJ Kingsbury, former commandant of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, to command and oversee the construction of Rock Island Arsenal. However, shortly after Kingsbury took command of the arsenal, Rock Island was becoming a much more promising site for a “grand national arsenal” once again. Much of this movement came from an 1864 survey by GEN George D. Ramsey who informed Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “there is no position which presents so few objections as Rock Island.” GEN Ramsey cited the large number of natural resources, transportation, and natural defense that was afforded by Rock Island. By 1865, the decision had been made to transform the construction of Rock Island Arsenal from a small arsenal for repair to a grand national arsenal and armory. Kingsbury left shortly after this decision, leaving the task to (B)BG Thomas J. Rodman.
Rodman was tasked with the completion of Rock Island Arsenal’s first building, Storehouse A (modern day Building 250) and its clock tower. He was then charged with drafting the layout for this new planned arsenal construction. Rodman’s plan called for a total of twenty stone buildings which included ten stone shops and ten stone warehouses at the center of the island. The north Arsenal Row would take care of smaller personal materiel such as canteens, silverware, rifles, leatherworks, and more. The south Armory Row was to take care of larger pieces such as carriages, artillery, and eventually recuperators. Construction of the ten stone shops began in 1868 and lasted through 1893. Three of the ten warehouses were completed as well, but the other seven were never constructed. Rodman also designed the plans for Quarters One through Four on Officer’s Row, with Quarters One being completed shortly before Rodman’s death in 1871. Rodman organized the arsenal during his tenure. This included the consolidation and relocation of the previous post cemeteries, including the Confederate cemetery and the moving of the railroad bridge. MAJ Daniel W. Flagler oversaw completion of the new iron bridge in 1872, which also included a wagon and pedestrian crossing – the first ever at the crossing from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa.
Over the subsequent years from 1893 to present, the Rock Island Arsenal has undergone significant changes and rose to meet many challenges. It has and continues to sustain and support a community and a nation during times of World War and smaller scale conflict. The arsenal transitioned to have a senior command overseeing it in 1955 with the establishment of Ordnance Weapons Command (OWC), while the arsenal itself remained a mostly independent entity. Rock Island Arsenal, the factory, was realigned under the Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) in 1997. The last arsenal commander was in 2004, when garrison functions were transferred away from the factory and manufacturing sector. COL Jerry B. Elliott was the last formal arsenal commander, with the garrison function falling under the Installation Management Agency, Northwest Region Office. This agency was absorbed by the new Installation Management Command in 2006. Despite these changes, the Rock Island Arsenal has stood and remains ready for whatever challenges it faces.
The ASC History Office and its predecessor command history offices have invested much time and effort in the preservation and recounting of the history of Rock Island Arsenal. After all, Rock Island Arsenal has been home to all of ASC's predecessor commands among many others. This rich history of the Rock Island Arsenal has been composed into The Illustrated History of Rock Island Arsenal and spans three volumes.
The ASC History Office is actively editing and researching to build and expand upon this historical anthology. For your convenience, the entire history of Volumes I through III is included here. Click here to download a copy of this text.