Skip to main content

Rock Island Army Arsenal in Illinois: Civil War History and More!

I live in Houston and have worked as a nurse. I have a lifelong passion for traveling, nature, and photography (preferably all together!).

Tanks rumbling past us the day we were visiting Rock Island Arsenal

Tanks rumbling past us the day we were visiting Rock Island Arsenal

Rock Island

In the year 1990, when visiting my aunt and uncle in Bettendorf, Iowa, my mother, niece, and I were taken to Rock Island, Illinois, for a day of educational sightseeing.

Rock Island, and Moline, Illinois, join Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, forming the so-called Quad Cities in the midwest portion of our country. Rock Island houses an active U.S. Army Arsenal.

This island sits sandwiched between the mighty Mississippi River and the Rock River.

The beautiful white limestone buildings on Rock Island originate in the 1800s for the most part. One building I noticed had the date 1867 inscribed onto it. The stone came from nearby sources. These limestone buildings are all a part of the U.S. Army Munitions and Chemical Command.

U.S. Army Arsenal

During our visit, we found out that this was the third-largest active arsenal in the United States. Employment consists of about 6,000 people here manufacturing equipment plus the ordinance for our military forces on this 946-acre island.

If one wants to delve a bit further into the history of this particular site, there is the Rock Island Arsenal Museum which originated in 1905. Over 1100 weapons are on display. Some of these weapons on view are domestic as well as foreign.

Besides weaponry, one can learn much about the building of Fort Armstrong, which was on the island until a fire destroyed it in 1855. The portrayal of the Black Hawk War between Indians and the ever-enlarging United States (at that timeframe) is on view inside the museum.

The people involved and the manufacturing processes from the past are also on view in the Rock Island Arsenal Museum.

The photos below show some of the tanks and other equipment available for up-close viewing. The history of warfare comes alive when seeing these sinister-looking appliances adorning the grounds of Rock Island Arsenal.

Earlier History

Fort Armstrong was one of the original frontier posts built after the War of 1812. At times the population of the fort was decimated by diseases like cholera which ran unchecked in those days. A fire finally destroyed the fort in 1855. A historical plaque marks the site of Fort Armstrong on Rock Island.

Black Hawk was a famous Indian War Chief. The Black Hawk War ended between the Sauk and Fox Indians in 1832, and the United States government desired the lands the Indians had occupied.

Scroll to Continue

Read More from WanderWisdom

The Treaty of Fort Armstrong took place on this site, and the Indians gave up land west of the Mississippi River (some 6 million acres!) and ceded it to the United States.

After gaining much notoriety and being taken to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Andrew Jackson of the United States, Black Hawk, along with his tribe, retired peacefully and lived out the rest of their lives on a reservation in Iowa. But before that, he was paraded through much of the northeast as an oddity. Many white people had never previously seen an Indian!

Black Hawk was an influential person, and we have many portraits and books written about his life. He is the author of the very first autobiography by a Native American. The famous Black Hawk will continue to be known because today, many schools and other buildings bear the name of this most historic of figures in American history.

Cemeteries on Rock Island

Visitors can learn more information about the Confederate prison camp, located here from 1863 to 1865 of the Civil War. During the Civil War, many Confederate prisoners were sent to the detention camp on Rock Island, where they were held until the end of the war.

Conditions were very primitive in the beginning as prisoners started arriving before the camp was fully operational. As time progressed, more things were put into place for sanitary reasons, housing, etc.

Approximately 12,000 prisoners were detained there, and almost 2,000 of them did not survive to leave when the war ended.

Much of this was due to disease. Sadly, part of it was food deprivation as "punishment" for the Union soldiers' treatment in another camp. Inhumane efforts from the Confederates holding Union prisoners of war spilled over to the equally bad treatment of their imprisoned comrades once this became known. "Tit for tat," as the old saying goes, or from the biblical perspective, "An eye for an eye."

Because of this, there is not only a Veteran's Cemetery on Rock Island for about 18,000 soldiers who served the United States, but there is also a Confederate Cemetery in a separate section of Rock Island that is equally well maintained.

While walking and viewing the Confederate grave markers, suddenly, the ground started to reverberate. We soon found out the reason. We heard them and felt them under our feet before we could see the tanks roll past us on some military exercise. The deep rumbling sound accompanies the earth-shaking experience.

This experience was a new piece of personally acquired knowledge for me! There would be no doubt during any warfare involving the use of tanks that the opposing force would readily know when these noisy and heavy tanks were approaching. In other words, there would be no chance of a stealth attack!

When looking at the Confederate grave markers, we noticed the points on the tops of them. Supposedly, that was intentional to keep Union soldiers from sitting comfortably on top of the gravestones!

Rock Island Golf Course

The military base on Rock Island has a golf course, and what makes this one a bit unusual are the golf tees. They have red and white golf tees shaped like bullets!

Lock and Dam Visitor Center on Rock Island

Lock and Dam # 15 is fifteenth in a chain of twenty-seven similar locks and dams starting in St. Paul, Minnesota, and running down to Granite City, Illinois. About 60,000 people annually visit this site, and there is no entrance fee.

There are exhibits about the Mississippi River, including the part played by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in the construction and maintenance of these sites.

One can readily view the operation of the locks as ships regularly pass through this part of the mighty Mississippi River. Iowa and the Illinois sides of the river are easily within view from this perspective.

I hope you enjoyed your visit to this particular area of the country (via this post) and learned a little about its history.

Rock Island Arsenal, with the display of military machines and weaponry along with the beautifully kept cemeteries, will reside in my memory along with the fascinating history that accompanies that location for some time.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Peggy Woods

Related Articles