Irving Block Prison

...Memphis' Notorious Civil War Prison

 
 
Irving Block Prison 1864

During the Civil War, a row of office buildings on Second Street, opposite the northeast corner of Court Square had been used as a Confederate hospital.   The original buildings dated from 1860 and were among the first in the city to have iron fronts.   After the fall of Memphis in 1862, the Union Army turned them into a Civil War Prison to house Confederate sympathizers.  As a prison, conditions became so deplorable that even the prison commandant was dismissed in 1864, but he was re-instated at the request of General Grant.   The prison had become known as "the filthiest place ever occupied by human beings".   It was so notorious that it was eventually closed by order of President Lincoln himself.

The 1864 report to Lincoln stated,  "...the prison which is used for the detention of citizens, prisoners of war on their way to the North and the United Sates soldiers awaiting trial and which is located in a large block of stores is represented as the filthiest place the inspector ever saw occupied by human beings.  The whole management and government of the prison could not be worse!  Discipline and order are unknown.  Food sufficient but badly served.  In a dark wet cellar I found twenty-eight prisoners chained to a wet floor, where they had been constantly confined, many of them for several months, one since November 16, 1863, and are not for a moment released even to relieve the calls of nature.  With a single exception these men have had no trial"

 

 Click on small photos to enlarge them. 

         

At one time  - a marker

The buildings - 1911

The buildings in Postcard

The buildings - 1907   

The buildings - 1937
 
 
   Forrest's Raid on the Irving Block

Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest became obsessed with freeing prisoners from Irving Block Prison, and it was upper most in his mind when he made a daring raid on the Union-held city in 1864.  His raid had three objectives:  to capture three Union generals posted in the city; to release Southern prisoners from Irving Block Prison; and to cause the recall of Union forces from Northern Mississippi.  He struck early in the morning but didn't find the generals, although one, Major General Washburn made his escape to Fort Pickering in his night shirt.  Union troops were also able to prevent the attack on Irving Block Prison.  Although the raid failed in two of Forrest's objectives, he was successful in influencing Union forces to return to Memphis from northern Mississippi, thus providing the city more protection.

   
 

Rare 1863 letter from a Irving Block guard, F. W. Shurman of Rockport, Indiana:  "...I am on guard duty today, We got paid yesterday and some of the boys are a little tight today, the most of Co 'K' was tight last night.  I was not..."  (The letter is a very large file.  Please be patient as it opens)

 

1863 Letter

 

The Loyalty Oath, was a document  signed by persons during and after the Civil War to pledge loyalty and allegiance to the Union. People who wanted to do business with the government, Confederate prisoners of war who wanted parole, Southerners who wanted to be reimbursed for goods taken by foraging federal troops, and Union sympathizers in the South who wanted to govern themselves all took the oath. Some took it numerous times.  In Memphis some of those who refused to sign the Oath were "detained" at  Irving Block.

 

Loyalty Oath

Loyalty Oath

 

Reimbursement:  On the roster of "Civil War Union Prisoner of War Camps", Irving Block is noted as a Type 3 Prison (Old Building converted to Prison).  Maximum prisoners 582, 1 escape*, 3 deaths.  The building was relatively new, having been constructed in 1860 and was an early example of the use of cast iron in Memphis.  After President Lincoln ordered Irving Prison shut down, the block of buildings were re-structured again as downtown offices.  After the war, the heirs of the building submitted a bill to the US Government for the use of and damages to the building.    >

The Irving Block building was in use as shops and offices until 1937 when it was demolished.  It's not known if the building was demolished because of its past history or if it was simply another  "business as usual, Memphis demolition".  It was demolished to build a Parking Garage, which was also demolished in 2013.

        *

Escapes:  Real or legend?  
     
 

Confirmed :  Rev Reuben Burrow, June 20, 1863  >

     
 

Captain M. A. Miller  >

     
 

Friederich "Fritz"  Lilie  >

     
 

Lieutenant Charles Lewis  >

     

       


 
 

Credits

 

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The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commision, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

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