Irving Block Prison

...Memphis' Notorious Civil War Prison

 
 

During the Civil War, this row of office buildings on Second Street, opposite the northeast corner of Court Square had been a Confederate hospital.   After the fall of Memphis in 1862, the Union Army turned it 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
 
 

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 had 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.

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 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".

* One Confirmed Escape:  Rev Reuben Burrow, June 20, 1863  >

       


Your help in updating any information on this page is appreciated. If you have more information, new or vintage photos, please contact Gene Gill <gene.gill@verizon.net>  .  Thanks to Dave French and Maureen Thoni White.

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