Col. William Hoffman probably never imagined that his grave would become a gathering spot for descendants of Civil War soldiers who fought on the side of the North.
But members of the Colonel William Hoffman Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the Union 1861-65 heritage organization gathered earlier this year at the stone marker to honor the man who oversaw operations of the Arsenal Island prisoner-of-war camp. A wreath placed on his grave at Chippiannock Cemetery honors him and shows pride in the society members’ ancestors who served honorably during the Civil War.
“I feel like I’m paying homage to my ancestor. Those people went through so much,” says Stephanie Swanson of East Moline, an original member of the local chapter.
The group was established in 2008 with 13 organizing members, including Kathy Carey, who serves as the registrar and state historian. Its goals are to reach out to the greater community in terms of fostering patriotism, loyalty and education. The National Society was founded in 1912 to honor the men and women who provided services in “the fight to preserve the Union and also to encourage love of America,” according to information provided by Swanson.
Members are required to show documentation proving that blood relatives fought on the Union side in the Civil War and are shown as discharged on the muster rolls.
A painting of her great-great-great-grandfather inspired Linda Walker’s fascination with the Civil War. “That’s what got me into genealogy,” the Rock Island resident said.
Capt. James Johnson served in the 59th Illinois Infantry and died at the age of 28 from health issues related to the war. Walker treasures copies of the letters he wrote to his wife from 1858 through the Civil War years, and she visits his gravesite every Memorial Day.
The chapter chose Hoffman (1807-84) as its namesake because he stayed in Rock Island after the war. He married and raised a daughter, and he and his wife, Mary, started a school for girls in the city.
Walker says several commanders were responsible for getting the Arsenal prisoner-of-war camp going and operating. Hoffman himself endured the uncertain conditions faced by prisoners of war after being captured on the Texas frontier at the beginning of the hostilities. He was held as a prisoner until 1862 when he was exchanged for a Confederate POW and sent to Washington, D.C. Named the commissary general of prisoners, he was placed in charge of building and maintaining many of the Union’s prisoner camps, including the Arsenal Island facility.
He even devised a way to help prisoners who swore an oath of allegiance to the Union to regain their U.S. citizenship, according to Col. Hoffman’s biography.
The life of a prisoner of war was harsh. Hoffman penned a letter stating that he regretted his decision to delay construction of a prison hospital. Too late, he would order it swiftly finished. Almost 2,000 Confederate prisoners would die of dysentery, smallpox and pneumonia. Admittedly, all Civil War troops, free or prisoner, Union or Confederate, were subjected to disease and other harrowing conditions whether they were engaged in combat or not.
Swanson’s ancestor, William Dyer, enlisted at the age of 18 and, according to pension records, alternated between furloughs due to battling typhoid and returning to duty throughout his three-year enlistment period.
She says a family story tells how Dyer was nursed back to health by a neighbor’s mother. However, a bounty hunter evidently thought Dyer was a deserter and would drop by the residence to try to flush him out. Records show that “he couldn’t make a hand” after the war. She thinks that might mean he could not work.
The realities of war and carrying out his assigned duties stayed fresh in Hoffman’s mind for the rest of his life.
“And I will die here in Rock Island. I cannot leave this spot. I cannot desist from walking back and forth among those rows of graves out there on the island,” he wrote, referring to the many Confederate prisoners whose bodies are buried on the island.