A review of To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas (Pelican, 1999) by George Levy

The dead are buried somewhere in Chicago and there are over 4,000 of them—that much we know. Treatment was just as harsh in most other Northern prison camps – worse in Elmira. But at least they keep better track of the corpses produced. Here at Camp Douglas things were done Chicago—style.

Beginning in August of 1864, they started burying the small pox cases right on the Douglas Estate. But over 3,300 others ended up six miles north in the pauper’s section of what was then the old city cemetery. It is now Lincoln Park. Some of the dead may still be there but the graves were shallow, the water – table high. Many washed out into the lake. Many others were probably dumped into the lake -the contractors were getting $1.50 per body, and nobody was looking.

When the old cemetery was closed after the war, the bodies were moved to Oak Woods Cemetery, some five miles South of the camp. Due to the confusion and possible corruption involved (the contract was awarded to a Chicago Alderman and his brother) nobody can say for sure how many dead Confederates are really resting at Oak Woods.

We know this—they have a noble monument, made appropriately enough of Georgia marble, and erected to their honor in 1895 by the Ex-Confederate Soldiers Association of Chicago. President Cleveland attended the ceremonies on Memorial Day. Then, as now, there were those who complained about the presence of a Confederate war memorial in the belly of the Windy City.

George Levy, the author of To Die in Chicago, is an amateur historian who attended the University of Chicago. Back in the 1860’s, the main hall of the University used to be right across the road from the pest house at Camp Douglas. The camp itself rested in part on property originally owned by the famous Illinois Senator whose name it bears.

Levy has done a wonderful job of pulling together obscure and disparate sources to illuminate as best he can a dark and all but forgotten corner of Chicago history.

His study emphasizes just how much of the suffering at Camp Douglas was really unnecessary. The men suffered miserably from a lack of anti-scorbutics but fresh fruit and vegetables were plentiful in near-by Chicago markets. There was an acute shortage of blankets-an item the federals could have easily provided for. But such shortages were no accident —they were imposed by camp commanders as punishment for escape attempts.

Much unnecessary suffering was also caused by the federal military prison system, which rewarded camp commanders who kept the budgets low. The easiest way to do this was to cut the prisoners’ rations.

At times, die men were reduced to catching rats – and eating dogs. There is one grimly amusing anecdote concerning some prisoners who captured a small terrier belonging to a guard, killed it, cooked it, and made soup from the bones. When a reward notice was posted by the guard for the return of his pet, some unknown poet wrote beneath, “’’For lack of bread/ The dog is dead/ For want of meat/ The dog was eat.”

But it was the cold weather that proved the great killer, as deaths from small pox, pneumonia, and typhoid mounted when “the hawk was on the wing” over Lake Michigan, writes the author.

“In November 1864, the death toll was 217, another 323 died in December, 308 in January, 1865, and 243 more answered die long roll in February. The loss of 1,091 lives in only four months was the heaviest for any like period in the camp’s history, and equaled the deaths at Andersonville from February to May, 1864.”

Camp Douglas grew to house over 7,800 prisoners by 1862, making it the largest of the federal prison camps. But it was then emptied briefly that year by the Dix-Hill Cartel, a complicated prisoner exchange agreement negotiated with the Confederacy. It reverted to a prison camp in 1863 when General Grant’s victories began to swell the ranks of captured Secesh.

In February of 1863, all prisoners willing to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Union were offered amnesty. But there were few takers at Camp Douglas; and those who did had to be protected from the wrath of the other prisoners by being removed to special barracks.

Escape attempts, on the other hand, were frequent. Usually, however, the escapees were caught and returned in short order. They were often lured by the flesh-pots of State Street, and collared while boasting of their exploits in some Chicago tavern. On one occasion, recaptured Rebels had found time to file a complaint against a taxi driver who had overcharged them. Nothing changes in Chicago.

In 1864, there was an aborted attempt to free the prisoners from the outside, led by a former Confederate officer in Canada, Henry Thomas Hines. The camp commander, Benjamin Sweet, saw a chance to make a name for himself by using the pretext of a vast conspiracy to arrest many innocent Chicago civilians, including a former mayor; all of whom were tried by Mr. Lincoln’s military courts in a blatantly unconstitutional procedure.

There was, of course, a “deadline” at Camp Douglas, as at all major camps, north and south. For many years after the war, federal authorities denied this, preferring to have the public associate this grim resort exclusively with Andersonville. This was but one of the manifestations of a national amnesia which was continued down to the present time, and which Mr. Levy’s carefully documented study has served to dispel. As Lonnie Speer has observed in his own study of the prison camps, Portals to Hell, the North has been thoroughly hypocritical on this topic. And men suffered with much less excuse in the North, because the resources to take better care of the prisoners were abundantly available to Mr. Lincoln’s government, as they were not to the South. Moreover, it was the North, at the urging of General Grant, that decided to end prisoner exchanges, in order to take maximum advantage of its superiority in manpower.

In 1941, some miserable old shacks were found still serving as tenements to some slum-dwellers in the Cottage Grove area. They were said to have been Camp Douglas barracks. Now even they are gone; and the Camp is consigned to oblivion beneath the apartment complexes and parking lots of south side Chicago. The camp lives now only in memory. But this is one old Copperhead who does not forget.

This piece was originally published in the First Quarter 1999 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.

David Wade

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