A camp that served a variety of purposes, Camp Douglas was located in Chicago, Illinois. The camp began as a training base for Union regiments but by 1862 it was used as a holding location for captured Confederate soldiers who were waiting to be exchanged.
Located about four miles from downtown Chicago, Camp Douglas was on the southwest side of the city. As increasing numbers of volunteers enlisted in the U.S. Army in mid-1861, they were scattered in makeshift camps and public building around the Chicago area. The camp was named after Senator Stephen A. Douglas, w2ho owned land adjacent to the location. Henry Graves owned most of the property on which the camp was located.
The site was selected by Judge Allen C. Fuller, soon to be adjutant general for the State of Illinois. Unfortunately, Judge Fuller was not an engineer and did not realize that the site was a poor choice for a large camp because of its wet, low–lying location. He selected it because it was close to Lake Michigan for water and the Illinois Central Railroad for transportation.
The land on which the camp was built could not absorb the waste from thousands of soldiers and later prisoners or horses. Each time it rained, the camp flooded and during the winter it was a sea of mud, if the ground was not frozen. There was a severe shortage of latrines and medical facilities from the time of the camp’s initial use through the period of incarceration of the first group of Confederate prisoners in mid–1862.
The boundaries of the camp and the number, use and location of its buildings evolved during the war but certain main divisions of the camp existed for significant periods of time. “Garrison Square” contained officers’ quarters, post headquarters, a post office and parade ground. “White Oak Square” housed both Union soldiers and prisoners until late in 1863.
Prison hospitals and a morgue were located just to the south of the camp in an area of 10 acres known as “Hospital Square”. In 1863, the army built “Prison Square” or “Prisoner’s Square” in the western division of the camp as well as surgeons’ quarters and warehouses. White Oak Square included the original camp prison and the building that would become the infamous “White Oak Dungeon.”
Prisoners who were being punished were subject to close confinement in small, dark and dirty conditions in this “dungeon.” The “dungeon” was a room 18 square feet, lit by one closely barred window about 18-by-8-inch off the floor, with entry only through a hatch about 20-inch (510 mm) square in the ceiling. The room had a damp floor and an intolerable stench from a sink (latrine) in the corner of the room.
Prison Square, which was located along the south and west sides of Garrison Square, was created by combining parts of other squares with White Oak Square and separating the area from other parts of the camp with a fence. Prison Square eventually contained 64 barracks which were 24 by 90 feet with 20 feet partitioned off as a kitchen. Designed for about 95 men, the camp’s barracks held an average of 189 men when the prison population was its highest.
The first Confederate prisoners to be incarcerated at Camp Douglas came from Fort Henry and Fort Donelson which were captured in January and February, 1862 by troops under the command of General Ulysses Grant. The army sent sick prisoners to the camp where there were no medical facilities at the time even though they were specifically warned not to do so.
On February 23, 1862, the Union troops vacated the camp except for the inadequate force left to guard the prisoners. This guard consisted of one regiment of 469 enlisted men and about forty officers.
The first groups of prisoners were treated reasonably well despite the inadequacy of the grounds, barracks and sewer and water systems. They received enough to eat, cooking stoves and utensils and clothing. A good sutler store was set up. Nonetheless, sickness and death among the prisoners, and even among some guards, reached epidemic levels. Frozen hydrants led to a water shortage. One in eight of the prisoners from Fort Donelson died of pneumonia or various diseases.
After the Union Army victory at the Battle of Shiloh and capture of Island No. 10 in the spring of 1862, Camp Douglas housed 8,962 Confederate prisoners. Conditions at the camp further deteriorated with the overcrowding. Escapes increased. Some escapes were aided by Southern sympathizers in Chicago and others were facilitated by the lax administration of camp authorities.
Conditions at the camp improved that summer as almost all the prisoners left by September 1862. About one thousand prisoners took an oath of allegiance to the United States and were freed. All prisoners who were not too ill to travel were exchanged due to implementation of the July 22, 1862 Dix–Hill prisoner cartel. By October 6, 1862, the few remaining prisoners who had been too ill to leave earlier also were gone. Through September 1862, 980 Confederate prisoners and 240 Union Army trainees and guards had died at Camp Douglas, almost all from disease.
At about the same time Union troops who were paroled by the Confederates began to arrive at the camp where they were housed until they were exchanged. Under very oppressive conditions, the Union Army parolees soon became mutinous, set fires and made many attempted escapes. On October 23, 1862, General Tyler brought in regular U.S. troops to stop parolee riots. Eventually, all but one regiment was exchanged. The one regiment remained as guards.
In late February of 1862 all Confederate officers at Camp Douglas were transferred to Camp Chase in Ohio. By the end of the war over 26,000 Confederate prisoners had been incarcerated at Camp Douglas.
Like all Civil War prisons, Camp Douglas had a high mortality rate: one prisoner in seven died in Chicago. Poor sanitation, hastily constructed buildings, and harsh weather conditions were to blame. In June 1862 a U.S. Sanitary Commission agent decried the camp’s “foul sinks,” “unventilated and crowded barracks,” and “soil reeking with miasmatic accretions” as “enough to drive a sanitarian to despair.” By the end of the war more than 4,000 rebels had died in the camp.
Over its years of operation, Camp Douglas had a number of escape attempts. The most famous attempt took place on November 8, 1864 and is known as the “Camp Douglas Conspiracy”. To this day historians cannot agree whether it was an actual attempt or a hoax.
At the end of the war enough Confederate prisoners were recruited to fill ten regiments of soldiers for frontier service. These troops became known as “galvanized Yankees” and were sent to western outposts to fight Indians.
After the war, the camp was decommissioned and the infamous barracks and other buildings were demolished. The camp was gone by the end of November 1865 and the property was sold off or returned to its owners during late 1865 and early 1866. The official death toll at Camp Douglas has been put at 4,454, although put the death toll figure as high over 6,000.