Sunday, June 5, 2011

Illinois Civil War POW Camp - Part 3

Camp Douglas - Missing Records

Few are aware of the four Illinois Civil Prisoner of War Camps - Camp Butler; Alton Penitentiary, Camp Douglas, and Rock Island.  These four facilities held approximately 53,000 Confederate prisoners. There were more than 647,000 prisoners captured during the Civil War. Many were paroled in the field, but 215,000 Confederate soldiers (and citizens) were held in Union prisons; 26,000 died while being held.  Of the 195,000 Union soldiers (and citizens) held in Confederate prisons, 30,000 died while imprisoned.

Part 1 of this series highlighted Camp Butler outside Springfield ; and Part 2 Alton Penitentiary, on the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Part 3, takes a look at Camp Douglas, in Chicago, Illinois. 

Ironic - In His Honor Camp Douglas
Camp Douglas is named in honor of Illinois legislator Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas rivaled Lincoln, and died in 1861. The government took control of (or commandeered) his property and built a Union training facility and prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers.

Camp Douglas was originally used as a training camp for volunteer regiments, but with the large number of soldiers captured in the battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, it was converted into an overcrowded holding facility for Confederate prisoners, rivaling that of Camp Andersonville, the infamous POW camp for Union soldiers.

Camp Douglas operated as a POW camp from January 1863 to the end of the war in May 1865.  Statistics of between 17-23% death rate has been quieted, but records support Camp Douglas' mistreatment of soldiers, poor living conditions, and extreme death rate. The camp's barracks and buildings were demolished quickly after the war. 

Observatory Tower
It may come to a surprise to researchers that an observatory tower was built at Camp Douglas for spectators to view the prisoners.  For 10 cents a person onlookers could observe the camp and the prisoners.

This activity may best be explained by the pre-civil war stance of Chicago's white population. Chicago City Council condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  By 1860 there were over 955 free Negroes in Chicago, and 7628 free Negroes in the state of Illinois according to the census. 

Henry Marshall and the Black Confederates
Henry Marshall, Black Confederate
African Americans did serve with Confederate troop as servants, as did Henry Marshall.  If captured they too were imprisoned.  Marshall was one of the African American prisoners held at Camp Douglas. Commonly, reports give the number of eight African Americans were held at the prison. However, the actual number is unknown. Five are known: four were released by order of the Secretary of War;  and one died in captivity. For more information review Black Southerners in Confederate Armies: A Collection of Historical Accounts; Charles Kelly Barrow, Joe Henry Segars. 

Where Interred?
The Confederate soldiers were mistreated (cold, wet, hungry) resulting in up to  6000 soldier's deaths over the span of the war.  Originally the Confederates were interred in Chicago City Cemetery without markers and others were buried in the prison's small pox cemetery that did have individual grave markers.  However, these soldier's final resting place is in the massive unmarked grave at Oak Woods Cemetery on the south side of Chicago.

A monument gives Oak Woods Cemetery credit for being the largest burial site for Southern soldiers in the North. The monument was erected "to the memory of six thousand southern soldiers."  The National Archives - Prisoners and Casualties gives the official death count as 4454, but about 1500 were unaccounted for through record analysis.

Researcher's Nightmare
The 60 acre POW camp held as many as 18000 prisoners during the war.   The exact number is unknown, due to poor record keeping or perhaps to hide the horrific treatment and extreme death rate of its prisoners.  In January and February of 1863 an average of 18 prisoners died a day.  Many froze to death often due to inhumane punishment in Chicago's winters,  but also the spread of small pox claimed about 10% of the 7000 prisoners that year. In a four month period in 1864 over 1091 Confederate soldiers died in Camp Douglas. For more information visit Camp Douglas Prison at

For Union researchers at Camp Douglas, know that there were about 900 prison guards.  There were black laborers early on, but prisoners were able to blacken their exposed features using a form of charcoal, and walk out the front gate disguised as a laborer.  The city black laborers were dismissed, so escapees, healthy enough to do so, turned to the common tunneling method to leave the prison. 

Where to Research?
As mentioned early, Camp Douglas records are grossly incomplete or missing. The fortunate researcher however, may find military records in the military files/folders of the NARA or personal diaries of Camp Douglas survivors. 

Roll of Honor of Burial Places o f Solders, Sailors, Marines and Army Nurses of All Wars of the United States Buried in the State of Illinois may be found at the Illinois State Archives microfilm 1956.  Confederates are identified as Confederate, Rebel, or CSA.

NARA microfilm, M598 - Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861- 1865Captured confederate sailors information may be found in Microfilm Publication M598, additional information may be found on the NARA blog referencing: Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861 -1865. Alton: rolls 13-20.
Suggested Books 
  • The history of Camp Douglas : including official report of Gen. B.J. Sweet : with anecdotes of the rebel prisoners. 1865. Tuttle, Edmund Bostwick. J.R. Walsh, Chicago.
Kathleen Brandt


  1. Thank you for posting on Camp Douglas - a cousin of my great-grandfather was held at this camp for the last six months of the war. The story of the camp during the war and afterward is a compelling one.

  2. To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65 BY GEORGE LEVY

    Congratulations for an outstanding post on Camp Douglas! (one thing, the number of black prisoners that served/died isn't absolute.)

  3. Thanks Greta for stopping by and commenting at the a3Genealogy blog.

  4. Sheila, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Please note that I made the suggested changes in the post. Thanks!

  5. My new book "The Story of Camp Douglas, Chicago's Forgotten Civil War Prison" History Press, 2015. Offers a new look at Camp Douglas and other prison camps from a 19th Century perspective and the diaries and journals of prisoners.