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Camp Douglas Prisoner of War Camp

Search, View, Print Union & Confederate Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865

Camp Douglas was the largest training camp in Illinois. On the east side of the camp was the parade ground and administrative buildings: on the south side was the camp hospitals: on the west side was the actual prison camp.

Camp Douglas, located near Chicago, was originally created as a rendezvous point to train and quarter regiments raised in the Chicago area at the beginning of the war. It was a sprawling training base. The camp was named in honor of Illinois statesman Stephen A. Douglas, whose residence was nearby. The camp was located on the south side of Chicago on grounds used for fairs. The Northern equivalent of the South's Andersonville Prison, Camp Douglas was the most notorious Federal POW camp of the Civil War. Camp Douglas was a gallery of horrors on the fringes of the bustling urban center of Chicago.

When a very large influx of Confederate soldiers captured at battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson would add an another 15,000 prisoners to the Union's rolls, there was a frantic search for places to confine them. Camp Douglas was converted into a prisoner-of-war camp. The first group of 3,200 prisoners arrived at the camp on February 21.

The camp enclosed about 60 acres, which were further divided by interior partitions to create compounds of various sizes. each of these compounds, or squares, was named according to its purpose.

Garrison Square, wich was almost 20 acres, was lined on all 4 sides by the houses of the officers and men. It had a flat and level parade ground in the center of the square. Hospital Square contained 10 acres and served as the camp's hospital. Whiteoak Square contained 10 acres and originally served as the camp's prison. When word of larger number of prisoners were received, the square was combined with parts of the other squares, creating the Prison Square, a compound of 20 acres, along the west and south sides of Garrison Square.

Prison Square contained 64 barracks sitting side by side. Each building was 24x90 feet, with 20 feet partitioned off as the kitchen. The remaining room held tiers of bunks along its walls. Each building was to hold 95 prisoners. The capacity of the camp was estimated at 6,000 prisoners. Eventually, each barrack would hold an average of 189 prisoners, with the average camp population being around 12,000. Within the first month of operation, the camp was at full estimated capacity.

The camp is low and flat, rendering drainage imperfect. Its close proximatey to Lake Michigan, and consequent exposure to the cold, damp winds from the lake, with the flat, marshy character of the soil created a tendency for disease.

Col. James A. Mulligan of the 23rd Illinois Regiment, who had been captured at the battle of Lexington and released on parole, was the first camp commandant. Within the first few weeks of the camp's opening, the escape attempts began. Camp commandants were rotated in and out, one after another, possibly in a feeble attempt to halt the increasing number of escapes and escape attempts. After Mulligan, Col. Daniel Cameron, captured at the battle of Harper's Ferry and released on parole, was the next commandant, followed by Col. JosephH. Tucker. Tucker used 2 detectives, under the guise of being camp prisoners, to inform him of any future escape attempts and the aides of escaped prisoners. Following the constant escapes, some of the next commandants in 1863 were Gen. Jacob Ammen, who took command in January; Col. DeLand in August; and Brig. Gen. William W. Orme in December.

In May 1864, Col. Benjamin J. Sweet took over. He installed some radical changes to prevent escapes. To prevent tunneling, flooring was replaced in the barracks and the buildings were elevated on posts to 4 feet above ground.To prevent escapes by fence, an additional 12-foot high, solid-oak barricade was constructed with an elevated walkway for guards around the existing fences to create a triple plank enclosure from which the guards to look down into the pen. Security was also tightened within the camp. Candles were no longer issued and at daybreak, the prisoners were required to lay in bed until a bugle sounded to signal they were allowed to get up. At the end of the day, the prisoners were not allowed to talk to one another after the went to bed.


The Union victories at Shiloh and Island No. 10 in April brought almost 1,500 more Confederate prisoners into Prison Square. By late summer of 1862, the camp held nearly 9,000 prisoners, and the prison conditions deteriorated. The camp was built on low ground, and it flooded with every rain. During most of the winter months, when it wasn't frozen, the compound was a sea of mud. Steadily, illness and death began to increase.

In January and February 1863 an average of 18 prisoners died every day, for a death rate of 10% a month, more than any other Civil War prison in any 1-month period. The Sanitary Commission pointed out that at this rate, all the prisoners would be dead in 320 days. The majority of prison deaths was from typhoid fever and pneumonia, the result of filth, the bad weather, and a lack of heat and clothing. Other prevalent diseases included measles, mumps, "epidemic" catarrh, and chronic diarrhea.

The president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission inspected the prison and gave a dismal report of an "amount of standing water, of unpoliced grounds, of foul sinks, of general disorder, of soil reeking with miasmic accretions, of rotten bones and emptying of camp kettles.....enough to drive a sanitarian mad." The barracks were so filthy and infested, he said, that "nothing but fire can cleanse them." He proposed that a proper sewage system was needed immediately. Quartermaster General Meigs responded that such an undertaking would be much too "extravagant". After continued pressure by the Sanitary Commission, he finally relented and authorized the construction of a sewer system for the camp in June 1863.

More than 7,000 prisoners were in the camp by September, many of them ill-clad and sick, with only one surgeon to care for them. Conditions at Camp Douglas were horrendous. Disease, hunger, poor sanitation, lack of adequate clothing, and miserably cold weather were endured by the men incarcerated there. By the end of 1863, epidemics of smallpox were emrging at the camp.

The commandant and his subordinates worked in collusion with contractors to reduce the quality/quanity of prisoner rations for personal profits. About the time that Sweet took command of the prison, a reduction in prisoner rations took place by orders from Washington, D.C. The ration was typically 1/2 loaf of baker's bread daily, with about 4 oz. of meat and a gill of beans or potatoes. After the retalitory measures were adopted, the stoves were taken away and all vegetables were cut off from the rations. With the elimination of the vegetables, scurvy occured in epidemic numbers, followed by another smallpox epidemic. Because of the drastic prison conditions, local residents offered refief and assistance to the prisoners, not as a matter of politics but purely out of compassion. This went on for a little while until the Federal Government put a stop to it.

The people of Chicago were curios about the camp and its prisoners. An observatory tower was built just outside the prison gate for onlookers to look at the prisoners, for 10 cents per person. The spectators would go to the top of the tower where, with the aid of spy or field glasses, they could look down upon the camp.

Prisoners and nearby residents helping the camp accumulated enough books to set up a prison library system.

Worst of all was the lack of stoves in the prisoners barracks. All the barracks were greatly in need of repair. Only 3 water hydrants were provided to supply fresh water for the entire camp.

The camp was having escape problems just like any other major prison. When the camp was first opened, many escapes occured when a prisoner darkened his hands and face with charcoal or some other substance and walked out the front gate with other black prison laborers. The use of black loborers was soon ended after this was found out. Tunneling out of prison was the most popular way of escaping. Camp Douglas was one of many camps to to be involved in major Confederate plots to release all of the prisoners.

Captured escapees were put in a place of close confinement, called the lockup cell. The lockup was a room 18 sq. feet large. It was lit by one closely barred 18x8 inch window about 6 feet above the floor. The only entry into the room was by a hatch about 20 sq. inches in the ceiling. The floor was constantly damp, and an intolorable stench radiated from the sink in the corner of the room.

In late 1864, many political prisoners from the surrounding counties were added to the camp upon the discovery of several plots to release prisoners. By then, the camp had a prisoner population of 12,082. During the next 2 months, the camp continued to hold ovewr 11,000 prisoners. During the war, over 18,000 prisoners were held at the camp.

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