Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Artifacts, planned museum raise profile of 'forgotten' Camp Douglas prison in Chicago

Recent dig near Pershing East Magnet School (Michael Gregory)

Some heard through word of mouth, others through social media posts. Armed with curiosity and perhaps a hat to better weather the sun, they came to the grassy lot near a school on Chicago’s South Side – willing to dig, fill buckets and sift through dirt.

About 50 volunteers assisted the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation late last month in its fifth excavation aimed at pinpointing features of the little-known Civil War prison camp and gathering artifacts for a planned museum.

“People said, ‘Hey, I just would like to do this,’” said David Keller, a retired banker who is managing director of the 5-year-old foundation.

Archaeologists and volunteers, excavating about 3 feet down in three units, uncovered a Federal uniform button with an embossed eagle and grommets that may have been part of a rubber blanket at the camp. They also found a dark stain in the soil that may have been the remnants of a wooden post. The discoveries will undergo further research.

Button may have been on vest
Rubber attached to grommets (Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation)

Of course, they also find items in the sand and clay that may not be part of the Civil War period. Those items are kept so that other groups or institutions may further research them.

“We find very curious things,” Keller told the Picket this week. “We found in one of the units about a half a dozen clay smoking pipes and pieces of them. Very elaborate, some with floral designs, some very demonic. We have one with the devil and the fiddle.”

The pipes, some of which were made by the Noel brothers of Lyon, France, may indeed be from the period.

For Keller and archaeologist Michael Gregory, an assistant visiting professor at DePaul University, the digs generate public interest and help bring the story of Camp Douglas out of obscurity.

“Camp Douglas wasn’t wiped off the face of the Earth,” said Keller.

In a sense, it was. The prison’s 200 structures went down when the site was dismantled in December 1865. What used to be a rural tract just outside city limits became part of Chicago’s rapid growth. The community, known as Bronzeville, was an African-American mecca during the “Great Migration” of the early 20th century. The South Side was a cultural bulwark and drew numerous black entertainers, including Louis Armstrong.

Camp Douglas largely faded into history.

Besides a cemetery containing the mass grave of 4,000 Confederates who died at the prison, Chicago currently offers only two signs that mention Camp Douglas -- hence the foundation’s efforts to build the museum that will resemble one of its barracks.

Confederate POWs at Camp Douglas (Library of Congress)

Keller, author of “The Story of Camp Douglas: Chicago’s Forgotten Civil War Prison,” said the 2012 discovery of the camp headquarters foundation was an important find.

“We want to better tie specifically where the camp was,” he said. “We don’t know where the stockade fence was found.”

Previous excavations found the letter “B” from a Union cap and the bowl of a tobacco pipe that would have been attached to a reed stem. Experts at the American Civil War Museum are confident the pipe, found about 10 yards from June’s dig, was of the period, Keller said. “It was the pipe of choice of the Confederate soldier.”

The recent excavation, said Gregory, demonstrates that physical evidence of the prison “has not been completely destroyed by urban development.” While the foundation has been able to dig on public property, much of the 60 acres is covered or in private hands, with no accessibility.

Keller said he believes the artifacts are the first military items found in Chicago in 100 years. “Whatever we can find that is part of the history of the camp is important to us.”

'Andersonville of the North'

Camp Douglas originally served as a training facility for Illinois soldiers being rushed to regiments at the front. Much of the site was converted to a prison camp.

“Had the military been involved (the site) never would have been selected,” said Keller. “It was noted for its flooding, swampy conditions.”

(Library of Congress)

The U.S.Sanitary Commission, during an inspection, found that the “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 … was enough to drive a sanitarian mad.”

It earned well the sobriquet “Andersonville of the North.”

Officials estimate 1 in 7 Confederate prisoners died, although the exact number is not known. Keller said he believes between 5,000 and 6,000 perished.

In his book, Keller tells Camp Douglas’ story through the eyes of five POWs who kept journals.

“There were haves and have nots in the prison. There were people who lived pretty well, and there were those who lived deplorably,” he told the Picket. “It was not a pleasant place, but it was not as bleak as the Lost Cause tries to paint it.”

Untrained officers and guards and a constant change in commandants made matters worse. And soldiers who were taken prisoner during the Civil War had no training in how to weather the crisis and survive.

One exception, Keller said, were members of Confederate Brig. Gen. John H. Morgan’s raiders, captured in 1863. By then the parole and exchange system had broken down, and the raiders knew their stay at Camp Douglas might be lengthy.

By not allowing a comrade to starve and by sticking together, they endured death rate about half of the general prison population, according to Keller.

“They didn’t cooperate with the prisoner officials. They tried to escape. They refused to sign anything. They kept faith in their fellow prisoners and respected their chain of command.”

Pipe bowl likely used at Camp Douglas
Pipe with devil/fiddle theme (Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation)

Choices and consequences

Several times a month, Keller gets information requests from descendants of Confederate soldiers held at Camp Douglas.

In central Georgia, the staff at Andersonville National Historic Site tells the story of the infamous Confederate prison there and answers questions from those curious about other facilities.

It is very common for folks who are interested in Andersonville to be familiar with the names of other large prisons, traditionally Elmira and Douglas,” said Stephanie Steinhorst of Andersonville. “Those prisons tell the parallel story of Confederate prisoners of war, and the choices that United States commanders made during the war.”

Steinhorst said visitors struggle to grasp the scope of Andersonville’s misery.

She continued: “At the National Prisoner of War Museum, we have highlighted the stories of prisoners of these other locations, like Douglas, through programs and some of the museum exhibits.  Each prison could have thousands of pages of text about their struggles, because each page could be one of the lives that passed through the gates.  However, our site was not built immense enough for every name and every image.  We begin the conversation and then hope that people go home, carrying the questions of prisoners of war to their local historical societies, the National Archives, the town church, the historic site, or better yet, their own family tree. ...”

(Michael Gregory)

Plans for museum, soldiers database

The foundation wants to builds it museum – which will include references to African-American troops who were trained at Douglas – “sooner rather than later,” Keller said, adding it is close to securing a location within the camp’s confines and is negotiating details.

Once that is worked out, the group hopes to raise $2.5 million to build, equip and operate the venue, which will resemble a single-story barracks that was rated for 100 occupants, but sometimes held 300, a sign of the prison’s overcrowding. The barracks were 90 feet by 24 feet.

Keller said he would like to see ground broken this fall.

In addition to its small collection of artifacts, the foundation wants to display items from the Chicago History Museum, including the camp chapel bell, and other institutions. The owner of a locket made by a prisoner also has expressed interest in loaning that item.

The interior would include bunks, mannequins playing cards, photographs and a video loop.

Also in the plans is a database of the prisoners. Nearly 30,000 Confederates went through the camp. Most of the dead are listed on plaques at Oak Woods Cemetery. The National Archives and Ancestry.com have nearly 12,000 additional names, though they are not currently searchable.

Keller has several hundred names given to him. “If I can get between 15,000 and 20,000 names, I would be pleased.” The foundation would like the database – when possible -- to include names, units, capture date, capture location and the soldier’s disposition.

(Michael Gregory)

In the meantime, the foundation continues its education outreach by speaking to various groups and at schools.

Steinhorst, with Andersonville National Historic Site, said every Civil War prison failed to protect human life.

“Men died in these places and the legacy of any of the Civil War prisons is how did they survive, what did the survivors want us to understand, and how can we learn from their sacrifices. The study of prisons needs to be based on the flaws and merits of each prison as a single moment in history,” she told the Picket.

“To compare them, and shape all your understanding on which is worse or who is to blame is a lost opportunity. We hope that when folks visit places like Andersonville, Richmond, Elmira or Point Lookout that they find space to explore the complexities of the story and connect to the landscape. After the crucible of captivity it was the survivors, women, and freedmen who called for memorials, monuments and ceremonies.  Today, we live in the legacy of their work, and the work continues.”

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