Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Artifacts from site of Chicago's Camp Douglas a window into war, the Great Migration

Minie balls found during Camp Douglas dig (Courtesy of  Michael Gregory)

The 34 bankers boxes are filled with seemingly ordinary items from a Chicago neighborhood that has seen extraordinary change since its days as home to Camp Douglas, a Federal training center and prisoner of war camp during the Civil War.

Archaeologist Michael Gregory plans to further analyze a wide array of these artifacts at his Milwaukee home. There’s the 1908 license tag for a horse-drawn vehicle, a water dish for a bird cage, Canadian cheese tubs and a ceramic dust bin.

“It has been one of the most interesting collections I have ever worked on,” Gregory recently told the Picket.

Nestled in those containers are 200 artifacts related to Camp Douglas. About 4,000 Confederates died at the prison, most of whom are buried in a mass grave. Gregory, formerly associated with DePaul University, has worked with the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation on a half dozen digs in a corner of the camp.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Gregory)

While those excavations have largely found items produced after the Civil War, experts and volunteers have recovered Minie balls, a Union cap pin, smoking pipes, a haversack J-hook, grommets, a spread-eagle button, an 1859 penny (below), and other Camp Douglas items.

Gregory and David Keller, head of the foundation, believe they have clearly identified the camp, though there are significant challenges for urban archaeology.

“The history of the site shows initial significant development between 1900 and 1915.  The property remained substantially unchanged until 1950, when urban renewal affected the area,” said Keller. “There remains about 40% of the property that is available for further study. Alleys and back yards have been identified and offer the best opportunities.”

The excavations, which started in October 2013, have taken place on a grassy lot near a school on Chicago’s South Side. It is in what was the prisoner barracks area in the 60-acre site. The digs have been about 3 feet deep.

U.S. button (Camp Douglas Restoration Found.)
Gregory said it’s difficult to know exactly where in the camp site they are working.

“Our problem right now is we find something that looks like a ditch between barracks, but we will find another feature that would be right in the walkway area,” he said.

One eventual aim is to find a portion of the western stockade wall. “The wall is (elusive) since we cannot find posts or other evidence,” said Keller. “They are likely affected by the development of the property.  However, the streets are largely unchanged.  This gives us a 30-foot area where the fence might have been located.”

Hook for a haversack (Michael Gregory)

Fetid conditions for the prisoners

The Union facility was constructed in an area called Douglas, named for Stephen A. Douglas, the famous Illinois politician.

Camp Douglas originally served as a training facility for Illinois soldiers being rushed to the front. Much of the site was converted to a prison camp. About 26,000 Confederates were housed at the camp during the war.

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

Confederate POWs at Camp Douglas (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.

Pipe bowl likely used at camp (Camp Douglas Restoration Found.)

Area became a 'Black Metropolis'

The prison’s 200 structures went down when the site was dismantled in December 1865. Camp Douglas largely faded into history.

What used to be a rural tract just outside city limits soon became part of Chicago’s rapid growth. A part of Douglas became known as Bronzeville. It attracted German Jews after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was home to the Swift family and the Marx Brothers.

But the biggest change was on the horizon.

Hundreds of thousands of African-Americans came to Chicago from the South during the Great Migration at the turn of the 20th century. They wanted a new start after enduring Jim Crow laws.

1908 license tag for horse-drawn vehicle (Michael Gregory)

While they didn’t get away from segregation, they were able to establish an area where they have left a cultural, arts and economic imprint.

“At the Regal Theater on 47th Street, notable entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington performed frequently, and Nat “King” Cole got his start,” according to articles about the South Side on the website of TV station WTTW. “Other notable Bronzeville residents included boxer Jack Johnson, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, the writer Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others.

The area did run into hard times.

“Following World War II, decades of economic disinvestment and social change, Bronzeville's luster diminished. Businesses shut their doors and African-Americans moved further south due to the elimination of restricted housing covenants,” says a neighborhood council.

Animal bones found on site (Michael Gregory)

The recent decades have been kinder, though, according to an October 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune, crime has remained a problem.

“Today, Bronzeville is experiencing renewed energy and development, with an emphasis on the arts and a respect for the rich cultural legacy that Bronzeville has brought to Chicago as a whole,” writes WWTW. It is a center of African-American enterprise.

There’s been a recent move in Congress to create the Bronzeville/Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.

Digging in a land of asphalt

Gregory has worked on all but one excavation outside the John J. Pershing Magnet School for Humanities on Calumet Avenue. He has studied flood insurance and other maps to learn more about the neighborhood during and after the Civil War.

(Wikipedia/public domain)

The foundation is trying to obtain National Register for Historic Places status for the Camp Douglas site, a move it believes should add protection for what’s left. “A listing is a long shot, but important step in recognition of the camp,” said Keller. “The process should be completed early next year.”

While most of the area is under pavement or has been redeveloped, Gregory said it is important to note that “even if you had 140 years of development, it doesn’t mean archaeological resources have been destroyed.”

Ink well may be from camp (M. Gregory)
Teams were able to find a rectangular pit, but Gregory doesn’t know its purpose. A laundry facility is a possibility. He said he believes some smoking pipes pieces and bowls may well be associated with the Civil War. It’s known that one Confederate POW procured or made them for comrades.

Many camp subsurface features have been destroyed by development, along with an untold number of artifacts, since the war. Still, Gregory believes future excavations may find camp-related ditches and footings.

“We have had some residents in the area who said they would be happy for us to bring ground penetrating radar in their yard,” said the archaeologist. “It may provide little windows” into Camp Douglas’ story.


  1. Hello, all. I have noticed a spike of page views from at least one source. Any particular page, Facebook or otherwise?

  2. 'Confederate Prisoners of War' facebook page. FYI: We, Native Sun Productions, produced a documentary on Camp Douglas for the History Channel called, "80 Acres of Hell". Very important, fascinating, and too long overlooked piece of history. Thanks for a good article!

  3. Hi, Phil. Thank you for writing this interesting article. I'm an Illinois native, and I have a blog, Confederates from Iowa: Not to defend, but to understand. Your article reminds me that becoming a prisoner of war was an ever-present risk for many soldiers in blue and in gray.