Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Did Chicago dig find footing for Camp Douglas barracks that held Rebel POWs? Stay tuned.

Gregory believes dark area in photo may have been footing 

While last month’s excavation in the back yard of a Chicago residence yielded a few interesting artifacts – including an 1854 half dime, clay pipe fragments and buttons – what most excited the lead archaeologist was a stain in exposed soil.

Michael Gregory said the 29-inch square stain could be a footing that supported a pier or post that held up part of a barracks used to house Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas during the Civil War. The camp also served as a training center for Federal troops headed for the front.

Gregory cautions that he is not certain about the discovery. That’s why he wants his team of volunteers to return this fall to the Bronzeville residence.

“If we expose a second one, I am going to be pretty well convinced we have found the structural features for the barracks.” He estimates about 66 such buildings were erected.

Detail of rectangular dark spot that may be footing (M. Gregory)
Reverse of coin found early in dig (Michael Gregory)

The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation is trying to find precise locations of camp features in an urban area that has seen extensive development in the past century, and where much of history is covered by miles of pavement and buildings. 

The crew was down about two and a half feet when it found the square, surrounded by circles that may be evidence of fish beds.

“When you get down and look at it closely … you can see where the lighter sand has washed back into the edges,” said Gregory.

I had hoped it would be 12 inches or more deep and yield courses of brick or limestone. As it turns out, the feature is only about three inches deep and did not produce a brick or limestone pad. Still, I think it is a good candidate for a footing.”

Gregory said plans indicate the footings may not have been placed as deep as one might expect.

“The shallowness of the footing may represent the military's belief that the barracks would not be needed for very long and as a result, no more effort than was absolutely necessary was expended on their construction. After all, they were for an enemy who was in active rebellion against the Union.”

Labeled layers of time periods, including CD (Camp Douglas)

The Camp Douglas foundation spoke with archaeologists on the site of another prison, Johnson’s Island, off Sandusky, Ohio, but were not able to glean a sufficient comparison, Gregory said.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that no camp structures exist today. While it has some clues, the foundation is not precisely sure where the sites it has excavated over the past few years correspond with camp plans. Confirming a camp feature would help, Gregory said.

Prosser buttons
Even if the team finds two footings in a row, it may not know if it they are on the north side of a barracks building, or the south.

In late April, 20 volunteers excavated three units in the same back yard where the foundation dug in October 2017, when they exposed a Minie ball.

Photos from this dig show a specific layer for the Camp Douglas period. But, as Gregory noted, some related artifacts are a little out of place because of postwar construction that affected soil levels in the yard.

The half dime was found closer to the surface, and the same was true with a couple Prosser buttons. The buttons are glass-like, made of ceramic and date after 1840.

(Photos courtesy of Michael Gregory)
Gregory's sketch of the excavated soil layers

“The only real reason that coin is there because of Camp Douglas,” said Gregory.

Most of the artifacts, however, found this time date to postwar occupation of the site. “Unfortunately, we did not find any definitive military items, at least among the artifacts I saw.”

The homeowner has invited the foundation to come back in late September or early October to look for a second footing.

“If at that time, we expose a second feature similar in appearance to the one we excavated last month, I will be convinced we have located a barracks, which is exciting to think about, because we can then begin to relate the camp or parts of it to modern urban features, something we have yet to be able to do with any precision and certainty,” Gregory said.

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