Ghosts of Camp Douglas

Ruthieki/flickr

If the Band had needed another verse in their Confederate dirge, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” the Union Army’s Camp Douglas would provide stirring material. The former site of the camp runs four blocks west from Cottage Grove Avenue to King Boulevard, and two blocks north from East 33rd Place to East 31st Street. Established after the outbreak of the Civil War as a temporary Union training and housing outpost, Camp Douglas eventually became the most infamous prisoner of war camp in the Northern States.

After the Union victory at Fort Donelson, the camp–which takes its name from Senator Stephen Douglas–was converted into a holding tank of sorts for the Confederate soldiers captured by General Grant. Before the end of the war, 26,000 Confederate troops would be imprisoned in Camp Douglas–and roughly a quarter of them wouldn’t make it out alive. The officers placed in command of Douglas had a range of opinions on how best to police the inmates. Their punishments were often severe: they practiced hanging offenders by their thumbs and shot escapees on sight. Appalling sanitation conditions due to the camp’s swampy locale cemented Douglas’s notoriety as a literal sinkhole.

The history of Camp Douglas seems especially poignant this time of year. Halloween’s parallel in Christian theology is All Souls’ Day, which recognizes the dead trapped in limbo. Camp Douglas is responsible for the 6000-plus Confederates interred in a mass grave in the South Side’s Oak Woods Cemetery. These souls are consigned to anonymity while nearby monuments pay homage to Enrico Fermi and Jesse Owens. While such treatment of POWs is clearly abhorrent, the Confederates had even more sinister plans. The historian I. W. Ayer recounts a Southern sympathizer noting that, “if once at liberty, [the prisoners] would send abolitionists to hell in a hand basket.” Perhaps All Hallows will be liberty enough for Dixie’s undead.