Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Test Excavations at Camp Douglas

Posted in Education by Andy Hall on July 2, 2012

Via Michael Lynch at Past in the Present, archaeologists in Illinois believe they’ve uncovered remnants of Camp Douglas, the infamous Civil War prison camp in Chicago.

Under 150 years worth of accumulated dirt, Demel and his team of mostly volunteer diggers uncovered limestone that likely made up the foundation of Camp Douglas, the most important legacy of Chicago’s role in the War between the States.
“It’s exciting,” said Demel, a Northern Michigan University archaeologist, as he stared at a piece of Camp Douglas poking through the dirt for the first time in more than a century. . . .
Named after U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who owned the 60-acre site where the camp’s 200 buildings stood, Camp Douglas was initially a training site for about 25,000 Union soldiers, many of them black.
In 1862 it was adapted as a prison camp. In 1864, anti-war activists staged the “Camp Douglas Conspiracy,” a failed attempt to free prisoners in hopes of disrupting that year’s presidential election, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. By the end of the war, more than 4,000 rebel soldiers had died there — and the final resting place for many of them was Oak Woods Cemetery, where such famed black Americans as Harold Washington, Jesse Owens and Ida B. Wells are buried.
Camp Douglas was demolished after the Civil War, the wooden posts and limestone structures that remained eventually sinking into the Near South Side earth.
Now a small but enthusiastic group of academics and volunteers is trying to bring Camp Douglas back into the city’s consciousness.
“This is probably the most significant Civil War site in Chicago,” said historian Robert Girardi, who was at the dig site early Friday morning.

The full story, along with video, is available here (free registration required).

Camp Douglas was located just back from the Lake Michigan shore on the south side of Chicago, not far from present-day White Sox home at Cellular Field.

This image shows the approximate boundaries of Camp Douglas overlaid in Google Earth. The gold star shows the approximate location of the excavation.



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Escape from Camp Douglas

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on December 26, 2011

James Knox Thomas (1844-1930) was born in Macon, Georgia. Although his family had subsequently moved to Arkansas, by the spring of 1862 seventeen-year-old Knox, as he seems to have been called, was back in Randolph County, Georgia. There, on May 16, he made his mark in lieu of a signature, and enlisted in Company H of what would become the 55th Georgia Infantry.

The 55th Georgia was sent to eastern Tennessee, where in September 1863 most of its number were captured at Cumberland Gap. Thomas soon thereafter found himself at Camp Douglas in Chicago, one of the more infamous Union prison stockades. There, as he would recall almost 40 years later, he and his comrades plotted an escape on the day after Christmas in 1864:

I was a private in Company H, Fifty-Fifth Georgia Infantry. My company was raised in Randolph and Stewart Counties, Ga.; was commanded by Capt. John Allen, whose field officers were Col. Harkey, Lieut. Col. Persons, and Maj. Printup.

On September 9, 1863, while in Frazier’s Brigade, Buckner’s Division, we were captured at Cumberland Gap, and after a tedious journey, were landed in Camp Douglas, a prison in the suburbs of Chicago. In that prison, on Christmas day, 1864, I was walking across the open premises with Bill James, of Company A. of my regiment, and I remarked that if I could only scale the walls I would turn my head toward Dixie. He replied that he could easily arrange for us to scale the wall, but we had no money and no citizen’s clothes. I was a shifty little red-headed fellow, and could generally raise a small amount in case of an emergency, and had already bought me a suit of citizen’s clothes from a Yankee soldier. I told James that I had the money and would get the clothes, but wished to know how he proposed to scale the wall. His scheme was this: he was a laborer in the kitchen department, and the kitchen superintendent, an old Irishman nick-named “Old Red.” had placed a couple of scantlings parallel along the wall of the kitchen, on the ground, for some barrels to rest on, and James proposed to nail some pieces of plank on the scantlings and thus make a ladder. Seeing that his plan was feasible, I then said : “All right; we will go to-morrow night at seven o’clock, by which time I will have the clothes ready. James then replied that we could not hoist the ladder up on the wall by ourselves, and said we would have to get two more companions. I then said: “You choose one of them, and I will choose the other.” He chose Hope Williams, of his own company (A), and I selected Ben Johnson, otherwise known as “Babe” Johnson, of my own company (H). At the appointed time we met at the kitchen, and I was chosen to walk out and see if any of the inside police were near; and if they were, I was to quietly return; if they were not, I was to walk quickly back, pass the kitchen door, whistle, and pass on toward the prison wall to Barracks No. 72, where they were to follow with the ladder. I quietly took the walk, found no police, hurried hack as agreed, and in a few minutes we had the ladder up against the wall. As we accomplished this a sentinel halted us; Babe Johnson instantly sprang on the ladder, and was killed by the sentinel.[1] As Johnson staggered and fell back, James mounted the ladder, followed by Williams and myself, and we all three escaped amidst a shower of bullets. We were clad with citizen’s clothes, purchased by me from the Yankee soldier, and we safely reached the city, and registered at the Sherman House in our own names, but as hailing from Louisville, Ky.

We remained at the Sherman House until five o’clock, the 27th inst, when we took a train for Detroit. We reached Detroit on the 28th, and immediately crossed the river to Windsor, Canada, where we were under the British flag. From Windsor we proceeded by various points to Halifax. At Halifax we sailed for the Bermuda Islands on a British brig, and reaching them we went to Nassau, on the Bahama Islands, and from Nassau we went to Havana.

At Havana I sat for my “photo,” which is herewith submitted [right] for the inspection of my surviving comrades. We remained in Havana two weeks, and then shipped on the blockade runner Fox for Galveston, Tex. Sometime in March [sic., April 1] we reached Galveston, and in attempting to enter the port our vessel was shot to pieces by the blockading fleet, but we managed to reach the shore safely.[2] From Galveston we went to Marshall, Tex., where James decided to remain.

Williams and I proceeded to Shreveport, and thence down the river by steamer to Alexandria. From Alexandria we took it “afoot” across the country to the Mississippi, and crossed it in a blockade skiff. Continuing, we reached Meridian, and there learned for the first time that the war was ended. [3]

After the war, Thomas married Nancy Elizabeth Cowart (1848-1926), and they eventually moved to Texas, where they settled in Montague County. Knox Thomas died on February 27, 1930, at the age of 85. Both he and Nancy are buried in Restland Cemetery at Olney, Texas.

[1] Private Benjamin “Babe” Johnson was not killed outright; Federal records show he lingered for more than two weeks, finally dying on January 13, 1865. He was buried in Grave 470, Block 2, Chicago City Cemetery. His remains were probably among those later exhumed and reinterred at Oakwoods Cemetery. Benjamin Johnson CSR, National Archives.

[2] Fox was a well-known blockade runner, under the command of Simpson A. Adkins. A detailed account of her dramatic run into Galveston on this occasion appears here.

[3] “Escape from Camp Douglas,” Confederate Veteran, Vol. 9, No. 1, (1901), 30.

Image: Confederate prisoners at Camp Douglas, Chicago, Illinois. Via Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, Chicago.