One Civil War prison has tended to receive most of the attention from historians, and with some justification. Andersonville in Georgia was a POW camp that housed up to 45,000 Union soldiers, and nearly 13,000 died from disease, overcrowding, or exposure. After the war, its commandant, Austrian-born Captain Henry Wirz, was arrested, charged, tried by a military tribunal, and hanged.
I’d heard of the POW camp in Elmira, New York, which imprisoned Confederates referred to as “Hellmira.” In 2020 Civil War historian Derek Maxfield published Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp—Elmira, NY. Almost 3,000 prisoners died at Elmira. And I’d heard of the prison at Alton, Illinois, which housed up to 1,900 Confederate prisoners at any given time and at which some 1,500 died. If you add the totals for all prisons, more Confederates died in Union prisons than Union soldiers in Confederate prisons. But the numbers can be deceiving; the totals on both sides were likely higher.)
But a prison camp in Chicago, which started life as an army base near the present campus of the University of Chicago, holds the dubious honor of being the Union prison where more Confederates died than any other. Officially, about 4,400 Confederate prisoners died at Camp Douglas, the highest number of deaths of any Union POW camp. And the number is likely higher because of poor recordkeeping and the destruction of records in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
With its dismantling after the war and development that came later, the prison almost disappeared from popular history. But David Keller (1940-2022), who spent his working career as a banker, had a passion for Camp Douglas. He founded the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation in 2010, served as a docent at the Chicago History Museum, and was a popular speaker on the prison camp and the Civil War. The foundation has conducted four archaeological excavations of the Camp Douglas site.
In 2015, Keller published The Story of Camp Douglas: Chicago’s Forgotten Civil War Prison. The book includes Keller’s extensive studies and investigations, and it sheds considerable light on a long-forgotten story in Civil War and Chicago history.
Camp Douglas, named after Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas (the Douglas family owned land nearby and may have donated some for the army base), opened first as an army base. But by late 1862, prison space was needed for captured Confederate POWs, and the army base soon was accepting prisoners. Overcrowding happened almost immediately, and the site was in a swampy area near Lake Michigan – a disaster waiting to happen for poorly-clothed POWs.
Keller provides both details and context. He explains Chicago’s role in the Civil War and how Camp Douglas was created as a reception and training center for Union troops. He then gives a short but fact-filled overview of how prisoners of war had been treated in America up until the time of the Civil War, pointing out that no one had much experience in housing and dealing with thousands of POWs. He details how the camp was selected as a prison and how the problems of prison life were exacerbated by the eventual ending of prisoner paroles and exchanges.
The author draws upon both what official records exist as well as the memoirs of several prisoners. He looks at prisoner health and medical care, deaths, the reasons for the conditions and deaths at the camp, and how Camp Douglas compared to other prison camps on both sides of the war. Keller also includes a chapter on the Conspiracy of 1864, a plot devised by Southern sympathizers to free the POWs.
The Story of Camp Douglas is an important contribution to a little-known chapter of Civil War and American history, as well as to the history of POW camps in the 19th century. It was Keller’s passion to shine a light on a chapter of Chicago and Civil War history that had long been forgotten.
The True Story of the Andersonville Prison by James Madison Page.
Top illustration: A drawing of the general layout of Camp Douglas.