Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ada Celeste Sweet: Strength In Extraordinary Circumstances

Although the possibility of under aged prisoners has long been conjectured, Ada Celeste Sweet, daughter of Colonel Benjamin Jeffery Sweet, is the only child documented to have actually lived behind the towering walls of Camp Douglas.

From an early age, Ada’s life took extraordinary turns. In the autumn of 1863, the Sweet family was residing in Wisconsin when Ada’s father, formerly a lawyer and Wisconsin Sate Senator, received the assignment to Camp Douglas as part of his service with the Twenty-first Wisconsin Regiment. This promotion immediately divided the family. In conduct highly unusual for the period, twelve year old Ada Sweet accompanied her father to Chicago even though her mother and siblings remained in Wisconsin.[i]

Officers of Camp Douglas were expected to reside within the camp. However, when their family accompanied them to their post, the officers commonly installed their wives and children in comfortable homes within the city of Chicago. This spared their loved ones the harsh, unsanitary conditions of the camp which was not considered a fit place for women and children. Following this example, Colonel Sweet, living as a single father, took up residence in downtown Chicago and enrolled Ada in a Catholic girls’ school.

When William Hoffman, commissary-general of prisoners, learned that Colonel Sweet was living in town with his daughter, he irately reported Sweet to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Unperturbed, Stanton diplomatically directed Sweet to change residence “in order that your personal attention may be given to the affairs at the camp.” Sweet quickly responded that he felt the move unnecessary as his downtown location was ideally located; being close to the telegraph, provost marshal, and quartermaster.[ii] Nonetheless, to please his superiors, Sweet moved to Camp Douglas, taking Ada with him.

By July 15th, 1864, Colonel Sweet and his daughter had taken up residence within Camp Douglas.[iii] Any account of reasons why Ada was not returned to her mother, boarded with a respectable family in town, or left in the care of nuns has been lost to history. What does remain clear is that Ada’s innocent childhood had come to a crashing halt.

While living in Garrison Square, Ada was needlessly exposed to a multitude of deadly diseases and frequently witnessed unspeakable acts of inhumanity. Each day, when Ada returned from school, she had free run of Garrison Square. One of Sweet’s fellow officers recalled the lonely “little girl” darting in and out headquarters in search of attention.[iv] Not yet a teenager, Ada daily witnessed guards forcing prisoners to “ride the mule” which was positioned near the prisons’ gate. Her writing shows evidence that Ada felt deep compassion toward these men.

“The man slipped away from the other prisoners and hide in our basement,…At night when I came home from school I saw him hiding there behind a barrel. I just kept quiet and didn’t say a word. About an hour later his absence was discovered. The alarm was given and a search was made, but it was too late. The man had run the guard and escaped. It was one of those things a child will do.”[v]

Colonel Sweet must have noticed the toll that living within the camp was taking on Ada. He wrote to Hoffman requesting to be allowed to move back into downtown Chicago. Hoffman, while tactful, remained adamant in his belief that Sweet should reside in camp, replying, “I feared that in your absence from camp it would necessarily fall into other and less reliable, hands, and for this reason I asked for the change.”[vi]

While Colonel Sweet was seen as a “reliable” officer who eventually rose to the rank of General, he was a demanding, self-centered father. By age 14, Ada’s formal education had ended. At 16, she literally became her father’s right arm. As his elbow had been seriously injured during the war, Ada was pressed to serve as her father’s secretary and scribe, writing down his every thought while he served as the United States Pensions Agent in Chicago.[vii] Ada continued in this position when her father became a deputy commissioner for the Internal Revenue Service in Washington DC. [viii] She quickly became adept at living in a “man’s world,” keeping matters confidential, and doing an adult’s work professionally.

After her father’s untimely death in 1874, 21 year old Ada was appointed as the Chicago Pension Agent. She held this position for eight years.[ix] Ada was the first female allowed to distribute money for the United States Government.[x] Legend holds that she received her post as a political favor from President Ulysses S. Grant who had learned that the General’s family would not be able to support itself without a steady income.[xi]

“Miss Ada C. Sweet has been made a United States Pension Agent at Chicago. The President has heretofore declined to appoint ladies to responsible disbursing positions, but the ability of Miss Sweet in the administration of the Chicago office while her father was Pension Agent, before he was appointed Deputy Commissioner, induced the President to make an exception in her favor. The Senate confirmed the nomination without the usual reference to a committee. ~ 'The States.'” [xii]

Despite being very effective in her work and making several improvements in the office, a scandal mars her record. In 1876 an investigation of the Chicago Pension Office was conducted after Congressman Hulbert accused Ada of bribing a male pension officer to resign so that she might have employment. Ada, who was no shrinking violet, refused to stoop so low as to answer the charge. The case was never resolved.[xiii]

During that memorable year of 1876, Ada served as president of the Chicago Woman's Club. The membership adored her. Upon her retirement, she was made an honorary life member.[xiv] Ada was also an avid member of the Illinois Audubon Society, and advocated for wild life delivering various speeches including "A Plea for the Birds."

Tragedy haunted the Sweet family. In 1879 when their mother died in a train accident, the Sweet children became orphans. Ada, now a single working woman, was left to rear two younger sisters. Her brother Lawrence had died in August 1872. Another brother ran away and was not found until 1889 when he was discovered working as a ranch hand in Arizona.[xv] Thus Ada and her sisters were left alone against the world.

The task of guiding and nurturing her sisters was not without its hazards. Matilda, whom the family called Minnie, was the Sweet’s second daughter. As a rather impetuous young woman she hastily became engaged to a recently arrived German emigrant. On October 5, 1880, 23 year old Minnie wed Frank Weber. While this couple went on to have two children, their marriage was not a happy one. The youngest sister, Martha Winifred Sweet, was equally headstrong. Winifred failed quite miserably in a career as an actress in New York. However, when she changed coasts, and changed careers at Ada’s urging, she rose to success as the noted “Sob-Sister” journalist Annie Laurie. Winifred gained her fame through writing investigative articles for the San Francisco “Examiner.” She married twice, neither time produced happy results. Made cautious by what she witnessed and her overriding feelings of unwillingness to surrender a hard earned independence, Ada never married. Instead she focused proudly on furturing her career.

(Pensioner Dropped.)
U.S. Pension Agency
Chicago Ill.
July 1, 1883

Wm. W. Dudley
Commissioner of Pensions


I hereby report that the name of Sarah J. DIXON, widow who was a pensioner on the rolls of this agency under Certificate No. 72253 and who was last paid at $8 to 31 Dec 1882 has been dropped because of REMARRIAGE.

Very respectfully,

Ada C. Sweet
pension agent”

Ada was a highly successful career woman at time when most women’s lives centered upon on housekeeping and children. However, her life was never without challenge, notoriety, and adventure. In 1886 Ada visited Europe and upon her return she began work as the literary editor of the Chicago “Tribune.”[xvi]

“Are We A Homeless People?

By Ada C Sweet

Puzzle to me is why so many American women find themselves useless at home – so useless, so uninterested that they can spend time and money in Europe, leaving their husbands to drift about in hotels or clubs or to live in their gloomy half shut houses, attended by servants and without anything that makes a house a home. Here on this side of the ocean…..”

Following her father’s example, Ada always strived to further her career. In 1888 she became an Untied States Claims Attorney and held the position until 1905.[xviii] Yet, even in this position of power, Ada never forgot what she had seen at an early age at Camp Douglas. She became a political activist and member of the Civic Federation.[xix] She championed the rights of poor working women, worked with women prisoners, and fought for sanitary improvements within the city of Chicago.[xx]

The experience of residing in Camp Douglas where unsanitary conditions and common childhood diseases claimed the lives of thousand marked the course of Ada’s adult life. In 1890 Ada worked doggedly to raise funds and donate the very first ambulance to the Chicago Police Department. In 1892 she founded the Municipal Order League of Chicago. As its first president, Ada successfully lobbied for the creation of a department of street cleaning. Instead of being collected by a variety of private contractors, trash was now collected by the city and incinerated.[xxi] Ada also lobbied for public bathhouse citing that poor women often lived in tenements which had no facilities for bathing. Ada believed that every woman, regardless of her social class, deserved a safe place to bathe herself and her children. Ada was active as a suffragist and lent her name and strength to the movement. Indefatigable and never contented with the status quo, Ada worked on. In 1894, Ada organized the Columbian Ambulance Association in connection with the Chicago police department.[xxii] Concern for public health ran in the family. Ada’s sister Winifred wrote an undercover article for the San Francisco “Examiner” detailing the plight of poor working women who fell ill in public and the often brutal treatment they received from police officers and medical personnel.

Ada was a strong, invincible woman who refused to view herself as incapable of anything that could be accomplished by a man. She was simply not the sort to settle for the victim’s lot or tolerate pity. Her short story, “Poor Miss Pym,” which is the work most descriptive of her personal ethos, was published in “Harper’s Magazine” in 1899. Autobiographical in nature, the story tells the tale of an older single woman who, after witnessing the failing and abusive marriages of several friends, delivers a paper to a civic club objecting to the “idea that a woman who remains single is an object of pity.” Sadly, the “friends” of her story were in reality her own mother and sisters.

Ada tried to enter semi-retirement in 1905 when she became an editorial writer for the Chicago Journal. However she proved a most prolific writer, and contributed to a great number of newspapers and magazines. [xxiii]

“Don't make too much of the faults and failings of those
around you even be good to yourself, and don't harry your
soul over your own blunders and mistakes.

__ Ada C. Sweet”[xxiv]

Ever restless and striving for something more, Ada returned to full time employment in 1911. She served as manager of the women’s department of the Equitable Life Assurance Society until 1913.[xxv] Finally, in her late 60’s, age and the longing for closer family ties caught up with Ada.


What music sings no words could say,
And all the hidden springs of tears
Start forth into the light of day,
Grief has again its first sharp dread,
And disappointment cuts anew;
Mine eyes behold the loved and dead
And weep again the lost and true.
All the sweet voices heard no more,
And dear faces that have flown,
All the bright hopes my young life bore,
My heart recalls with every tone.
The smothered sweet of harp and flute
The human thrill of violin,
Make all my soul stand still and mute,
While memories flutter out and in.

Ada C. Sweet”[xxvi]

Lured by the warmer climate and the desire to live near her sister Winifred, Ada left Chicago for San Francisco. By the time of the 1920 Census, Ada had settled in Santa Rosa, California and in 1922 she was included in a "Who’s Who among the Women of California" which listed California’s Women Artists, Writers, and Musicians.[xxvii] On September 17, 1928, Ada died at the home of her sister, Mrs. Winifred Black Bonfils, (Annie Laurie) in San Francisco, California.[xxviii] Ada was 72 years old and had run a good race.

“Miss Ada Celeste Sweet

Special to the New York ‘Times’

CHICAGO. Sept. 17 – Miss Ada Celeste Sweet, A past President of the Chicago Women’s Club and pension agent at Chicago during the Administrations of Grant, Hayes, Garfield and Arthur, died today at the home of her sister, Mrs. Winifred Black Bonfils, at San Francisco, according to word received here. Born in Stockbridge, Wis., Miss Sweet was the daughter of General Benjamin J. Sweet, whose office of Pension Commissioner she filled after his death.”[xxix]


[i] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 13, p. 207
[ii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 13, p. 218
[iii] Kelly, Dennis. “ A History of Camp Douglas Illinois, Union Prison, 1861-1865” p. 65
[iv] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Chapter 14, p. 229
[v] Camp Douglas Newspaper File, Chicago Historical Society
[vi] “ Official Records of the War of the Rebellion” Ser. II, Vol. VII, p. 644.
[vii] “Portrait and Biographical Record of Cook and Dupage Counties, Illinios” p. 609
[viii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[ix] New-York Times. May 9, 1876, March 19, 1878
[x] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xi] Wood, Sharon E. “The freedom of the streets: work, citizenship, and sexuality in a gilded age city” By Sharon E. Wood p. 38
[xii] Faithfull, Emily. “Victoria Magazine” Vol. 23 May – October 1874
[xiii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago” Epilogue, p. 368
[xiv] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xv] Abramson, Phyllis Leslie. “ Sob Sister Journalism” p. 34
[xvi] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xvii] Sunday Morning Globe, Washington, D. C.
[xviii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xix] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xx] Sivulka, Juliann. “From Domestic to Municipal Housekeeper: The Influence of the Sanitary Reform Movement on Changing Women's Roles in America, 1860–1920”
[xxi] Chicago Metro History Education Center. “Chicago Women History”
[xxii] Waterloo, Stanley and Hanson, John Wesly, Jr. “ Famous American Men and Women” p. 434
[xxiii] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xxiv]Haines, Jennie Day. “The Blue Monday Book”
[xxv] Pierce, Bessie Louise. “ As other See Chicago” p. 317
[xxvi] Tourgee, Albion W. “Our Continent” Vol. 2 July – December 1882
[xxvii] Loughporough, Jean. “Who’s Who Amount the Women of California 1922”
[xxviii] Osborne, Georgia L. “ Brief Biographies of the Figurines on display in the Illinois State Historical Library” #110
[xxix] The New York Times, September 18, 1928

Sunday, May 23, 2010

June 1864: Starvation and Torture

On June 1, 1864, Colonel Sweet wrote to his superior William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisons, describing the improvements he had made in the arrangement and policing of Camp Douglas.[i] However, the changes which had been instituted at the camp by Colonel Sweet were not effective against escape attempts. That very night, prisoners made a coordinated attacked on the fence.[ii] Various groups of prisoners smashed the lamps while others rocked the fence. Darkness and motion inhibited the guard’s ability to shoot escaping prisoners as yet another group chopped their way through the fence with axes. Only one guard managed to discharge his gun from the parapet. Nevertheless, patrols on the ground, armed with pistols, halted the attempt and sent the various groups of prisoners fleeing for cover. Enraged, Sweet wrote to Hoffman saying that the rifles used by the guards on the parapets were too old and had been condemned.[iii] He went on to suggest that the prisoners were no longer afraid of these weapons and that he wanted new ones. In retaliation for the escape attempt, Sweet and the War Department reduced rations to starvation levels. When on considers that no one, guard or prisoner, had been injured, this actions seems unjustly punitive. The order written by Hoffman, lists the following:

Daily rations per prisoner:

14 ounces fresh beef
10 ounces pork or bacon in lieu of fresh beef
16 ounces flour or soft bread
14 ounces hard bread in lieu of flour or soft bread
16 ounces Cornmeal in lieu of flour or bread
12 ½ pounds of beans or peas per 100 rations
8 ounces rice or hominy per 100 rations
15 ounces potatoes per 100 rations

Every other day the sick and wounded were to have twelve ounces of sugar, five pounds of ground or seven pounds of green coffee or one pound of tea to every one hundred rations. Sickness increased and hygiene became an issue as soap was issued at 4 ounces per 100 rations.[iv] Hoffman noted that the saving incurred by the reduction of rations could be placed in the prison fund and used for making further improvements to the camp.

“The carpenters are at work again today. After dinner a Yankee told some of the men that we would have to move into the barrack opposite us, which caused a stampede to secure bunks. I got a middle bunk. The regiment that was in it moved to another barrack and gave us full possession, and we moved in. The barrack was very dirty and the balance of the evening was spent in cleaning out. It is also old and rickety and will have to be put on posts and remodeled. Both ends are now open.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[v]

Middle bunks were considered the most choice as leaking roofs affected the top most bunks and cold drafts the bottom most. Yet, none of the bare wooden bunks offered a comfortable night’s sleep.

Further complicating the difficulties of the lack of food were new “mess orders” which forbade anyone to enter the kitchen area of the barracks save the designed cook and two members of the water hauling detail.

“It is rather difficult to escape but now and then some fellow is lucky enough to do so. Several of my old companions have gone to another barracks and my only way of passing time is with my pencil and guitar but it is hard to get strings so I use my pencil more than my Music…They have taken our cooking vessels from us and instituted kitchens and shortened our rations giving us nothing but pork and bread and not quite enough of that .I do not mean fresh pork. Oh! No but salt picked pork. Old and fat and not water enough to wash it down. It is rather tough living but we stand it. I think if the commissioner were here for a week they would agree on an exchange.”

~Private William D. Huff[vi]

“James Terpin the Patrol in charge of our barrack No. 27 made us throw all the cooking utensils, boxes, bottles, old cloths etc. out in a pile, and scour up all the plates, cups, spoons, etc. and put them in our bunks. A few vinegar bottles, cigar boxes and scoured coffee pots were allowed to be kept. Nearly all our shelves were knocked down, and we have a general clean up. Notice was given us that if any person was caught in the kitchen except the cooks and the water details after today they would be punished. The kitchen for each Barrack had been partitioned off of the end of each barrack.

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry [vii]

Men who had long been mess mates and who had cooked together pooling their rations for group survival were now separated. This virtually ensured starvation for those who were not regrouped with friends.

"We are all out of rations and had to go without breakfast. The kitchen is furnished with a two pound boiler and a cooking stove. Henry Elder our commissary sergeant has charge of the kitchen. The following men volunteered to cook under him. Geo. Kersey from Co., A, Bolin G. Roberts from Co. B, Robert Feuston from Co. C, Ed Force from Co. D, and Gabriel Williams from squad 24. Rations for ten days were hauled to the kitchen. The first meal, a late dinner, consisted of a small piece of yellow corn bread and fat pickle pork per man. We drew it through a slide window between the kitchen and the barrack, in messes of ten, and it was then divided by the heads of the messes to suit the men. James Allen is the head of mess No. 7 the mess that I and Henry White are in, but we draw our mite together and eat it in our bunk or on the floor. My old mess have disbanded. Pa and Falles are together, Beach and Miller are together, and old Jerry Murphy is by himself.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[viii]

Prisoners quickly discovered that the only means left to procure a diet that would insure survival was to either make purchases from the sutler at greatly inflated prices or to write to every friend and family member begging to have packages of food and clothing sent as quickly as possible.

All packages sent to the prisoners were inspected for contraband items. It was not uncommon for inspectors to help themselves to handfuls of cigars or boxes of apples.

“Sunday June 5th, 1864. Weather pleasant. We have had a short roll calls for the last week, but this morning all the prisoners were marched in two lines around the whole prison near the dead line, and several columns through the square. Then Capt. Sponable assisted by Lieut. Proseus and some sergeants and corporals belonging to the patrol guard, counted the prisoners off in squads of 100 each. As soon as a squad was counted the left was advanced about six paces, the right standing firm, making a quarter right wheel, then they were allowed to sit down. When all were counted we were notified that a blue jacket had been stolen from the workshop, and that we would be kept where we were till we told who got it or where it was. This was news to me and it appeared to be the same with everybody else. An hour passed off and no tidings of the jacket. Capt. Sponable then told us that he would let us go to our quarters, and if the jacket was not found by one o’clock he would call us all out again. We were glad to get off for the most of us had not eaten breakfast yet. My mess was just pouring out the coffee when the roll call bugle sounded. When we returned we found everything cold and the fire out. I went to the express office and when my name was called I went in. The Yankee took a handful of cigars out of my box and then gave it to me. On arriving at my barrack I found the box to contain the following articles: A gray jacket and vest, and some socks, soap, crackers, marbles, and two novels for myself. A hat, socks, soap, thread, a pair of shoes, and part of a box of cigars for Pa. Also a hat and a pair of shoes for Estus Garret of 2nd Kentucky, which I immediately delivered to him in person. Everything came that the list called for. The box was started from Lexington, KY on the 1st inst. Making only three days on the way as it arrived at the express office yesterday. Shanks is now writing at the express office. We were not called out again. I think the jacket was found. There was no work done today. We moved our stove into the barrack.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[ix]

Burke went on to record that by June 6th “a good part of the camp” was out of rations and “it will be three or four days till we draw again.” While Burke and his father could eke by on food sent by family and friends, other prisoners starved.

“Our rations were most radically changed. All vegetables were cut off, and tea, coffee, and sugar became things of the past. One third of our bread was cut off and two thirds of our meat, the later being salted shoulders. Men were hungry now.”

~ R. T. Bean, Company I, Eight Kentucky Cavalry[x]

“The papers say that the U. S. Government can’t afford to issue any more coffee, sugar, or molasses. This is certainly very unwelcome news to us”

~Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xi]

The Official Records shows that the elimination of coffee, tea, sugar, and molasses was a retaliatory move intended “to reduce the ration to that issued by the rebel Government to their own troops.”[xii] General Halleck, general in chief of the Union army, held Confederate prisoners in contempt and saw no reason to offer them a prison diet which was better than the diet the Confederate Army provided its soldiers in the field. Halleck failed to take into account that soldiers in the field could (or rather had to) forge for additional food stuffs. Furthermore, it was the Union blockade of Southern ports and waterways know as the Anaconda Plan which had effectively ceased Southern trade with other nations and caused wide spread shortages of coffee, tea, and sugar.

Forced labor continued with Colonel Strong demanding details of six men a day from each barrack “two to bring water and cut wood for the kitchen, two to keep the barrack and street in front well swept, two to carry out the waste water.” Prisoners were also conscripted to dig ditches, move lumber, and improve the streets.

By the middle of June, the prisoners were surviving on scraps and cooking only two meals per day. Despite the mass starvation, Sweet’s focus remained on superficial appearance. To impress inspectors and visiting members of the public, Sweet maniacally dressed his frail and dying prisoners up in new clothing.

“Friday June 17th, 1864. Weather pleasant. Our rations have given out, and we are living on scraps. There has been a good deal of clothing issued by the Yanks to the needy in the last four or five days, consisting of shoes, dark blue pants, gray jackets or coats, high crowned gray hats, cotton drawers, woolen shits, and a few socks, by the rules of war. When a Government holds prisoners of war a certain length of time or till they become needy, the Government is required to clothe them. So we have a right to the clothing. Most of the workhands have been working for clothing which they could have gotten without working if they had only waited. The majority of the prisoners are against working for the Yankees in any form. Two prisoners got into the Yankee camp and escaped over the fence by means of a ladder where there was no guard. I did not learn their names. I coughed part of the night."

~Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xiii]

Illness was ever present. Prisoners who managed to survive, watched those around them die in alarming numbers. While priests and ministers were allowed to visit the sick in the camp’s hospital, it required the urging of Chicago’s mayor before Sweet allowed nuns from his daughter Ada’s school to distribute food to those in the hospital. The nuns showed their appreciation by baking cakes for the guards.[xiv] One of the priests from St. James Church baptized 250 men. Sadly, 77 died soon there after. These baptism records are the only surviving Camp Douglas record that show the prisoner’s ages. They were as young as 17 and as old as 50.[xv]

J. P Parker died June 12th 1864
A. W. Johnson died June 18th 1864 of smallpox at Camp Douglas

-Company Deaths Recorded in the Diary of Ezekiel A. Brown , 62nd North Carolina[xvi]

“Monday June 13th, 1864. Weather pleasant. At roll call Frank Boyd of Company A was reported to have died at the hospital.”

~Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xvii]

William Henry Adams again wrote home on June 19th to describe the failing health of his brother George:

"He is sinking slowly. He don’t seem to suffer much but is very weak. It seems very hard for such a boy as George to be compelled to suffer so long."

George Forbes Adams lingered on, suffering for another month before his death.[xviii]

Homesickness beleaguered the prisoners.

“I wrote home. We drew rations, but no coffee, sugar, or molasses. Morgan is in Kentucky with a scattered force and has possession of Mt. Sterling, Winchester, Crab orchard, Richmond, Maysville, Cynthiana, Paris, and is near Lexington. Gold is quoted at $1.973/4. I got up on a barrack with some work hands and had a fine view of the lake and country. I saw a crowd collected at the race track nearby waiting for a race. The country looked green and the houses looked clean and comfortable. The people walking about as if there was no war going on, and here I have been wasting part of the prime of life in this miserable place as a prisoner, and not knowing how much longer I will be forced to remain. I could not help envying them their liberty, yet I try to be contented.”

~Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xix]

While his prisoners starved, Sweet was intent on keeping up appearances and expanding his camp. Prisoner’s Square now boasted Nightingale’s store where prisoners could purchase food and other various items from this close friend of Sweet’s at highly inflated prices, an express office where prisoners could send letters home and receive packages, a pharmacy, and D. F. Brandon’s photography studio where carefully staged photos of the prisoners were taken. Sweet plead with Hoffman asking permission to build 39 additional barracks “which would give a capacity to hold 11,880 prisoners, or would accommodate, by placing a few more men in each barrack, in round numbers, 12,000 men.”

Finally, cravings for power and control must have overtaken Sweet’s reason. Abandoning all ethics and humanity, Sweet instigated a brutal punishment system which pushed those prisoners on the brink of breaking right over sanitie’s edge.

“I saw one poor fellow who had lost his mind for fear of starving to death, and his cries for bread were pitiful in the extreme.”

~ R. T. Bean, Company I, Eight Kentucky Cavalry [xx]

No system for insuring the humane treatment of prisoners was in place, nor did it appear that anyone thought that such a system should exist. A punishment first conceived in 17th century Spain as an executioner’s torture device was revived and pressed into use at Camp Douglas. Similar to the “Spanish Donkey” which was designed to cleave a victim’s body in two, this new device consisted of a thin pointed rail suspended between two posts some ten to fifteen feet from the ground. It became known as “The Mule.” Prisoners were forced to sit upon the pointed rail with their weight resting against their anus, scrotum or coccyx. The guards often increased the suffering of their victims by attaching weights to their feet or placing large beef bones in their hands. After several hours, the force was so great that it severally damaged the area between the legs.

“There were some of our poor boys, for little infraction of the prison rules, riding what they called Morgan's mule every day. That was one mule that did the worst standing stock still. He was built after the pattern of those used by carpenters. He was about fifteen feet high; the legs were nailed to the scantling so one of the sharp edges was turned up, which made it very painful and uncomfortable to the poor fellow especially when he had to be ridden bareback, sometimes with heavy weights fastened to his feet and sometimes with a large beef bone in each hand. This performance was carried on under the eyes of a guard with a loaded gun, and was kept up for several days; each ride lasting two hours each day unless the fellow fainted and fell off from pain and exhaustion. Very few were able to walk after this hellish Yankee torture but had to be supported to their barracks.”

-Milton Asbury Ryan, Co. G, 8th MS Regiment[xxi]

“If the least sign of water or spit was seen on the floor the order was, Come, go to the mule or point for grub, which was to stand with the legs perfectly straight, reach over, and touch the ground with the fingers. If the legs were bent in the least, a guard was present with a paddle which he well knew how to use.”

~ T. D. Henry[xxii]

“June 28, 1864. Weather pleasant. We drew a loaf of light bread per man for one day. I got up on a barrack and had a view of the country. The Yanks have fixed a frame near the gate with a scantling across it edge up, and about four feet from the ground, which they make our men ride whenever the men do anything that does not please them. It is called ‘The Mule’. Men have sat on it till they fainted and fell off. It is like riding a sharp fence top.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xxiii]

Hell had been effectively recreated in Chicago yet, those who permitted it felt fully justified in their actions. Parades of spectators flocked to the camp as if they were visiting a zoo.

“Two carriages full of ladies and a lady on horse back drove through camp this evening. Citizens and ladies often appear on the parapet through the day and take a look at us. They are always accompanied by an officer and only stay a few minutes. They are not allowed to speak to us or we to them.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xxiv]

Sweet seemed to enjoy this public attention, especially the attentions paid by ladies of the upper class. While Sweet generally met with request from clergy and church groups with annoyance, he happily permitted the ladies of Grace Church’s Camp Douglas Hospital Aid Society to nurse prisoners housed in the prison’s hospital.

For the prisoners, there was nothing left but the daily challenge of endurance.

“Life in the prison was going from bad to worse. Half-fed, cursed, kicked, and abused for imaginary more that real misdemeanors, hope was dead and life an existence only that gave no promise of relief or escape. Our guards had been changed several times, but that brought no change in our favor. The meat furnished us was salted pork shoulders, and that was telling upon us. The scurvy broke out in a most virulent and aggravated form. Lips were eaten away, jaws became diseased, and teeth feel out. If leprosy is worse than scurvy, may God have mercy upon the victim! It was shocking, horrible, monstrous, and a disgrace to any people who permitted such conditions to exist…The scurvy sent many a man from Camp Douglas to his grave, and many more bear today its cruel. Loathsome scars. Our cries for relief were unnoticed; and the greater our sufferings, the more satisfaction it seemed to give our captors.”

~ R. T. Bean, Company I, Eight Kentucky Cavalry[xxv]

“Time like a sweeping billow, rolls steadily on, and nothing as yet intervenes to break the dull monotony of our prison life. Every day nearly the same thing is repeated. Our fare is poor, mostly bread and water and a small quantity.”

~ Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xxvi]


[i] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII, 184-185
[ii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII, 187-188
[iii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII 187-188
[iv] Official Records, Series 2, 7: 183-184
[v] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[vi] Excerpts from the Diary of William D. Huff Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities http
[vi] Bean, R. T. “Se://
[vii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[viii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[ix] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[x] Bean, R. T. “Seventeen Months in Camp Douglas.”
[xi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII, 150 -151
[xiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xiv] Levy, George. “To die in Chicago” Chap 13, pp. 216-217
[xv] Levy, George. “To die in Chicago” Chap 13, p. 217
[xvi] The Civil War Diary of Ezekiel A. Brown,
[xvii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xviii] The Wartime Letters of William Henry Adams
[xix] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xx] Bean, R. T. “Seventeen Months in Camp Douglas” p. 270
[xxi] Ryan, Milton Asbury. “Experience Of A Confederate Soldier In Camp and Prison In The Civil War 1861-1865”
[xxii] Henry, T. D. “Treatment of Prisoners” p. 278
[xxiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xxiv] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xxv] Bean, R. T. “Seventeen Months in Camp Douglas.”
[xxvi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 1864: Gradual Erosion

Prisoners at Camp Douglas circa 1864[i]

Any hopes that Colonel Benjamin Sweet, new commander of Camp Douglas, would show more mercy than Strong were purely in vain. Sweet quickly became known as a strict displinarian, increasing the already harsh punishments.[ii] Sweet forbid prisoners to receive boots in package from home. Further, Sweet eliminated candles from the rations citing that the prisoners had been using candles when attempting to tunnel out. He refused to to hear logical arguments that candles were used to light the barracks and hospital after dark.[iii] Reductions in the prisoner’s rations were made as money saving matters. Saving money impressed the higher uppers and Sweet was a career minded man who took great pains to the curry favor of his superiors.

“His tenure in command was marked by a zealous enaction of punitive measures endorsed by higher Union authorities. His measures resulted in the deaths of over 5,000 rebel prisoners.”[iv]

Sweet’s one show of concern was for his for his twelve year old daughter, Ada. His father's heart over came his ambition when he selected not to live at camp.[v] Officers often selected to have their children live away from the camp due to disease and poor sanitation. However, they themselves were expected to take up residence upon commision.

The camp itself continued to collect curious crowds of “sight seers.”

“Thursday May 5th, 1864. Weather pleasant. A procession of thirty citizens walked in two ranks through the principal part of camp headed by Major Skinner. A prisoner put on citizens cloths and came near passing out the gate with them as they left and escaping, but some short minded prisoner in the crowd standing by hollowed at him and caused the Yanks to notice him, and ordered him back. Notice was givien us that no more lights would be allowed after sun down, and we must go early to bed.”

- Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry [vi]

Sweet, concerned that prisoners might attempt to bribe guards if they were allowed to retain cash, ordered daily searches of the prisoners and of their barracks. Sweet also insisted that all money currently in the hands of prisoners be placed in a camp banking system. Most prisoners refused to do so as they found their own hiding places far more secure. When Hoffman, who had not been consulted regarding this new banking system, learned of Sweet’s actions; he promptly canceled Sweet’s banking system.[vii] Sweet, who had his eye on moving up the ranks, was very careful to never disappoint his superior again.

Rumors and underground gossip continued to circulate amongst the prisoners. There was talk of the sutler being forced out and replaced by a friend of Colonel Sweet’s, the possible reasons behind the rising price of gold, and the results of Battle of the Wilderness and various engagements near Spotsylvania, Virginia.

“We are all very eager to hear the news of the great battle between Gens. Grant and Lee in front of Richmond, Virginia. We are confident of Lee’s success and the impregnability of Richmond.”

- Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry

Diseases continued to take their toll on the prisoner population. Burke sorrowfully recorded that his father, Elijah Watkins, and William Gibbons had made a “neat wooden marker” for the grave of their comrade William Wasson. It is unclear that the marker was ever placed as Burke further recorded that the bodies of smallpox victims were not allowed to be moved for a prescribed period after death.

On May 24, 1864 Colonel Sweet held a Roll Call and counted 5, 277 prisoners.[ix]

“Tuesday May 24th, 1864. Weather pleasant. At roll call we were notified to fall out again at 1 o’clock p. m. to have a general count. Most of us donned out best cloths as a precautionary measure, as we expected to have the barracks searched during our absence. At the appointed time the bugle sounded and we fell in line. The different regiments and squads all marched into out square and were formed in lines running parallel with our own. There was ten or twelve lines two deep, each stretching across the prison square making quite a show of Confederate troops. The Daguerreanist then took a picture of the whole crowd. We were counted off and divided into squads of one hundred and sixty-five each. A small squad had to be added to the old fourteenth to make the required number. Companies E, F, and Scott’s men formed a squad with Sergeant John H. Miller in charge of them. Pa has only to attend to our squad. We were out four hours but were allowed to sit down part of the time. After we were dismissed I learned that the total was 5,227 prisoners in camp. Gold is quoted at $ 1.85 ½ today.”

- Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[x]

On this day Sweet began to institute ruthless changes he felt were need to prevent escapes. While some of the changes appeared quite logical, others were additional money saving ploys. Major Skinner lobbied for the elimination of tea while Ninian Edwards, of the infamous beef scandal, advocated the exclusion of rice and vinegar. The prisoner’s rations no longer prevented scurvy. If the men could not manage to supplement their diets with food purchased from the sutler, bartered with other prisoners, or received in packages from home, they became seriously ill. Almost everyone went hungry. Some were literally starving.

“… starvation was carried on quite systematically. Our rations for breakfast consisted of five ounces of bread and six ounces of fresh beef. As the rations for two hundred men were boiled in a sixty-gallon kettle, it was necessary in order to cook it done, to boil it to shreds. In fact there was no more nutritious matter in it than in an old dish cloth, for dinner one pint bean soup and five ounces of bread, this was our living. This was not regularly issued, for the slightest offence would cause the captain's direful anger to be aroused, and as he would make most by stopping our rations this was quite a favorite punishment.”

-T. D. Henry, Company E, Duke's Regiment, Second Kentucky Cavalry, General J. H. Morgan's command[xi]

Under constant stress brought on by over work, over crowding, abusive punishments, lack of sanitary conditions, and lack of food; the prisoners sometimes took out their frustration upon each other. Burke recorded a fist fight which took place between Joseph McCarney and Doctor Scroggin who were both residents of “Smith’s barracks.” The doctor’s brother, Abner Scroggin, joined the fray. This prompted McCarney to draw his knife. As the fighting continued, McCarney cut both brothers. Abner Scroggins, the most injured party in the fight, went to the drug store while Joseph McCarney was spotted in the square and conscripted to fill dirt carts. When news of the fight reached Lieutenant Proseus, he and a sergeant sought out McCarney for questioning. As the sergeant drew his gun, Lieutenant Proseus relieved McCarney of his knife. McCarney was then hit, kicked, and ordered to “the dungeon.” A group of officers gathered before the dungeon and discussed the matter. As a crowd of prisoners looked on, McCarney was pulled from the dungeon, strip searched, and beaten one more. Patrols drew their guns and ordered the crowd of prisoners back to their quarters. Meanwhile Doctor Scroggin’s wounds had been dressed and Abner Scroggin had been sent to the camp hospital by ambulance. Less than a week later, Abner Scroggin died.

Conscription into work gangs was relentless. Sweet had selected to continue the barracks reconfiguration begun by Orme. Ruthless guards selected any prison that looked idle or appeared to be spreading camp gossip for work details. Burke recorded that the work was hot and hard and worse by the scarcity of drinking water.

“Sweet completed another rearrangement of Prisoner’s Square on June 1, with streets 50 feet wide and four barracks on a street. This arrangement moved them away from the fence and prevented tunneling. Thirty-two barracks sat on blocks, and prisoners white washed them inside and out. They measured 90 feet long, including a 20 foot add-on kitchen, and could house 165 men with two to a bunk.”[xii]

The grounds, which had been a sea of mud all spring, became an arid dust bowl as summer approached.

“Monday May 30th, 1864. Weather windy. I volunteered to help push a barrack that was on its way across the square. I worked two hours and quit. We drew rations for ten days. The following is what my mess of eight gets for the ten days: meal 24 cups, pickle-pork 22 lbs, hominy 4 qts, fresh beef 18 lbs, light bread 24 loaves, parched coffee 4 pts, molasses 3 pts, sugar 5 pints, salt 1 qts, potatoes, 1 peck. No soap flour candles, pepper, peas, beans, or vinegar were issued this time. Our beef and bread is not issued all at once, but we draw them in three different drawings during the ten days, so that we get them tolerable fresh. It is impossible to stand out five minutes without getting our eyes and faces full of sand and dust. I notice that nearly all the Yanks wear green goggles to protect their eyes. The sand blows about in drifts. I often think that the Yanks were not much to blame for wishing to go prospecting in the South, as their own country at least this part of it is not fit to live in. Gold is quoted by the evening papers at $1.91 ¼. A considerable rise.

- Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xiii]

[i] Chicago Historical Society
[ii] Heidler, David Stephen, Heidler, Jeanne T. and Coles, David J. “ The Encyclopedia of the American Civil War,” p. 345
[iii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 13, p. 208
[iv] Dodge, Russ. : Bio of Benjamin Jeffrey Sweet. Find a Grave
[v] Flynn, John J. “Handbook of Chicago History” 1893, p. 345.
[vi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[vii] National Archives Record Group 393, v. 234, pp. 384-385
[viii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[ix] Record Group 393, National Archives, v.234
[x] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xi] Deposition of T. D. Henry, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876. No. 4. April - Pages 273 - 276
[xii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 13, p. 211.
[xiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry

Friday, April 23, 2010

April 1864

A group of Morgan’s Men photographed as prisoners on April 29, 1864. This photo was likely taken by D. F. Brandon.

Conditions were no better at Camp Douglas. Both long roll calls and escape attempts continued as the order of the day.

“April comes in wet and cold this morning. Had to get out to roll call at sun rise and stand for an hour or so more. It is bad enough to stand for that long but when we have to stand for 2, 3, or even 4 hours it is almost beyond human endurance and this is the case if any one of the men is missing. It is [hard] indeed to keep 4 or 5,000 men freezing because one or two is missing but we have to stand until the missing one is found. Many of the prisoners have escaped lately by tun[n]eling but that is about ‘played out’ now for they are raising all the [barracks] 4 feet off the ground.”

-Private William D. Huff[i]

“Sunday April 3d, 1864. Weather a little cool. We were kept out at roll call three hours and a quarter to find one missing man. When the bugle sounded to break ranks several of the regiment hollowed for joy and two of the guards threatened to shoot them. We have a mean set of guard with one exception, a little corporal by the name of Norton. WE nicknamed the four privates, viz: Old red, Jack Curd in disguise, Hessian Dutchman, and the Wild Irishman. Old red alias O’Hara is the most vindictive. He is always on alert, watching for a chance to shoot somebody. I often hear it whispered through the ranks, lookout, here come Old red. He bayoneted several of the men, and we have no particular love for him. A sergeant, two corporals, and five privates have charge of us, most of them I have named above, have to guard us at roll call, make details clean up in and around the barracks, and see that our rations and fuel are hauled to us. They also patrol the camp at night, and are independent of the regular guards on the parapet. Just at dark I took a walk through camp to see how the lamps at the foot of the fence threw their light. I found that the lamps were so close together and the light so brilliant that it would be almost impossible to get to the fence without being discovered by the guards on top. I was standing in the shade of one of the barracks arguing to myself the chances of dropping on the ground close to the fence in the darkest place and quietly digging under or cutting a plank, when Major Skinner and two other officers turned a corner near me with a lamp. The Major asked me where No. ten barrack was. I told him I did not know. He then said never mind, and passed on. I followed at some distance and passed them, halted at the door of one of the Chickamauga prisoners, where religious meeting was going on. I could see the officers I had just passed, in conversation with some reb. Another prisoner passed them and came to where I stood. He said the officers asked the reb if he (the reb) had not applied for the oath. I made up my mind that the reb was a treacherous scoundrel giving information to the Yankees, and returned to my quarters.”

-Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[ii]

Burke further recorded in his diary that on April 4, 1864 the prisoners sent a petition to Major Skinner asking to change the roll call so as to not cause the prisoners to stand outside for two or three hours in inclement weather. Major Skinner made no reply to their request.

In Washington, Abraham Lincoln was fielding complaints from fellow Kentuckians. Kentuckians with family, political, or business connects to Lincoln, felt it their right to attempt to sway his opinions.

A. G. Hodges, Esq. Executive Mansion,
Frankfort, Ky. Washington, April 4, 1864.

My dear Sir:

You ask me to put in writing the substance of what I verbally said the other day, in your presence, to Governor Bramlette and Senator Dixon. It was about as follows:

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel. And yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government---that nation---of which that constitution was the organic law.

Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground, and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the constitution, if, to save slavery, or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution all together. When, early in the war, Gen. Fremont attempted military emancipation, I forbade it, because I did not then think it an indispensable necessity. When a little later, Gen. Cameron, then Secretary of War, suggested the arming of the blacks, I objected, because I did not yet think it an indispensable necessity. When, still later, Gen. Hunter attempted military emancipation, I again forbade it, because I did not yet think the indispensable necessity had come. When, in March, and May, and July 1862 I made earnest, and successive appeals to the border states to favor compensated emancipation, I believed the indispensable necessity for military emancipation, and arming the blacks would come, unless averted by that measure. They declined the proposition; and I was, in my best judgment, driven to the alternative of either surrendering the Union, and with it, the Constitution, or of laying strong hand upon the colored element. I chose the latter. In choosing it, I hoped for greater gain than loss; but of this, I was not entirely confident. More than a year of trial now shows no loss by it in our foreign relations, none in our home popular sentiment, none in our white military force,---no loss by it any how or any where. On the contrary, it shows a gain of quite a hundred and thirty thousand soldiers, seamen, and laborers. These are palpable facts, about which, as facts, there can be no caviling. We have the men; and we could not have had them without the measure.

And now let any Union man who complains of the measure, test himself by writing down in one line that he is for subduing the rebellion by force of arms; and in the next, that he is for taking these hundred and thirty thousand men from the Union side, and placing them where they would be but for the measure he condemns. If he can not face his case so stated, it is only because he can not face the truth.

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation's condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God. Yours truly

A. LINCOLN"[iii]

Lincoln also received letters from prisoner’s families, begging for their release. These letters did not fall on deaf ears. Amazing as it may seem, Lincoln pardoned a few Kentuckians imprisoned at Camp Douglas.

Much to the delight of the prisoners, the new sutler began to sell several newspapers.

“The Chicago morning and evening papers are kept for sale at the sutler’s at ten cents each. They are the Post, Tribune, and Journal. The Times is a copperhead paper and its sale forbidden in camp since the first of September last. It has been smuggled in on a good many occasions at some risk.”

-Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[iv]

A copperhead was the slang term used to refer to Northerner’s with Confederate sympathies.

(NOTE: The following letter is presented in the original format)

“Camp Douglas April 7th, 1864

Dear Sister rec’ your letter of the 23rd with the shirts aso one from Father of later date, answered Fathers several days ago delaying yours also Jo’s til now as the nature of his demanded a hasty reply. My health has not been so good lately owing to the cold I caught during the past winter in the delicate state of my health so I reluctunlly obtained my consent to come to the Hospital one week ago where I have been much pleased with my change. I found very clean comfortable bed quarters good medical attention kind and attentive nurses and a wholesome diet as I could ask, all to my surprise as I always had a horror of the Hospital especially since my last summer’s experience. Think I’ve improved wonderfully; beyond my most sanquine expectations. My bowels are checked, my digestion improving rapidly, sufer no pain, only (principal) complain is debility; feel my strength increasing every day in fact I’ve never been so week as to be confined to my bed. Hope I will not be long ere I recover my former vigor & health. With necessary prudence indeed and the blessing of a kind providence, I feel better and more cheerfull than I’ve felt for months. Tel Father to apply directly to his excellency the President which if he had done at first no doubt would have proved successful, as others have to my certain knowledge lately: be not hasty but use every precaution and advantage. All your acquaintances are well. Have a nice place, plenty of leisure to read: have written Cousin F for reading matter, can hear from him nearly every day or get any little thing I want from the city.

Love to All write frequently to your Devoted Brother George.”[v]

Alas, George Forbes Adams, my second great-grandfather’s fellow 3rd Kentucky Cavalry Regiment member, did not receive a Presidential pardon. Adams died in the camp hospital on July 1864.

Falling ill while incarcerated at Camp Douglas was an extremely dangerous affair. Estimates range as high as one in seven men who entered the camp succumbed to illness. However, with official documents missing or destroyed, there is no way to verify the death toll.

“April 6th, ‘64

Am so sick today that I had to make an application to go to the hospital again. I have had the [flu] for the last 3 days very bad…

April 7th

I am in hospital again but can scar[c]ely tell what I am doing…My head is as big as a sugar hogshead…”

-Private William D. Huff[vi]

By April 10, 1864 the new prison hospital, located between White Oak Square and Prisoner’s, had been completed. While the new hospital proved to be both sanitary and efficient, the prisoners were much more concerned that day by two visiting ladies. Gawking at the prisoners had become sport for the leisure class.

“Sunday April 10th, 1864. Weather cloudy. Three or four rebs are standing on barrel heads at the gate as punishment for various offences. One of them for being caught with several canteens of the over joyful that he had bought secretly from some guard. Several of the reb workmen are at work at the carpenter shop framing some small buildings for the Yanks. The balance of the rations are being issued to the squads that did not finish yesterday. There is rumors afloat that Gen. Morgan and forces are near Bighill, Ky. There has been a low railing about 18 inches high put all around the camp about ten feet from the fence on the inside. It is called the dead line. Any person caught between the railing and the fence is liable to be shot without warning. If out hat blows over a guard must get it or we lose it. Two ladies escorted by an officer passed through the principal part of our camp. And as usual created some excitement among the rebs. One of the ladies actually of her own free will and accord deliberately kissed a reb. My stars how the rest of us envied him. When they came to the crowd near the gate to go out, some reb cried out, ‘Give way to the right and left, let the artillery pass.’”

-Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[vii]

Colonel Strong continued to display his lack of humanitarianism and over step his bounds as garrison commander. New, visually humiliating forms of punishment came into vogue at Strong’s caprice. These included the wearing of placards stating the often minor offense, wearing the ball and chain, and a being secluded within the new dungeon inside Prisoner’s Square. Colonel Strong’s tactics were not only repulsive to the prisoners; the methods were drawing examination by Northern officials.

“Sometimes our boys, for some trivial offense, would be punished by putting them in the white oak, as they called it. It was a guard house made of white oak logs twelve or fourteen inches in diameter, notched down close with one small window in the end. Inside, the wall was a dungeon eight or ten feet deep. It was entered by a trap door, a pair of steps led down into this dark foul hole. It was pitch dark in there; one could not see his hand before him when the door was closed. One who had not been is such a place cannot have the least conception of it. I was thrown in this place for a trivial offense, for attempting to get a bucket of water at a hospital well while our hydrant was out of fix. I spent four of the most wretched hours of my life in that terrible place. I was taken out by the same guard who put me in there, and the cursing he gave me when he let me out would be a sin for me to repeat. I opened not my mouth; I knew better. I received one more genteel cursing while wounded in the prisoner's hospital at Nashville, which I will speak of later on. There were some of our poor boys, for little infraction of the prison rules, riding what they called Morgan's mule every day. That was one mule that did the worst standing stock still. He was built after the pattern of those used by carpenters. He was about fifteen feet high; the legs were nailed to the scantling so one of the sharp edges was turned up, which made it very painful and uncomfortable to the poor fellow especially when he had to be ridden bareback, sometimes with heavy weights fastened to his feet and sometimes with a large beef bone in each hand. This performance was carried on under the eyes of a guard with a loaded gun, and was kept up for several days; each ride lasting two hours each day unless the fellow fainted and fell off from pain and exhaustion. Very few were able to walk after this hellish Yankee torture but had to be supported to their barracks. There was another diabolical device invented; that was the ball and chain route. However that was seldom used unless some of the prisoners attempted to escape and were caught. The chain was riveted around the ankle and the ball at the other end of the chain. It was almost as much as the poor fellow could carry. That was one thing that stuck closer than a brother. It went with him by day and by night, and even lay by his side in his cold naked bunk at night.”

- M. A. Ryan, Company B, Fourteenth Mississippi Regiment[viii]

“If this failed to cause them to tell who assisted them in escaping, they were then thrown into an iron-clad dungeon ten by ten square, with a single window ten inches by ten. Think of a man staying in this place forty or fifty days, when it was as full as it could be, their only privy being a little hole in the floor, from which all the odor arose in the room.

When this failed a sixty-four pound ball and chain was placed upon their leg, with chain so short as to compel its wearer to carry the ball in their hand, or get some one to pull it in a little wagon while they walked at the side, the chain about twenty-eight inches in length. Some of the balls were worn more than six months.”

-T. D. Henry, Company E, Duke's Regiment, Second Kentucky Cavalry, General J. H. Morgan's command[ix]

“One very common punishment inflicted upon the prisoners was by the ball-and-chain route. An iron ball weighing perhaps seventy-five pounds was strongly attached to one end of a chain, and the chain then riveted to the leg of the offender. To walk and carry the ball was almost a physical impossibility, and the possessors made little carts into which the balls were dumped and hauled around. These pieces of ‘jewelry,’ so called, would stick closer than a brother, and their owners were so much ‘attached’ to them that they always took them to bed with them. It was a most excellent idea – it prevented their tolling out of bunks or walking while sleeping.”

-R. T. Bean, Company I, Eighth Kentucky Cavalry [x]

“Tuesday April 12, 1864l Weather cool and cloudy. I wrote to Henry C. Metcalfe of Lexington, Ky. Three of Chenault’s men were caught trying to escape last night. Today they and another for some other offence were balled and chained and put to work at the dirt pile in the center of the square filling the carts that are hauling off dirt. The chain to each iron ball or block is four or five feet long and very stout with a clasp to lock and unlock to fit around the ankle at one end. The ball looks as if it will weight about fifty-six pounds. The men have leather straps tied to their balls to enable them to carry them about when they have to move more than the length of the chain. The men call their balls and chains their time pieces. One of them takes his off on the sly by means of a fiddle string which he doubles and twists in the key hole of the clasp, and unlocks it whenever the Yanks are not about. One of his friends wished to see how it fit on his own ankle, so he sprung the lock and after satisfying himself he proceeded with the assistance of the owner to unlock it with the fiddle string, and it was with some difficultly and a great deal of anxiety to the wearer that it yielded to their efforts. The string having broken three or four times. There is all kinds of rumors about an exchange being agreed upon. Some persons seem to take a delight in starting rumors, and if they hear anything no matter how unreasonable they never rest till they have spread it all over camp. My friend James D______ though a well meaning fellow is one of this class that I noticed particularly. A detail cleaned out the ditches leading from the hydrants, but a good many of the men as usual took the nearest cut to the hydrants jumping or walking across the ditches, which broke in the edges and checked up the free drainage of water. The Patrols getting out of patience telling the men to go around and cross the ditches at the wagon crossing commenced punishing all that they caught jumping by making them jump across the ditch thirty or forty times in quick succession, then making them cross at the wagon crossing.”

-Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry[xi]

In the Western Theater, raiding still remained a viable tactic for the Confederacy. From mid March 1864, Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest had been conducting a cavalry raid into Tennessee and Kentucky. As Forrest’s men returned from Paducah, Kentucky, they made an infamous attach upon Fort Pillow, Jackson, Tennessee. The attack was particularly insidious and question remains as to whether it was intended as retaliation for support given to escaped slaves. White Union officers at Fort Pillow had openly recruited runaway slaves and mustered them into two regiments, the Sixth United States Colored Heavy and Light Cavalry, which served as part of the forts garrison of 292 African American soldiers and 285 white soldiers of the Thirteenth Tennessee Cavalry.[xii]

At 3:30 P.M., on April 12, 1864, Forrest displayed a flag of truce and sent a forth a demand for unconditional surrender:

“The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated as prisoners of war. . . . Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.”[xiii]

Conflict and question surround reports as to exactly what happened during the attack. However, it is believed that Union African- American troops were grievously abused and massacred.

"There never was a surrender of the fort, both officers and men declaring they never would surrender or ask for quarter."

-Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U. S. Heavy Artillery (Colored)[xiv]

Van Horns statement may be correct as numerous Federal rifles were found on the bluffs near the river and theUnion flag remained flying over the fort.[xv] These would normally be indications that no formal surrender had been made. However, as historian and author Jack Hurst sagely notes, “Federals running for their lives had little time to concern themselves with a flag.”[xvi]

It is possible that Forrest tired to assuage the furry of his Raiders and stop them. In a letter written to his wife three days after the battle, Confederate soldier Samuel Caldwell stated:

“…if General Forrest had not run between our men & the Yanks with his pistol and saber drawn not a man would have been spared.”[xvii]

There were also statements made by Forrest's Raiders accerting that the fleeing Union troops kept their weapons and frequently stopped to turn and shoot at their persuers. [xviii] Thus the Raiders claimed any man killed, be his skin black or white, was killed in self defense.

A contemporary newspaper account from Jackson, Tennessee, states that ‘General Forrest begged them to surrender,’ but ‘not the first sign of surrender was ever given.’ Similar accounts were reported in both Southern and Northern newspapers at the time.”[xix]

“Our troops, maddened by the excitement, shot down the retreating Yankees, and not until they had attained the water’s edge and turned to beg for mercy, did any prisoners fall into our hands--Thus the whites received quarter, but the Negroes were shown no mercy.”

- A Southern reporter traveling with Forrest[xx]

Others saw the events in a far different light.

“Surviving members of the garrison said that most of their men surrendered and threw down their arms, only to be shot or bayoneted by the attackers, who repeatedly shouted, ‘No quarter! No quarter!’”[xxi]

"…the poor, deluded negroes would run up to our men, fall upon their knees, and with uplifted hand scream for mercy, but were ordered to their feet and then shot down."

- Letter said to be written by Confederate Sergeant shortly after the battle[xxii]

“I with several others tried to stop the butchery. . . , but Gen. Forrest ordered them [Negro and white Union troops] shot down like dogs, and the carnage continued.”

- Confederate Soldier Achilles Clark[xxiii]

“Northerners, however, saw only one side. They read headlines announcing ‘Attack on Fort Pillow -- Indiscriminate Slaughter of the Prisoners -- Shocking Scenes of Savagery;’ dispatches from Sherman's army declaring ‘there is a general gritting of teeth here’; reports from the Missouri Democrat detailing the ‘fiendishness’ of rebel behavior; and editorials like that in the Chicago Tribune condemning the ‘murder’ and ‘butchery’.”[xxiv]

Writing in his Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recorded his horror upon hearing of the massacre.

“Forrest, however, fell back rapidly, and attacked the troops at Fort Pillow, a station for the protection of the navigation of the Mississippi River. The garrison consisted of a regiment of colored troops, infantry, and a detachment of Tennessee cavalry. These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered. I will leave Forrest in his dispatches to tell what he did with them.”

"The river was dyed," he [Forrest] says, "with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. The approximate loss was upward of five hundred killed, but few of the officers escaping. My loss was about twenty killed. It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners."

All of Washington was in outcry. Lincoln’s Cabinet cried for vengance. Secretary of State William Seward, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton demanded that an equal number of Confederate prisoners should be executed in an act of revenge. Grant himself was so outraged by the events at Fort Pillow he called for the end of prisoner exchanges. With the callousness that only a war hardened General would dare exhibit, Grant reasoned that Federal troops, with their superior manpower, could better withstand the loss of men than the Confederacy which had fewer men and more to lose. Bearing in mind the Confederates disregard for African-Americans, Stanton and Lincoln put the proper political spin on Grants’ barbaric observations. They knew Southern leadership considered black soldiers as mere runaway slaves and refused to afford they the rights of white prisoners of war. Further more, the Confederacy had issued an order calling for the summary execution or return to former owner of any former slave. Northern leadership would have the backing of vocal Abolitionist who were highly reluctant to continue prisoner exchanges under these conditions.

Thus, on April 17, 1864 Grant had political backing when he ordered General Benjamin F. Butler, negotiator of prisoner exchanges with the Confederacy, to demand equality in the the exchange and treatment of all prisoners.

“A failure to do so would ‘be regarded as a refusal on their part to agree to the further exchange of prisoners, and [would] be so treated by us.’”[xxv]

The demand was summarily refused. In regard to the matter, Confederate Secretary of War Seddon coldly stated:

“I doubt, however, whether the exchange of negroes at all for our soldiers would be tolerated. As to the white officers serving with negro troops, we ought never to be inconvenienced with such prisoners.”[xxvi]

In reply, Grant canceled all remaining talks regarding prisoner exchange. As a result, of these actions, both Northern and Southern prisoners continued to strave, endure physical abuse, and die from the uncontrolled spread of disease within the camps while the press continued to sell newspapers on the growing sensationalism surrounding the Fort Pillow massacre.

“On the 12th April, the rebel General [Nathan Bedford] Forrest appeared before Fort Pillow. . . attacking it with considerable vehemence. This was followed up by frequent demands for its surrender, which were refused by Major Booth, who commanded the fort. The fight was then continued up until 3 p.m., when Major Booth was killed, and the rebels, in large numbers, swarmed over the entrenchments. Up to that time comparatively few of our [i.e., Union] men had been killed; but immediately upon occupying the place the rebels commenced an indiscriminate butchery of the whites and blacks, including the wounded. Both white and black were bayoneted, shot, or sabred; even dead bodies were horribly mutilated, and children of seven and eight years, and several negro women killed in cold blood. Soldiers unable to speak from wounds were shot dead, and their bodies rolled down the banks into the river. The dead and wounded negroes were piled in heaps and burned, and several citizens, who had joined our forces for protection, were killed or wounded. Out of the garrison of six hundred only two hundred remained alive. Three hundred of those massacred were negroes; five were buried alive. Six guns were captured by the rebels, and carried off, including two 10-pound Parrotts, and two 12-pound howitzers. A large amount of stores was destroyed or carried away.”

- Harper’s Weekly, April 30, 1864

“The blacks and their officers were shot down, bayoneted and put to the sword in cold blood... . Out of four hundred negro soldiers only about twenty survive! At least three hundred of them were destroyed after the surrender! This is the statement of the rebel General Chalmers himself to our informant.”

- The New York Times, April 24, 1864 [xxvii]

“The Fort-Pillow wounded are doing much better than could be expected from the terrible nature of their wounds. But one, William Jones, had died, though Adjutant Learing and Lieut. John H. Porter cannot possibly long survive. Of the whole number, - fifty-two, - all except two were cut or shot after they had surrendered! They all tell the same story of the rebel barbarities; and listening to a recital of the terrible scenes at the fort makes one's blood run cold. They say they were able to keep the rebels at bay for several hours, notwithstanding the immense disparity of numbers and but for their treachery in creeping up under the walls of the fort while a truce pending, would have held out until "The Olive Branch" arrived with troops, with whose assistance they would have defeated Chalmers.

"So well were our men protected behind their works, that our loss was very trifling before the rebels scaled the walls, and obtained possession. As soon as they saw the Rebels inside the walls the Unionists ceased firing, knowing that further resistance was useless; but the Rebels continued firing, crying out, 'Shoot them, shoot them! Show them no quarter!'

"The Unionists, with one or two exceptions, had thrown down their arms in token of surrender, and therefore could offer no resistance. In vain they held up their hands, and begged their captors to spare their lives. But they were appealing to fiends; and the butchery continued until, out of near six hundred men who composed the garrison, but two hundred and thirty remained alive: and of this number, sixty-two were wounded, and nine died in a few hours after.”

- The Cairo News, April 16, 1864 [xxviii]


The following letter has just been received by Mr. BLOW, of Missouri, respecting the treatment of our soldiers after the surrender of Fort Pillow:



Since you did me the favor of recommending my appointment last August, I have been on duty aboard this boat.

I now write you with reference to the Fort Pillow massacre. I write, because most of our crew are colored, and I feel personally interested in the retaliation which our Government may deal out to the rebels, when the fact of the merciless butchery is fully established.

Our boat arrived at the fort about 7 1/2 A.M., on Wednesday, the 13th, the day after the rebels captured the fort. After shelling them, whenever we could see them, for two hours, a flag of truce from the rebel Gen. CHALMERS was received by us, and Capt. FERGUSON, of this boat, made an arrangement with Gen. CHALMERS for the paroling of our wounded and the burial of our dead; the arrangement to last until 5 P.M. We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead.

I found many of the dead lying close along by the water's edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayoneted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw their bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, any way there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so.

One of the wounded negroes told me that he hadn’t done a thing, and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered; but the rebels kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.

I had some conversation with rebel officers, and they claim that our men would not surrender, and in some few cases they could not control their men, who seemed determined to shoot down every negro soldier, whether he surrendered or not. This is a flimsy excuse, for after our colored troops had been driven from the fort, and they were surrounded by the rebels on all sides, it is apparent that they would do what all say they did, throw down their arms and beg for mercy.
I buried but very few white men; the whole number buried by my party and the party from the gunboat New Era was about one hundred.

The rebels had burned some of the white dead.

I can make affidavit to the above if necessary.

Hoping that the above may be of some service and that a desire to be of service will be considered sufficient excuse for writing to you, I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Acting-Master's Mate, U.S.N.
Hon. H.T. BLOW, member of Congress, Washington, D.C.”

- The New York Times, May 3, 1864[xxix]

On April 22, 1864 The Joint Committee On the Conduct of the War investigated the events of the battle and concluded that Forrest’s Raiders had shot most of the Union garrison after it had surrendered. [xxx] Further research into the events at Fort Pillow was conducted in the 1950’s and again in 2002.

Meanwhile, Camp Douglas had been inspected by John F. Marsh on April 16 1864.[xxxi] Mash showed open distain for Orme reporting:

“General Orme gives very little attention to his command at Camp Douglas.”[xxxii]

These remarks were the last blow Orme could stand to endure. No longer able to contain his distaste for his intolerable position he planned his resignation, affecting his own escape from Camp Douglas.

On April 27, 1864, General Orme fired Colonel Strong and replaced him with Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet whose right elbow had been crushed by a bullet during the Battle of Perryville.[xxxiii] In making this move, Orme chose his successor and got even with Strong. Two days later, Orme resigned as commander of of Camp Douglas, claiming that his health would not permit him to continue. Shortly there after Abraham Lincoln, Orme’s personal friend, urged him to accepted an appointment to the Treasury Department in Memphis, Tennessee. Orme acted as a as a supervising agent. However, his failing health continued to affect his ability to carry out his work and he resigned from the Treasury Department in November 1865. Despairing, Orme returned to his home in Bloomington, Illinois. There tuberculosis, which he had plagued him since serving in Mississippi, claimed his life on December 13, 1866.

[i] Excerpts from the Diary of William D. Huff Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities
[ii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[iii] Lincoln, Abraham. “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”. Volume 7.
[iv] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[v] Wartime Letters of William Henry Adams
[vi] Excerpts from the Diary of William D. Huff Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities
[vii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[viii] Ryan, Milton Asbury. “Experience of a Confederate Soldier in Camp and Prison in The Civil War 1861-1865.”
[ix] Deposition of T. D. Henry, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876. No. 4. April - Pages 273 – 276.
[x] Excerpts From An Account of Prison Life at Camp Douglas By R. T. Bean.
[xi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[xii] Cimprich, John and Mainfort, Robert C. Jr. “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old
Controversy,” Civil War History 28 1982 pp.293-94.
[xiii] Wills, Brian Steel. “ A Battle from the Start: The Life of Nathan Bedford Forrest” 1992 p. 182.
[xiv] Official Report filed by Lieutenant Daniel Van Horn of the 6th U. S. Heavy Artillery (Colored).
[xv] Jordan, John L. "Was There a Massacre at Ft. Pillow?", Tennessee History Quarterly VI (June 1947), pp 99–133.
[xvi] Hurst, Jack. “Nathan Bedford Forrest: A Biography” 1993, p.174.
[xvii] Cimprich, John and Mainfort, Robert C. Jr. “Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old
Controversy,” Civil War History 28 1982 p. 300.
[xviii] Bailey, Ronald H., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, “Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East,” 1985, p.25.
[xix] Cimprich, John, and Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., eds. "Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence About An Old Controversy", Civil War History 4 Winter, 1982.
[xx] Cimprich, John, and Mainfort, Robert C., Jr., Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old
Controversy,” Civil War History 28 1982 p.304.
[xxi] Bailey, Ronald H., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, “Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East,” 1985
[xxii] Foote, Shelby. “The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox” 1974.
[xxiii] Cimprich, John, and Mainfort, Robert C., Jr Fort Pillow Revisited: New Evidence about an Old
Controversy,” Civil War History 28 1982 p.299.
[xxiv] Nevins, Allan. “The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory 1864-1865.” 1971.
[xxv] Fuchs, Richard L. “An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow.” 2002 pp. 143 -144
[xxvi] Fuchs, Richard L. “An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow” 2002 p.144
[xxvii] Fuchs, Richard L. “An Unerring Fire: The Massacre at Fort Pillow.” 2002
[xxviii] William Wells Brown. “ The Negro In The American Rebellion- His Heroism and His Fidelity.” 1867.
[xxix] The New York Times Archive,
[xxx] U.S. Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, "Fort Pillow Massacre", House Report No. 65, 38th Congress, 1st Session.
[xxxi] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII, 57
[xxxii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VII, 57
[xxxiii] Lossing, Benson J. “ Pictorial History of the Civil War in the United States of America,” 2006, p. 449