Saturday, May 30, 2009

February 1864: Fire, Water, and Misery

The necessity for a sewer at Camp Douglas was again brought to the attention of the quartermaster's department. No immediate action was taken.

The Sanitary Commission returned and made a report detailing the poor condition of the camp’s hospital. They were disgusted to find that inmates were without a change of clothing, covered with vermin, and without proper beds. The death rate was mounting; two hundred and sixty prisoners out of eight thousand died between January 27th and February 18. The commission was quick to point out that at such a rate the camp would be emptied by death in three hundred and twenty days.[i]

Dr. Clark returned to re-inspect the camp. He reconfirmed the lack of sanitation and cleanliness.[ii]

“Sunday February 14th, 1864. Weather pleasant. A case of smallpox was taken outside of the camp to the smallpox hospital, from the next barracks below us, and several other cases are reported, causing considerable uneasiness among the prisoners, and the Yanks themselves. Some Yankee surgeon came around and vaccinated nearly all of the fifth and fourteenth KY reg’ts. I concluded to put it off to see how it served others, not believing that the matter was pure. Pa as Sergeant major of the fourteenth KY got permission to build or partition a room in number eight barrack for his mess. So five or six of us made a double floor and a partition making a room ten feet wide by twenty-five feet long, with one window back and one window and a door front. The prisoners were marched out by regiments and vaccinated. In times of peace this used to be Valentine day, but I see nothing here to remind me of such old times.”

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

On February 16th, William Huff recorded that the weather was almost as cold as it had been in January. He too expressed concern that smallpox was spreading amongst the prisoners.[iv]

The vaccine must have been of some use as Burke’s entries complain more over lack of holidays than lack of health.

“Monday, February 22nd, 1864. Weather pleasant. The prisoners are amusing themselves out of doors at running, jumping, flying kites, and playing ball. Mrs. Finnley’s new sutlers store opened today with prices very high. We made up a mess fund of four dollars in Yankee money and I took charge of it as secretary and treasurer for the mess. I got some things today at the sutler’s for the mess. In times of peace this day was celebrated as Washington’s birthday, but I have not seen the slightest signs of any demonstration whatever on the part of the Yankees, but we still honor his memory.”

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

Escapes were still being attempted.

“Saturday, February 27th, 1864. Weather cloudy. The whole camp ground was nearly covered with standing water, looking almost like a large pond. The Yankee roll call sergeant had some trouble to get our regiment out in line in the mud. Last night four prisoners tried to escape. They put two ladders against the fence and two got away, and one, John Cecil of Co. K eight KY was mortally wounded and the other man reached his quarters without detection. The Yankees are busy raising our barracks higher with jack screws. We were two feet from the ground before, but now we will be five feet. This is being done to prevent us from digging out under the floors. The barracks will be set on six inch timbers legs so that the Yanks can see under them. There [are] some twenty odd new Yankee barracks being erected in their part of the camp. I received a letter from Miss D. R. of Richmond KY. The night was cold, and the ground froze up.

Sunday, February 28th, 1864. Weather pleasant. Sun out. The Yanks are at work as usual today. We have good news of a severe Yankee defeat in Florida. Jno. Cecil shot yesterday died at the hospital today. Most of us washed and shaved up. Each of us generally washed once a week.”

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

Even the smallest coincidences are striking as one reads these accounts. As Cecils married into both my maternal and paternal lines, the Cecil name struck me. Checking my files I discovered that James Edward Evans’ son Howard married John Cecil’s cousin (several times removed) Mayme Lee Summers. Had the two men known each other?

On February 29th, yet another fire blazed through Garrison Square. The cause does not appear to have but arson but rather a combination of flimsy wooden buildings and red hot stove pipes.

“Monday, February 29th, 1864. Weather cool. An old two story sutler’s store, and about two hundred feet of barracks and kitchens, also some sheds, wood, etc. were all burned in the Yankee part of camp today. Two steam fire engines and two hand engines were soon on hand. The evening paper stated that the sutler’s store was used as a carpenter’s shop, and a workman made a fire in the stove and went up stairs. By some means the shavings around the stove took fire and he was driven from the house by the smoke before he could save the tools. I made six dried apple pies today. A man or two escapes some way or other nearly every night.”

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


[i] Hesseltine, William Best. “Civil War Prisons”
[ii] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Ser. II, Vol. VI, 908- 910
[iii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[iv] Diary of William Huff
[v] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[vi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[vii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry

Saturday, May 16, 2009

January 1864: Frostbite, the Rumor Mills, and Moving Barracks

“ Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

308 prisoners died at Camp Douglas in January 1864. This feeble essay is dedicated to their memory.

On January 1st, 1864, the temperature at Camp Douglas was recorded as 18 degrees below zero during the day and 25 degrees below zero later that night. The snowfall was very heavy. In his diary, William huff recorded awaking with frozen ears, nose and chin. During the night, the moisture from the men’s breath had frozen and two inch long icicles hung from the rafters. Huff’s wrath over the conditions was so great he was determined to report it to Head Quarters. The Union guard atop the walkway on the fence had to be replaced every half an hour due to the artic atmosphere.

The prisoners made the best of the bitter conditions.

“Friday, January 1st, 1864. New Year’s day. Weather bitter cold. The snow in some places was four and five feet deep, and a regular gale was blowing it about in drifts so that it nearly took a man’s breath from him to go even a hundred yards. Six or seven of the guards froze on their beats last night and this morning, so that they had to be taken to the Yankees hospital. I put a pot of dried peaches to cooking on the stove to make a big peach roll for dinner. Near twelve o’clock a guard was put at every door in the barracks and no one allowed to go out except for fuel, water or a case of absolute necessity. The severity of the weather remains unchanged, and I think these guards were taken from the fence to keep from freezing and put at the doors to prevent our escaping. I and Henry White [ate] our peach roll by ourselves. I intended to invite Pa and others in his barracks to take dinner with us, but the blockade cut off my communication. The men had to carry all the fuel and water they used, and some came near freezing at it. They had to go about four hundred yards to the wood yard by details. The wood and coal had always been hauled to us till today. At dusk an officer came around and notified us and the guards that in half an hour no one would be allowed outside of out barracks under any pretext whatever until daylight. The night was very cold, but the guards kept the coal stoves red hot all night, which kept the barracks warm, and we slept well.”

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

“In each barrack there was only two stoves to two hundred men, and for a stove to warm one hundred men, it was frequently red hot.”

~ T. D. Henry, Company E, Duke's Regiment, Second Kentucky Cavalry[ii]

In contrast, the freezing weather brought the fury the camp leadership felt toward the escape attempts to a head. General William W. Orme placed new regulations in effect. Curtis Burke noted them in his diary:

“January 3rd, 1864. Weather cold, but moderated a little since yesterday. The snow lies mostly in drifts, some of them five feet high and so hard that a man can stand on them. A Yankees Sergeant came around to all the barracks and read a long list of new rules or orders signed by brig. Gen. Orme and H. Burr, Assistant Adjutant Gen. Commanding Post of Chicago. Co. De Land and the other officers at headquarters still remain in office. The substance of the new orders are as follows: 1st that we must only write every thirteen days and then only one letter of two pages of note paper each. The whole number of prisoners in camp was divided into thirteen squads each having a certain day to write. 2nd That we can not visit other squares unless we get a pass from the officer of the day. 3rd That we must be in our barracks by five o’clock p. m. and put out all lights and fires out at the beating of the drum at eight o’clock p.m. and no one allowed out side of the barracks till day, except to go to the sink. A man in F. Cluke’s’ eight Kentucky badly cut a comrade in a personal quarrel.”

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

“We now write by "squad" of which there are 13 in the prison and one letter oneach day that the squad writes is allowed to each prisoner in it; so you see we are allowed to write one letter every 13 days.”

~ Robert W. Taylor, 10th Kentucky

“S. C. Crawford died Jan 4th 1864 of a protracted illness at Chicago”

~Ezekiel A. Brown, CO. G. 62 NCI[iv]

The new regulations did not seem to matter. Burke reported that guards found more tunnels on January 6th.

“Friday, January 8th, 1864. Weather cold. We have had rumors for several days that prisoners of war were ordered to Point Lookout, under gen. Butler’s jurisdiction to be kept till the Confederate Government will consent to recognize Butler and exchange negro soldiers captured. As far as I can learn, most of the prisoners would rather remain prisoners a year longer than be exchanged through Beast Butler (as we call him) for negro troops.”

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

Confederates first began to refer to General Benjamin F. Butler as “Beast Butler” on May 15th, 1862, when he issued General Order No. 28 which directed Union soldiers in New Orleans to treat “as a woman of the town plying her avocation’ any female who insulted in any way an officer of the United States.[vi]

“Saturday, January 9th, 1864. Weather cool. The ground has thawed some leaving standing water. There is a foolish rumor circulated through camp by some mischevious person to the effect that the whole number of prisoners in camp had to draw beans to get ten black beans. The persons getting the black beans to be shot, in retaliation for ten men reported shot at Richmond, Virginia. Absurd rumors of various kinds circulated through camp.

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

President Lincoln met with Congressman Brutus J. Clay, of Kentucky, and a very frantic woman by the name of Mrs. Haggard. Mrs. Haggard’s nineteen-year-old son Edward was a prisoner at Camp Douglas and she wished to petition Lincoln for his release.[viii]

“Executive Mansion,
Washington, Jan. 14, 1864.

To-day Hon. Brutus J. Clay calls with Mrs. Haggard, and asks that her son, Edward Haggard, now in his nineteenth year, and a prisoner of War at Camp Douglas, may be discharged. Let him take the oath of Dec. 8. and be discharged. A. LINCOLN

Do the same for William H. Moore. A. LINCOLN”[ix]

On January 18th, 1864, the number of prisoners at Camp Douglas reached 5,616. Overcapacity was noted during inspection. Dr. Edward D. Kittoe, of the surgeon-general’s office, found the prisoners “filthy” and their barracks overcrowded. He concluded that the camp was unfit for use.[x] Dr. Kittoe is noted for his tireless efforts to institute more sanitary conditions and better medical procedures during the war. The work of this single individual likely saved thousands of lives, Union and Confederate.

“ ‘The [camp] is low and flat, rendering drainage imperfect,’ admitted Surgeon Edward D. Kittoe, U. S. Volunteers, ‘ [I]ts proximity to Lake Michigan and consequent exposure to cold, damp winds from off this large body of water, with the flat, marshy character of the soil, must of necessity create a tendency to disease…At [times] the ground is covered with snow and the frost is severe. When the frost gives way and fogs and usual dampness of spring succeed, in conjunction with the surrounding with large cattle yards, slaughter-houses and other offensive matter usual to the suburbs of large cities…disease will assume as a low or typhoid type, and per consequence, the rate of mortality will increase.’” [xi]

Endless months of hunger drove men to eat anything they could find. Near starvation, some prisoners, desperate for protein, killed and ate the rats that ran from under floorboards as one of the old kitchen buildings was demolished.

“I have seen men eat rats and pronounce the flesh good and palatable.”

~ R. T. Bean, Company I, Eighth Kentucky Cavalry[xii]

“Two of the men gathered them up to clean them and to eat them. I understand that rat eating is very extensively carried on in the other squares, but my curiosity has never made me taste any rats yet…[the men] clean them like squirrels and let them soak well in salt water.”

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

General Orme, determined to bring of order to the camp, began moving prisoners from White Oak Square to the new Prisoner’s Square in an effort to tighten security. To keep cost low, the old barracks were moved to the new square and set above the ground on five foot legs to prevent tunneling.

“The arrangements of the prison were changed. The barracks were all raised and placed on posts about four feet high, thus putting an end forever to future tunneling. An extra thickness of lumber was put on the fence to the height of about eight feet from the ground, and I realized that escapes were at an end.”

~ R. T. Bean, Company I, Eighth Kentucky Cavalry[xiv]

Prisoners were moved and shuffled in and out of various barracks for several days as the moving took place.

"Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! or The Prisoner's Hope" (1864)
As sung by Edwin Kelly of Arlington Kelly & Leon's Minstrels.
Words and Music by George Frederick Root

In the prison cell I sit,
Thinking Mother, dear, of you,
And our bright and happy home so far away,
And the tears, they fill my eyes
Spite of all that I can do,
Tho' I try to cheer my comrades and be gay.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching,
Cheer up comrades they will come.
And beneath the starry flag
We shall breathe the air again,
Of the free-land in our own beloved home.

In the battle front we stood
When their fiercest charge they made,
And they swept us off a hundred men or more,
But before we reach'd their lines
They were beaten back dismayed,
And we heard the cry of vict'ry o'er and o'er.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching,
Cheer up comrades they will come.
And beneath the starry flag
We shall breathe the air again,
Of the free-land in our own beloved home.

So within the prison cell,
We are waiting for the day
That shall come to open wide the iron door,
And the hollow eye grows bright,
And the poor heart almost gay,
As we think of seeing home and friends once more.

Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching,
Cheer up comrades they will come.
And beneath the starry flag
We shall breathe the air again,
Of the free-land in our own beloved home.

Near the end of the month, the weather finally began to improve and the last of the barracks were rolled to their new locations.

“Wednesday, January 27th, 1864. Weather pleasant. We had to move out before breakfast. The whole number of barracks three hundred feet in all in length have the rollers under them and a capstan[?] on each side near one end to pull them along. The yanks told us to lay hold and help them and some of the men did so, but were ordered around so roughly that they quit. Then the yanks swore that we should not sleep in the barracks while being moved because we would not work. I received a letter from home dated the twenty-fist inst. And a notice from headquarters of some things for myself and Pa at the express office. Six or seven of us passed the guards with Pa and got our goods, etc. I got nearly everything that my letter called for. There [were] some apples in my box and the examiner gave me one and Pa one and a Yank sitting by wanted one of them, till the examiner told him that there was more in the box. We were not allowed to have the boxes for fear they had false bottoms etc. with money or contraband news in them. In the evening a good many of the men took their things outside of the square on a grass plot and erected some sheds out of old timber to sleep under. A lot of us got up on the new hospital on the sly and saw the lake, city, and surrounding country. The country outside of the city as far as I could see was nearly level and thinly settled. Near dusk an officer came around and made us all move back in the old square, where the mud was six inches deep, to spend the night. I and Henry White took our blankets over to number eight barrack where most of the fourteenth KY were and slept in an empty bottom bunk. This barrack with barracks No. nine and ten will also be moved as soon as our five barracks reach their new position. I did not think that so long a string of building could be moved without breaking to pieces. The rats kept me awake most of the night running around my head.”

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

The above date, “the twenty-first inst.,” refers to the 21st of the current month. Thus the letter burke received from home was written on January 21, 1864.

On January 28th, 1864, Dr. William D. Lee, who had worked in the prison hospital, was arrested and charged in connection with bribery and an escape plot.

“William Lee, M.D. entered the Federal records in October 1863, when he was hired as a contract surgeon (a rank also called "acting assistant surgeon") at Camp Douglas, Illinois, providing care for the Confederate prisoners there. The following month, this Memphis-born physician took the Oath of Allegiance, and described how he and his family had been driven from his native Tennessee, because of his activities with the Union League.

A few months later, the city police in Chicago arrested a William R. Messick and found in his pockets many letters from John B. Messick (William's brother and a prisoner at Camp Douglas), a receipt that John had received $20 from Dr. Lee,... On the reverse is printed "D. F. Brandon, Photographer, Camp Douglas, Ill." Above that, in Lee's own hand, is: "Dr. W. D. Lee, M.D., Camp Douglas, Dec. 22'd, 1863." Lee's only defense was that he had known the Messicks before the war, through church, and was only trying to be helpful.

Lee was convicted of smuggling a total of $35 into the prison (enough to bribe a guard) and with smuggling letters out, also a serious offense. Hc was sentenced to two years of prison.

Incarcerated at Fort Delaware, Lee impressed Brigadier General Albin F. Schoepf, the prison's commander, and the post surgeon, Dr. C. E. Goddard. Schoepf wrote that Lee was a well-behaved prisoner and provided valuable health services to the Confederate officer prisoners. The effects of prison life and the deaths of his two children wore Lee down, and Schoepf recommended early release; Surgeon Goddard reported Lee to bc a "competent and useful doctor." In September of 1864, Lee was released and quickly applied for another Army post; his request was rejected on grounds of his previous conviction. Again, Schoepf intervened, sending a letter to the Surgeon General on Lee's behalf. By early 1865, Lee had another Army contract, this time signed in New Orleans. For the next eighteen months he worked at Baton Rouge, doing sick call and visiting the ‘cholera tents.’’[xvi]

[i] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[ii] Deposition of T. D. Henry, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876.
No.4. April - Pages 273 - 276
[iii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[iv] Civil War Diary of E. A. Brown
[v] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[vi] Trefousse, Hans L. “ Ben Butler: The South Called Him BEAST!” 1957, p. 111
[vii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[viii] Basler, Roy P., Marion Dolores Pratt, and Lloyd A. Dunlap, eds., “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln”
[ix] ADS-P, ISLA.
[x] Levy, George .“To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 11, p. 183-184
[xi] Speer, Lonnie R. “Portals to Hell: Military Prison Camps of the Civil War” p. 136
[xii] Account given by R. T. Bean
[xiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xiv] Account given by R. T. Bean
[xv] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xvi] The sharp end, Jul/Aug 1999 by Beck, Michael, Valentine, Scott, Lyon, Robert, Fitzpatrick, Michael, Et al

Sunday, May 3, 2009

December, 1863: No Colder place

"At Camp Douglas, President Bellows of the United States Sanitary Commission found deplorable conditions. Declaring that only some special providence, or some peculiar efficacy of the lake winds, could prevent the camp from becoming a source of pestilence."[i]

Alas, the winds blowing across Lake Michigan proved to be no blessing. These frigid blasts forced the prisoners at Camp Douglas to spend longer amounts of time inside their over crowded barracks. John Barker, of Cluke’s Regiment, wrote home claiming there could be “no colder place that God ever designed.” With little heat, inadequate shelter, and insufficient clothing, the prisoners were quite literally caught in winter’s icy grasp. The Diary of Private William D. Huff, copyrighted by the Chicago Historical Society, contains a riveting sketch of December personified as a dark and bearded male. To view this sketch and a handful of other drawings from Huff’s diary, one must download the History Lab lesson plans in “The Civil War” Up Close and Personal” section entitled “Who is William Huff? Blueback or Grayback” and “Look Out My Window. What Do You See? [ii] The lesson plans may be accessed at

On December 3, 1863, nearly one hundred of Morgan’s Men escaped through a tunnel dug in White Oak Square. Only fifty were recaptured.

“I learned that one hundred and two prisoners escaped last night. I went a few doors above here and saw the tunnel. It was commenced in one of the small rooms in the bottom of a bunk and ran out under the kitchen and guard line and came up just outside of the fence. If they had come up two feet back, they would have been seen by the guard. The Yankees were so mad that they came around and tore down all of the partitions [turning] all of the little rooms into one big room in each barrack. They also tore up the floors except under the bunks, and we enjoyed ourselves by jumping around on the sleepers. Col. De Land said that he would turn us all out in the weather if we did not quit digging out. The night air had free range through the barracks, but I slept well.”

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

“A great many escaped by tunneling. On one occasion a tunnel was discovered under the barrack occupied by (Cluke's regiment) the eighth Kentucky cavalry. Without trying to find out who dug the tunnel, the whole regiment was formed in column of eight deep, and a guard placed around them with instructions to shoot the first man who sat down; this was just after sun up; at two o'clock a man who had just returned the day before from the small-pox hospital, unable to stand longer fell; a guard saw him and fired; one man was killed dead, two others were wounded, one of them losing an arm, as it was afterwards cut off. This same fellow, who did the shooting, was promoted to a corporal's position, whether for this act or not, it is impossible to say, for he affirmed that he would not take $100 for his gun, as that was the eleventh prisoner he had shot with it.”

~ T. D. Henry, Company E, Duke's Regiment, 2nd Kentucky Cavalry[iv]

Infuriated with the frequency of escapes due to tunneling, De Land ordered that all planking be removed from the barracks’ floors. This was a drastic measure to take during freezing weather, but the young Colonel, who had once been incarcerated in a Confederate prison camp, showed no compassion for his prisoners.

De Land conceived a drastic remedy to counter the tunneling. ‘In view of this I have ordered all the floors removed from the barracks and cook-houses and the spaces filled with dirt even with the top of the joist…This will undoubtedly increase the sickness and mortality, but it will save much trouble and add security. ’” [v]

Even the removal of the floor and partitions did not quell De Land’s wrath. He ordered his men to confiscate the prisoner’s coats, tools, and personal cash citing that such items aided their ability to escape. Defective clothing that had been rejected as unfit for army use was issued to prisoners.[vi]

“We were all marched to the main square in front of headquarters where we found all of the prisoners from the other square also in line. All of the Yankee Lieutenants and Sergeants were set to work searching us. Some took our knives, money, etc. and put it on paper, but others kept no account. Like was done at Camp Morton. Then they came around again and took every good coat in the crowd, and distributed some thin cottonade pepper and salt jackets, and some thin black ridiculous looking tight spade tail Yankee coats in the place of their warm coats received from home. Some photographs were even taken from our men. In the meantime, a squad of Yankees and work hands searched our quarters and took all the good clothing they found, and the work hands stole some of the men’s rations. All of the axes, wood saws, and spades were taken away, depriving us of the means of cutting up our wood and cleaning up our quarters. They left a few rakes I believe and said that we could comb our heads with them.”

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

On December 4th, William Huff recorded a snow storm followed by sleet. The ground was covered in ice. He lamented the confiscation of the prisoner’s coats and the intensely cold weather.

By December 9th workmen had removed flooring from every barracks and prisoners were allowed to fill in the spaces between the floor joists with sand.

Edwin M. Stanton, the United Sates Secretary of War, ordered that there be no trade with sutlers. Thus, De Land ordered the sutler’s store closed on December 12th but permitted him to sell out his remaining stock. The barber shop and news stand were closed on December 17th and the sale of stamps, envelopes, and paper discontinued. However, those prisoners fortunate enough to procure Union “greenbacks” were allowed to spend their money “at the commissaries after eleven o’clock on ration days.” [viii] Curtis Burke and his messmate Henry White began laying in the necessary items to prepare a Christmas dinner.

Emily Todd Helm, half sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, visited the White house accompanied by her daughter Katherine. Mrs. Helm’s husband, Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm, had been killed during the Battle of Chickamauga.

"I never saw Mr. Lincoln more moved, than when he heard of the death of his young brother-in-law Ben Hardin Helm, only thirty-two years old, at Chickamauga. I called to see him about four o'clock on the 22nd of September; I found him in the greatest grief. 'Davis,' said he, 'I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom.' I saw how grief stricken he was so I closed the door and left him alone."

~ Senator David Davis [ix]

"Mr. Lincoln and my sister met me with the warmest affection, we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech. I have lost my husband, they have lost their fine little son Willie and Mary and I have lost three brothers in the Confederate service. We could only embrace each other in silence and tears. Sister and I dined intimately, alone. Our tears gathered silently and feel unheeded as with choking voices we tried to talk of immaterial things."

~ Emily Todd Helm[x]

It was far from a pleasant trip. Northern newspapers made a great fuss over Mrs. Helm having passed through Union Lines, a U. S. Senator publicly insulted her and her daughter Katherine quarreled with Lincoln children. Feeling highly uncomfortable, Mrs. Helm returned to Lexington, Kentucky. There she wrote to Lincoln requesting permission to send clothing to the prisoners at Camp Douglas.

"I hope I am not intruding too much upon your kindness and will try not to overstep the limits that I should keep."[xi]

On December 23rd, General William Ward Orme replaced De Land as commander of Camp Douglas. Orme was the law partner of one of Abraham Lincoln’s close friends. Orme was also dying of tuberculosis. Disgusted by the chaos he found, Orme tried to bring order to the prison ration and clothing allotment systems.[xii] Meanwhile, in the wake of the Ninian Edwards beef scandal, De Land and the First Michigan Sharpshooters were ordered to the front.

Was my second great grandfather, James Edward Evans, imprisoned at Camp Douglas, struck with homesickness as Christmas neared? While I have never found any letters written by James Edward Evans, there was mail service into and out of the prison camp. Prisoners could even send letters from one prison camp to another. Prison correspondence was, of course, subject to censorship. Article XVII of a 20 April 1864 Federal circular specified that outgoing and incoming letters are to be examined by non-commissioned officers, and must be no more than one page in length.[xiii] Prisoners typically used the little space they were allowed to reassure loved ones of their safety and to request items needed for their survival.

“Bureaucracies take on a life of there own, and mail service between Camp Douglas and the Confederacy continued without a blink. It was only a matter of postage. Mail within the Union lines could come and go directly, and mail traffic beyond that went through ‘Flag of Truce’ exchange points in enemy territory. Aiken’s Landing behind the Confederate Lines was designated as such in March 1862. Prisoners attached three cents in Federal stamps and ten cents Confederate, if they had them; otherwise, they had to enclose cash in an outer envelope.”[xiv]

A letter sent by T. M. Page, 2nd Ky. Cavalry to Miss Mary S. Read of Decatur, IL .in which he thanks her for items send to him saying, “ you may rely on the earnest devotion and native courtesy of a follower of the Starry Cross of Dixie for the cordial appreciation of your kindness.” The black oval stamp on the envelope was stamp was applied after the letter was read by censors at Camp Douglas.

Colonel Hoffman, who must not have been in the holiday spirit, ordered the prisoners' rations cut by one quart of molasses and two ounces of bread on the day before Christmas, 1863.

“The regulation ration which prisoners were to receive consisted of 3/4 of a pound of bacon and 1 ¼ pounds of beef, 1 1/3 pounds white or 1 1/4 pounds of corn-bread, 1/10 pound of coffee, and 1 1/2 ounces of rice or hominy, 1/6 pound of sugar, a gill of vinegar, one candle, a tablespoon of salt, and beans, potatoes and molasses in small amounts. Contracts were made with various camps for local dealers for these rations."[xv]

"Since these rations, which consisted of... were considered too much for men leading a sedentary life, portions of the issues were ordered withheld. The sale of this non-issued portion went into the prison fund….”[xvi]

Curtis Burke’s Christmas included a hearty meal, gifts, and a visit from his father who was also a prisoner at Camp Douglas.

“The prospects for a dull Christmas were large. The cry of Christmas gift was seldom heard, and when it was, it was given more as a salute or a joke, no gifts being expected. When Pa came over to get Sergeants Millers and Browns morning reports, I caught him and invited him to take dinner with us. A Yankee Lieutenant came to examine the barracks and asked us if any of us were engaged in the gopher business (he meant digging out.) I got the following articles on order today, 10 candles, one bottle of pepper sauce, two lbs. of coffee, 7 lbs. sugar, 1 paper of black pepper, 1 paper of allspice, 1 lb. of butter, and 1 lb. lard - $2.45. Pa came over and made me a present of a pair of buckskin cavalry gloves, a pair of socks, a fancy shawl pin, and a fifty cent sutlers ticket. I did not get dinner till late. The stove was so crowded by other messes. My bill of fare was biscuits, tea, beans and bacon, buttered bakers bread, toasted, molasses, boiled onions laid in butter, cheese, peach pie, apple pie, onion pie, plain doughnuts, and sweet doughnuts. The tea cups, mugs, and glasses were refilled and Henry White offered the following toast.

Toast of Morgan’s Men

Unclaimed by the land that bore us,
Lost in the land we find,
The brave have gone before us,
Cowards are left behind.
Then stand to your glasses, steady,
Here’s a health to those we prize,
Here’s a toast to the dead already,
And here’s to the next who dies.

My guests were all well pleased. There was nothing going on at night except several men hollowing New York. The effect of too much mean whiskey aboard.

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

The day after Christmas, Burke learned “that nothing would be sold at the commissaries after today.” He and Henry White devised a plan for hiding their store of food.

“Weather cold and windy with some snow. I got the balance of the order on the commissary filled and copied off three Southern songs for the Rebel clerk for his attention to filling our order properly. I and Henry White concluded to build a swinging bunk across the barracks near the roof for the safety of the contents of our cupboard. We nailed up the rafters for the new bunk after dusk. Henry White made a raid on the lumber pile where the new hospital is being erected and we walked on the planks to make them look old, so the Yanks would not notice it.

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

Solomon Floyd Cook of Company G, 62nd Regiment, NC Infantry wrote home to his wife Martha Ann in East Laport, North Caroline.

“Camp Douglas, Chicago, IllDec. the 27th, 1863

Dear companion,

I take this method of letting you know I am well at present. Hoping these lines may find you and the children well. This day twelve months ago I left home. I have lived through many hardships since that time and I am yet alive and enjoying good health, better than usual. It is a sad misfortune that the horror of war has cast our lots in a foreign land but it is even so and we have to submit to its consequences whatever they may be. Hope it will not be long until we are exchanged and get back to our beloved homes and family.

The health of the reg and company is tolerable good at present.

Tell the friends of ____________[illegible], their relatives are generally well. M.M. Shelton is not very well but on the mend. ________ Hooper, L.W. and T.S. are all well. Send word to Pop and Elizabeth.

Martha I want you to write to me and let me know how you are all doing. You will be limited to a short letter otherwise it will not pass through. Write every week, probably I will get a letter after a while. Direct your letters to Chicago Camp Douglas Illinois marked to the Co. and Regt.

Nothing more but remains your affectionate husband until death.

S. F. Cook

Tell L. S. Shelton's family, he has been sick but getting well fast. Asks for them to write to him.”

Less than a year later, Solomon Floyd Cook died of smallpox while still incarcerated at Camp Douglas.

On December 30th, a blizzard and sub- zero temperatures were recorded at Camp Douglas. Neither more clothing nor additional firewood was allowed to the prisoners.

“Meigs [Montgomery C. Meigs, quarter master general of the Union army] vowed to provide supplies to prisoners with ‘the strictest economy’ and expected the prisoners of war to furnish their own clothing. This was impractical for prisoners who arrived at Camp Douglas wearing clothing unsuitable for winter.”[xix]


[i] Hesseltine, William Best. “Civil War Prisons” p. 52
[ii] Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities
[iii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[iv] Deposition of T. D. Henry, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876. No .4. April - Pages 273 – 276.
[v] Levy ,George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 10, p. 165.
[vi] Hesseltine, William Best. “Civil War Prisons” p. 46
[vii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[viii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[ix] Helm, Katherine. “ Mary, Wife of Lincoln”, p. 216-217.
[x] Helm, Katherine. “ Mary, Wife of Lincoln”, p. 221-222.
[xi] Holzer, Harold. “The Lincoln Mailbag,” p. 118.
[xii] Heidler, David Stephen, Heidler, Jeanne T., Coles, David J. “ Encyclopedia of The American Civil War” p. 345.
[xiii] Official Records, Series II, Volume 7, p. 75.
[xiv] Levy, George. “To Die In Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Ch 2, p.44.
[xv] Hesseltine, William Best. “Civil War Prisons” p. 43
[xvi] Hesseltine, William Best. “Civil War Prisons” p. 44
[xvii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[xviii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry.
[xix] Pucci, Kelly. “Camp Douglas: Chicago’s Civil War Prison” 2007 p.91.