Wednesday, April 7, 2010

March 1864: Camp Douglas Mired in Mud and Misery

Colonel James C. Strong[i]
*A special note of thanks to Mr. James I. Evans for his most kind support and encouragement.

On March 1, 1864, diarist Curtis R. Burke recorded that his regiment had received tickets for ten days rations “which is unusual.” On March 3rd, Burke noted that new officers were arriving and “things will probably be harder.” Burke’s dark prediction proved correct.

“About this time Colonel Deland was ordered to the front. He was succeeded by Colonel B. J. Sweet as commandant of camp, Colonel Skinner as commissary of prisoners, and a fiend named Captain Webb Sponable as inspector of prisoners.

From this time forward the darkest leaf in the legends of all tyranny could not possibly contain a greater number of punishments. ”

-Deposition of T. D. Henry[ii]

On March 1, 1864, Colonel James C. Strong had arrived at Camp Douglas to serve as the new garrison commander. Previously, as a Lt. Colonel with the 38th New York, Strong had been severely wounded in the hip at Williamsburg, Virginia in May of 1862. Unable to move, Strong had lain beside a log for hours until his men located him by lantern light.[iii] Now serving with the Fifteenth Invalid Corps, Strong formally assumed command from De Land on March 3, 1864. [iv] De Land’s First Michigan Sharpshooters remained at Camp Douglas until 17 March 1864, when they left to join the Ninth Corps, in Annapolis, MD. In his diary, Burke recorded a camp rumor stating that some of the First Michigan Sharpshooters had deserted when they learned that they had been ordered to the front.

“March 4th, 1864

Today five months ago I landed here and I see no chance of exchange. Yet indeed I have every reason to believe that I will spend five months more under blue coat rule. I drew some comic picture of the convalescents which made Old dry Doctor laugh. Winter is not gone yet for it is snowing strong and swift…”

- Private William D. Huff[v]

Strong began with 526 men from Sweet’s Eight Invalid Regiment, 450 of his own, and the promise that four companies of the 11th Invalid Regiment would soon arrive. Unfortunately, about one third of these men were too sick or injured to serve duty. Thus, Strong was left to face the reality of controlling nearly six thousand prisoners with only 650 able bodied soldiers.[vi] Security was now at issue. Perhaps this was an underlying factor in Strong’s decision to take up residence in the city of Chicago despite Hoffman’s order to reside within the camp.[vii]

“About 166 men, amounting to 10 percent of the guard force, were ill on March 1, 1864. This emergency caused Colonel Strong to bar civilian workers from leaving camp ‘until all Prison workers had returned to their squares.’ He was referring to Prisoner’s Square and White Oak Square, where some prisoners remained.”[viii]

On March 5th Burke wrote that the prisoners received “positive instructions to write but one page of note paper.” By March 6th, new and rather inept officers took over roll call.

“Monday March 7th, 1864. Weather pleasant. We are kept out in the mud at roll call two hours again. The sutler store opened late in the day. I could not get to the counter and I got a friend ahead of me to make my purchases for me. We received the following additional orders:
1st. to rise at sound of bugle at sunrise.
2d. roll call at sound of bugle one hour after.
3d. dismissal at sound of bugle and breakfast.
4th. Fatigue detail at 8 o’clock A. M.
5th. recall of detail at 12 o’clock A.M.
6th. Dinner at 12 ½ o’clock P. M.
7th. Fatigue detail at 1 o’clock P. M.
8th. Recall of detail at 5 o’clock P. M.
9th. Supper detail at 5 ½ o’clock P. M.
10th. Lights out at 7 o’clock P. M.
Forty four more prisoners arrived today and were crowed in with the fourteenth Ky. As company F. They are a good looking set of men. Some of them were captured with paroles given them by the Yankees on a former occasion in their pockets, also writing from the Confederate authorities recognizing their paroles, and their being the rearrested was a violation of the rules of war.”

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

While the ban on packages from friends was lifted on March 11, 1864 censorship of mail increased dramatically.[x] Burke fumed that men often receive only an empty envelope, “The letters having been taken out at headquarters by the examiners on account of their being too long or containing contraband news.”

(Note: The following letter is presented in it's original format)

“Camp Douglas, Ill.
Mar. 12th, 1864

Dear Father,

Your kind letter of the 29th was received and read with interest George also received one from sister. It always cheers us up to hear to hear from the old home stead. You know that Georges very delicate and what inclined to have the blues anyway. I don’t think that his health is quite as good as it was when you were hear. The dyspepsy and chronic diarea are the two diseases that he suffers with. We heard directly from Brother John this week he is well and getting along first rate. The gentle man that brought the news belongs to the same Regt. that captured the 25th of Feb. James Gill is well so are Johnson West, Charley and all the rest of the neighbor boys that are hear. We kneed some more P. Stamps. When you write your letters must not be Longer that two pages of note or one of this kind of paper. I would like to have two calico and two woolen shits if you could find a convient way to send them. George joines me in love to all.

Your sons,

Wm H Adams”

A few small sanitary measures were begun around the camp during the change of command. On March 14th Burke’s barrack received two cast iron boilers. He was bemused with these contraptions, declaring “There is six feet of pipe to each, and they look like locomotives on a small scale at a distance.” However, the men now had means for washing their clothing. Even with this new means of maintaining of hygiene,
smallpox continued to spread throughout the camp.

“ Friday March 11th, 1864. Weather cool and cloudy. We had to attend roll call in a misty rain and snow. We drew beef and light bread and had soup for dinner. WE draw beef and light bread nearly every other day. We use the checker board in the mess now to kill time. Cards are rarely played. The small pox is raging moderately. Only four cases were taken from this square today. The mud on the way to and from the sutler store and sink is about eight or ten inches deep and no prospects of its drying up soon. This may encourage the spred of the smallpox. I hear of a man escaping every few nights although it had become a very difficult matter to get out.

Saturday, March 12th, 1864. Weather pleasant. We are still kept at roll call as long as usual. An order was read to us at roll call requesting all that wanted to take the oath to report to Col. Wm. Hoffman at Washington City D. C. by letter, stating why they wanted to take the oath, etc. etc. etc. I learn that two thirds of the prisoners sent to the smallpox hospital have died, and that there is about forty cases in the hospital now. There has been several escaped from there across the prairie on recovering. It rained after dark. Arguments, puzzles and hard questions are all the go this two or three past days to kill the time.”

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

Rumors and speculation swirled about the camp. Through Northern news papers and smuggled reports, the prisoners were aware of general troop moments, victories, and defeats. Any glimmer of hope for the Confederacy gave rise to a new flurry of rumors. Such was the case by mid March. From February 3 to March 5, 1864, General William T. Sherman conducted a successful campaign around Meridian, Mississippi. Then, misfortune befell them when troops under General William Sooy Smith, intended to join Sherman, were defeated by Confederate cavalry at West Point, Mississippi on February 21, 1824.

“Sunday March 13th, 1864. Weather cool. A little snow on the ground. There is a rumor in camp that the Yankee army under Sherman has been defeated with heavy loss, and that we will be exchanged soon, and we are inclined to put some confidence in the rumor on account of the oaths being offered to us”

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

Strong, perhaps due to his own tragic experiences in the war, was not a humanitarian leader. He showed neither mercy nor concern for his prisoners.

“Strong was the first garrison commander to exploit forced labor, and he searched the barracks ruthlessly to conscript prisoners for work details.” [xiv][xv]

It would appear that in taking these actions, Strong had the full support of the Commissary-General of Prisoners.

“Major-General Rosecrans,
Comdg. Department of the Missouri, Saint Louis, Mo:

Your telegram of the 14th is received. Paroled prisoners may perform any service, not armed, necessary for their own preservation. The ordinary fatigue duties about their own camp barracks are not in violation of their parole.

W. Hoffman
Commissary-General of Prisoners”

Strong began to use prisoner labor to construct a drainage system.

“Monday March 14th, 1864 Weather cool. Our Yankee sergeant brought six spades, one rake and two wheelbarrows and called for a detail of nine men to dig a ditch in front of the barracks. The detail was taken from company A in alphabetical order. They dug sixty feet of ditch by twelve o’clock and were dismissed. At one o’clock company B furnished the detail of nine men till five o’clock, and dug one hundred and fifty feet of ditch. James Allen, myself Henry Beach, Chas. Byrnes, Jas. Beeler, Jack Curd, Edwin Colgan, Jorden Cook, and Frank Davis were the detail. Jack Curd was as usual in his comic mood, and took charge of us. The Yankee sergeant kept near us bossing the job. Jack Curd Kept his eye on him and when he turned his back Jack would give the word rest and when he turned towards us Jack gave the word work. The Yank kept pretty close most of the evening .Jack stopped to blow a little and wiping the sweat from his eyes said ‘I told the sergeant my name was spelled with a K instead of a C, but he wouldn’t believe it.’ We were dismissed at five o’clock. The night was cold.

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

If the intent of the labor program was to break the men’s morale, it appeared to have had mixed success. Some men carried on undaunted. Others, who were exhausted by illness, starvation, over work, and homesickness, entertained thoughts of death as the ultimate escape.

“March 21st 1864

"Dear Friends,

We take this opportunity of informing you that we are all well at this time. Was hoping that these few lines will reach your kind hand and find you all well. We would like to hear from you all and would like to see you all but we cannot tell when that will be, but one thing we must do and that is prepare to meet in Eternity, for it God permits us to live we will live for the future and we tell you all now that we are determined by the help of God to make our way to a better world. So no more at present, write [unreadable].
Stamey J. Dyer
Noah is still around."

-John Henry Dyer
62nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment

Dyer’s best friend, John Noah Frances, died in camp on December 30, 1864.

On March 18, 1864 the Invalid Corp were renamed the Veteran Reserve Corps and hence forth referred to as the VRC.[xix] Strong wrote to General Orme voicing his objections to finding that his men were living in an old barracks without a floor.[xx] This building was damp, poorly ventilated, and smelled of rotting garbage. Thus, the newly arrived jailors were living in the same conditions as the prisoners.

Cut off from the outside world, news became all important to the prisoners.

“In March 1864, members of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry Regiment, Morgan’s Raiders, published a four-page newspaper called the ‘Prisoners Vidette.’ The name was derived from a variation on the Italian word for sentinel, and the handwritten newspaper carried reports and rumors. In addition to serious articles about unsanitary conditions and smallpox at Camp Douglas, prisoners placed personal advertisements, such as, “Wanted a Save Conductor out of Camp Douglas. Any price will be paid for the service. Rebel’ which was a sly reference to escape tunnels being dug by Morgan’s Raiders. Pvt. Abraham Lappin, who spent two years as a prisoner of war, placed an advertisement for handmade smoking popes, sold ‘wholesale and retail at Lappins factory. Block 17 three doors west of the south east corner. Give him a call you will hot be otherwise than satisfied.’’”

While, strictly copyrighted by the Chicago Historical Society, the Diary of Private William D. Huff contains a drawing of “The Evening Journal.” It is possible to download Huff’s drawings from 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? [xxii] The lesson plans may be accessed at

“Monday March 21st, 1864. Weather cool. Companies D and E furnished nine men each on detail to clean up around the barracks. The boys in next room are making a little newspaper called the Prisoners Vidette. It is on a sheet of foolscap and written with the pen altogether. It contains all of the camp rumors, original poetry, songs, and jokes, advertisement, etc. A good thing to kill time with.”

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

As always, escape remained foremost in the prisoner’s minds.

“Wednesday March 23rd, 1864. Weather very pleasant. Twelve men escaped from the dungeon last night by means of a tunnel. Three of them passed out after day light, and but for day light coming too soon for them everybody in the dungeon would have escaped. The hole was soon discovered after day light and filled up. I visited David Hickey’s mess and saw a snow white mouse with pink eyes under a tumbler. It was the size of a common mouse and was caught in the coal box.”

“March 27th 1864. Weather cool. A tunnel was discovered by some treacherous rebel and reported to the Yanks. It is in the other square by the side of the fire place a kitchen near the fence. The rebs were busy cooking over the covered hole when an officer came in and said, “What are you cooking over that hole for? Ain’t you afraid your things will fall in?’ There is no hole here said rebs. Yes there is take the pots off, and I’ll show you. The rebs moved off their things and the officer removed the fire and ashes and raised a trap door disclosing the hole, much to the feigned astonishment of the rebs. The officer was angry and told the men that he would find every hole that they dug, and it was no use to dig them. The hole was filled up by pressing the rebs standing around into service. The men that dug it say that it would have been through on the outside of the fence in one more night. They had been detained a couple of nights on account of water rising in the hole. The ground being still very wet from the recent rains. There was only a few rebs that knew where the hole was, but there was a good many that suspicioned that there was one somewhere in that neighborhood and so put on their best cloths for two or three nights past in the hope of finding it, and escaping. The diggers were afraid of traitorous spies and worked secretly. Many true men were not posted. They were out slipping around as soon as it was well dark to learn something, and whenever they heard a noise or saw a Yankee patrol they would dodge into the nearest barracks like scared rats. Some rascally fellow played what would have been a severe joke on one Robert Lowery of Company A of this regiment, had he succeeded in escaping. “Secesh soap for sale!” were written on his back in large letters with chalk or soap. Of course, this would have caused his arrest on the first appearance of light. I received a letter from home from Brother Alonzo dated the 2th inst. The Chicago papers the Post and Tribune gives an account of the rebel Gen. Forest capturing Paducah, Ky and the city nearly burned down in the fight.”

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

“The prisoners suspected treachery, but they were wrong. Reverend Tuttle wrote that Capt. Wells Sponable discovered the hole after spotting a prisoner running to the kitchen at one o’clock in the morning.”[xxv]

In response to the tunneling, kitchens near the fence were removed. Barracks were moved toward the center of the square, set on five foot post, and arranged into a grid pattern with streets between the buildings. Barracks floors which had been removed in December were now reinstalled and reinforced.[xxvi]

At the end of March 1864, 5, 462 Confederates were had been crowded into Camp Douglas.[xxvii] Hoffman had tents delivered in the event that the barracks could not handle that number of men. Rumor spread about the camp. Men were certain that the barracks would be destroyed and they would all be forced to live in tents. As usual, the rumor was incorrect and the tents were never used. [xxviii]

[i] New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center , NYS Division of Military and Naval Affairs
[ii] Deposition of T. D. Henry, Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. I. Richmond, Va., March, 1876.No.4. April - Pages 273 - 276
[iii] Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. “ The Theosophist, Part Six 1884 to 1885: Why They Couldn’t Hear Him” p. 75
[iv] Herek, Raymond J. “These Men Have Seen Hard Service” 1998, p.91
[v] Excerpts from the Diary of William D. Huff Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities
[vi] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 195
[vii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 195
[viii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 197
[ix] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[x] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 198
[xi] Wartime Letters of William Henry Adams
[xii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xiv] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 197
[xv] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xvi] Scott, Robert Nicholson. “The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Offical Records of the Union and Conferderate Armies, Series II, Vol VII, Republication 1972
[xviii] Deaths of Prisoners of War from the 62nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment
[xix] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 198
[xx] RG 94, Regimental Letter Book
[xxi] Pucci, Kelly. “Camp Douglas: Chicago’s Civil War Prison” 2007, p. 50
[xxii] Chicago Historical Society, History Lab activities
[xxiii] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xxiv] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry
[xxv] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 199, Tuttle. Edmund B. “ History of Camp Douglas,” p.17
[xxvi] Diary of Curtis R. Burke, Co. B 14th Kentucky Cavalry, Official Records, Ser. II, Vol. VII, 184-185.
[xxvii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 199
[xxviii] Levy, George. “To Die in Chicago, Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862-65,” 1999, Chap. 12, p. 199

No comments: