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.

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