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

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