Camp Douglas, located on the south side of Chicago, became a place of brutal misery to many Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. Rumors of crowded and unhealthy conditions, along with death and disease, were widely circulated in the southern press during the war. The camp soon earned what many people would consider a fitting nickname... “Eighty Acres of Hell”.
Camp Douglas was named in honor of Stephen A.
Douglas, the famed Illinois legislator and Lincoln rival, who passed
away in Chicago in June 1861. Douglas was still well known for his
recent Democratic presidential nomination, which had had lost to Lincoln
the year before, as well as his previous 25 years in Illinois politics.
During the last years of his life, Douglas and his wife had resided at Okenwald,
their south side estate. It was located just east of the present-day
intersection of Cottage Grove Avenue and 35th Street.
Soon, however, the camp became a place of misery for
the Confederate prisoners. The camp received its first prisoners in
February 1862, after the Battle of Fort Dickson and soon overcrowding,
starvation, scurvy and a complete lack of medical attention made the
place into a living hell. The death toll for the camp, during the last
three years of the war, has been estimated at as many as 6,129 men,
which is slightly less than one-third of the entire prison population at
the camp. Most perished from scurvy and smallpox, despite the best
intentions of relief workers, who organized a fund to care for the men
in 1862. In 1864 alone, 1,156 inmates died at the camp.
While many left the camp as corpses, others managed to escape. In November 1863, 75 very ragged prisoners managed to tunnel their way beneath the walls. In response, eight companies of the Veteran Reserve Corps and a regiment of Michigan sharpshooters were ordered to the camp for additional protection. There were no more tunnels dug out of the camp.
To make matters worse, a great fear of insurrection at the camp concerned Chicago city officials. The city was filled with copperheads, spies and southern sympathizers who might do anything to arm the prisoners at the camp. The compound was only guarded by 450 Union enlisted men and officers. This was not a number large enough to make most Chicago citizens feel safe. Somehow though, the camp managed to make it through the war without serious incident and it was closed down in the summer of 1865. The remaining prisoners were asked to take a loyalty oath to the United States and then set free. For a short time, the post was used as a rendezvous point for returning Federal troops, but by fall, it was deserted. In November, the government sold the property and Camp Douglas ceased to exist. The remaining buildings were demolished a short time later.
Today, the Lake Meadows condominiums are located on the site and a short distance away is a monument to Stephen Douglas that is located on the remains of Okenwald. The burial crypt is located between Lake Park Avenue and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. The tomb was not completed until 1881 because of the failure to produce backers who would give private funds for its completion. The tomb was eventually funded by the state of Illinois and, as Richard Linberg in his book RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME notes... “the monument is the last visible reminder of Chicago’s hidden role in the War Between the States”.
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