Camp Douglas was located between 31st Street, 33rd Place, Cottage Grove Ave and Giles Ave on the near-south side of Chicago. The camp operated between 1861 and 1865 receiving and training nearly 40,000 Union soldiers, including African American troops. From 1862 through 1865 the camp also served as a prison camp housing nearly 30,000 Confederate prisoners. Archaeological digs are underway and discovering many of the old structures.
Backstory and Context
HIstorian Theodore J. Karamanski notes on the Encyclopedia of Chicago:
Founded in the fall of 1861 as a training camp and staging center for Union forces, Camp Douglas was named after Stephen A. Douglas, whose property south of the city provided its site. In 1862 the camp was hastily adapted to serve as a prison for rebel soldiers captured by Ulysses S. Grant at Fort Donelson. Due to occasional prisoner exchanges during the first two years of the Civil War, the number of prisoners in the camp fluctuated, although for a time it was the largest military prison in the North. By the end of the war a total of 26,060 men had been incarcerated there.
Escapes were frequent from the camp, but only the abortive November 1864 “Chicago Conspiracy” roused broad concern. Federal informants foiled an ill-conceived attempt by local antiwar activists and die-hard prisoners to disrupt the 1864 election with a mass prison break.
Like all Civil War prisons, Camp Douglas had a high mortality rate: one prisoner in seven died in Chicago. Poor sanitation, hastily constructed buildings, and harsh weather conditions were to blame. In June 1862 a U.S. Sanitary Commission agent decried the camp's “foul sinks,” “unventilated and crowded barracks,” and “soil reeking with miasmatic accretions” as “enough to drive a sanitarian to despair.” By the end of the war more than 4,000 rebels had died in the camp.
Douglas was one of the first major speculators in Chicago and a huge proponent of both a northern route to the Transcontinental Railroad, as well as its route into Chicago, He made substantial investments 160 acres near 31st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue on Chicago's south side. Senator Douglas was also significant in securing Chicago's place as the northern terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad; The Illinois Central traveled through his south-side Chicago property.1
The Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, aided by DePaul University, have performed seven archaeological digs in the area of Camp Douglas between 2012 and 2016. Numerous findings have arisen, including building, tools, military artifacts -- an abundance of evidence that demonstrates the existence of the camp -- the largest military installation in Illinois during the Civil War.3
The archaeological investigations are also looking for hints of the Bronzeville/Black Metropolis days that highlighted the region during the 20th century. To Wit: The area has a rich, deep history.4
In the end, the area is dotted with dig sites, most of it to uncover Chicago's urban infancy. With St. Louis and Cincinnati close to the front, Chicago grew as city most easy to stage troops, process meat -- "hog butcher to the world," started here, and more. The railroads arrived with the help of Stephan A. Douglas and those trains brought in troops and prisoners. They also helped blacks migrated from the south in later years, which brought in the Blues culture still celebrated today in Chicago. The development of the Black Metropolis made it popular for leaders like Martin Luther King to arrive, hence one of the roads traversing the region today is named after the deceased civil rights leader. In one area, a ton of U.S cultural history exists, starting with a spot where the country dealt with its most divisive time in history.