A prison camp for captured Confederates was established in Chicago, consisting of sixty acres of land formerly owned by Stephen A. Douglas. This acreage was located south of Thirty-first Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. It was named Camp Douglas and was one of four large prison camps in Northern Illinois. It was operated from 1862 until the end of the Civil War.
In these camps, in the summer of 1864, were confined more than 25,000 Confederate soldiers, distributed as follows:
Chicago – 8,000
Springfield – 7,554
Rock Island – 6,000
Alton – 5,000
In November, 1864, a plan, known as the “Chicago Conspiracy”, was devised by Southern sympathizers to free the prisoners at Camp Douglas and furnish them arms. Then, by a sudden stroke, they were to free the men in the other camps, which would create a Confederate army of about 25,000 veteran soldiers. Chicago was to be captured, and a swift attack was to be made on the rear of the Union armies which were then operating in the South.
Two factors led to the defeat of this plan. Colonel Benjamin J. Sweet, commandant at the camp, with only 900 troops to guard 8,000 prisoners, received warning that a plot was afoot and wired for reinforcements. At the same time, the plotters themselves realized that simply setting the prisoners free would not make an army of them. The Confederates would need to be organized and some program agreed upon or the result would be an unruly mob. This realization created a fatal delay, for another regiment was quickly added to the guard and the increased vigilance destroyed all hope of a successful break.
New York Times, April 30, 1865
Gen. B. SWEET has made his official report of the investigation into the conspiracy to release the rebel prisoners confined at Camp Chase, near Chicago.He says it is proved that JACOB THOMPSON, of Mississippi, Secretary of the Interior during the administration of Mr. BUCHANAN, went to Windsor, Canada, some time in May or June last, under the assumed name of Capt. CARSON, and having been supplied by the rebel government with large sums of money for the purpose, commenced operations to organize in Canada an expedition to release rebel prisoners of war at different camps in the Northwest, and aid the “Sons of Liberty.” with money and arms, to raise an insurrection, especially in the States of Illinois and Indiana, against the Government of the United States.
About the 25th day of August last an expedition was organized at Toronto, Canada, under the immediate direction of Capt. HINES, formerly of MORGAN’s command, composed of one hundred and fifty to two hundred escaped prisoners and rebel soldiers, accompanied by Col. G. ST. LEGER GRENFELL, at one time MORGAN’s Chief of Staff, and afterward Inspector-General on the staff of Gen. BRAGG; Col. VINCENT MARMARUKE, of Missouri; Col. BEN. ANDERSON, of Kentucky; Captains CASTLEMAN and CANTRILL, formerly of MORGAN’s command, and other rebel officers. This force was armed with pistols at Toronto, divided, and its members, in citizen’s dress, came to Chicago, by different routes, in the same trains which brought the thronging thousands who assembled on the 29th of August to attend the Chicago Convention, and which made it difficult to detect their presence.
It was to have been assisted by large numbers of “Sons of Liberty” and other guerrillas, who came armed to that convention, gathered from Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana and Illinois, and were to be under the immediate command of Brig.-Gen. CHAS. WALSH, of the “Sons of Liberty.”
The presence of these officers and men for that purpose was suspected by the government, and reinforcements were made to the garrison at Camp Douglas, which thwarted the expedition, and its members dispersed, some of the rebel officers and soldiers to Canada, others to Kentucky, and yet others to southern Indiana and Illinois, and the “Sons of Liberty” and guerrillas to their respective homes, to await a signal for the general uprising which, it was determined, should soon take place in the States of Illinois and Indiana against the government.
The danger supposed to be passed, the reinforcements sent to this garrison were ordered elsewhere, leaving barely force enough, with the most rigid economy in the use of officers and enlisted men to guard the prisoners of war, and perform other necessary duties at this post.
About the first of November another expedition of like character was organized in Canada, to be commanded by Capt. HINES, and composed of the same elements as that which had failed at the time of the Chicago Convention. It was determined that the attempt should be made about the period of the Presidential election, and the night of that day was finally designated as the time when the plot should be executed.
During the canvass which preceded the election, the “Sons of Liberty,” a secret organization, within, and beyond all doubt unknown to the better portion and majority of the Democratic party, has caused it to be wildly proclaimed and believed that there was an intention on the part of the government, and great danger that such intention would be carried into effect, to interfere by military force at the polls, against the Democratic party, as an excuse under which to arm themselves, as individuals, and had also obtained and concealed at different places in this city, arms and ammunition for themselves and the rebel prisoners of war, when they should be released.
On the evening of the 5th day of November, it was reported that a large number of persons of suspicious character had arrived in the city from Fayette and Christian counties, in Illinois, and that more were coming.
On Sunday, the 6th day of November, late in the afternoon, it became evident that the city was filling up with suspicious characters, some of whom were prisoners of war, and soldiers of the rebel army, that Capt. HINES, Col. GENFELL, and Col. MARMADUKE were here to lead, and that Brig.-Gen. WALSH, of the “Sons of Liberty,” had ordered large numbers of members of that order, from the Southern portion of Illinois, to cooperate with them.
Adopting measures which proved effective to detect the presence and identify the persons of the officers and leaders, and ascertain their plans, it was manifest that they had the means of gathering a force considerably larger than the little garrison then guarding between eight and nine thousand prisoners of war at Camp Douglass, and that, taking advantage of the excitement and the large number of persons who would ordinarily fill the streets on election night, they intended to make a night attack on and surprise this camp, release and arm the prisoners of war, cut the telegraph wires, burn the railroad depots, seize the banks and stores containing arms and ammunition, take possession of the city, and commence a campaign for the release of other prisoners of war in the States of Illinois and Indiana, thus organizing an army to effect and give success to the general uprising so long contemplated by the “Sons of Liberty.”
The whole number of troops for duty at Camp Douglas on that day was as follows:
The election was to take place on Tuesday, the 8th. two days thereafter.
By deferring action till the night of Monday, the 7th inst., probably all the officers and leaders, and many more of the men and arms of the expedition might have been captured, and more home rebels exposed; but such delay would have protracted the necessary movements and attending excitement into the very day of the Presidential election.
The great interests involved would scarcely justify taking the inevitable risks of postponement.
Sending a dispatch, dated 8:30 o’clock P.M. Nov. 6, by messenger over the railroad to Brig.-Gen. JOHN COOK, commanding the District of Illinois, a copy of which, numbered one, is annexed to, and made a part of this report, the following arrests were made during the night.
Col. G. St. Leger Grenfell, and J.T. Shanks, an escaped prisoner of war, at the Richmond House; Col. Vincent Marmaduke, at the house of Dr. E.W. Edwards, No. 70 Adams-street; Brig.-Gen. Charles Walsh, of the “Sons of Liberty;” Capt. Cantrill, of Morgan’s command, and Charles Traverse, rank unknown, probably an officer under an assumed name, at the house of Gen. Walsh; Judge Buckner S. Morris, Treasurer of the “Sons of Liberty,” at his house, No. 6 Washington-street; also capturing at the same time in Walsh’s house, about thirty rods from Camp Douglas, arms and ammunition, as per annexed schedule, numbered two. The shot guns were all loaded with cartridges, composed of from nine to twelve largest-sized buckshot, and capped. The revolvers, (Joslyn’s patent 10-inch barrel,) also loaded and capped; reporting to Brig.-Gen. John Cook, commanding District of Illinois, and Col. William Hoffman, Commanding-General of prisoners, by telegraphic dispatch, dated Camp Douglas. Nov. 7, at 4 o’clock A.M., a copy of which is hereto annexed, numbered three, made a part of this report.
He further says:
On the 16th instant, a young Englishman from Canada, under British protection papers, named MONGHAM, was arrested, who proves to be a messenger between JACOB THOMPSON, Capt. HIRES. Brig.-Gen. WALSH, and the guerillas of Col. JESSE, of Kentucky.
An examination of many of the persons so arrested, show beyond all doubt that the “Sons of Liberty”is a treasonable, widely extended and powerful organization, touching into almost, if not all the counties of this State that it is an organization of two branches, one civil, the other military, the mem-branch; that important secrets in relation to military plans and the location of the depots for arms were carefully guarded from persons of civil membership, though even they well knew that the organization had such depots and was animated with a spirit of intense hostility to the government; that many of its leaders must have known of the intended attack on this camp and city, and that some of them have actually been in consultation face to face with men whom they knew to be rebel officers, conspiring to produce a revolution in the Northwest.
A schedule is hereto attached number four, which is believed to contain the names of some of the leading and most dangerous men belonging to this organization in the several counties of the auto of Illinois.
I respectfully recommend that the officers of the rebel army, and as many of the “Sons or Liberty” and guerrillas above-mentioned, as the interests of the government may require, be tried before a military commission and punished.
During the Civil Warm the 55th Georgia Infantry of the Confederate Army was sent to eastern Tennessee, where in September 1863 most of its number were captured at Cumberland Gap.
James Knox Thomas, an infantryman, soon thereafter found himself at Camp Douglas in Chicago, one of the more infamous Union prison stockades. There, as he would recall almost 40 years later, he and his comrades plotted an escape on the day after Christmas in 1864.
Below is a copy of the article in the January 1904 issue of Confederate Veteran which he describes in detail his successful escape which took him to Detroit, Windsor, Bermuda and Havana. By March he was in Galveston, Texas.
Confederate Veteran, Vol. 9, No. 1, January 1904
ESCAPE FROM CAMP DOUGLAS
R. D. Rugeley, Bowie, Tex., sends account by J. Knox Thomas of his escape from prison. Mr. Thomas is one of Bowie’s very best citizens, and absolutely trustworthy. He relates his experience:
I was a private in Company H, Fifty-Fifth Georgia Infantry. My company was raised in Randolph and Stewart Counties, Ga.; was commanded by Capt. John Allen, whose field officers were Col. Harkey, Lieut. Col. Persons, and Maj. Printup.
On September 9, 1863, while in Frazier’s Brigade, Buckner’s Division, we were captured at Cumberland Gap, and after a tedious journey, were landed in Camp Douglas, a prison in the suburbs of Chicago. In that prison, on Christmas day, 1864, I was walking across the open premises with Bill James, of Company A. of my regiment, and I remarked that if I could only scale the walls I would turn my head toward Dixie. He replied that he could easily arrange for us to scale the wall, but we had no money and no citizen’s clothes. I was a shifty little red-headed fellow, and could generally raise a small amount in case of an emergency, and had already bought me a suit of citizen’s clothes from a Yankee soldier. I told James that I had the money and would get the clothes, but wished to know how he proposed to scale the wall. His scheme was this: he was a laborer in the kitchen department, and the kitchen superintendent, an old Irishman nick-named “Old Red.” had placed a couple of scantlings parallel along the wall of the kitchen, on the ground, for some barrels to rest on, and James proposed to nail some pieces of plank on the scantlings and thus make a ladder. Seeing that his plan was feasible, I then said : “All right; we will go to-morrow night at seven o’clock, by which time I will have the clothes ready. James then replied that we could not hoist the ladder up on the wall by ourselves, and said we would have to get two more companions. I then said: “You choose one of them, and I will choose the other.” He chose Hope Williams, of his own company (A), and I selected Ben Johnson, otherwise known as “Babe” Johnson, of my own company (H). At the appointed time we met at the kitchen, and I was chosen to walk out and see if any of the inside police were near; and if they were, I was to quietly return; if they were not, I was to walk quickly back, pass the kitchen door, whistle, and pass on toward the prison wall to Barracks No. 72, where they were to follow with the ladder. I quietly took the walk, found no police, hurried hack as agreed, and in a few minutes we had the ladder up against the wall. As we accomplished this a sentinel halted us; Babe Johnson instantly sprang on the ladder, and was killed by the sentinel. As Johnson staggered and fell back, James mounted the ladder, followed by Williams and myself, and we all three escaped amidst a shower of bullets. We were clad with citizen’s clothes, purchased by me from the Yankee soldier, and we safely reached the city, and registered at the Sherman House in our own names, but as hailing from Louisville, Ky.
We remained at the Sherman House until five o’clock, the 27th inst, when we took a train for Detroit. We reached Detroit on the 28th, and immediately crossed the river to Windsor, Canada, where we were under the British flag. From Windsor we proceeded by various points to Halifax. At Halifax we sailed for the Bermuda Islands on a British brig, and reaching them we went to Nassau, on the Bahama Islands, and from Nassau we went to Havana.
At Havana I sat for my “photo,” which is herewith submitted for the inspection of my surviving comrades. We remained in Havana two weeks, and then shipped on the blockade runner Fox for Galveston, Tex. Sometime in March we reached Galveston, and in attempting to enter the port our vessel was shot to pieces by the blockading fleet, but we managed to reach the shore safely. From Galveston we went to Marshall, Tex., where James decided to remain. Williams and I proceeded to Shreveport, and thence down the river by steamer to Alexandria. From Alexandria we took it “afoot” across the country to the Mississippi, and crossed it in a blockade skiff. Continuing, we reached Meridian, and there learned for the first time that the war was ended. We journeyed to Montgomery, thence to Eufaula, and across the Chattahoochee to Georgetown, where Hope Williams left me for his home, in Baker County, Ga., and I went to my home, in Randolph County.
My present home is Bowie, Montague County, Tex., and should be delighted to hear from any of my old comrades and especially James and Williams.
Notes: After the war, Thomas married Nancy Elizabeth Cowart (1848-1926), and they eventually moved to Texas, where they settled in Montague County. Knox Thomas died on February 27, 1930, at the age of 85. Both he and Nancy are buried in Restland Cemetery at Olney, Texas.
Private Benjamin “Babe” Johnson was not killed outright; Federal records show he lingered for more than two weeks, finally dying on January 13, 1865. He was buried in Grave 470, Block 2, Chicago City Cemetery. His remains were probably among those later exhumed and reinterred at Oakwoods Cemetery. Benjamin Johnson CSR, National Archives.
Fox was a well-known blockade runner, under the command of Simpson A. Adkins.
Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1900
HE earliest beginnings of the present Chicago are marked by the site of old Fort Dearborn in the First Ward. The Second Ward contains the massacre monument, where in 1812 the garrison of the fort was killed by the Indians aroused to hostility by the second war with Great Britain. Following the logical sequence of events Camp Douglas was located in the Third Ward. So far as the war of the rebellion is concerned this is easily the most historical spot in Chicago, though the site of the camp has long since been covered with handsome residences, and its existence has faded from the memory of most Chicagoans.
During the early part of the war Camp Douglas was the mustering and training grounds for the volunteer regiments of Illinois. Later confederate prisoners were confined there, and finally, as a fitting climax, Camp Douglas became known as the place where the great Chicago conspiracy was hatched and almost carried to a successful conclusion.
In the Third Ward also was located the first racetrack ever built in Chicago. It covered all the territory now included between Cottage Grove avenue on the east, Twenty-sixth street on the north, Thirty-first street on the south, and Indiana avenue on the west.
In the Fourth Ward, next to the south, is the tomb and monument of the Little Giant, who after unsuccessfully fighting Lincoln for political supremacy in the State, finally, when the crisis came, gave to his administration all the support of his great influence, and so vindicated his title to the name of patriot. And just across Cottage Grove avenue from the Douglas statue is the site of the original Chicago University. It was the dream of Douglas’ life to establish in Chicago a university which should be worthy in every way of the metropolis of the West. To this end he signified his willingness to give ten acres of the oak grove along the present line of Cottage Grove avenue as a site for the university whenever assurances should be given that suitable buildings would be erected. It is a comforting thought that he died believing that his dreams were in a fair way to be realized.
Though it is less than forty years ago that Camp Douglas was originally laid out, the growth of the city after the war was so rapid that within less than twenty years the boundaries of the camp had been entirely obscured, and in 1878 it required much careful research before they could be established. Beginning on Forest avenue in the west, the boundary line on the north ran east on Thirty-first street as far as South Park avenue and then dropped to the south for a fraction of a block, continuing to the east to the present line of Cottage Grove avenue. The main entrance to the camp was on Cottage Grove avenue and the eastern boundary line ran as far south as College, now Thirty-third place. The southern limit of the camp at the west was Thirty-third street, the line being drawn diagonally to the south to meet Rhodes avenue at Thirty-third place.
Camp Douglas, as above described, was originally laid out in the late summer of 1861. The ground covered was all included in the estate of Stephen A. Douglas, and the camp was accordingly named after him. The Thirty-ninth, Fifty-first, and Fifty-fifth Infantry, Ninth Illinois Cavalry, and the Mechanics’ Fusileers were immediately concentrated at the camp, and afterwards sent from it to the front. The original intention was to make the United States camp of instruction, but this was afterwards abandoned, and it was made a military camp, pure and simple.
THE FIRST PRISONERS.
In February, 1862, the battle of Fort Donelson was fought and the government found itself with thousands of confederate prisoners on its hands. It was decided to place them in Camp Douglas, and shortly after the battle between eight and ten thousand Southrons were sent to Chicago. The prisoners were, as a rule, miserable, disheartened, ragged, and wretched. A public meeting was called soon after their arrival and all the help possible was given. A relief committee was appointed, with Thomas B. Bryan as treasurer, and medicines and delicacies were sent to the camp by the wagon load. A little later several thousand federal troops who had been captured and afterwards paroled, arrived at the camp. The paroled soldiers were unruly under strict military discipline, and at one time attempted to burn the barracks and escape. A change in commanding officers, however, put an end to this discontent. In 1863 the barracks of Camp Douglas were overcrowded. Several volunteer regiments were obliged to camp on the open prairie to the west of the camp, and at one time, including the prisoners, there were moren than 30,000 men under arms in the vicinity.
Among the confederate prisoners were many of Hood’s and Morgan’s famous raiders. The sudden change of climate in the midst of winter had a disastrous effect, and though good rations were provided and the sanitary arrangements were good, camp fever, and pneumonia counted their victims by the hundreds, the deaths averaging six a day.
By April, 1863, all the confederate prisoners had been removed, except a few too ill to go, and the camp was nearly vacant, only the Ninth Vermont and a few companies of paroled troops remaining. In the following summer, however, the barracks were again filled with confederate prisoners. These prisoners were set to work to insure the security of their own confinement. They were forced to build a fence twelve feet high about the entire camp, with a platform four feet from the top, for the use of the sentries. In spite of these precautions, however, a number of prisoners escaped during the next few months. It was during this period that the celebrated “gophers” conducted their operations. Their plan of procedure was to remove the board flooring of their barracks, dig down a few feet, and then burrow out until they had passed the fence. Fifteen or twenty of the prisoners were usually involved in each attempt to escape by burrowing. It was the duty of the leader to crawl out through the tunnel, and with only his head above ground observe the whereabouts of the nearest sentinel. When the guard walking his regular beat got out of the way for a moment the leader popped out if his hole to freedom, and as many as possible followed him. In November, 1863, more than seventy prisoners escaped in this way. In the last month of this year eight companies of the Veteran Reserve Corps and a regiment of the Michigan Sharpshooters were ordered to Camp Douglas as additional garrison, and the work of the “gophers” was finally stopped almost completely.
On Jan. 1, 1864, there were 5,650 confederates confined at Camp Douglas, and during the year more than 7,000 additional prisoners were sent there. New barracks were erected and every effort was made to put the camp in as good a sanitary condition as possible. In spite of these efforts, however, smallpox and other diseases made terrible ravages in the ranks of the prisoners, 1,256 dying during that year.
It was in 1864 that the two plots for the relief of the 11,000 prisoners confined in Camp Douglas were formed. The men, with the assistance of their rescuers, were to start and attack in the rear, with the intention of entirely overthrowing the government of the United States. In May, 1864, Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, who had been Secretary of the Interior during the administration of President Buchanan, went to Windsor, Canada, and under the assumed name of Captain Carson, having been supplied with large sums of money for the purpose by the confederate government, started to organize an expedition to release prisoners of war in the various prison camps of the United States in the Northwest. He also arranged to aid the “Knights of Liberty,” an organization of secessionists in the North, with arms and money, to the ned that they might raise an insurrection—starting in Chicago—against the United States government. On the 29th of August the Democratic convention was scheduled to meet in Chicago, and it was thought that large bodies of men secretly armed might be brought into the city at that time without exciting suspicion. On the 24th of August, many escaped prisoners and rebel sympathizers, after having been furnished with arms in Canada, gathered in Chicago, making their general headquarters at the Richmond Hotel. In addition to these leaders the “Sons of Liberty,” under the direct command of Brigadier General Charles Walsh, at one time a Democratic candidate for Sheriff of Cook County, were armed and ready for attack. t the time it was estimated that there were about 2,000 members of the order in Chicago. They were to be further aided by a miscellaneous mob of malcontents and disunionists.
Col. Benjamin Sweet, in command of Camp Douglas, had, however, been kept fully advised of the progress of the conspiracy. In plenty of time he asked for reinforcements and they were sent. An entire Pennsylvania regiment, together with four companies of a another regiment, and an Ohio battery were ordered to Camp Douglas. On the day set for the insurrection the troops were stationed so that at the first alarm they could command Camp Douglas with their guns, and all preparations were made to give the emigrants from Canada a warm reception. As a result the leaders became frightened and the day of the convention passed without the least excitement. Shortly after most of the troops which had been sent as reinforcements were sent home. In October, however, though deserted by their outside allies, the 11,000 prisoners confined in the camp made a determined attempt to escape. Out if the whole number of 100 had volunteered to practically sacrifice themselves in a fierce attack on the guard. In the excitement, which followed, it was thought that most of those remaining would be able to make their escape. A spy, however, brought advance news of the plot to the commandant. He posted his forces accordingly. When the brave 100 advanced to the attack they were met with a fire so sweeping that the attempt to break out was immediately suppressed.
THE FINAL PLOT.
But not even then had the plots of the Southern leaders in Canada and the more despicable conspiracy of the disloyal sympathizers in Chicago reached their limit. It was determined to take advantage of the excitement resulting from the Presidential election in November, 1864, to make another and even bolder attempt to loose the prisoners confined in Camp Douglas and to give to the government of the United States a blow from which it would not easily recover. The plan was to release the prisoners, to stuff the ballot boxes so that the city, county, and State might be carried for McClellan, and then to sack and loot the city, burning everything they could not carry away with them into the territory of Jeff Davis.
On the 6th of November a large number of the “Sons of Liberty” arrived in Chicago, most of them coming from the southern part of the State. They were armed and were ready for desperate work. Brigadier General Walsh was again in command of these forces. They were supplemented by a considerable number of confederate soldiers, who, in one disguise or another, had managed to get into the city.
At the time there were only 800 federal troops in Chicago, and most of them were needed to guard the more than 8,000 prisoners confined at Camp Douglas. Colonel Sweet, the commandant, was again advised of the progress of the conspiracy, and realized that the situation was desperate. He finally concluded that the only chance of safety lay in taking the conspirators by surprise. On the night before election he sent squads of men to the house and hotels where the leaders were quartered and placed them under arrest. As a result the plotters were overawed and no attempt was made to carry the carefully laid plan to its consummation, though on election day a hastily organized body of mounted militia patrolled the city in readiness for an outbreak.
The prisoners arrested by Colonel Sweet were afterward tried by a military commission which met in Cincinnati, and most of them were found guilty. In one case the death penalty was prescribed, but it was afterward commuted to imprisonment for life on the Dry Tortugas.
The fall of Richmond in the spring of 1865 and the subsequent collapse of the rebellion did not immediately cause the evacuation of Camp Douglas as a military post. Gradually, however, the confederate prisoners confined there were released after taking the oath of allegiance to the government of the United States, and by August, 1865, there were only a couple hundred left, most of them too ill to be removed. Until October the camp was used as a rendezvous for federal troops returning from war, but after that time it was practically deserted. In November of that year the government property was sold and Camp Douglas ceased to exist.