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.
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.
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.