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.
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.