"Eighty Acres of Hell" or "a Grand Old-Time?": The War of Words Surrounding Chicago's Camp Douglas and Historical Memory

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Jacob McAloon, Loyola University Chicago
Chicago’s very own Camp Douglas, operational from 1860 to 1865, is regarded as one of the worst Prisoner of War (POW) camps of the Civil War. It had an astonishing mortality rate of approximately twenty percent and claimed the lives of roughly forty-five hundred Confederate prisoners. As historian George Levy put it, “Camp Douglas [earned a] reputation as an extermination camp.” A large variety of photographs, prisoner diaries, guard reports and newspapers corroborate this view. One of the guards, Captain Ripley, recounted, “The sight of ... sallow men ... bearing the corpse of a comrade to the dead house was an hourly spectacle. [The prisoners] looked as though they were clothed in sack cloth and ashes, doing penance for their sins.” However, there is a surprising number of historical documents which refute this imagery, most of them being found in the Northern states. Some newspapers like the Chicago Tribune went as far as to report the prisoners were having a grand old-time flying kites! Interestingly enough, the Confederate prisoners even created their own newspaper, The Prisoner Vidette, though only one known issue survives. While there has been ample discussion of the dire side of Camp Douglas in the broader context of Illinois and the Civil War, there appears to be a dearth in scholarly writing which specifically examines these differing points of view regarding conditions in the camp. Why were there such discrepancies? Was it due to the strong sentiment of animosity felt by both sides during the War Between the States? Or, perhaps, was it due to government propaganda to keep Chicago’s citizens happy and supportive of the war effort? Can historians definitively say what caused the high mortality rate (and if Union soldiers were also impacted)? In addition to these queries, this paper also desires to elucidate the historical memory of Camp Douglas and if it is fair to say the Confederate view is the one which prevails today. Ultimately, even though there were ample examples of prisoner abuse by Union guards, the high mortality rate of the Camp was primarily due to extremely poor hygienic conditions which were not intentional and did not solely affect the prisoners. It would seem the historical memory of Camp Douglas, heavily influenced by the South during the Reconstruction Era and beyond, has made the camp appear worse than it actually was. Ultimately, this poster is going to visualize the dichotomy of the exaggerated reports on Camp Douglas from both the Northern and Southern perspectives and how the Southern report invaded our historical memory.
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