Title of Poster or Presentation

“Eighty Acres of Hell” or “A Grand Old-Time”?: The War of Words Surrounding Chicago’s Camp Douglas and Historical Memory

Presenter Information

Jacob McAloonFollow

Submission Type

Oral/Paper Presentation

Degree Type

Masters

Discipline

Humanities

Department

History

Access Type

Open Access

Abstract or Description

Chicago’s Camp Douglas, operational from 1861 to 1865, is regarded as one of the Civil War’s worst Prisoner of War camps. It had an astonishing mortality rate of twenty percent and claimed the lives of roughly 4,500 Confederate prisoners. As historian George Levy stated, “Camp Douglas [earned a] reputation as an extermination camp.” A large variety of prisoner diaries, guard reports and newspapers corroborate this view. One guard recounted, “The sight of…sallow men…bearing the corpse of a comrade to the dead house was an hourly spectacle…” However, there is also a surprising number of historical documents which refute this imagery, most of them from Northern states. Some, like the Chicago Tribune, went as far as to report prisoners were having a grand old-time flying kites! 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 camp conditions. There are a variety of possible reasons for such discrepancies, ranging from the strong sentiment of animosity felt by both sides to government propaganda meant to keep Chicago’s citizens supportive of the war effort. Amongst all of this diluted reporting, can historians definitively say what caused the high mortality rate? In addition, this paper also desires to elucidate the historical memory of Camp Douglas and if it is fair to say that the Confederate view is the one which prevails today. Though there were ample examples of prisoner abuse, the high mortality rate was not intentional and did not solely affect the prisoners. 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.

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“Eighty Acres of Hell” or “A Grand Old-Time”?: The War of Words Surrounding Chicago’s Camp Douglas and Historical Memory

Chicago’s Camp Douglas, operational from 1861 to 1865, is regarded as one of the Civil War’s worst Prisoner of War camps. It had an astonishing mortality rate of twenty percent and claimed the lives of roughly 4,500 Confederate prisoners. As historian George Levy stated, “Camp Douglas [earned a] reputation as an extermination camp.” A large variety of prisoner diaries, guard reports and newspapers corroborate this view. One guard recounted, “The sight of…sallow men…bearing the corpse of a comrade to the dead house was an hourly spectacle…” However, there is also a surprising number of historical documents which refute this imagery, most of them from Northern states. Some, like the Chicago Tribune, went as far as to report prisoners were having a grand old-time flying kites! 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 camp conditions. There are a variety of possible reasons for such discrepancies, ranging from the strong sentiment of animosity felt by both sides to government propaganda meant to keep Chicago’s citizens supportive of the war effort. Amongst all of this diluted reporting, can historians definitively say what caused the high mortality rate? In addition, this paper also desires to elucidate the historical memory of Camp Douglas and if it is fair to say that the Confederate view is the one which prevails today. Though there were ample examples of prisoner abuse, the high mortality rate was not intentional and did not solely affect the prisoners. 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.