Camp Douglas: Eighty Acres of Hell


Camp Douglas, Outside Chicago Circa 1863

Anyone with a passing interest in the Civil War has heard of Andersonville.

The Georgia prisoner of war camp was home for months or years for as many as 45,000 Union prisoners.  After the war the National Park Service took over a large plot of land where the remains of an estimated 13,000 prisoners were buried. Few died from wounds suffered in battle.  They died of malnutrition, exposure and disease.

The term POW–Prisoner Of War– was not yet common, but conditions in military prisons in the North and South were brutal.

Camp Douglas, just outside Chicago, was one of the worst.  Many historians call it the Andersonville of the North.  A group of Northern physicians who inspected it called it an “extermination camp.”  

But while Andersonville has been memorialized in a number of fiction and non-fiction books, and an EMMY-winning TV program, there is much less material available about Camp Douglas.1565543319.01.LZZZZZZZ

“To Die in Chicago” by George Levy is one book that does detail the camp’s horrors.  It was published in 1999 and is available on Amazon.  It also sparked a History Channel documentary called “Eighty Acres of Hell.” To buy a DVD copy, visit and type “Camp Douglas” in the search box.

Many of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Thunderbolt Raiders captured in Ohio were sent there in the late summer of 1863. One of them, Private Curtis Burke of the 14th Kentucky Cavalry, kept a daily journal.  He is regularly quoted in the book and the History documentary.  

Morgan’s men created special problems for their guards and prison management.  They were looked upon by most of the other prisoners as organizers and leaders because many of them came from well-educated upper-class families in the Bluegrass area of Kentucky.

Author Levy quoted an unnamed reporter who wrote, “Generally they are far better looking men than many of the sesech prisoners we had here before…all the colors of Joseph’s coat were represented in their wearing apparel…the out-and-out Raiders had either a suit of black broadcloth or a portion or our own soldiers’ blue uniform.”  

Some of Morgan’s Raiders thought it their duty to create as many problems for their captors as they could.  Accustomed to Gen. Morgan’s laissez faire supervision, they were determined to do as they pleased, even if it meant suffering at the hands of their Union guards. 

For allegedly threatening an informant, three of them were hung by their thumbs with their toes barely touching the ground.  They were repeatedly asked what they knew about the informant, but refused to disclose anything.

Private Burke: “When they were cut down, one of the boys fainted and another threw up all over himself.”  Two of the three soon died.

Camp Douglas also featured a torture device called The Mule.   It resembled a saw horse, but was about four feet high, and the top board was only about two inches wide.  Prisoners were forced to straddle it, with their feet dangling.

Private Burke:  “Men have sat on it till they fainted and fell off. It is like riding a sharp top fence.  Sometimes the Yanks would laugh and say, ‘I will give you a pair of spurs,’ which was a bucket of sand tied to each foot.”

Riding The Mule was especially brutal during zero-degree Chicago weather, with winds blowing off Lake Michigan.copley76a

Rations given to the Rebels, which they cooked themselves, were never adequate.   For a time, they were given no fruits or vegetables at all, even though they were scant miles from the rich farmland of northern Illinois.

Some of the prisoners would catch rats and cook them.  One claimed that rat meat “was tender as chicken” and some of the men would cook several of them into a rat pie.  Burke was not among them:  “I understand that rat eating is common on other squares but my curiosity has never made me taste any rats yet.”

During most of its time as a prison, Camp Douglas had just one outdoor water spigot to meet the needs of thousands of prisoners.  Flush toilets had already been invented but the prisoners had to use open latrines which were overflowing with excrement with no way to clean them.

Dysentery, diarrhea, smallpox and measles killed many, and at one time a deadly cholera epidemic erupted, killing many more.

Private Burke himself got smallpox and spent several weeks in a barracks converted to a hospital.  The building was barely heated and each man was given a blanket that a previous patient had probably contaminated with the highly contagious disease.

Author George Levy: “If any prisoner should have left his bones in Chicago, it was Burke.  However, two infections and smallpox did not keep him from living into the 20th century.”  Burke also suffered a severe respiratory infection and sore throat, which doctors treated with a stick of licorice.

The winter of 1864-65 was extremely cold in the Midwest and the Camp Douglas death toll among the sick and weakened prisoners soared.  In November 1864, 217 men died, followed by 323 in December, 308 in January and 243 in February.

Camp Douglas

Drawing of Camp Douglas Map

That four-month loss of 1,091 lives equaled the deaths at Andersonville in a similar period, February through May, 1864.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission, an early not-for-profit organized to oversee the health of soldiers in battles and in camps, reported:

“The amount of standing water, of unpoliced grounds, of foul sinks, of unventilated and crowded barracks, of general disorder, of soil reeking with miasmatic accretions, of rotten bones and the emptying of camp-kettles is enough to drive a sanitarian to despair…absolute abandonment of the spot seems the only judicious course…Nothing but fire can cleanse them.”

As an added insult to the deprivations suffered by the Confederates, a Chicago entrepreneur built an observation tower just outside the prison walls.   Citizens were charged 10 cents each to gawk down at the rebels.

To get out of this manmade Hellhole, all a prisoner had to do was swear allegiance to the United States of America and volunteer to join the Union army to fight American Indians in the West.  Many did.  But few, if any, of the Thunderbolt Raiders accepted that offer. 

Most of them were too busy trying to escape from this minimum security prison.


Rebel Prisoners at Camp Douglas Barracks

There were no cellblocks at Camp Douglas.  The men lived in barracks, which were broiling hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.  But during the day they could stroll the grounds. And at night, the few kerosene lanterns gave little light and prowling was easy.

On the night of September 7, 1863, just a few weeks after they arrived, about 17 Raiders stormed the wooden stockade wall and broke a plank to escape.  Guards fired at them from a distance but 11 of the 17 made it to freedom.  Later, Private Burke counted only two bullet holes in the stockade.  “Bad shots at 50 yards,” he judged.

Later that year, the Camp Douglas Raiders knew that Gen. Morgan and five of his captains had escaped from the maximum-security Ohio Penitentiary November 27 by tunneling out of their cellblock and scaling the prison wall in the middle of the night.  Perhaps that success led to something similar at Camp Douglas a week later.

A Union officer reported that Morgan’s Men had “dug a small, round hole just under the frozen crust of the ground, the dirt being secreted under the floors of the barracks and cook-houses. During the day this hole was covered with a board, over which was kept about six inches of dirt.”

That hole became a tunnel under the wall.

The evening of December 2, the final inches of earth were removed and dozens of prisoners began crawling through the tunnel then running for their lives.  About 100 of them made it out before they were spotted by a sentry.

Camp douglas Memorial

Memorial to Confederacy Dead At Camp Douglas

The authorities quickly telegraphed news of the escape throughout the Midwest and manhunts were launched by troops and police.  About 50 Rebels were quickly captured and returned to prison.  Another 30 were rounded up within days.  Only about 20 made it back to the South.

Camp Douglas was officially closed in June of 1865 as the Confederacy collapsed.  Any prisoners who swore the oath of allegiance to the U.S. were given train rides home to the South.  If they refused, they had to walk.

Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Thunderbolt Raiders chose to walk.

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