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Chicago and the Civil War



It’s worth remembering that the Civil War transformed the entire nation, not just the South. From the tribes living in Montana to the slaves in Mississippi to Yankees in Vermont, no one in this nation was the same after 1865. That includes Chicago:

Some impacts, courtesy of Chicago History Museum and the Encyclopedia of Chicago:

• Boosted commerce: “The opening of the Union Stock Yard on Christmas Day, 1865, is symbolic of the Civil War’s impact on Chicago. The war directed the flow of vital food commodities away from Chicago’s most persistent urban rivals, which were too close to the front lines during the first two years of the war and were hurt by stoppages of trade on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.”

• Helped banking: “The Civil War also helped spur industrialization by bringing stable banking to Chicago for the first time. The First National Bank of Chicago was founded in July 1863, and by war’s end the city boasted 13 national banks, more than any other city in America.”

• Race riot: “In 1862 the city suffered its first race riot when white teamsters tried to prevent African-Americans from using the omnibus system. The Chicago City Council voted to segregate the public schools.”

• POW camp: Chicago was home to one of the largest Union Army prisoner-of-war camps for Confederate soldiers: Camp Douglas, near 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive. Of the 10,000-plus Confederate soldiers at the camp, 4,457 died, mostly due to poor sanitary and medical facilities. The Chicago History Museum has several artifacts from the camp, including the bell that rang out to signify the end of the Civil War.

• Death toll: There were 22,436 soldiers from Cook County, and most came from Chicago. Almost 4,000 soldiers from the city died, and there are memorials in Grant Park, Lincoln Park and some city cemeteries.

“Thousands of Confederate soldiers are buried in Lincoln Park [formerly the city cemetery] and in Oak Wood Cemetery, which has a significant monument memorializing the rebel soldiers who perished at Camp Douglas,” Lewis said.

Wait, there’s a Confederate monument in Chicago?

Anyway, this is a nice overview of the basics.

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  • Murc

    Wait, there’s a Confederate monument in Chicago?

    Y’know, if it’s specifically about the prisoners who died while in the care of the United States, I can, tentatively, say I’d be okay with that. You’re not supposed to run a prison so badly that half the inmates die. I’m okay memorializing those that died there. Yes, I’m aware of Andersonville. The Union was supposed to behave better than the treasonous slaveholders.

    That said, I know nothing at all about this particular monument and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were some Lost Cause bullshit.

    • On the prison issue, so many of the deaths in these prisons were not about torturous treatment but about the horrendous public health practices of the time. What makes Andersonville different in that Wirz basically a) didn’t care if they died and b) was happy to let organized gangs of thugs run the place. Even with that, I think Wirz got something of a raw deal compared to Davis and Lee. But conditions in northern POW camps did improve significantly during the war as the United States figured out how to do deal with sanitation to some extent while the Confederacy did not.

      • Scott P.

        Overall, disease took a greater toll than combat in the Civil War, but the conditions at Camp Douglas seem to have gone beyond even benign neglect. From Wikipedia:

        As the number of prisoners at the camp increased in the summer of 1864, the War Department again reduced rations, in retaliation for the Confederates reducing rations for Union prisoners. Rations reportedly no longer lasted quite as long as the period for which they were allotted. A few prisoners reported that prisoners resorted to eating rats.

        Toward the end of 1864, surgeons refused to send recovering prisoners back to the barracks due to the rampant scurvy, attributable to Hoffman’s policy of withholding vegetables from the prisoners. Meanwhile, in November 1864, as repairs were being carried out, water was cut off to the camp and even to the hospital. Prisoners had to risk being shot in order to gather snow, even beyond the dead line, for coffee and other uses

        • I don’t know anything about this particular camp. I would like to see an academic reference here though, given the concerns I would have about editing and Wikipedia articles. If it’s true, that’s certainly pretty bad.

          • Pseudonym

            The Wikipedia article mainly cites George Levy’s To Die in Chicago: Confederate Prisoners at Camp Douglas 1862–1865, for what it’s worth.
            And the book got a glowing review from the editor of the Journal of Confederate History!

            • Jhoosier

              I really hope the Journal of Confederate History! has the exclamation point at the end.

              • louislouis

                The South Was Right!

          • celticdragonchick

            I am looking for that right now. The one academic article I found online was a whitewash of the camp from 1960. Over at Civilwar.org, I did find this nifty little quote…

            Upon inspecting the camp, the U.S Sanitary Commission reported that the “…the amount of standing water, of unpoliced grounds, of foul sinks, of general disorder, of soil reeking with miasmic accretions, of rotten bones and emptying of camp kettles…..was enough to drive a sanitarian mad.” The barracks were so filthy and infested that the commission claimed, “nothing but fire can cleanse them.”

            • Halloween Jack

              The barracks were so filthy and infested that the commission claimed, “nothing but fire can cleanse them.”

              If only they’d been able to wait a few years.

          • celticdragonchick

            The scurvy issue seems to have been real after vegetables were cut from the diet in 1864 from what I can see in a number of online sources and some print books. Fresh water was a serious issue since it seems there were only 3 water hydrants for the entire camp. I didn’t see anything about rats, although eating rats does compensate for lack of ascorbic acid.

    • wjts

      I wasn’t previously familiar with it myself, but this description makes it sound largely unobjectionable.

    • Bruce Vail

      There is a Confederate monument at Finns Point NJ, also, not too far from Wilmington DE

      Couple of years back we visited the history park at Fort Delaware, on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. It was a pre-Civil War military installation converted to a POW camp on an emergency basis. When the prisoners started to die, they found that burying the bodies on the low-lying island didn’t work: the bodies would float up out of their graves whenever there were unusually high tides.

      They found some high ground across the river at Finns Point and started ferrying the bodies over there to be buried. There were about 2,500 Confederates buried there by war’s end, so a monument was erected.


      • rea

        Monuments on the order of “2500 people died here” don’t offend me–they aren’t in the same category as Lee looking holy on Stone Mountain.

        • Bruce Vail

          Yeah, me neither. Likewise I have no objection to the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument we have here in Baltimore, especially as it is paired with a Union Soldiers and Sailors Monument elsewhere in the city.

          As a border state town, we also have a Confederate Veterans Cemetery and a separate Union Veterans Cemetery.

          Baltimore didn’t produce any Civil War generals of note on either side, so we are not saddled with any of those statues (although Joe Johnston is buried in Greenmount Cemetery, along with John Wilkes Booth and lot of others on both sides).

          *We actually have a Civil War generals statue in one of the city parks right now, but the municipal government is in the process of removing it.

          • Dilan Esper

            Cemeteries are the absolute perfect spot for a monument. What’s bad is all the ones on streetcorners, at schools, atbpublic buildings, etc.

        • Lurker

          I agree. A dead person is a dead person, and deserves to be treated with dignity, whoever they were in life. Should Osama bin Laden have been interred on land, even he would deserve a headstone, if only a cheap wooden one that rots away in a couple of decades.

    • phalamir

      The problem that I have with the Confederate prison camp is that they did not kill the rest. You commit treason, you deserve to die. Especially if you were involved in killing American citizens. Southerners are the only terrorists the United States coddles instead of treating with justice.

      • celticdragonchick

        Get away from the computer, turn it off and go reconnect with humanity. You seem to have lost yours somewhere along the way.

        • Halloween Jack

          +1. I have no shred of love or admiration for the Confederacy, but FFS.

  • Pseudonym

    It’s worth remembering that the Civil War transformed the entire nation, not just the South.

    Does this apply to the subsequent Reconstruction Era too? Can you explain why in seven or eight pages? No particular reason, just curious.

  • Denverite

    The opening of the Union Stock Yard on Christmas Day, 1865, is symbolic of the Civil War’s impact on Chicago.

    I lived no-shit a block from the Union Stock Yard gate for about four years (38th and Union). There was a Hormel plant operating around there. The whole neighborhood would smell like ham if the wind was just right.

    I’m curious though. Did they name the street after the stockyards or vice versa?

    • Darkrose

      That explains the weird smell you’d sometimes get driving downtown on the Dan Ryan around 35th.

      • Denverite


        There was also a snack food factory at 35th and Racine that if the wind was just so the whole area would smell like cookies.

        I liked that whole neighborhood. It was racist as fucking hell, though. Which in itself was odd — it was pretty much equally white, Latino/a and Asian. In any event, for LGMers in Chicago, Potsticker House on 32nd and Halsted kicks ass, as does Pancho Pistolas on 31st and Union.

      • JonH

        When I lived/worked in the loop, sometimes the air would smell like chocolate.

        For a while there was a website with daily cocoa smell coverage maps based on submitted reports.

  • Darkrose

    Ironic that they kept Confederate prisoners in what is now one of the blackest parts of the city.

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    For a laugh, look up the history of “Streeterville”, which is one of Chicago’s most expensive neighborhoods.

    Founded, sort of, by “Cap’t” Streeter, a gun runner who ran aground a few hundred yards offshore and declared himself an independent country. Pinkerton police fought pitched battles for years trying to clear the riff-raff off.

    When he died Chicago’s 1% and government turned out to honor him. The eulogy was given by a bank president, who said, IIRC, “Cap Streeter was a worthy opponent. He kept a vice president and two lawyers busy for decades.”

  • Bruce Vail

    Chicago race riot of 1862? Encyclopedia of Chicago entry doesn’t say anything about an 1862 race riot.

    • Thom

      It does.

      • Bruce Vail

        Ummm, there is one sentence, and nothing else. None of the links connects to a description of the 1862 event.

        Do you have any idea where the detail is?

        • Thom

          I don’t know where more detail might be. I was just responding to the claim that it didn’t say anything. It doesn’t say a lot, and as you point out lacks detail, but it does say something.

  • StellaB

    Before the Civil War Chicago was smaller than its rival, St. Louis, which never recovered its lead.

    • At least the two cities can still compete over who has the worst pizza. There’s no way St. Louis can lose that one!

      • Cincinnati was also bigger than Chicago then. And it has NO competition, anywhere, for worst substance-named-chili. (Although, to be fair, it was according to that article first confected by Macedonians.)

        • You mean America’s worst local food tradition?

          • rea

            I have ptsd for innocently ordering a bowl of chili and getting something with dubious noodles! What’s a poor New Mexican boy to do?

            • Thom

              ‘Cept for sing for a rock n roll band?

              • rea

                ‘Cause in sleepy Cincinnati town
                There’s just no place for a chili-eating man

        • Ahuitzotl

          thats no Macedonians, they’re damn Illyrians

      • TribalistMeathead

        St. Louis invented deep-fried ravioli! What could Chicago POSSIBLY have created that would top that?!

        • Origami Isopod

          Mmmmm, deep-fried ravioli.

        • Matty

          Italian Beef, the finest hot sandwich known to man.

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