Prisoners Stripped and Searched in the Snow at Camp Douglas

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Prisoners Stripped and Searched in the Snow at Camp Douglas, 1893
Artist Unknown, George Benedict and Co. Engravers, Chicago 
Page 76
John M. Copley. A Sketch of the Battle of Franklin, Tenn; with Reminiscences of Camp Douglas. Austin, Texas: Eugene Von Boekmann, 1893.
Graff 877
Newberry Library

What is happening in this scene? What can you guess about the living conditions for the Confederate soldiers at this camp?  This illustration was included in a story of life at the Confederate Prison Camp in Chicago: Camp Douglas. Located just south of Chicago, the twenty acre camp was close to Lake Michigan and could hold about 6,000 prisoners. However, frequently it was overcrowded, and sometimes up to 9,000 Confederate prisoners were held there.  Sanitary and living conditions at the camp were extremely poor. Some prisoners were beaten and tortured, and many were forced to live in the cold and filth without proper housing.

The author of the story, John M. Copley, joined the 49th Tennessee Infantry in 1861 at the age of fifteen;  he was captured by Union troops at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, in 1864, and sent to Chicago by train. Look closely at the drawing—can you see the lake in the background, with ships on the horizon? The men arrived in the city on December 5, getting off the train right on the banks of Lake Michigan, very near the camp. Copley explains that “the beach and grounds were covered with snow and ice nearly twenty inches deep.” The drawing here depicts what came next in the narrative: the men were forced to strip off all their clothes so that the guards could search for weapons (Copley also claimed that they also stole anything of value, like watches).

1. Copley, like many veterans (Union and Confederate) published his narrative long after the war ended. Why do you think these stories would have been interesting to the public at that time? What do you suppose Copley hoped to achieve by telling his story?

Further reading:
Cloyd, Benjamin G. Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Sanders, Charles W. While in the Hands of the Enemy: Military Prisons of the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago