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South Side Civil War Prison Camp Turning Up Bones And Buttons

By Sam Cholke | May 24, 2016 5:29am | Updated on May 27, 2016 11:53am
 Researchers and history buffs have found bones and buttons where the Civil War prison Camp Douglas once stood in Douglas. 
Camp Douglas Dig 2
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DOUGLAS — Anthropologists and history buffs were thrilled Monday to have found behind Pershing Magnet School the leftovers from a Confederate soldier’s dinner and a license plate that fell off a horse.

Researchers from DePaul University and members of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation were out Monday where the Civil War prisoner camp Camp Douglas stood more than 150 years ago searching for artifacts for a museum about the prison.

“No one in Chicago even knows about it, even now,” said Phil Grinstead, a member of the foundation who was out helping on the dig.

RELATED: Chicago Played A Bigger Role In Civil War Than You Might Think

But the Civil War-era camp still has some secrets lurking nearly two feet below the grass in parts of Douglas.

DePaul Students Unearth Camp Douglas
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DePaul Newsroom

Since excavation started Wednesday, Michael Gregory, an anthropology professor from DePaul University, and his team have found buttons off of a Union Soldier’s jacket, clay pipes and ink bottles leftover from the camp. Along the way they’ve also found more recent artifacts of the neighborhood that was built on top of the camp, including a license plate that would have hung around a horse’s neck from 1908 and fragments of jewelry and buttons.

Gregory said most of the historical sites of the camp have been destroyed when basements were dug for homes or is now paved over or on private land, like where the cemetery for small pox victims from the camp once was and which is now the parking lot for the Lake Meadows Shopping Center.

“If you stripped it down, you should still be able to see the tomb shafts,” Gregory said. “If you didn’t find bodies, you would find human bones.”

Last year’s excavations turned up clay pipes carved by prisoners into the image of demons and devils and crews are hoping to find more this year.

Crews will be out at Pershing school until Wednesday looking for more Civil War-era bullets, bobbles from uniforms and leftovers from dinner, like the beef bones already found that show the marks where the butcher’s saw cut up the portions.

During the Civil War, 31,000 Confederate soldiers went through Camp Douglas, with nearly 6,000 dying of small pox and diseases from malnutrition at the 60-acre prison complex, which is where Lake Meadows Apartments, Martin Luther King Drive and Pershing school now stand.

“There’s nothing left to protect, there’s nothing that exists, just the idea that Camp Douglas existed,” said Bernard Turner of the foundation. “There was a neighborhood that came afterward, but no one wanted to hear about it, no one wanted to hear about it because a lot of people died.”

The group is hoping to start a museum about the camp in the Douglas community to serve as a physical reminder of the camp and is applying for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places to commemorate the spot.

“That means we’ll be a historic site, people can come to it and it’s a place of historic significance,” Grinstead said. “It’s a designation that give us some cache to the site.”

The group is preparing its application for the national register now and hopes to have a museum open about the camp in the next 10 years.

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