Rebels come North: POWs near Springfield

On February 1862, the U.S. army commanded by Ulysses S. Grant captured Fort Donelson, Tennessee. The loss to the Confederates was great—control of a portion of western Tennessee, dozens of pieces of artillery, and over 16,000 soldiers. Federal officers moved quickly to transfer the captured men to the North, away from friendly territory and potential aid.


For the first time a large number of non-resident secessionist sympathizers would be residing in Illinois, at Camp Butler near Springfield, at Camp Douglas outside of Chicago, and at the old state penitentiary at Alton. Governor Richard Yates, Secretary of State Ozias Hatch, and Auditor Jesse Dubois argued with military officials against sending any number of captured Confederates to Springfield, because “there are so many secessionists at that place.” Gen. Henry Halleck replied a few days later that “I shall probably be obliged” to send about 3,000 men to Springfield, and ordering that a force of guards ready to receive them.

That same day a train full of prisoners from the 51st Tennessee passed through Springfield on the way to Chicago’s Camp Douglas. Crowds gathered to see them during a short stop. One observer noted that they “presented rather a motley appearance, being clothed in almost every style and color, and rather the worse of the wear at that. Quite a crowd assembled at the depot to see them, and we were glad to notice that very little ill feeling was manifested toward them by the crowd. Several jokes passed between them….” The curiosity and friendly banter was noticed in other towns, too.

A few days later prisoners began to arrive at Camp Butler, which still lacked a perimeter wall. A local newspaper editor “welcomed” the men. Its editor hoped that they would be treated with respect, remarking “we trust that nothing like taunt or insult will be exhibited towards them…. [L]et us treat them not as rebels, but prisoners of war. It is no part of magnanimity to crow over and, least of all, deride a conquered foe.” Like many in the North, this writer saw the average Confederate soldier as a man who had been used by scheming politicians and ambitious landed elites for their own ends. “Hundreds of those soldiers come among us with less reluctance than they entered the ranks of the rebellious army. They were impressed into the service, against their wishes…. They are poor men, and they know very well that they have nothing to gain by the rebellion, even if it were successful. They know, as well as we that this rebellion means nothing more than…. the perpetuation of slave labor, to the detriment and disgrace of free labor.” The sense expressed in those comments seems to have represented, at least for a time, a large part of the unionist population. Even members the Springfield Soldiers’ Aid Society, which created hospital clothing and gathered other supplies for the men defending the Union, expressed feelings of good will.

Sympathy of another kind soon appeared as well. Prisoners disappeared from the camp, and it was suspected that “disloyal” locals helped them on their way home through southern Illinois. Among others, six men living south of Springfield were arrested and sent to the prison at Alton on a charge of aiding a prisoner to escape. Soon a petition called for their release, Governor Yates was said to have vouched for some of the accused. Springfield’s Republican Illinois State Journal suggested that two weeks in the Alton prison provided lesson enough, and that the men should be released.

The feelings of many, however, soon began to change. The victory at Fort Donelson did not end the war in the West-far from it. Heavy losses on the field of battle and in hospitals continued. Numbers of prisoners refused to see the error of their ways and sought to escape back to the Confederacy. Others expressed their scorn for the Union and those who supported the war to preserve it. The Illinois State Journal, which had earlier called for Southern brothers to be treated with respect, reflected the changed attitude. In reporting about Camp Butler the newspaper began to talk of unrepentant “braggarts,” and called for an end to “kindly treatment…. ‘Tis time we were tired of throwing pearls before swine.” Though some humanitarians and others who sympathized with the secessionists continued efforts to comfort Camp Butler’s prisoners, real war, with its characteristic hardening of hearts, had come.

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The issue of treatment of prisoners during the Civil War remains a contentious one. It has generated a huge literature. Prisoner of war activities at Camp Butler are discussed in Camilla A. Corlas Quinn, “Forgotten Soldiers: The Confederate Prisoners at Camp Butler, 1862-1863,” Illinois Historical Journal 81 (1988): 35-44, online at
The shift from initial friendly interest to harsh feeling tempered by the efforts of humanitarians and those sympathizing with the South also played out in Chicago. For coverage of Camp Douglas see Theodore J. Karamanski, Rally ‘Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War (1993), chapter 5.
For military prison at Rock Island, opened in December 1863 following the victories at Chattannoga, see Neil Dahlstrom, “Rock Island Prison, 1863-1865: Andersonville of the North Dispelled,” Journal of Illinois History 4 (2001): 291-306, and Benton McAdams, Rebels at Rock Island: The Story of a Civil War Prison (2000