JULY 1861

Going to Camp

In the months from April 1861 to the summer of 1865 more than forty military camps dotted Illinois. Most were temporary and served as places where individual companies from a small region gathered and organized into regiments, received arms and uniforms, and experienced the first doses of military discipline. A few permanent facilities, notably Camp Butler (near Springfield) and Camp Douglas (Chicago), served as training, staging, and processing stations throughout the war. Other camps in Illinois served fully trained and equipped units as jumping off points to the nearby scenes of conflict in western Kentucky and eastern Missouri.


The response to the Illinois legislature’s April 1861 call for ten infantry regiments set a pattern for dealing with the organization, equipping, and training of regiments later in the war. A temporary camp was established in each of the state’s nine congressional districts. There, the units raised in that district would be organized and begin their military lives and the transition from home, family, and friends to the battlefront. Officials helped to ease the movement of units by locating most campsites within an easy march of a river landing or a town on the growing network of railroads, which in 1860 consisted of about 2,800 miles of track.

Many of these camps occupied the fairgrounds owned by county agricultural societies. In fact, officials cancelled the 1862 state fair to be held in Peoria because of occupation of the site by troops undergoing training. Fairgrounds proved to be almost perfect for use as military camps. They contained shelter in the form of animal sheds and other buildings, plentiful water supplies, large open areas that could be used for marching and drilling, and, usually, a well-established boundary that could be policed. Will County historian George Woodruff later recalled Camp Goodell, which in 1861 on “the old fair grounds on the well-known Stevens’ place, having on it fine, shady oak openings, an abundant spring of water, and buildings already erected… To these, company barracks were quickly added.” He also noted sadly that military use of the grounds meant that “men were now reversing the prophetic scripture, and turning their scythes in to swords and their pruning-hooks into bayonets.”

In other cases officials raised camps from scratch, constructing buildings and establishing parade grounds on what before has been open land. Camp Butler (near Springfield), Camp Douglas (Chicago), and Camp Fuller (Rockford) quickly rose on old farms or local picnic grounds. One recruit at Camp Fuller described the newly constructed barracks as having “bunks from floor to ceiling and two men would occupy a bunk… When any of the boys were out on guard two hours in the night, he would declare when he returned that the barracks stank enough to knock him down.”

The establishment of a camp often helped the economy of the nearby town, especially in those cases where all of the buildings had to be constructed by local labor using locally produced lumber. Even when camps occupied already existing buildings on a fairground, local vendors received orders for necessaries such as bread, pork or beef, firewood, straw for bedding, and feed for horses. Soldiers visiting town on passes visited photograph studios, saloons, and restaurants.

For most men, life in camp after enlistment provided their first encounter with military discipline and the transition from civilian to soldier was not an easy one for many men. Camp Scott (Freeport) provided several examples of recent inductees having difficulties with military discipline. In May 1861 a circus visited Freeport. Many soldiers decided to attend, quietly slipping out of camp without a pass. A man gave his friends the password that would allow them back into the camp before roll call. When officers got wise to the scheme and suddenly changed the password “you had better think there was some swearing about the time they wanted to come in… There were some 40 or 50 put in the guard house…” Later in the month the camp commandant placed almost two hundred men under arms as a guard to crush the threatened mutiny of one of the companies.

Visits to camps by friends from home softened the sting of new and unfamiliar discipline. Visitors often brought delicacies and picnic foods to the hometown boys, one of whom described army food as “none of the fancy kitchen fixings.” An especially important moment of connection with friends from home came with the presentation to the unit of a United States flag. Until early 1862 the state government did not issue flags, and friends were more than happy to fill the need. Presentation ceremonies were very public affairs, often including hundreds of outside spectators. The program usually included a short speech, often by a young woman, on behalf of the donors, who were often women. The company or regimental commander responded with a speech of thanks, followed by the cheering of the men and the singing of patriotic songs.

The final parting from the home folk came when the new regiment left for one of the state’s large permanent camps, or for one of the battlefronts in the South. John King of the newly created 92nd Illinois Infantry recalled the regiment’s 1862 departure by train from Rockford: “We all realized that it would be a last good-bye for many of us; we could not tell who would fall or who would return… Tears were gradually dried as we sped along towards Chicago… What was going to be our future?”

Camps and Musters
Click above to see a List of Illinois cities and towns hosting training camps, compiled from Schedule A, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois… Containing reports for the years 1861-66 (revised 1900), vol. 1, pages 151-56.

Interested in learning more?
A regiment-by-regiment list of towns in which units mustered into service is found in Jasper Reece, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Illinois … Containing Reports for the Years 1861-66 (revised 1900), vol. 1, pages 151-56, which can be found at .

Many Illinois newspapers printed letters from local men in the service, who described their new lives as new soldiers in the Illinois camps. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library holds microfilm of many of these newspapers. For their newspaper microfilm catalog, visit

Many regimental histories and soldier memoirs include accounts of soldier life in Illinois camps of instruction. Historian Daniel Sauerwein argues for the importance of the Illinois camp experience in his paper “The Impact of Camps of Instruction on Illinois Soldiers and Communities” at .