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Lecture Notes: the blue and the graves

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Only six years after the end of the Civil War, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all the Chicago Historical Society's records. So when Ted Karamanski was researching his 1993 book, Rally 'Round the Flag: Chicago and the Civil War, he had to piece together the missing history from newspaper accounts.

Unfortunately, "the coverage was partisan and unreliable," he says. Among the most prominent daily papers were Joseph Medill's abolitionist, pro-Lincoln, prowar Chicago Tribune and the Democratic, segregationist "copperhead" Chicago Times, whose flamboyant editor, Wilbur F. Storey, "heaped mountains of purple prose on Abe Lincoln, essentially advocating that the Union give up the effort to reunite the country--that the Confederacy should be allowed to go its own way."

Karamanski, a history professor at Loyola University, found a graphic account of combat in a letter a young soldier named James Milner wrote to his father about the Battle of Shiloh, where many local men lost their lives. It was published--against the son's wishes--in the Tribune.

"It put a hard edge on Chicago's attitude toward the Confederacy," says Karamanski. "There was a real movement to demonize the Confederates and to endorse measures that made them pay, either as prisoners at Camp Douglas or by burning and looting their countryside."

Camp Douglas was the Union army installation located in what later became known as Bronzeville. At the beginning of the war many Chicagoans had visited the camp on weekends, mingling with the troops and chatting with the prisoners. But the custom came to an end as bitterness toward the south increased. Thousands of Confederate POWs at the camp died of dysentery, smallpox, and exposure; many were buried at Oak Woods Cemetery on 67th Street. Prisoners who misbehaved or tried to escape were exiled to an airless, windowless building or forced to straddle "Morgan's mule"--a piece of lumber suspended 15 feet above the ground--with a brick tied to each leg.

In 1863 the Lincoln admin-istration, alarmed at the Times's seditious tone, ordered Union soldiers to shut down the paper. "They sent troops in at bayonet point," says Karamanski. "But they had to allow the paper to reopen when a mob of loyal Democratic leaders decided to storm and burn the Chicago Tribune building in retaliation. As the tension was mounting, a panicky letter was sent to Washington, telling them to reopen the Times to save the Tribune."

The following year the Democratic city council voted to legally segregate the schools, "at the same time Illinois was raising an African-American regiment to fight for the Union," Karamanski says. "The Democratic Party was passing laws making it illegal for African-Americans to enter the state."

The laws were repealed in 1865. Camp Douglas was closed shortly after the war; a statue of Stephen Douglas still stands near the site. There's also a memorial to the POWs who died there located close to what was once the center of the camp, at the Griffin Funeral Home at King Drive and 32nd. The monument, which flies the Confederate flag, was put there by the home's African-American owner, Jimmy Griffin, whose father fought for the Union in the 23rd Colored Infantry.

Karamanski will give a free slide lecture on Chicagoans who played a prominent role in the Civil War on Saturday morning at 11 at the Glessner House Museum, 1800 S. Prairie. Call 312-326-1480 to reserve a spot. --Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Morgan's mule" photo from "Rally 'Round the Flag: Chicao and the Civil War".

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