While quietly digging up a Bronzeville backyard last week, archaeologists uncovered evidence of what used to sit on the same soil — a Civil War training ground and prisoner-of-war camp.
Camp Douglas sat on 60 acres in Bronzeville. More than 40,000 Union Army soldiers trained there and it held one of the largest prisons for Confederate soldiers.
As they sifted through a garden in a fenced-in yard on Oct. 30, a group from the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation unearthed bits of costume jewelry, pieces of teacups, the eye of a porcelain doll, a crucifix, and a .58-caliber minie ball bullet used by Civil War soldiers. For years, archaeologists, students and volunteers at the foundation have been dedicated to exploring and preserving the land. In past excavations they have found pipes, soldiers’ buttons and more bullets.
“Right in our backyard we have one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps from the Civil War,” said Andrew Leith, one of the archaeologists involved with the foundation.
Leith, who works for the Chicago Cultural Alliance, said the historical significance of the camp is on par with Andersonville National Historic Site, a former Confederate prison camp in Georgia. Michael Gregory, an archaeologist and member of the foundation’s board of directors, said one of their main goals is to help Camp Douglas earn the same distinction.
Though this dig turned up only a few Civil War artifacts, Gregory said what’s most important is that they “determined that camp deposits in that area have not been disturbed by developments.”
The foundation needs to prove that evidence of the camp still exists on the land in order to ensure future preservation. Gregory said he thinks that about 40 percent of the area “still has high potential to yield deposits from the camp.”
To reach remnants of Camp Douglas, archaeologists estimate they must dig about 3 feet. But they aren’t discarding the layers above, where discoveries tell the story of Bronzeville’s development and life after the war. “Everything we find helps relate present-day life to Victorian Age life to Camp Douglas,” said Leith.
“We’re looking for objects from the past, but we’re looking for those objects to try to assemble stories of what people saw and how they lived,” Leith said.
This excavation was the eighth completed by the foundation since 2012. The group usually spends two weeks per year in the field, but the foundation works year round.
“It’s not as ‘Indiana Jones’ as a lot of us would like to portray it to be,” said Leith. “It’s tedious and methodological.” Gregory said that for every day spent in the field, he spends about a month in the lab cleaning and categorizing findings.
For the past few years, the group has been excavating the playground at John J. Pershing Magnet School at 3200 S. Calumet Ave, often involving students at the school in the project. According to David Kellar, managing director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation, the most recent dig site was established when the property owner saw what the foundation was doing at the nearby school, and invited them to check out his yard.
Kellar said this is the first time they’ve excavated on private property, and they plan to go back and keep digging.