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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

  1. Chicago's Camp Douglas
  2. Places & Culture
  3. Civil War article archive
  4. Weekly Digest

With next week's 140th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, and as a companion to Books & Culture's special section in the current issue, this week's weblog is devoted to places and stories of the Civil War, and how they continue to shape our national consciousness.


The Griffin Funeral Home now sits on the site of Camp Douglas, a morbidly fit marker of one of the deadliest Union prison camps of the Civil War.

The camp was built on the estate of Stephen Douglas (of the Lincoln-Douglas debates) on Chicago's South Side, down 35th street from what is now Comiskey Park. After his father fought for the Alamo, Sam Houston Jr. was a prisoner here. Before he was tracking down David Livingstone in Africa, Sir Henry Morton Stanley was held here too. Today, the funeral home that stands on the site bears the name of Charles Griffin, who, a sign says, enlisted here in the U.S. Colored Infantry during the Civil War.

I've written more about Camp Douglas at my new Chicago history Web site, but its location—and the race of the funeral home's namesake—make the site a fitting introduction to B&C's current look back at the Civil War. In revisiting the question of why so many fought and died, the temptation is to overstate the scope of the new brand of freedom the war introduced. While the end of slavery was indeed a noble development, the dream of equality for black Americans was deferred. Postwar reconstruction turned out to be a bitter mess, and soon the despair of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws would drive tens of thousands of African Americans to the industrial cities of the north in the Great Migration. Many settled here on the South Side of Chicago. As they did, race riots erupted in 1919 less than a mile from the Griffin Funeral Home. Eventually, Martin Luther King, Jr.—for whom the street in front of the funeral home is named—would lead another quest for equality, one hundred years after the Civil War. Today, certain middle-class African American communities flourish throughout the South Side, but in between them, poverty persists. The hulking housing projects along the interstate, not far from the Griffin Funeral Home, stand as a monument to the country's failure to live up to the ideals for which Griffin himself fought.


From the (Hanover, Pa.) Evening Sun:

Gettysburg borough [has taken] another step toward renovating the historic Wills House, the site where President Lincoln edited and finalized the Gettysburg Address. Borough council voted to approve a design development agreement with the National Park Service, its partner in restoring the historic 19th century house. … President Abraham Lincoln stayed the night at the Wills House on Lincoln Square before he gave his famous address. … Borough council members hope the Wills House will become the future center of downtown tourism. The borough's interpretive plan envisions tourists starting their visit at the downtown visitors center. A walking tour would lead them to the Wills House, where they would spend a portion of their time learning about Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address and what Gettysburg was like in 1863. … A photo from the 1890s, the earliest existing image of the house, is providing direction for the restoration. Full story

From Voice of America:

A new concert work by an up-and-coming American composer recently had its world premiere with the Choral Arts Society of Washington at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Such Was the War, by composer James Grant, is music based on poet Walt Whitman's essays about the 1860s Civil War. … "I came across a story of Whitman as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War and the letters he wrote to all his friends and family about what he was witnessing on the battlefield and in the hospital. … Without sounding too mystical about it, as a composer what I did was to listen." As his composition progressed, and as America entered a war with Iraq, James Grant says he was at once inspired by the prose of Walt Whitman's Civil War essays as well as the impact of round-the-clock news coverage of a very real and current war. "It was uncanny at times," said James Grant. "There were times I would be working on one of the texts describing a wounded soldier in the hospital and a news flash would come over talking about wounded American soldiers being flown to Germany. Full story


Previous articles on the Civil War in B&C:

From our sister publication, Christian History:


• Two Washington, D.C. landmarks have ironic Civil War histories. As the war began, the new dome of the U.S. Capitol remained unfinished, its bottom row of columns looking like a set of dentures someone set on the roof. Underneath, Union soldiers camped out and kept an eye on Confederate batteries across the Potomac. Some questioned whether further construction was a justified expense in a time of war. Practically, the cast iron ribs had to go up or else they would rust on the lawn. But President Lincoln found occasion for a metaphor: "If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on." Perhaps no image evoked the country's unfinished status and uncertain future as that of the Capitol dome caged in scaffolding. In 1865, Lincoln delivered his second inaugural in front of the newly completed Capitol. After his assassination weeks later, he was the first person to lie in state under the Capitol rotunda.

-Lincoln and the Capitol from Abraham Lincoln Online
-History of the Capitol from National Public Radio
-Under the Capitol Dome from Mechanical Engineering

Across the street, the Old Capitol, built to temporarily house Congress after the original Capitol was burned, stood where the Supreme Court stands today. During the Civil War it was used as a prison and gallows; conspirators in the Lincoln assassination were hanged here. The irony is that, on a site now dedicated to the ultimate deliberation of justice, some of the first prisoners of Old Capitol Prison were suspected spies rounded up after President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. To Lincoln, there was just cause to do this. "Prior to the War, Washington was considered a Southern city," writes Campi James Jr. in Civil War Battlefields Then and Now. "As a result, the Union capital was crawling with [Confederate] sympathizers [who] did more than just long for liberation; several turned to spying as a method of ensuring the defeat of the Northerners in their midst." As the ghost stories have it, on some mornings before the sun rises, you can still hear prisoners' shouts of protest in the Supreme Court hallways.
-More on Old Capitol Prison from CensusDiggins.com
-Lincoln and Judicial Despotism, from First Things

Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.

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