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Students seek artifacts at Chicago Civil War site

Published: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 10:32 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 12:30 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – A former Civil War training camp where thousands of Confederate soldiers died 150 years ago may be long gone, but it’s not totally forgotten.

College students and volunteers are digging for artifacts at Pershing East Magnet School in Chicago’s South Side Bronzeville neighborhood, once a part of the 60-acre Camp Douglas training center for Union soldiers.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported Saturday that the excavation is in an area where up to 12,000 Confederate prisoners were held in barracks in 1864.

DePaul University professor and archaeologist Mike Gregory, who’s leading a four-day excavation of the site, said volunteers are looking for artifacts and to confirm where things were located.

But he also hopes to add to the history of the neighborhood and highlight Chicago’s link to the Civil War.

“When you study the Civil War, you say, ‘Well it doesn’t have anything to do with Chicago.’ Well, yeah, it does,” he said. “And when you start delving deeper and deeper, you always hear about the southern prisons but you never hear about the northern prisons. ... Camp Douglas sort of disappeared.”

Many Confederate prisoners died at Camp Douglas because of diseases such as smallpox, said David Keller, director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation.

An excavation last year at another part of the former camp uncovered what could be part of the foundation of the camp’s headquarters building and a pipe believed to have belonged to a soldier, Keller said.

Students and volunteers are digging layer by layer at the site, and Gregory said they might find demolition material from row houses torn down in the 1960s, material used in the early 1900s from another school, construction materials from the late 1800s and hopefully, artifacts from Camp Douglas, which served as a training center for about 40,000 Union soldiers from 1861 until 1865.

“As you dig, you’re digging through a community’s history,” Keller said.

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