The Impact of Camps of Instruction on Illinois Soldiers and Communities

The following is the paper that I presented at the Northern Great Plains History Conference in Duluth, MN. I hope you enjoy it. Please note that this is based on a research paper and I removed the citations to prevent an unscrupulous person from using it for a class. If you would like to know the sources I used, email me and I would be more than happy to send you a copy of the paper.

In communities large and small across the state of Illinois during the early years of the Civil War, men drilled for war. Illinois, like many of the other states that remained loyal to the Union heeded President Lincoln’s call for men to put down the insurrection in the South. With so many men to train, a need arose for places to organize and train these future soldiers. These places were the camps of instruction.

Camps of instruction were the initial meeting places for volunteers, which were where the men lived and trained until ordered to the field. In Illinois in the Civil War (1966), Victor Hicken mentions Camp Mather in Peoria as well as the other sites in Illinois where camps formed, including Springfield, Quincy, Aurora, and Carrollton. These sites were necessary, as Illinois exceeded the quota for troops. Hicken notes, “that young men were drilling everywhere”.

Camps of instruction affected Illinois in a large way, with many being located at fairgrounds of the various communities where regiments formed. For instance, the fairgrounds at Peoria were used for a camp of instruction, which caused the postponement of the county fair in 1861. The impact of the camps became apparent when in 1862, Illinois cancelled the state fair due to the site being used as a camp, and that many counties had done the same with their fairs because of the use of the grounds by the military.

Not only did camps affect the communities by postponing fairs in certain localities, they affected them every day they were in operation. These camps brought the war home to the small towns in Illinois before the first casualties of the war were reported. These communities in many cases saw men drilling daily and learning to be good soldiers. In addition, the men, interacted with the citizenry in other ways, like fighting over issues of food and other matters relating to army life.

The historiography of camps of instruction fits into the larger field of Civil War soldiers. Reid Mitchell points out in his essay in Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand (1998) that the study of soldiers is just reaching its “maturity”, which only applies to a handful of areas of Civil War scholarship. The scholarship on soldiers begins with Bell Irvin Wiley, who wrote the landmark works on Civil War soldiers. For examining Union soldiers, Wiley’s work The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union (1952) is the standard scholarly source on the subject. Regarding camps, Wiley stated the following:

At some point in the process of organization the volunteers moved to camp. Usually the initial encampment was a temporary one located in the home community, but occasionally the regimented life was begun at points of rendezvous or camps of instruction farther removed, though normally not so far away as to prevent exchange of visits with the homefolk.

Wiley adds that early activities that occurred in camp included election of officers, the mustering in of the men, the photographing of the men, and drilling. Wiley also discusses general camp life. He notes how men of similar tastes formed messes, eating their meals together, as well as living with one another. After Wiley, most historians examined the camps in a similar fashion to his general description, adding one unique aspect to their own examination. Victor Hicken, who is mentioned above, focused on Illinois and focused on pointing out some locations of camps across the state. In Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), James McPherson only mentions camps to criticize their lack of training, but neglects the social aspects of the camps. McPherson’s examination is the closest a historian has come to framing an argument about camps. McPherson’s argument is interesting and worth examining, but in order to evaluate his argument properly, one needs to follow the regiments throughout the war, which presents too many variables that could factor into the success or failure of a unit on the battlefield.

After McPherson, Larry M. Logue looks at camps in To Appomattox and Beyond: The Civil War Soldier in War and Peace (1996). Logue presents the same look at camps as Wiley, only adding the issue of individuality amongst new soldiers in the camp. He notes that the men took exception to following orders and performing the chores that came with army life, and that the soldiers resented drill, even if its intent was to build teamwork and break the recruits’ resistance to following orders. In addition, Logue notes how some soldiers brought their own weapons into the camp of instruction. In an essay in The Civil War Soldier: A Historical Reader (2002), Fred Shannon notes life in the camp of instruction as one of the soldier’s own making, as well as the transportation to camps by long marches or steamboat. Shannon then describes the living quarters of the men, food in camp, poor cooking, drill, and leisure activities including card playing, sports, and drinking. Finally, Steven Woodworth describes camps of instruction in his book Nothing but Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (2005) and places them in the context of the history of the Army of the Tennessee. Overall, the historical examination of camps of instruction is descriptive, but the inclusion of camps in several historical works dealing with soldiers, illustrates the importance of camps in the larger debate. Examining camps allow historians to experience the anxieties and other emotions that soldiers expressed, and the social activities that occurred in camp.

Two areas of examination within the larger topic of camps of instruction that best illustrate the impact of the camps on both soldiers and surrounding communities are the daily activities of the soldiers in camp and the interaction between the soldiers and civilians. The daily activities include both duty related activities as well as social activities that occurred in camp, while the interaction between the soldiers and civilians focuses on the soldiers visiting the nearby community. While there are many other areas that may be discussed, these two aspects present many interesting tales based on both primary and secondary sources.

The daily activities of soldiers inside the camps expose the occasional interesting events in the camp, as well as the things that soldiers engaged in to both pass the time and make it through each day. One somewhat obvious activity that the soldiers engaged in while at camp was writing, either letters, diaries, or both. Many of the letters were to friends, relatives, and sweethearts, and reflected many emotions and tones that offer insight into the soldier’s personality at the early stage of the war. For instance, Lansden J. Cox, a soldier in the 122nd Illinois Infantry wrote several letters to his wife while at Camp Palmer near Carlinville. In them, Cox expressed his religious conviction, his devotion to duty, his love for his wife, and his anxieties about battle. For instance, Cox expresses to his wife his desire, “to do my duty as a Christian, as a soldier, and as a husband.” Cox notes his enjoyment of camp, but also of a feeling of loneliness soon after his wife departed the camp.

In some letters, Cox expresses his anxiety while in camp. For example, he notes his anxiety on October 5, 1862, writing that he feels sad at the prospect of leaving and possibly never seeing his wife again, but that they must both put their trust in God that Lansden will survive the war. While Cox expresses some anxiety, his religious beliefs temper this anxiety, as he expresses his belief that if he does not come home that he and his wife will see one another in Heaven. Unfortunately, Lansden Cox died at Memphis, Tennessee in November 1863.

In addition to Lansden Cox, Valentine C. Randolph of the 39th Illinois Infantry expressed his religious conviction, as well as his patriotic fervor in his diary while he was in Camp Mather in Chicago. He expresses his desire for his loved ones not to weep over him if he dies for his country and that, “If the Union cannot be maintained . . . let it be forever blotted out of existence.” Later, Randolph notes his fears about his future as a soldier and his fear of the temptations in camp, which he fears more than the enemy that he will one day face. Randolph’s religious conviction is present in his entry on September 23, 1861 describing his muster into the army, in which he desires to be “a soldier of the cross.”

In addition to writing, the typical day of a new soldier was busy with drill and other forms of training. Leander Stillwell, a soldier in the 61st Illinois Infantry, described drill in his unit’s camp of instruction Camp Carrollton in his memoir The Story of a Common Soldier. Stillwell writes, “All day long, somewhere in the camp, could be heard the voice of some officer, calling, “Left! left! left, right, left!” to his squad or company to guide them in the cadence of the step.” Stillwell added that, “We were drilled at Carrollton in the “school of the soldier,” “school of the company,” and skirmish drill, with dress parade at sunset”. Stillwell also stated, “I do not remember of our having any battalion drill at Camp Carrollton.” He added that, “The big trees in the fair grounds were probably too thick and numerous to permit that.”

Other soldiers described the drill in their camps. For instance, Allen Morgan Geer, a soldier in the 20th Illinois Infantry, notes drilling with the other recruits and being very tired while at Camp Goodell near Joliet. Geer also notes conducting “battalion drill” on one afternoon and drilling the next morning prior to departing the camp for Camp Pope, near Alton. Once at Alton, Geer mentions drilling the first day in the camp and that the drill ground at Camp Pope was “very fair.” James Swales, writing to his brother David from Camp Defiance near Cairo states that his unit, “is getting on finely with our drill” and that, “we drill in squads most of the time.” Drill occasionally forced some men to end letters abruptly, like William H. Austin’s letter from camp in Cairo in which he tells Maggie Sargent that he did not have the time to write because he had to be at three o’ clock drill.

Many other activities occurred in camp besides drilling that engaged the soldiers, and created a unique community within the camps. Leander Stillwell describes an activity known as “prairie dogging”, where the men ran around and visited the other company barracks. In addition, he notes how the men engaged in singing many patriotic tunes and other songs. Allen Geer notes a special occasion in Camp Goodell, mentioning that, “Major Goodwin was married at dress parade with [the] Regt. in hollow square.” Valentine C. Randolph mentions one of the privates getting married in Camp Mather, which was on the south side of Chicago.

Meals in camp were also important activities. Several soldiers describe the food they ate, as well as the preparation of the food, and eating with comrades. Leander Stillwell describes the food that men in his regiment ate in Camp Carrollton as follows:

Our fare consisted of light bread, coffee, fresh meat at some meals, and salt meat at others, Yankee beans, rice, onions, and Irish and sweet potatoes, with stewed dried apples occasionally for supper.

Stillwell adds “At Camp Carrollton and Benton Barracks we had company cooks who prepared the food for the entire company”. Allen Geer notes how several men from his unit hired a black man (he used the term Negro) as a cook. Valentine Randolph notes the food in Camp Mather, which is the same as Stillwell’s account, but with the addition of the description of the dining tables, which Randolph notes as being made from “pine boards” and dishes made of tin and iron.

Often, religious activities occurred in the camps. Valentine Randolph provides the best accounts of these activities. He mentions the service conducted by the regimental chaplain on two separate occasions, with neither being very good in his opinion. In addition to regimental services, Randolph mentions attending a prayer meeting in another company. William Onstot notes his dissatisfaction with the preaching in camp, describing the regimental chaplain’s Episcopalian faith as “peculiar” and not liking the one service he attended. In some cases, as will be illustrated later, these in camp religious events were not enough for some soldiers.

One potential drawback to all of the activity in camps was a lack of privacy. Stillwell describes this situation, stating:

The only thing recalled now that was sort of disagreeable at Camp Carrollton was the utter absence of privacy. Even when off duty, one couldn’t get away by himself, and sit down in peace and quiet anywhere. And as for slipping off into some corner and trying to read, alone, a book or paper, the thing was impossible. To use a modern expression, there was always “something doing.” Many a time after supper, on very cold nights, when the boys would all be in the barracks, singing or cutting up, I would sneak out and walk around under the big trees, with the snow crackling under my feet, for no other purpose whatever than just to be alone awhile.

Stillwell’s complaint about the lack of privacy is interesting, as while people grew up in larger families, with children often sharing a room, the isolation of rural life may have made the large concentration of men in the camps a little intimidating.

Not all activities that occurred in camp were positive. Soldiers describe examples relating to misbehavior, sickness, accidents, and occasional death. For example, James Swales describes suffering “a violent cold” that rendered him “hardly able to perform any duty.” Allen Geer notes two soldiers being injured while at Camp Pope (Geer does not indicated if they died) when a musket fell and discharged, with one soldier suffering a wound to the head and the other his thigh. William Onstot mentioned being in the hospital ill for one week and being unable to perform duties. William Onstot also noted the death of a soldier at camp near Cairo when another soldier threw his gun on the ground and it discharged, firing the ball through a soldier in a nearby tent, and killing that soldier. Onstot notes that a “funeral took place . . . in Military Style and was very solemn.”

Misbehavior was noted by several soldiers, which resulted in punishments of varying severities being issued. The two common vices that occurred in the camps were drinking and gambling. In a letter to his brother David, James Swales notes the behavior of several drunken soldiers, who he notes were Irish, which may reflect the anti-Irish sentiment at the time. He writes that they were so disorderly that “they resisted even the point of the bayonet” and how “one fellow got so rampant that it took ten men to handle him.” Swales mentions that this man, even while under guard, described his captain in very profane language. Allen Geer writes that alcohol and gambling were prohibited in Camp Pope, but that soldiers gambled anyway, and that drunkenness was also punishable. Valentine Randolph mentions one soldier being placed in the guardhouse for drunkenness and two other soldiers being court marshaled for desertion and being confined. Allen Geer notes one soldier being kicked out of camp for recruiting his company from other companies in the same regiment, as well as one being kicked out for mutiny. Being kicked out of the army was a great fear among some soldiers. William Austin mentions that he would rather “be burned to death than [be] drumed [sic] out of camp” and that being drummed out was “worse than death.”

In addition to the occurrences inside the camps, the soldiers sometimes ventured out and interacted with the nearby community. These excursions serve to illustrate the impact of camps of instruction on the local communities. Some interactions were positive, while others were negative. Often, either the soldiers went into the community to attend church services or have their pictures taken. Bell Irvin Wiley describes this event, stating that, “countless soldiers visited the “daguerrean artists” who set up shop in camp or in near-by towns.” Allen Geer writes in his diary of going to Joliet to have his picture taken to send home. In a letter to his wife, Lansden J. Cox states that, “I had my picture taken the other day which I will send to you this evening you can leave the picture I had taken when I was up there at Fathers as I think this one is the best and I want you to have the best one.”

Several soldiers mention attending church services in the community while in camp. Lansden Cox notes attending worship in Carlinville and described the preaching as “very good.” Valentine C. Randolph notes attending a local church service, but that, “The sermon was not at all suited to the times.” Later, he notes attending a service held by the local “young men’s christian association.”

As noted above, the men in the camps often had a variety of food to eat, but this did not keep them from taking advantage of other opportunities for food. Some soldiers mention dining in local restaurants or having meals prepared by local citizens. Allen Geer mentions having a dinner prepared by persons associated with the nearby Monticello Female Seminary, while in Alton. Valentine Randolph notes going to local restaurants for meals, sometimes because of a lack of food in camp. These occurrences, as well as the soldiers touring the nearby community exposed the soldiers and civilians to each other in a positive way.

Occasionally, the interaction between the soldiers and locals took an interesting and memorable turn. This is especially true for Camp Carrollton. As stated above, Leander Stillwell described the drilling of his regiment at Camp Carrollton. This drilling did grab the attention of the camp’s neighbors. Across the road from Camp Carrollton was the farm of the Luman Curtius family. The soldiers entranced the Curtius boys, especially little Henry. One day, the little boy was watching the activity standing in the spot where the men were marching. Just as it looked like the men were about to march over the little boy, the first soldier picked him up and passed him back until the last man set him down. Henry Curtius still remembered the incident even 78 years later. The Curtius family assisted the camp since their well filled the canteens of the soldiers, as the water at the fairgrounds was of poor quality. This story is both unique and important, as it serves to tie the story of camps of instruction into the field of history and memory, as it relates to the Civil War, and the study of the home front.

Sometimes the interaction between the soldiers in camp and civilians negatively affected the local community and the soldiers. For example, in January 1862 at Camp Carrollton, some of the soldiers “protested the quality of the bread” that they received, and had a “knock down” with the locals. This implies violence between the citizens and soldiers occurred, and, the citizens claim that they were too much for the soldiers, and that while they were proud of the camp and men, the citizens of Carrollton were not afraid to establish that they were in charge. The interactions between the soldiers and civilians, both positive and negative, place the camps of instruction into the historical realms of history and memory as well as studying the home front as they pertain to the Civil War. In addition, they serve to illustrate the level of impact that camps of instruction had on civilians and communities in Illinois.

In conclusion, camps of instruction are an important area of study in the overall historical examination of the Civil War. As illustrated by some of the camps in Illinois, the camps affected both the soldiers housed in them, as well as the nearby communities. Soldiers engaged in many activities while in camp, including drilling, writing, singing, which served to turn the camp into its own unique community. The soldiers experienced the hardships of army life, from discipline to sickness, to death, as well as the good times, like church services and weddings. Often, soldiers ventured outside of camp to interact with the nearby community by attending church services, dining out, or just touring the town. These interactions, as well as the occasional clash, left the civilians with some memories of the experience, both positive and negative, and served to link the soldiers to that community. Camps of instruction thus serve as the focal point for the Civil War for many localities and states that had no major combat in them and allow these areas to have a connection to the war, and to the soldiers that fought it.


6 thoughts on “The Impact of Camps of Instruction on Illinois Soldiers and Communities

  1. Hi Daniel,

    Congrats on your paper and the conference. Sounds like it went well.

    You said “I removed the citations to prevent an unscrupulous person from using it for a class.”

    I don’t think I’ve seen this done before. Could you comment further on the trade-off you may be making here between scholarship and protecting against plagiarism? Or why you think this is necessary?

  2. Brian,

    Great question. To answer your question, I was discussing it with some of my fellow graduate students, and they believed that removing citations and allowing those interested to contact me for a copy (I would check them before sending it) was the best middle ground. With some students copying and pasting Wikipedia articles for papers, I would hate to have a student find my paper on this site and pass it off as their own. This may cause you to ask, then why post your papers? My response would be that I want my readers to see my work, not just people who may subscribe to a publication (I hope to have my research published some day). It is an ethical dilemma for me, as I do not want someone to accuse me of not doing the research (when I can prove that I did), but I also do not want some desperate undergraduate or graduate student to rip off my work. If I can find a way through WordPress to prevent someone from copying certain posts, then I will place the citations back in, but as long as there are those out there willing to plagiarize another person’s work, I will remove the citations from my papers when I post them to this site, but will always make the original cited version available to interested scholars. I hope that answers your question and I thank you for reading my site.

  3. Hi,
    Nice article. I was interested in locating the actual site of Camp Slemmer which was a camp of instruction in Des Plaines, Illinois. I know someone who found some civil war bullets by the river and that struck my curiosity. I wonder if anyone knows where the actual site was. Did you come across any information related to Camp Slemmer?

    Thanks so much-

  4. I came upon your post/blog while researching my ancestor, Allen Morgan Geer, and his time in the civil war. I was loaned his diary as a teen by a great uncle, now deceased. The diary is apparently out of print, so I hope to piece together as much as I can and appease my curiosity (as an adult now). I look forward to digesting your post at leisure. Thanks!

  5. On the net today, I noticed a list of Union soldiers executed by the Union. They were executed for murder, rape, highway robery, theft and desertion. They were either shot or hanged. What was a deciding factor in how they dealt with the soldiers? In the above article, it didn’t sound as if it was always true that they were dealt with so harshly.

    Very interesting read!

  6. HELLO

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