At the start of the Civil War in 1861, states scrambled to build training facilities for the influx of raw recruits. Springfield’s first attempt at a location was Camp Yates, an area bordered today by Washington, Governor, Lincoln and Douglas Streets.
However, neighbors complained that soldiers from the camp destroyed their fences, stole chickens and fruit, and wandered the streets drunk. The camp also was too far from the railroad lines needed to move troops in and out of the city.
Correction: Mark Flotow, who specializes in the history of Illinoisans’ experiences in the Civil War, has corrected folklore that claims renowned Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman gave Camp Butler its name. (As of August 2023, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website for Camp Butler was one of the places that reported the incorrect information.) See note at end of this entry.
SangamonLink, which published the erroneous information as part of its original Camp Butler entry in 2017, is leaving the following paragraphs crossed out but readable for a fuller understanding of the issue.
According to a history on the website of today’s Camp Butler National Cemetery, General William Tecumseh Sherman came to Springfield to identify a new training site. Gov. Richard Yates (for whom Camp Yates had been named) delegated state Treasurer William Butler (1798-1876) to assist in the search.
Sherman and Butler located an area east of Springfield that suited the bill nicely. It had both high and open ground and clean water and was away from residential areas. The ground was on the banks of and north of Clear Lake, south of Jamestown (now Riverton).
Sherman reportedly made the decision to name the site Camp Butler, in honor of the treasurer.
The first troops arrived at Camp Butler in early August 1861. By the end of the month, more than 5,000 troops were training there. Infantry, artillery and especially cavalry trained at Camp Butler. The site included barracks, training and parade grounds, stables and officer quarters.
When the troops’ training was completed, they marched into Jamestown, known more commonly as “Jimtown,” where they boarded trains at the Wabash Railroad depot to go to the war. Jimtown and Springfield also provided respites when the troops had any free time.
As the war progressed, 15 acres of Camp Butler were converted to a prisoner of war compound. The first 2,000 Confederate prisoners arrived there in February 1862, following the Union Army’s conquest of Fort Donelson, Tenn. Another 1,000 arrived after the capture of Island No. 10 (Missouri) in April. Prisoner exchanges emptied the camp by October, but an estimated 1,665 new Confederates were sent to Camp Butler in early 1863.
Many of the prisoners and even some Union soldiers died of disease and exposure. A historic marker at the cemetery today says:
Barracks were often full, forcing prisoners to live in tents. Illness reached epidemic proportions – pneumonia was a constant problem. When the last Confederate prisoners departed on May 19, 1863, more than 800 of their comrades had been buried in the prison cemetery, victims of inadequate facilities, poor sanitation, and disease.
The end of the Civil War in 1865 also brought an end to the sprawling camp. By 1866, most of the training camp had been demolished, and waithin a few years, nothing was left as a reminder of the important activities that transpired there.
Today’s Camp Butler National Cemetery is just northwest of the training camp grounds. It is the final resting place for many Union and Confederate soldiers, along with about 20,000 veterans and their spouses from other eras.
Contributor: Chuck Stone
William T. Sherman and Camp Butler
Illinois Civil War researcher Mark Flotow, in the Spring 2023 edition of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, spelled out the many problems with the legend that Gen. William T. Sherman gave Camp Butler its name.
The exact reason the camp was named after William Butler is unknown, according to Flotow. However, Flotow wrote, as a Springfield resident and former county official, “Butler was likely well-qualified to suggest potential sites for a large recruitment and training camp.” In addition, Butler had owned part of the Clear Lake site for a short time in the 1840s.
The misinformation about Sherman’s role, according to Flotow, apparently derives from a letter Ozias Hatch, Illinois secretary of state during the Civil War, wrote to the Illinois State Journal shortly after Sherman’s death in 1891. Hatch, 30 years after the event, wrote that Butler escorted Sherman on a visit to the proposed site of the camp, and that a “greatly pleased” Sherman “at once made the location and named it Camp Butler.”
Sherman did visit Springfield Sept. 11-12, 1861, as part of an inspection tour of recruiting and training operations in the western states. By then, however, Camp Butler had been operating – under that name – for more than a month already, so Hatch’s account is clearly wrong. (The chronology is slightly complicated by the fact that Camp Butler was moved in December 1861 and January 1862 from the Clear Lake area closer to Jimtown/Riverton. Hatch’s letter didn’t distinguish between the two.)
Hatch “may have been romanticizing the prominence of Camp Butler … by associating a famous name with the camp’s establishment.,” Flotow writes. “… Hatch was likely not purposefully distorting events for some ulterior motive. However, those that have perpetuated this false narrative have ignored or side-stepped the primary sources that could refute its claims.”
More information: See Sangamon County’s Confederate Memorial.
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