Camp Tanner (Illinois State Fairgrounds, 1898)

Unidentified militia unit poses in front of a livestock building during muster at Camp Tanner, April/May 1898 (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Ten thousand Illinois militia flooded the Illinois State Fairgrounds less than a week after the start of the Spanish-American War. They left the fairgrounds – renamed “Camp Tanner” for the duration – almost as quickly as they arrived.

The operation ran smoothly, despite friction between state and federal governments concerning soldier quotas, controversy around the enlistment of African-American troops, containment of soldiers who “escaped” into town, and difficulty handling an influx of visitors from around Illinois.

The U.S. and Spanish governments declared war on each other on April 21, 1898. Gov. John Riley Tanner (1844-1901) immediately called up the Illinois National Guard for federal assignment and designated the fairgrounds as the muster point. (The state militia’s usual training ground in Springfield, Camp Lincoln, was too small.)

Gov. John Riley Tanner, 1899 (Wikipedia)

Camp Tanner was named for the governor, who was the militia’s nominal commanding officer. Gov. Tanner set up his headquarters in the Sangamo Club building at the fairgrounds, although the post commander was Brig. Gen. James Barkley (1844-1920) His staff took over the Dome Building.

The first soldiers, units from Chicago, Peoria and Taylorville, arrived by train the morning of April 27.

Many of the units had received elaborate send-offs back home. In Taylorville, the Illinois State Journal reported, “church bells were ringing, banners floating from the buildings, and the martial music from the Parish military band, leading the way, gave inspiration to the marchers. Major W. T. Vandervort … presented the company with $100 as an emergency fund, and two flags, one American and one Cuban, were also given to the soldiers. The flags were made by the ladies of the city.”

In Jacksonville, “The teachers in the public schools had no control over their pupils and, filled with the war spirit and an excuse to get out, they rushed to the armory hall to see the members of the company get their equipment in shape.”

On the march to Camp Tanner (Sangamon Valley Collection)

When the Dwight Hospital Corps stepped off its train in Springfield, “Each man was gaily decked with a huge bouquet of flowers, and as they lined up they presented a very fine appearance,” according to an Illinois State Register story. “If any of their patients die, they will have plenty of flowers to decorate their graves with.”

Aside from room for training and maneuvers, the fairgrounds had another advantage: Few troops had to be housed in tents.

Units were assigned quarters according to brigades. The First Brigade, consisting of the First, Second, and Seventh Infantry Regiments, was in Machinery Hall.  The Second Brigade, consisting of the Fourth and Fifth regiments (the Fifth’s soldiers came from the Springfield area), occupied cattle sheds and stables. The Third Brigade, consisting of the Third and Sixth regiments,  stayed in the Exposition Building. The cavalry was stationed beneath the amphitheater.

Commissary and quartermaster offices were in the Poultry Building. Mess and cook tents were set up on the lawn inside the racetrack.

The State of Illinois paid for transportation, rations, and daily stipends of $2 per soldier until the federal government began mustering in troops.

Camp Tanner was no small commitment for the state. The 10,000 soldiers had to be supplied with straw bedding and consumed ham, corned beef, beans, potatoes, bread, and coffee. Food and drink vendors, liquor, and gambling were prohibited, although tobacco was allowed.

Previously enlisted soldiers weren’t the only ones who flocked to Camp Tanner. Large numbers of civilian volunteers also signed up to fight the Spanish. Many of them were turned away after failing physical exams or simply because Guard units couldn’t accommodate them all. Women were permitted to serve only as part of the Red Cross.

Camp Tanner’s rules restricted soldiers to camp and allowed visitors only when the men were not on duty. Rigorous daily calls, drills, exercises, assemblies, guard mounts, dress parades, and marches were held “to school them in the art of warfare from now on until they are called into active service,” the Journal said.

Records on the first 22 privates the Springfield-based Fifth Regiment mustered give a sense of the soldiery. They ranged in age from 18 to 36 and had the following civilian occupations: woodworker, clerk, assistant superintendent of county schools, coal miner, photographer, bookkeeper, teamster, butcher, operator, restaurant worker, laborer, farmer, carpenter, engraver, student, collector, and sign maker. All but three were from Illinois (the exceptions were born in Iowa, Germany, and Switzerland). They each committed to two years of service.

Col. James S. Culver (

Organized and equipped, the Fifth Regiment – 12 companies totaling 1,175 officers and men, led by Col. James S. Culver (1852-1911) – left Camp Tanner on May 14 for Camp Thomas, located on the Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga, Tenn.

The Fifth, however, would never see combat. After Chickamauga, the Fifth was stationed at Newport News, Va., and Lexington, Ky. According to a database of Spanish-American War units, the Fifth at one point embarked for service in Puerto Rico, but was recalled. Sixteen members of the Fifth died during their deployment, all apparently of disease (typhoid was the biggest killer) and most at Camp Thomas.

The regiment was mustered out at Camp Lincoln on Oct. 16.

Other regiments also shipped out rapidly. The last, according to the Illinois State Journal, was the First Illinois Cavalry, which left Camp Tanner on May 30.

(I)mmediately after, the great flag which had proudly floated over the Illinois military post was slowly lowered and Camp Tanner was no more. Nearly ten thousand troops were rendezvoused there and in exactly 35 days they had been organized, equipped, examined physically, mustered into the service of the United States and dispatched to other points of rendezvous in the south and east. Illinois troops are now scattered at different points, awaiting the call to actual service.

Contributor: Mary Frances. Frances, a 2023-24 Illinois Humanities Road Scholar, will travel throughout Illinois giving talks about the photographs in her new book, African Americans in Springfield. To schedule a talk, contact her at

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