Invalid Corps Officer Benjamin Sweet: Hero or Monster?
As you know, we’ve been learning so much about amazing Civil War soldiers with disabilities and the various roles they took on during the war – doing patrols, guarding supply depots, escorting prisoners and chasing down deserters, among other things. However, much as we all like our heroes, not everyone can be heroic. One of the stories we came across was that of Colonel Benjamin Sweet who commanded Camp Douglas in Chicago, a Civil War prisoner of war camp. Although not a good fit for our documentary which focuses more on the Invalid Corps and the Battle of Fort Stevens, his, is a fascinating tale.
Benjamin Jeffrey Sweet was born in New York in 1832. He enrolled in Appleton College in Wisconsin at 17. A year later he returned home to teach school at neighboring Brothertown and study law. He married Lovisa L. Denslow and practiced law. In 1859, a Republican and abolitionist, Sweet was elected to the Wisconsin State Senate.
When war broke out, he promptly enlisted and joined the Twenty-first Wisconsin Regiment. His first and last battle was in Perryville, Kentucky on October 8, 1862. “A minnie ball from a sharp-shooter’s rifle came crashing into his right elbow, crushing the bones, tearing up the arm, and lodging in his chest.”* He survived, but his right arm was permanently paralyzed. Refusing to leave the army, Sweet joined the 8th Regiment of the Invalid Corps.
In May of 1864, Sweet took command of Camp Douglas, in Chicago. Camp Douglas has been described as the “Andersonville” of the North. It was the largest Union prisoner-of-war camp. There were already 5,000 Confederate prisoners in the camp when Sweet took command, and 7,500 more would be sent to it over the next few months. Two regiments, the Eight and the Fifteenth of the Invalid Corps, a total of about 1,000 men, were all the troops Sweet had to guard his prisoners.
The Monster of Camp Douglas
In some histories and documentaries, Benjamin Sweet is portrayed as a vengeful monster, inflicting terrible cruelties upon the prisoners in his care. His tenure was marked by a variety of punishments bordering on torture, harsh treatment, and corruption. One of the more common punishments was to have the prisoner “ride the wooden horse.” This was a sawhorse-type structure with a thin, almost sharp cross-piece that the prisoner (and in one case a guard) were forced to straddle.
There were some of our poor boys, for little infraction of the prison rules, riding what they called Morgan’s mule every day…He was about fifteen feet high; the legs were nailed to the scantling so one of the sharp edges was turned up, which made it very painful and uncomfortable to the poor fellow especially when he had to be ridden bareback, sometimes with heavy weights fastened to his feet and sometimes with a large beef bone in each hand. This performance was carried on under the eyes of a guard with a loaded gun, and was kept up for several days; each ride lasting two hours each day unless the fellow fainted and fell off from pain and exhaustion. Very few were able to walk after this hellish Yankee torture but had to be supported to their barracks.
— Milton Asbury Ryan, Company G, 8th Mississippi Regiment
When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton decreed a ration reduction to be enforced throughout the entire prison system, Sweet also enforced the rationing with a heavy hand, even when it was clear the food was insufficient to meet the needs of the prisoners.
The Hero of Chicago
Other reports describe Sweet as a “reliable officer.” He made improvements to the camp: the grounds were thoroughly drained and policed, streets were graded, the barracks in the prisoner area were re-arranged into streets with alleys between the ends, and the barracks were white washed inside and out and raised off the ground on blocks. He even petitioned for additional barracks with enclosed kitchens, but was told no.
In the summer and fall of 1864, wild rumors of Confederate sympathizers proliferated throughout Chicago. It had begun with the Democratic Convention in August, and as the city geared up for the November elections (it was a much closer race than history books usually tell us), it seemed there was an even greater undercurrent of fear.
The city is filling up with suspicious characters, some of whom we know to be escaped prisoners, and others who were here from Canada during the Chicago convention, plotting to release the prisoners of war at Camp Douglas.
– Benjamin Sweet to General John Cook, commander of the Military District of Illinois
Colonel Sweet had already invested in spies and detectives to inform both on prisoners at Camp Douglas and Southern sympathizers in Chicago. On the night of November 6th, he decided to strike first. His Invalid Corps troops marched into the city and raided the homes of several individuals, arresting Confederate officers, known Copperheads, and others suspected of supporting the insurrection. The seven ringleaders were brought to trial in Ohio a year later. All were found guilty.
After Sweet mustered out of service, he bought a small farm and opened a law office. In 1869 he was appointed a United States Pension Agent. A year later he joined the Internal Revenue service and in 1872 he became First Deputy Commissioner of Internal Revenue. He died 2 years later at age 41.
So, was Benjamin Sweet a hero or a monster? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Like the rest of the military, the Invalid Corps was made up of men, some good and some not-so-good, and in the end, all were simply human.
Stephen E. Towne, Quelling Camp Douglas Conspiracies – https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/7991
Dennis Kelly, A History of Camp Douglas, Illinois, Union Prison, 1861-1865 – https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/ande/douglas.pdf
David L. Keller, The Story of Camp Douglas: Chicago’s Forgotten Civil War Prison
*Biographical Sketch of the late General B.J. Sweet – History of Camp Douglas: A Paper Read before the Chicago Historical Society (June 18, 1878) by William Bross, A.M., Lieutenant Governor of Illinois 1865-9 – http://www.idaillinois.org/cdm/ref/collection/isl7/id/2436.
Ada Celeste Sweet: Strength In Extraordinary Circumstances – http://evansfamilytreeclimb.blogspot.com/
Images from Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation – http://www.campdouglas.org
And various General Orders.
Posted on: September 4, 2017