Prior to the Civil War, the city also became an important transfer station on the Underground Railroad. After the completion of the Illinois Central Railroad, fugitives were shipped north on the river before being transferred to railroad lines headed toward Chicago. More than a century and a half later, In June 1998, Cairo city workers discovered what appeared to be storage bins under the sidewalk along the 600 block of Levee Street.
The Illinois Central Railroad originally ran down the street and the structures date back to the late 1850s. Physical evidence suggests that the rooms and an adjoining tunnel ran for five or six blocks along the street and were utilized to hide and move fugitive slaves.
In 1858, the grandest hotel in the city was built at the southwest corner of 2nd and Ohio Streets. The St. Charles Hotel opened in January 1859. During the Civil War, it would, at different times, become the headquarters of General Ulysses S. Grant and General John A. McLernand, and filled to full capacity. Later, in 1880, the business was purchased by the Halliday Brothers, who vastly improved it and renamed it the Halliday Hotel. For decades it would be known as the best hotel in the city. Unfortunately, it burned to the ground in 1942.
By 1861, when the Civil War began, Cairo’s population had increased to 2,200, of which, only 55 people were African-American. The port quickly became a strategically important supply base and training center for the Union army. For several months, both General Ulysses S. Grant and Admiral Andrew Foote had headquarters in the town. Several federal regiments were also stationed there during these turbulent years.
The Confederacy also realized its strategic importance. Knowing this, Illinois Governor Richard Yates immediately shipped 2,700 men with 15 pieces of field artillery, plus several six-pounders, and one twelve-pound cannon to Cairo from Springfield. More troops were stationed nearby and by June 1861, 12,000 Union soldiers were in and around Cairo. Another 38,000 men were stationed within a 24-hour ride.
In order to further strengthen Cairo as a military camp and as a naval base, Yates sent yet more artillery to the city in the fall of 1861, which included 7,000 new guns, 6,000 rifled muskets, and 500 rifles, and 14 artillery batteries of artillery. The soldiers then built 15 foot high levees around the city, making it a formidable installation.
At the very tip of the peninsula, south of Cairo, Camp Defiance was established near the river bank, and Camp Smith was located just a short distance to the north. Camp Defiance was first called Fort Prentiss, after the Union officer Benjamin Mayberry Prentiss, who had served honorably in the Mexican-American War.
Initially, the post consisted of a flat-topped mound upon which were placed three 24-pound cannons and an 8-inch mortar. The site also included a command house and a ship’s mast for the colors. The name was later changed to Camp Defiance when General Ulysses S. Grant arrived.
Lines of sentries were posted along the levees, and all boats along the river were stopped and searched. Camp Defiance became an important supply depot for General Grant’s Western Army and a naval base, as the Union and Confederacy battled for control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union shipped supplies from Chicago to the far tip of Illinois via the Illinois Central Railroad, fueling Grant’s push deep into the Confederacy and altering the course of the Civil War.
The city itself became an enormous military camp with a huge parade ground and clusters of barracks on all sides. The fortified city quickly gained the attention of the entire country, drawing many reporters to observe the military build-up and spurring The New York Times to refer to Cairo as “the Gibraltar of the West.”
But, the troops who were stationed in Cairo did not like the location. The low flat land was extremely muddy and the town was prone to flooding, despite the levees. The climate was humid, disease-carrying mosquitoes and rats were everywhere, and to make matters worse, unscrupulous business operators were known to cheat and even rob many of the troops. One soldier described Cairo this way: “I have witnessed hog pens that are palaces compared with our situation here.” Anthony Trollope, a renowned English novelist visited the city in 1862 and wrote: “the inhabitants seemed to revel in dirt… the sheds of soldiers… bad, comfortless, damp and cold.”
During the Civil War, a number of businesses were established for the soldiers and citizens including stables, a hospital, and a wheelwright shop.
Along the west side of the Ohio River, a number of saloons and brothels sprang up that served the military personnel until they were closed down by General John A. McLernand in October 1861. Just to the west, on Commercial Avenue, sat the firms of Koehler’s Gunshop, a drug store, the city’s post office, the popular Athenaeum Theater, a blacksmith and a harness shop. A block south of this site was the huge parade grounds.
Though the fortified city never saw any attacks during the Civil War, it trained and shipped thousands of soldiers who would fight in numerous battles. Cairo’s real “war” would not begin for another century.
When the Civil War was over, Camp Defiance and most of the military buildings were dismantled. Many years later, the site of Camp Defiance would become Fort Defiance Park, an Illinois State Park. However, today, the park is owned by the city of Cairo. Unfortunately, it is abandoned, overgrown, and completely run down. At the time this story was written (2010), the road into the park is impassable due to flood damage.
The Civil War dramatically changed the city’s social, cultural and demographic landscape with the arrival of thousands of runaway slaves, which the government referred to as “contrabands.” Additionally, in 1862, the Union Army deposited large numbers of African-Americans in Cairo until government officials could decide their fate. These many black men, women, and children lived in a “Contraband Camp” established by the Army. The camp was later abandoned when the African-Americans found little work and having no money to buy farms, many returned to the South and became sharecroppers.