Visitors to the Tribune Building in Chicago can see a small part of Southwest Georgia Civil War-era history imbedded in the structure.
CHICAGO — One of Chicago’s most architecturally distinct buildings holds a secret, a secret that subtly pays homage to small Southwest Georgia town that one Windy City writer called a “stain on the American fabric.”
Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper.
It was here that William LeBaron Jenney developed the idea of constructing tall buildings using a steel skeleton rather than just a brick foundation — a move that allowed the Home Insurance Building to become the world’s first building over nine stories tall in 1885.
When a New Yorker perfected the elevator about the same time, buildings began skyrocketing further and further toward the heavens and architects began planning ever-more sophisticated building designs.
One such building would become home of the Chicago Tribune.
The Tribune Tower’s ornate gothic buttresses and detailed reliefs are a unique part of the Chicago skyline, but Tribune publisher Robert “Colonel” McCormick wanted the building to be one-of-a-kind in the world while acknowledging the Tribune’s global reach.
So he tasked his reporters to bring back — through “honorable means,” according to the website Suite101.com — rocks and artifacts from historically significant places around the world so that they could be embedded in the bottom of the building.
As a result, tourists who walk along the building can see and touch a piece of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Vatican, Hamlet’s Castle from Denmark and even a rock from the Great Pyramid of Giza.
And stuck on the Tribune tower wall among these historical pieces is a part of Georgia history. It’s a rock from a place that became infamous, one that Union soldiers on whispered about during the Civil War.
The inscription beneath the rock reads: “Georgia: Andersonville Prison Camp.”
Eric Leonard, the chief of interpretation and education at the Andersonville National Historic site, said he wasn’t too surprised to learn that a relic of Andersonville prison had found its way to Chicago.
“There were a lot of people that were imprisoned at Andersonville and more than 30,000 survived their time here to go on and live lives outside of the prison,” Leonard says. “So what you end up with are these Union soldiers who lived out their days and either donated the items that they may have had during their time here to a local museum or collection.”
As an example, Leonard pointed to an Andersonville collection that is on display a Hartford, Conn., museum.
As for Chicago specifically, it and Andersonville do have some interesting intersections in history.
While Andersonville is often portrayed as the most horrendous Civil War era prison — over the 14-month-period that the prison was operational more than 13,000 prisoners died there — Chicago was home to Andersonville’s Union contemporary, Camp Douglas.
Just as Andersonville had housed more than 45,000 Union soldiers during the war, Camp Douglas housed roughly 25,000 Confederate soldiers — more than 2,600 of whom died inside the gates because of disease, malnutrition or exposure to the frigid Chicago winters.
After the war, the state of Illinois commissioned a monument to be placed at Andersonville; a monument whose initial design was dubbed an “atrocity” by political figures of the day. In 1912, that monument was finally erected on the site — a memorial to the 1,000 or so Union soldiers from Illinois who died while imprisoned there.
On Nov. 11 — Veterans Day — a retired Chicago Police detective will help commemorate the centennial of the monument’s arrival to Andersonville from Illinois during a ceremony at the national historic site.
“What you’ll find is that a lot of places, especially those large population centers from the north from where these Union soldiers likely would have come, will have some kind of connection to Andersonville,” Leonard says.
“Andersonville has become an echo chamber of the American story and, as people have told their stories, it has become a bigger part of our history,” he said. “It’s one part of the war that is still a very raw wound.”