Senator Douglas had purchased a substantial amount of land on the south side of Chicago, between 31st and 35th streets. Upon his death, it was appropriated by the Federal Government and used for Camp Douglas - originally a training camp, later a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Conditions at the camp were brutal; approximately six thousand prisoners died of disease, most of whom are buried at Oak Woods Cemetery.
The monument was commissioned by the Douglas Monument Association, formed by friends of the late Senator in the year of his death. Leonard Wells Volk, a relative and sculptor who had created images of Douglas in the past, was chosen to design the monument. But it was not until 1877 that funds became available.