Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas at Elmira, 1864

What was Christmas like in a Civil War prison camp? Perhaps a white one in 1864 Elmira, N.Y.

My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Swain Maness, didn't read or write, but some of his fellow prisoners left journals and accounts of life in Elmira prison camp. The winter of 1864 brought bitter cold and smallpox raged through the camp. Amidst constant cold and hunger and the fear of that disease, prisoners tried to find a little fun when they could.

Fellow North Carolinian Lewis Leon wrote:
November and December - Nothing, only bitter cold. We dance every night at some of our quarters. Some of the men put a white handkerchief around one of their arms, and these act as the ladies. We have a jolly good time. (1)
Wilbur W. Gramling, a South Carolina soldier who arrived at Elmira about the same time as Thomas, wrote in his journal (the last part missing or unreadable, as quoted):
Saturday, Dec. 24, 1864. Weather fair & has moderated a great deal. Jeff Davis has poisoned himself. Bob had whipped Grant. There is 40 cases of smallpox. 4 have died. Prospects are bad for Christmas.
Sunday, Dec. 25, 1864. Fair and very pleasant. Christmas but it seems no more than any other day. ground is melting which makes it very slippery. Today is The snow on
A heavy snow arrived that Thursday. (2)

1. Leon, L., Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier, Charlotte, Stone Publishing, 1913; p. 68.

2. Triebe, Richard H., Fort Fisher to Elmira: The Fatal Journey of 518 Confederate Soldiers, Coastal Books, 2013; p. 148.

3. Photo — Holmes, Clay W., Elmira Prison Camp: A History of the Military Prison at Elmira, N.Y., July 6, 1864, to July 10, 1865, G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1912.

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