Friday, December 20, 2013

Journey to Elmira — Civil War prisons, part 4

As President Lincoln and General Grant banned prisoner exchanges by August 1863, and the Battle of Gettysburg added to the influx of prisoners, military "prisons became less of a temporary detention center and more like long-term concentration camps." (Triebe, 105) After over a month at the overcrowded Point Lookout Prison Camp, my great-great-grandfather Thomas Swain Maness was transferred to the new prison at Elmira, New York.

I promised at the end of a previous post to write about Elmira. I didn't know how daunting that would be. First of all, I haven't found anything that directly relates to Thomas, other than his transfer and release. He didn't read or write, so his name doesn't come up in the many extant letters and journals. Secondly, expanding the search to the writings of others has turned up volumes of conflicting information. If you think our country is divided and partisan today, imagine how it was when the two different "parties" literally tried to kill each other!

Author Clay Homes painted the camp in a positive light in his thick 1912 tome. He blamed many of the deaths and starvation on the state of the prisoners' stomachs after their previous ordeals, even claiming that hookworm disease came from an excess of cornmeal in the Southern diet. (Holmes, 317-318). Author Richard Triebe quoted a former prisoner as saying, "If ever there was a hell on Earth, Elmira Prison was that hell...." Even primary documents are suspect, because the prisoners' letters were censored.

Here are my current conclusions from skimming different sources, without the intensive research of all materials available (which would take years).

- Although Elmira had one of the highest death rates at 24% (Holmes, 255), prisoners saw it as an improvement over Point Lookout. They had fresh water to drink, and left the vindictive guards and random shootings behind. Within the year, many had barracks to replace their tents.

- Despite the good drinking water and buildings, the men bathed (or not) in the backwash pond that served as a mass latrine. Fatal diseases, as well as scurvy and lice, were rampant.

- Secretary of War Edward Stanton and other high officials carried out an unofficial retaliation policy of persecuting the prisoners through bureaucracy  and delays. For example, a large shipment of beef was sent to the prison. It was rejected as low quality, but then sold to the townspeople. Books of both northern and southern perspectives depict an underground trade in rats and punishment for eating dogs. A drainage project for the latrine pond was delayed by "paperwork," keeping conditions unsanitary. Firewood rations were scarce, despite an unusually cold winter with temperatures below zero.

- Many northerners and local officers showed kindness to the prisoners — or tried to. A New York textile company tried to provide clothing for the freezing men; the shipment was turned away because of the policies mentioned above. Any provisions had to meet strict rules, such as only coming from close family members. Some guards sold handcrafts in town for the prisoners. Inmates weren't allowed to have money, but it was kept on file for them at the commissary, including money in letters from home. Within the prison walls, inmates used tobacco for currency.

- A couple of entrepreneurs built stands by the prison walls for spectators. The stands were taken down later for fear of spying or communicating with prisoners.

- Neglect and cemetery moves resulted in lost records and mass burial at Pt. Lookout. In contrast, John W. Jones, a former slave, kept meticulous records and marked the graves of every soldier who died at Elmira. 

Main sources:

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. (Photos are from Holmes' book.)

Triebe, Richard H., Fort Fisher to Elmira: The Fatal Journey of 518 Confederate Soldiers, Coastal Books, 2013 (revision of 2010 book).

Beitzell, Edwin W., Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates, St. Mary's County Genealogical Society, 2007 (reprint of 1972 book).

No comments: