Book Review The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison by Michael Gray

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The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison by Michael Gray published by Kent State University Press (2001) 228 pages $29.95 Hardcover, $14.49 Kindle.
If ever Northerner knew in 1865 of the depredations committed against Union prisoners at Andersonville, every white Southerner knew that the Union prison at Elmira imposed similar hardships on Confederates unfortunate enough to be confined there. While some Union prisons had remarkably low death rates, those imprisoned at Elmira only had a slightly better chance of surviving than their counterparts at Andersonville.

This book by Michael Gray provides both a history of the Union prison on the banks of the Chemung, and a unique analysis of the economic and social impact of the prison on the developing city of Elmira.

As my regular readers know, this is the third book on Civil War prisons that I am reviewing this month. It is trying and depressing to read these works, but I have learned more new stuff about the Civil War this dark February than in any other month of my life. With my own background in human rights law, this excursion into the heart of Civil War darkness has been a little too much of a busman's holiday, but it was necessary for me to take this trip to fully understand the impact of the war on men's lives.

Note: This review will be posted in several posts because of its length.
 

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Part 2:

Elmira was known principally as the site of a Revolutionary War battle until the 1830s when a canal was run through it. Set on the banks of the Chemung River, a tributary of the Susquahanna, the village marched slowly forward as a transportation hub for farmers seeking to move their goods out of the remote Chemung Valley. In the 1850s, Elmira became a railroad center and developed into a Southern Tier powerhouse.

Elmira itself was close to the Pennsylvania border and goods moved by water and rail down to Harrisburg, Philly, and the Chesapeke as well as west to Buffalo and east to New York City. None of its progressiveness, however, accounted for what befell the city when the war started.
 

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Part 3:

When the war broke out in 1861, the War Department announced that the three staging points for new New York recruits were New York City, Albany, and -wait for it- Elmira. Now New York City was the country's largest citiy. Albany was the state capital and the thirteenth largest city in the country. Buffalo, the tenth largest city in the country, was passed over, as were Syracuse, Rochester, Utica and a half-dozen other larger Upstate cities in favor of Elmira with only 8,000 people.

The author believes that Elmira was chosen to be the training barracks for Western New York and the Finger Lakes regions because it was so close to Pennsylvania and could benefit the private interests of Secretary of War Cameron. When four large barracks complexes were built to house thousands of men in their first days as soldiers, the infrastructure for the later prison complex was unwittingly created.
 
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Part 4:

As with many other prisons, the site that would become Elmira prisoner of war camp was poorly sited for the long-term confinement of prisoners. It was in a region of New York that was among the coldest places in the state during the winter. Next to a large river, its lower section was prone to Spring floods. In the center of the stockade was a stagnant pool of water called Foster's Pond, which became a bredding ground for death.

Soon after the site for the depot for recruits was selected, businessmen in Elmira realized that there was moeny to be made supplying the camps with the tools of the trade. Everything from coal to warm the barracks to wooden barrels to store food supplies was needed and the government had to rely on local traders for supplies.

Government contracts waxed and waned with new troop call-ups and lulls in recruitment, but there was always money flowing into the Elmira economy.
 

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Part 5:

As early as June 1862 the War Department was considering the conversion of the recruiting depot into a POW camp. Fortunately for those taken prisoner that year, a cartel for exhanging prisoners was put in place and expansion of the prison system was not necessary. By 1863 the cartel was collapsing. Accusations of violations were rife and the refusal of the Confederates to recognized blacks as soldiers due respect was causing demands for retaliation by the Lincoln administration. By 1864 the exchanges had broken down.

In May, 1864 the Elmira prison camp was created. One of the four depot barracks was selected for the prison. It had housed 2,000 to 3,000 new recruits. Now it was supposed to house 10,000 Confederate prisoners inside a hastily built twelve foot high stockade. The buldings on site had a maximum capacity of only 4,000. A month-and-ahalf later the first prisoners arrived in Elmira from Point Lookout. Over the next two weeks, three groups of two hundred to five hundred prisoners took boats from Point Lookout to New York and the the train to Elmira.
 

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Part 6:

Michale Gray describes the layout of the prison:

The twelve-foot wall could not conceal the Chemung Valley’s vivid green panoramic slopes, which were preferable to a drab sky and endless sea at Point Lookout. Grass and sod comprised the forty-acre prison yard, but more important to the prisoners was the fresh and plentiful water supply, something that their old confines lacked. Elmira Prison’s topography was uneven because the prison had been erected on the north bank of the Chemung River, so the camp was divided. The upper portion was level with the city and comprised two-thirds of the enclosure. This high ground contained most of the camp buildings, including headquarters near the main gate, the twenty original barracks or wards, plus the ten more recent units. Tree-lined roads helped give order to the compound. A thoroughfare ran south from the gate until it intersected a macadamized street that led to the mess rooms, a cookhouse and bakery, and supply buildings. The lower half of the camp dropped 20 feet toward the pond and river, where weeds grew in loose, sandy soil. Foster’s Pond, 12 yards wide and 580 yards in length, dominated this portion of the prison. The pond came within twenty feet of the western wall, and on its opposite side a bridge crossed over the water, while the pond narrowed underneath the eastern fence and connected to the river.

An early health inspection warned that Foster's Pond would soon become a source of disease because "sinks" (latrines) were positioned too close to the stagnant waters of the pond. The report was also critical of the lack of an adequate plan for the medical care of the prisoners. The concentration of prisoners in a small area of confinement often meant that communicable diseases spread very quickly through a prison population. Emira was not ready for that.
 

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Part 7:

Gray describes the large death toll of from the crash of a train carring prisoners. I have visited the site of the crash and found the description interesting, but, of course, it is not really related to the central topic of the book. Having said that, let me describe what happened.

The fourth group of prisoners left Jersey City for Elmira on July 12, 1864. 833 prisoners, 125 guards and 3 officers were on the train when it headed along the Delaware River past Port Jervis, N.Y. Most of the men were in coaches, although about a hundred were in uncomfortable box cars. When the train reached Shohola, Pa. in the Pocanos, the train was given the right of way for the single track line immediately ahead between the mountains and the river.

A negligent railroad employee allowed a slow moving 50 car coal train to pass through in the opposite direction. In spite of the heroic efforts of the prisoner train's engineer to avert a crash, the two trains hit head on. All but one man in the first car was killed. Many guards, prisoners, and train crewmen were dead or injured. One guard described the scene of the two locomatives lifted up and joined together as looking like "two giants grappling." 49 prisoners, 17 guards and four train crewmen were killed. A hundred or more others were injured, some of whom died thereafter. Fvie Confederates used the tragedy's confusion to escape.

Area doctors quickly assembled to treat the wounded and a special train carried those well enough to travel to Elmira on July 16. While many praised the care that was given, some prisoners waited for days to receive treatment after they arrived in Elmira.
 

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Part 8:

By mid-August, over 9,000 Confederates were held at Elmira. As the number of prisoners grew, so did the number of guards. Not only were prisoners poorly house, there were not enought barracks for the guards and many slept in tents. Four six pounders were sent to the prison to control any prisoner rebellion. So many people were working at the camp that an hourly omnibus ran to the prison from downtown Elmira.

Prison construction was not the only work going on in the neighborhood:

a Mr. Nichols acquired a plot of land outside the northeast corner of the enclosure on the opposite side of Water Street. He bought some lumber and constructed a building more than twice the height of the wall. The structure consisted of two large decks one above the other, separated by almost ten feet. At the building’s christening Nichols attached a placard to his edifice that read “an observation tower from which to view the prisoners—admission 15¢, refreshments served below.”22 Up to that point, citizens had not had many opportunities to see the Rebels in prison. Military regulations kept most people outside the wooden barricade, and small openings, either between slats or through knotholes, offered only limited views.23 Not long after the “Upper Observatory” opened, the Elmira Daily Advertiser reported that it was “often crowded with sightseers and must prove a paying institution.”24 Apparently it was, one insider claiming that “the concern paid for itself in two weeks.”25 People came in droves, handed over the fee, and headed up the stairway. The first level was advantageous because its roof could keep patrons dry; but the higher open deck had a superior view. From that position one could see the entire prison yard and much of Camp Chemung. Nichols had spy glasses available at no extra charge...
 

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Part 9:

In a capitalist country is it surprising that soon a second competing observation tower was constructed soon thereafter? It was twenty feet higher and cost less to visit. Prison tourism had already been going on at Johnson's Island on Lake Erie and this form of "Dark Tourism" was attracting at kleast thousands of people to the pop-up businesses that exploited the suffering of prisoners to make a buck. On weekends, hundreds of civilians would line up to climb to the observation decks and spend an hour watching incarcerated Confederates.

Prisoners said that they felt like animals in a zoo or circus performers as Northerners looked down on them for pleasure and amusement. While the prison comandant closed the newer tower, the original observatory was allowed to remain until the end of the war. The preferential treatment led to allegations that someone in the prison was on the take.

While some prisoners performed acrobatics for the onlookers, others shouted at them or waived make-shift Confederate flags. Even the gymnastics may have been intended to mock the "audience." But many onlookers got more than they had anticipated during their viewing. Gray writes:

One individual climbed up the observatory with some country friends anticipating a good time. Unexpectedly, the group took notice of two men carrying a stretcher covered by a tarp that concealed a dead inmate. In half an hour they counted five trips that these pallbearers made. The onlooker selfconsciously remarked that he and his friends all “speedily grew melancholy over the spectacle and cut our visit to the top of the tower very short.”
 

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Part 10:

On August 6, 1864, Eugene Sanger was appointed to head the medical team at the prison. One of Sanger's first concerns was the public health crisis engendered by the accumulation of human waste in Foster's Pond. Just a couple of months old, the pond already stank from the runoff from the latrines placed too near it and the use of the pond by the prisoners to relieve themselves. Gray writes that Sanger:

reported that Foster’s Pond “receives its fecal matter hourly,” and calculated that seven thousand prisoners would “pass 2,600 gallons of urine daily, which is highly loaded with nitrogenous material.”49 Deeper vaults were replacing the sinks, yet seepage into the pond was inevitable. Chemical disinfectants could negate the odor as the waste slowly decomposed, but the costs in barrels and human labor outweighed the benefits. A drought precluded the idea of flushing out Foster’s Pond by drawing from the city waterworks since supplies had to be regulated for Elmirans.

The camp commandant shared the concern and wrote to head of prisons Hoffman in Washington on August 17 that the human wastes in the pond were “very offensive, and may occasion sickness unless the evil is remedied shortly.” The two men "on the ground" at Elmira did not disregard the health threat at all. They were clearly not intent on killing off the prisoners, as some have later charged. The commandant ordered the surveying of land to create a channel from the Chemung River to flush out Foster's Pond, but local landowners refused to see the right to dig the drainage canal through their property. Apparently no one wanted their land bisected with a slow moving ditch filled with urine and fecal matter.

By the end of the summer of 1864, one-in-ten prisoners was ill.
 

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Part 11:

The amount of food provided to the prisoners was disputed by the officers of the prison and the Confederate inmates. One white Southerner wrote home “I only get two meals a day, breakfast and supper. For breakfast I get one-third of a pound of bread and a small piece of meat; for supper the same quantity of bread and not any meat, but a small plate of warm water called soup.” At least one prison doctor agreed that the diet was inadequate. Prisoners transferred to Elmira from other camps noted that the amount of food they had received prior to Elmira was greater in quantities to that at Elmira.

Gray dives deep into the business of feeding the captives. The price paid for beef, the process of baking for 10,000, the amount of beans in soup are all accounted for here. While the author denies that the commandant wanted to starve his wards, he looks at the failings in provisioning Elmira that left men weak and vulnerable to disease.
 

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Part 12:

One reason so many men were in the Emira camp was the collapse of the prisoner exchange system in 1863 when Confederates announced that captured Black soldiers would not be treated as prisoners of war and not be eligible for exchange. In October, 1864, there was an exchange of disabled prisoners arranged. Prison Commissary General Hoffman wired Elmira that “By authority of the Secretary of War all invalid prisoners in your charge who will not be fit for service within sixty days will in a few days be sent South for delivery.” Exempted were men "too feeble to enure the journey."

Fourteen hundred men were sent southward on three trains consisting of about 180 boxcars in all. Several died along the way and the medical staff was severely criticized for sending men who could not survive the journey.

Medical Director Simpson wrote: “The condition of these men was pitiable in the extreme and evinces criminal neglect and inhumanity on the part of the medical officers in making the selection of men to be transferred.” Commissary General Hoffman wrote to Stanton about the poor condition of the parolees; “From the within reports it appears that both the commanding officer and medical officers not only failed to be governed by these orders, but neglected the ordinary promptings of humanity in the performance of their duties toward sick men, thus showing themselves to be wholly unfit for the positions they occupy, and it is respectfully recommended that they be ordered to some other service.”
 

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Part 13:

One major problem at the camp was housing. By early Fall roughly half of the Confederates were in tents due to overcrowding. The camp was only designed for 4,000-5,000 men. While keeping men in tents was hardly criminal in the good weather enjoyed in the summer and early Fall, it was recognized that it was unaceptable as winter came on. One Union officer noted that “Many men are in tents without floors or blankets. Barracks should be erected instead of tents.” Another said that the “weather is cold for the season, and those in tents especially suffer.”

Plans were made to construct additional barracks for the tent dwellers. dozens of local carpenters and laborers were hired to build the barracks and prisoners could work for a small stipend and extra rations. Work came to a halt in December because of the impossibility of obtaining milled lumber. Still, by Chrsitmas, three-quarters of the men who had been in tents had already moved to the new barracks. All the prisoners were inside buildings by New Year's Day.

New coal heating stoves replaced the old woodburners and the camp used 375 tons of coal a month to provide heat for the prisoners and guards. While conditions of shelter and heat improved in 1865, the winter itself was bitterly cold with temps dropping to 18 below zero.

Another problem that winter was that captured Confederates rarely arrived wearing clothes appropriate for an Upstate New York Winter. The prison did distribute Union army surplus overcoats to some of the men. The coats had one tail cut off to help identify the prisoner in the event of escape.
 

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Part 14:

Clothing, blankets, and shoes for the prisoners came from five sources. The prison officials issued it, it was sent by family members, they purchased it from suttlers, it was donated, and the Confederate government sent some supplies of this kind. This last source I had not known about. But Gray says that thousands of items were brought to the camp by Confederate emissaries paroled to the camp.
 

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Part 15:

Chapter 7 describes the economy inside the prison, one largely built by the prisoners themselves. Everything from music to knickknacks were for sale. A fiddler would play a tune for a dime on a make-shift fiddle built by another prisoner out of stray wood. When money was not available, tobacco "chaws" became the currency. Gray writes:

Throughout the marketplace, prisoners improvised shops with signs that advertised specific services. Tailors stitched frayed clothes, their placards declaring, “A small patch for four chews, and a large one six.” A cobbler advertised “Shoes mended for tobacco.” Barber poles were sunk into the ground, and signs offered a haircut for ten chews or a shave for five.9 Other barbers took up a traveling kit, a wood box with scissors, a comb, and a razor, and sought out their clients. After seeing them with razors in action, Marcus Toney expressed preferrence for a scruffy face rather than risking his neck to their shaky hands: “They never used a hone or strap except their boots and shoes, and it was hard to tell which was the worst sufferer, the barber or his customer.”
 

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Part 16:

The market inside the prison sometimes spread beyond the stockade. Soldiers became skilled in taking found objects and crafting them into jewlery. Prison jewlery came to be in demand, offering the best craftsmen the opportunity to earn money that could be used to buy suttler's stores. Soldiers began to supply the prisoners with bits of gold and silver, and then sold the pieces and split the profit with the prisoner.

Prisoners could also earn money working for the U.S. Five cents per day was paid for common labor. An accountant could make ten cents. The prison even paid prisoners to teach their fellow inmates to read and write. Gray writes:

At the end of August, an Old Dominion soldier who had graduated from the University of Virginia founded a school within the stockade. Elmira ladies contributed books, slates, and pencils, while colleagues familiar with the profession assisted him. Teachers evidently did not share their knowledge for free, and camp officials allowed each an additional ration as a stipend. Altogether, a ten-member faculty proceeded to teach the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and some students even advanced to French. On days they did not go to regular day school, more devout pupils could attend Sunday School lessons. An Alabaman, still trying to grasp the foundations of grammar, proudly stated, “I went to school some at this place.” A Florida student broadened his language skills, and by the new year had been “progressing in my French pretty well.”
 

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Part 17:

With fewer than 9,000 residents in 1860, the creation of a huge prison camp inevitably had a major impact on the city outside the walls of the prison. Farmers, mill owners, carpenters and many others benefitted from contracts with the camp. But pehaps the man who saw the greatest change in his life was Sexton Jones. According to Gray:

John W. Jones, held in bondage by the Elzy family in Leesburg, had escaped along the Underground Railroad in 1844. Jones had resettled in Elmira, gained an education at a local school, and advanced to the position of sexton at Woodlawn Cemetery by the time the prison opened in July 1864. At the end of that month, Commissary General Hoffman approved three hundred dollars for leasing a half acre of ground at the local cemetery to bury dead Confederates, and authorized employment of a person to bury them for forty dollars a month. Jones held his modest job at a fortuitous time, for he soon found that the morbid business of death boomed while the prison existed. To help the sexton transfer corpses, Hoffman allowed a wagon to be purchased and modified into a hearse.40 “The first day that I was called in my capacity of sexton to bury a prisoner who had died,” wrote Jones, “I thought nothing of it.… Directly there were more dead. One day I had seven to bury. After that they began to die very fast.”41 By 1865, Southern interments were becoming more expensive and expansive as the cemetery began running out of room. On January 1, 1865, Mayor Arnot leased out an additional half-acre of land at Woodlawn, which cost the government $600. Also, undoubtedly to the chagrin of Hoffman, Jones was not paid a monthly fee of $40 but was instead compensated at an individual rate set at $2.50 per burial.

In a little over a year, Sexton Jones earned nearly $7,500.
 
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I don't know how you read these books. I find them so upsetting, even reminding myself it's never a good idea to avoid History doesn't help. Elmira was so dreadfully hideous locals didn't discuss it post war, by 50 years post war there wasn't much recognizing all the death.

Of all the profiteering this idea you jump on the financial band wagon of human suffering makes me the most nauseated. I realize those responsible are long gone but it makes you want to go dig them up and bury them all over again. There's simply no words for anyone whose bright idea was observation towers. Watching torment- who does that? I read refreshments were served to ticket buyers, eating while men starved a few feet away? Again, no words.
 

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Part 18:

Transportation businesses made out well from the prison. The local canal made money bringing coal to the camp. Railroads transported not just supplies but the prisoners and guards themselves. The streetcar line from Elmira to the prison was always busy.

Water Street, right outside the prison was lined with businesses ranging from boarding houses for Union officers to saloons for the soldiers. Reports indicate that sex workers also moved to the vicinity of the prison.
 

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Part 19:

As at other prisons, North and South, Catholics seem to have been the only religion to hold fairly regular services at the prison. Many Protestant sects had divided into Northern and Southern branches prior to the war, but Catholics had not. Hence, Catholic priests still saw Confederate Catholics as part of the same worldwide church. Gray says Catholics:

...were well represented by the clergy. Father Martin Kavanaugh, priest and rector at St. Peter and Paul’s in Elmira, was regularly called to the pen. Mass was performed with the aid of altar boys he brought with him, confessions heard on days prior to observing the Eucharist, and last rites conferred on ill Confederates before they passed on.43 Higher ranking Catholic authorities also rendered their graces to Elmira Prison. On September 4, 1864, Bishop John Timon of Buffalo came to Elmira and delivered an inspiring sermon during mass.44 Prior to his appointment as bishop, Father Timon had served as a missionary worker below the Mason-Dixon Line. Having a good rapport with Southerners, the Bishop had one more chance to convert any stray Rebel souls without leaving western New York.

Interestingly, the one Protestant clergyman to be a consistent spiritual support was Thomas Beecher, the brother of Henry Ward Beecher. Unfortunately, one reason he was liked by the prisoners was that he rarely spoke of abolition or black equality.
 



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