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

Pat Young

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#21
Part 20:

A survey of 1,511 prisoners found that 547 were Baptist, 542 Methodist, 242 Roman Catholic, and 110 Presbyterian. Men would often go to services performed by ministers and priests not of their religion both for comfort and to break the monotony of life in confinement. Some converted to the religions that they encountered at the prison, with Catholicism, in particular, winning new souls.
 

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#22
Part 21:

The book next discusses attempts by prisoners to escape from Elmira. These ranged from a prisoner who disguised himself as a Union soldier to another who rode a casket to freedom. Gray devotes several pages to the well-known tunneling escape of Berry Benson and a group of his confederates.

While the escapes made for interesting reading, they were few and far between.
 

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#23
Part 22:

The bad location of the camp was illustrated once again in March 1865. Heavy rains and melting snows led the waters of the Chemung to flood the camp. Virtually all of the camp was flooded by St. Patrick's Day. Food had to be distributed by row boats. Hospital patients had to be rescued from their wards. One person described the scene:

“In transferring the sick from the hospitals to the boat often they fell into the cold water. A poor fellow came out of the hospital next to our ward.… Trembling and tottering with weakness, as he stepped on the plank, the boat vaciliated and the poor fellow staggered, threw up his arms and went headlong into the water. I feared he would drown, but he was rescued and shivvering was taken away in the boat.”
 
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#24
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.
This is just obscene. It's one thing to put men in prison, it's another entirely to allow someone to put them on show for curious onlookers. It has nothing to do with capitalism but a lot to do with abject cruelty.
 
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#25
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.
I agree, 1000%.
 

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#26
Part 23:

After Lee's surrender, as the Confederacy was expiring, Confederate agent John Surratt was in Elmira. While news was spreading of Lincoln's assassination, Surratt was reconoitering the prison for a possible breakout facilitated by agents based in Canada. When Surratt heard Lincoln had been killed, he left Elmira.

On April 24, 1865, civilians in Elmira, who had profitted from the prison, got news that it would soon be closing. That same day, prisoners were questioned about their willingness to take an oath of allegiance preparatory to being released. While many said that they would take the oath, others declined. One Florida soldier wrote that he at first refused to take the oath, but changed his mind a few days later.

Another, Louis Leon, explained his decision to take the oath, saying he: “took the cursed oath” because the “cause is lost; our comrades who have given their lives for the independence of the South have died in vain.” He was soon released and reunited with his parents.

As paroles of oath takers became common in May, many other prisoners took the oath. By then it was clear both that the Union soldiers were honoring the parole guarantees and releasing their newly loyal comrades and that the Southern armed struggle would not resume. They also saw that death continued to stalk those still in the camp and that every week longer that they stayed increased their chance of being buried in Upstate New York.

By June 1, 1865 there were only 3,610 prisoners remaining just six weeks after releases had begun. Those still incarcerated were mostly men who had taken the oath, but who had done so later than the bulk of the prisoners and who were still being processed for movement south.
 

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#27
Part 24:

The loyalty oath was fairly straightfoward:

“I,___________, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the Union of the States thereunder; and that I will, in the like manner, abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves: So help me God.”

While a handful of men objected to the requirement to support the emancipation proclamation, most saw the end of slavery as an accomplished fact by June of 1865.

The freed prisoners were issued rations and offered free transportation to the South. A small number stayed in the Chemung Valley where they found work as farm hands or in Elmira's shops and workshops.
 

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#28
Part 25:

Elmira developed the worst reputation of any Northern prison camp. The high mortality rate among all Union prisons condemned it in many people's estimates. Gray says:

In comparison to other Northern prisons, Elmira held a most undesirable position. The mortality rate at Camps Alton and Rock Island, in Illinois, was 14 percent. Camp Chase had a 13 percent death rate; Camp Morton, 10 percent; and Fort Delaware, 9 percent. Johnson’s Island, which unlike Elmira imprisoned mostly officers, had a minimal death rate of .03 percent. Because of the large number of prisoners confined in Point Lookout, which totaled more than 40,000, its mortality rate slipped to .06 percent.4 Elmira compared most to Camp Douglas, which was also built to muster and train Union soldiers, but became a prison camp. Fifteen percent of those held in Camp Douglas would "Die in Chicago."

Elmira's "death rate" was 24%.
 
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#29
Part 26:

After the war, Republicans emphasized the horrors of Andersonville in partisan attacks on the Democrats as Confederate sympathizers. During the 1870s, Southern Democrats used Elmira as their response to invocations of Andersonville. If the Confederates could be blamed for the deaths at Andersonville, what was the North's responsibility for the Elmira dead? When a Georgia Congressman denounced Elmira on the floor of the House of Representatives, former staff of the prison sent letters read in Congress defending their tenures at the prison.

Whenever Elmira would be remembered in the future it would be as the "Northern Andersonville."

Whatever the political uses of Elmira, the prison itself was quickly dismantled after the war, its remains sold for scrap. In 1900 the local GAR post marked the boundaries of the old camp with stones. The graves of the Confederates in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery. The locations of the Confederate dead had been carefully recorded by Sexton Jones, but the wooden headboards were badly decayed by the start of the 20th Century. A 1906 Act providing for the marking of Confederate graves came soon enought to preserve the locations of the Confederate dead. Wooden markers were placed that year in cemetery and the Shohola dead were also located.

In 1907 headstones were placed in the Confederate cemetery. Gray writes of the inventory of the dead:

Virginia claimed 550 headstones, South Carolina 387, Georgia 314, Alabama 235, Tennessee 76, Louisiana 64, Florida 30, Mississippi 10, Texas 6, Arkansas 1, Maryland 3, and Kentucky and Missouri each 1. North Carolina accounted for almost half the markers, 1,233. At least seven prisoners could not be identified and were defined with the customary “Unknown.”
 

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#30
Part 20:

After the political uses of Elmira ended by the start of the 20th Century, Elmira prison faded from memory. Occassionally the placement of a marker or the reburial of the prion's dead would briefly capture headlines. In 1937, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a marker in Woodlawn Cemetery. Modest interest was taken locally during the Civil War Centennial. But it was really only in the 1980s that local residents became interested in their area's notorious place in history. Local students led the way, calling for better commemoration of the tragedy.

The cemetery was given greater prominence and descendents of those interred there began arriving in greater numbers. In recent years, a building from the prison has been restored and a replica of a barrack has been built. While the site has not become a tourism destination, at least locally there is a greater awareness of the prison's history than at any time in the last century.
 

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#31
Conclusion:

The book is the first that I have read that looked at the economics of imprisonment during the Civil War. Everything from the cost of leasing the land the prison was built on, to the efforts of Commissary General Hoffman to bring the war in under budget are touched on here. The impacts on the local economy are something I have rarely even considered when thinking about these camps.

The book also provides a good overview of the history of the prison, short though its 13 month life was. The lives and suffering of Confederates are not slighted here. I do wish Gray had included more first-person reflections on the prison from the men who guarded it. Since some were African American, their perspective is notably missing.

I think that most readers familiar with the basics of the prisons in the North will find new material in Gray's book. Those of you who don't know much about the prisons will find no barriers to earning here.
 

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#34
The Economic History Association website has a somewhat critical review of the book:

https://eh.net/book_reviews/the-business-of-captivity-elmira-and-its-civil-war-prison/

From the review:

the book ends rather abruptly with the end of the war and the closing of the prison. One is left with the impression that Elmira grew and prospered because of the war, but what happened next? What was the transition to a peacetime economy like for Elmira? Did the experience of the war represent only a gigantic misallocation of resources or was some infrastructure or pool of skilled workers or capital created that benefited Elmira during Reconstruction?
 

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#35
The journal Civil War History offers a positive review:

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/39463

From the review:

Michael P. Gray adds to the literature on Civil War prisoner of war camps with this thoroughly researched and engagingly written volume on Elmira, New York's camp. When the war broke out, Elmira was a quiet rural town, but its location as a railroad center led to its designation as a mustering site for New York troops. In 1864 the depot became a prisoner of war camp. Originally designed for ten thousand men, the camp grew to more than twelve thousand.

Gray gives a thorough discussion of conditions inside the camp. Food was reasonably plentiful, although not varied enough to prevent the prisoners from contracting scurvy or from hunting rats. Gray discusses both the legitimate trade done by the post sutler and the black market in food and other goods, including jewelry manufactured by the prisoners. Although all the prisoners were housed in barracks by the beginning of 1865, the winter was extremely cold causing considerable suffering for ill-clad Southerners unused to temperatures below zero. Sanitation was a continual problem.
 

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#36
Here is Professor Gray's academic background:

Michael Gray (mpgray@esu.edu)
Professor of History
B.A., 1990, East Stroudsburg University
M.A., 1991, East Stroudsburg University
Ph.D., 1998, Kent State University
Specialties: 19th Century U.S., Civil War & Reconstruction, U.S. Military History, American Frontier, Civil War Sites (Public History).
Research Interests: Civil War Prisons.
 



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