Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library -
[This article is from the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.]
So many exaggerated accounts of the treatment of Union soldiers in Southern prisons have been published from time to time creating as they have done such a wide spread prejudices throughout the country and which of course have been accepted all over the North as truth, the wonder is that such silence should be kept by Southerners as to the treatment of Confederate prisoners within Northern prison pens.
The writer having more than six months experience at Point Lookout, Maryland; and Elmira, New York, recalls that which he has witnessed himself, and desires to state truthfully herein, it being evergreen in his memory.
I was a private in Company A, Breathed's battery of Stewart's Horse artillery commanded at the time by Captain Preston P. Johnson of Baltimore, MD., and now a resident of Kentucky. Major James Breathed of Hagerstown, MD., in command of the Battalion.
I was a captive in the summer of 1864 at the time of the Wilderness Campaign, and was sent to Point Lookout and there confined a few weeks, and when there was confined about sixteen thousand Southern prisoners many having been there as long as two years owing to the refusal on the part of the North, to exchange prisoners. During my entire confinement at Point Lookout we were under guard of Negro soldiers whose conduct and treatment of the prisoners was infamously cruel and in many instances they conducted themselves in a savage manner. I have witnessed them fire their muskets indiscriminately into crowded masses of prisoners, shooting two or three men at a single shot, and such outrages were tolerated by their white officers, and they never were punished nor their cases investigated. This repeatedly happened at Point Lookout, and I never heard that one was even reprimanded.
There was at one time an apprehended raid of Mosby's cavalry upon Point Lookout for the purpose of releasing the prisoners confined there. Stringent orders were given to the guard to fire upon any prisoners who were seen out of their quarters after eight o'clock at night. Many prisoners were unaware of the orders, and incautiously ventured out for the performance of nature calls, when they were ruthlessly shot down. Several cases of the kind occurred. All these outrages were perpetrated by Negroes as there were none others on guard.
Water for the use of the prison was collected in barrels distributed about the prison grounds, and the vessel for drinking purposes was conspicuously absent in many places, when the prisoners would drink from the barrel. The audacious Negro was always at hand, and seemed to delight in immersing the head of the drinker, and then gloat over the fun. All this was allowed, and there was no redress. Repeated remonstrances were made to the authorities, but were unnoticed, and such outrages continued to be of daily occurrence.
The Rev. Mr. Eddy, an English gentleman residing in Texas at the breaking of the war, and who espoused our cause, and gallantly fought in the ranks was a prisoner at Point Lookout, and attempted to expose to the outside world the outrageous shooting of our prisoners by the Negro guard was detected in his good work. He remained at Point Lookout after my transfer to Elmira. I next saw him in the guardhouse at Elmira, after suffering as he did cruelties, which befitted a savage than the so-called Samaritan of the Federal army. Mr. Eddy was for weeks confined at Elmira when all sorts of indignities were imposed upon him and when I was undergoing similar punishment for writing an article upon the treatment of the prisoners and which was intercepted in the Elmira PO. The Post Office was cautiously watched and it was almost impossible for a letter to pass such watching eyes as were employed, and the dread of having letters which could contain anything pertaining to the inside workings of the stockade. In any other prisoners served their sentence in the guard house for the same offense, and some marched at the command of the Negro guard with a barrel shirt.
From Point Lookout, and various other Northern prisons there were about Ten thousand prisoners transferred to Elmira, N.Y. in the summer of 1864, the writer being amongst the number. The first installment from Point Lookout was dispatched by sea via New York City in the month of July upon a miserable old Government transport only fitted to carry cattle. About twelve hundred men were crowded upon this old tub between decks with only the hatches open, and there they remained crowded together like sheep for many days, only allowing one or two at a time on the main deck for a few minutes, when they were ordered into their horrible quarters below. The sight of these holds was sickening in the extreme, and the condition and sufferings of the prisoners therein confined was indeed horrible, and a large number of the men being already sick when placed on board their wretched condition upon the voyage can be imagined better than described. After reaching the harbor of New York we were released from the ship until the following day, and upon clearing the vessel the sight presented can never be forgotten. Think of their journey by sea, several hundred miles, crowded together as we were, with so many sick in the sweltering heat of July. It was on a par with the condition of the Yankee slave ships with a cargo of human souls purchased with a cargo of Boston rum. Our rations consisted of fat pork ad a loaf of bread.
No beds nor straw lie upon, only a blanket spread beneath us on the filth covered hard boards only comparable with hog or cattle pen. Never upon the whole voyage was there any attempt made to sweep or clean the floors. There was scarcely an inch of space where there could be a step between the crowded mass of human freight. The insufficient ventilation of the ships holds rendered the stench and the foul air unbearable, and many deaths were the result. The writer owes the preservation of his own life to the kindness of one of the prisoners (now residing in San Francisco) who was fortunate enough to enjoy a little more freedom than the rest, and who managed to smuggle me a small lump of ice, and a swallow of tea when I was lying jammed in amongst the rest of the hold and sick almost to death. Some were already dead when the ship reached New York, and I feel certain that many died afterward from the affects f that horrible voyage. The continuation of the trip afterward to Elmira was attended with less suffering.
When showing the prisoners on the ship at Point Lookout they were supplied with their rations for the voyage, consisting of a piece of very fat mess pork and a loaf of bread, and it can be imagined what was the condition of things between decks when rolling on the billows of the deep, and hardly one escaped the effects of his first experience at sea. It reminded me of only one other scene I witnessed when passengers upon a ship at sea, which was converging at market nearly two thousand huge densely crowded together upon deck, the animals having been fed upon raw potatoes just before starting. The sea affects them as it does a human being. Those swine were accommodated better than we, they being upon the upper decks in the fresh air, whilst we were between decks almost poisoned by the foul air, which was intensely polluted by human excrement.
The return trip to Richmond from Elmira was no more comfortable than the one described. We were marched from the prison to the depot in Elmira through about two feet of snow -- the weather intensely cold -- in February 1865. Upon reaching the depot wet and cold we were crowded into cattle cars wherein was a little dirty straw scattered over the floor, and not a particle of fire. Thus we were transferred to Baltimore in nearly forty-eight hours, including two whole nights. At Baltimore we were marched a long distance through a blinding sleet and snow storm to the steamboat upon the wharf from noon till night, when we were placed upon a dilapidated government cattle transport and landed at City Point below Richmond. A violent storm of wind, sleet, and snow raged the entire night of our passage down the bay, and unprotected as we were upon the hurricane deck with only a blanket the night was a hard one. Many of the sick of which there were a large numbers were placed below decks in the stalls formerly for cattle, and but slightly protected from the weather, and but little more comfortable than there on the hurricane deck. There can be no doubt that it was the grossest indifference on the part of the Government in thus permitting sick prisoners to be conveyed in such an inhuman and cruel manner. I do not believe that in any instance during the war when Northern prisoners suffered as much, if as, it was for lack of provisions and the refusal on the part of the North to exchange prisoners, it seeming their intention to let the latter die rather than refrain from their endeavor to eat out the substance of the South.
The conduct of many of the physicians in charge of the hospitals herein named deserves especial notice, and the strongest condemnation. If they had been dumb brutes, instead of human beings as they were supposed to be, they could not have exhibited greater brutality. I was ward master in one of the hospital barracks at Elmira, which contained from eighty-five to ninety patients crowded, as they sometimes were to or three in a bunk. The physician, a doctor Van Ness made his visits once and sometimes twice every twenty-four hours. For the many different diseases incidental to such places, nearly every patient received opium pills. That being the favorite prescription no matter what the nature of the disease. On one occasion, three persons so being treated were visible shaking, the surgeon-in-chief, a Dr. Sanger, was called in. He directed Dr. Van Ness to write four or five drops of Fowler's solution of arsenic. He wrote forty-five and the patients in a very short time breathed their last breath. No investigation ensued. No reprimand. Dr. Van Ness continued in his position. Hundreds of our prisoners died. I can truthfully say not twenty percent of those in the hospital left it alive. This is no exaggeration of what I believe was a terrible crime growing out of, to put it mildly, the deplorable ignorance of the medical men in charge, if not willful murder.
They had our poor helpless soldiers at their mercy. Often have I heard them, when gathered together in the dispensary discussing their experiences of the day, exult over the numbers of the Rebs they had put through, i.e. killed' and expressing their desire to, in this way, get rid of the whole number of the Confederates there, thus avoiding an exchange. All in authority at Elmira seemed to be of this opinion. Who that was confined at Andersonville can recall a single instance where there was a greater outrage than at Elmira, where thousands of prisoners were confined in small tents until early winter in such a dreadfully severe climate as that of northern New York where is situated Elmira. I have known persons to be frost bitten, and when some of them provided for themselves little mud chimneys to their tents,. gathering chips and other small fuel, the Yankee officers would send a guard to ruthlessly destroy them and Major Beall, who was then in command, would go to the rounds himself, in the middle of the night and deprive them of the extra blankets which were their own personal property, leaving the soldier to freeze to death. No coffee, no tea, no vegetables but a few beans to make tasteless watery soup consisting of the liquid in which the pork had been boiled. After many months the old soldier barracks -- barns -- were used as hospitals. Hundreds were wedged in, and crowded together like packed sardines. Two and frequently three in a bunk. They had no opportunity to cleanse themselves of vermin there first found, therefore who can wonder at the fearful numbers of deaths, arising from ignorant medical supervision, and total lack of proper ventilation. Of the false statements of the humanity then boasted by the Yankee, the bored will get a truthful statement. Humanity equal to that shown at the time they burned, so termed witches. The Northern people, not descended from Yankees, will when the whole truth is known, believe the palm of humanity belonged to the South, and will see through the intentional falsehoods of a prejudiced press.
There is no doubt in my mind as to the intention of our enemies to rid themselves of as many of our prisoners as was possible, no matter what the means to which they resorted. Witness in various instances when contagious diseases were introduced into crowded prisons. I recollect, in one instance at Elmira hundreds of deaths were the result of smallpox introduced by patients from Blackwell's Island, New York. Up to that time not a case of the disease had been known there. In a few days it manifested itself in one of the new importations. Instead of being isolated, he was placed immediately adjoining one of the wards used as a hospital, and there remained for days. Other cases rapidly developed, and soon broke out in a virulent form. Tents were then placed inside the stockade where hundreds were confined, and immediately upon their convalescence were again distributed amongst the well prisoners, even occupying the same beds, thus spreading the disease to an appalling degree. No comfortable buildings were provided for the wretched victims, even when the temperature fell twenty degrees below zero. Very few smallpox patients survived. When discharging smallpox cases they were led to a pump, and there stripped and washed in the coldest weather, and then assigned new quarters for a brief time, when they were returned to the hospital to meet their deaths. Their sufferings were laughed at. Considering their ill usage, premeditated torture, insufficient food, and the prevailing lack of any show of humanity it seems a miracle that one again reached his home. I repeatedly heard it said by Federal officers that the mortality at Elmira far exceeded that at Andersonville. I will say in justice to two officers, Captains Whiton and Munger that they did what they could to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners, but were almost powerless to render the aid they deserved.
The outrageous manner in which men were vaccinated excelled anything I have ever witnessed even surpassing the acts of savages. The modus operandi was to assemble the man first in long lines with coats off and arms bared; then the butchering began by illiterate and irresponsible men. They would take hold of a thick piece of flesh, dip a lancet into the diluted virus, and then thrust it entirely through the pinched up flesh. The spurious virus soon produced such fearfully disastrous results that it became necessary to construct gangrene hospitals, from which arose a dreadful stench. Scores died from the effects; others losing arms. I have there seen the sickening effects of their villainous vaccination. There are many who can verify the above.
A most horrible instrument of torture used at Elmira was called a sweatbox. For trivial offenses our men were therein confined for hours, in the scorching suns of July and August. without food and water, and removed in many cases only when the victim was more dear than alive. I vividly recollect when one man dropped with rigid limbs swollen and almost paralyzed, and died in a few days from the effects. This instrument of torture consisted of a narrow upright box, about seven feet high, and wide enough to fit an ordinary sized man. It stood in a perpendicular position with its victim without ventilation, and the poor victim and left to sweat to death.
Another instrument of torture used at Elmira was the dreaded barrel shirt. What was known by that name was a very heavy barrel with one head out, and the other containing a hole large enough to admit the head of a man through it. All offenders, twice a day, for two hours, had to wear it. They were drawn up to form a circle, the barrel adjusted over the head the inside of the barrel resting upon the shoulders and the parade commenced.
This death-dealing instrument would have been a burning shame amongst savages.
This afforded the Negro guard amusement everyday, and also seemed to gratify their beastly officers. Upon the back of every barrel, on a board twenty-four by six inches, was written in large letters the supposed offense, such as, "Liar;" "Liar No. 2;" Liar No. 3;" "Dogeater;" "Dogeater No 1;" and so on. Multitudinous outrages no less revolting were of continued occurrence under the eyes of men high in rank under the Government.
As an explanation of the term "dog-eater" mentioned above I will state on one occasion an officer came into the stockade accompanied by his favorite dog. No sooner was the dig discovered by several hungry prisoners than he was seized and converted into food. A search of the camp soon revealed the dog quartered and dressed and hid away in the rafters. The parties to the wrong were quickly discovered, and were for a long time clothed in barrel shirts.
Rats, dogs, cats nor any other animal would long exist amongst that hungry throng of prisoners. Catching rats and selling them for food became quite a business, and the pursued the avocation with quite a profit, the demand being steady.
Would men eat dogs and rats unless suffering from extreme hunger? Many died from insufficient and improper food. I have seen men, almost starved fish scraps from barrels containing hospital refuse and devouring it ravenously, although be so doing were poisoning themselves with the putrid filth they were swallowing.
Can it be imagined that human beings imagined that human beings -- officers -- could witness such sights and then return to their sumptuous meals without a thought of the terrible suffering of there starving Confederates.
The customary prison diet consisted of three or four crackers, and a small slice of fat pork in the morning. In the afternoon a half pint of water in which the pork was boiled, and a piece of bread -- nothing else. There were entirely insufficient to properly preserve health. The diet in the hospital was better, and answered fairly well. No vegetables, tea nor coffee were ever seen. It was repeatedly said, in my presence, that the reason we were denied vegetables, was in retaliation for the refusal of tobacco to their prisoners in the South. On many occasions vegetables sent by friends outside were denied to the prisoners. This occurred oftener at Point Lookout than at Elmira. At the later prison clothes sent to me they refused to deliver, also boots and shoes. In case they did deliver a coat it was not until the tail had been cut off and the tops of boots were similarly curtailed. At Elmira I was one day notified that there was a box at headquarters for me. Upon reporting there for it was opened in my presence by the order of Major Colt who was in command. The articles of clothing therein were of a valuable character. They were refused me. After pleading some time for the new coat, Major Colt consented to having it exchanged in town for another, he said of more suitable color, and detailed. Sent Major Rudd to attend to it. The overcoat was a very handsome and costly one; in return, after charging me five (5) dollars for his trouble he delivered to me miserable shoddy one almost worthless.
I could relate dozens of other outrages equally disgraceful, but enough is said to illustrate what was the condition of thousands of our Confederates confined in the Northern prison-pens. I hope that many of those who had similar experiences will, some day, make known to the world, the disgraceful scenes they there witnesses.
Walter D. Addison
San Francisco, Sept. 30, 1889