Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[Information provided by the Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume I.]
In the execution of his office, Major Colt was assisted by fifteen or twenty officers, and as many noncommissioned officers, chiefly of the militia or the veteran reserves. Among them were some characters which are worth a paragraph.
There was a long-nosed, long-faced, long-jawed, long-bearded, long-bodied, long-legged, endless-footed, and long-skirted curiosity, named Captain Peck, ostensibly engaged in taking charge of certain companies of "rebs," but really employed in turning a penny by huckstering the various products of prisoners' skill -- an occupation very profitable to Peck, but generously unsatisfactory, in a pecuniary way, to the "rebs." Many of them have told me of the impossibility of getting their just dues from the prying, round-shouldered captain, who had a snarl and an oath for every one of whom he was nor, at that instant, making money.
Another rarity of the pen was Lieutenant John McC., a brawny chief from the land o' cakes who was a queer compound of good-nature and brutality. To some of us he was uniformly polite, but he had his pistol out on any occasion when dealing with the majorities of "Johnnies," and would fly into a passion over the merest nothing, that would have been exceedingly amusing, but for a wicked habit he had of laying about him with a stick, a tent pole -- anything that fell into his hands. He was opening a trench one day, through the camp, when, for the crime of stepping across it, he forced a poor sick boy, who was on his way to the dispensary for medicine, to leap backwards and forwards over it till he fell from exhaustion amid the voluble oaths of the violent lieutenant. One Lieutenant R. kept McC. in countenance by following closely his example. He is a little compound of lice and having charge of the cleaning of the camp, has abundant opportunities to bully and insult, but being fortunately, very far short of grenadier size, he does not use his boot or fist as freely as his great exemplar. No one, however, was safe from either of them, who, however accidentally and innocently, fell in their way, physically or metaphorically.
Of the same block Captain Bowden was a chip: a fair-haired, light-mustached, Saxon-faced "Yank" -- far the worst type of man, let me tell you, yet discovered -- whose whole intercourse with the prisoners was the essence of brutality. An illustration will paint him more thoroughly than a philippic. A prisoner named Hale, belonging to the old Stonewall brigade was discovered one day rather less sober than was allowed to any but the loyal, and Bowden being officer of the guard, arrested him and demanded where he got the liquor. This he refused to tell, as it would compromise others, and any one but a Yankee would have put him in the guardhouse, compelled him to wear a barrel shirt, or inflicted some punishment proportionate to his offense. All this would have been very natural, but not Bowendish, so this valorous Parolles determined to apply the torture to force a confession! Hale was accordingly tied up by the thumbs -- that is, his thumbs were fastened together behind his back, and a rope being attached to the cord uniting them, it was passed over a cross bar over his head and hauled down, until it raised the sufferer so nearly off the ground that the entire weight of his body was sustained by his thumbs, strained in an unnatural position, his toes merely touching the ground. The torture of this at the wrists and shoulder joints is exquisite, but Hale persisted in refusing to peach, and called on his fellow prisoners, many of whom were witnesses of this refined villainy, to remember this when they got home. Bowden grew exasperated at his victim's fortitude, and determined to gag him. This he essayed to accomplish by fastening a heavy oak tent-pin in his mouth; and when he would not open his mouth sufficiently -- not an easy operation -- he struck him in the face with the oaken billet, a blow which broke several of his teeth and covered his mouth with blood!
On the other hand, some of the officers whereas humane and merciful as these wretches were brutal and cowardly, and all who were my fellow prisoners will recall, with grateful remembrance, Captain Benjamin Munger, Lieutenant Dalgleish, Sergeant-Major Rudd, Lieutenant McKee, Lieutenant Harvey, commissary of one of the regiments guarding us, a whole-souled Fenian, formerly in the book-business in New York, and still there probably, and one or two others.
These officers were assigned in the proportion of one to every company first, but to every three hundred or four hundred men afterwards, and were charged with the duty of superintending roll-calls, inspecting quarters, and seeing that the men under their charge got their rations; and the system was excellent.
During the month of July, four thousand three hundred and twenty-three prisoners were entered on the records of Elmira prison, and by the 29th of August, the date of the last arrivals, mine thousand six hundred and seven,
The barrack accommodations did not suffice for quite half of them, and the remainder were provided with "A" tents, in which they continued to be housed when I left the prison in the middle of the following October, although the weather was piercingly cold. Thinly clad as they came from a summer's campaign, many of them without blankets, and without even a handful of straw between them and the frozen earth, it will surprise no one that the suffering, even at that early day was considerable.
As I left, however, the contributions of the Confederate Government, which, despairing of procuring an exchange, was taxing its exhausted energies to aid the prisoners, began to come in.
This tender regard was a happy contrast to the barbarity of Washington management, which seemed happy to feel the utmost indifference to the sufferings of its soldiers, and embarrassed their exchange by every device of delay and every suggestion of stubbornness.
As I have spoken of the military government of Elmira prison, it may not be inappropriate to pursue the statistical view, now that I am in it, by a brief chapter on the Medical and Commissary Department, before I resume the thread of the more personal portion of my narrative.
The chief of the former department was a clubfooted little gentleman, with an abnormal head and snaky look in his eyes, named Major E.L. Sanger. On our arrival in Elmira, another surgeon, remarkable chiefly for his unaffected simplicity and virgin ignorance of everything appertaining to medicine, played doctor there. But as the prisoners increased in numbers, a more formal and formidable staff was organized, with Sanger at the head.
Sanger was simply a brute, as we found when we learned the whole truth about him from his own people. If he had not avoided a court-martial by resigning his position, it is likely that even a military commission would have found it impossible to screen his brutality to the sick, although the fact that the United States hanged no one for the massacre of Indian women and sucking infants during the year 1865, inspires fear that this systematic **** of Confederate prisoners would have been commended fir his patriotism.
He was assisted by Dr. Rider, of Rochester, one of the few "copperhead" whom I met in any office, great or small, at the North. My association was rather more intimate with him than with any one of the others, and I believe him to have been a competent and faithful officer. Personally, I acknowledge him many kindnesses and gratitude. The rest of the "meds" were, in truth, a motley crew in the main, most of them being selected from the impossibility, it would seem, of doing any thing else with them. I remember one of the worthies, whose miraculous length of leg and neck suggested "crane" to all observers, whose innocence of medicine was quite refreshing. On being sent for to prescribe for a prisoner, who was said to have bilious fever, he asked the druggist, a "reb," in the most naive manner, what was the usual treatment for the disease! Fortunately, during his stay at Elmira, which was not long, there were no drugs in the dispensary, or I shudder to picture the consequences. This department was constantly undergoing changes, and I suspect that the whole system was intended as part of the education of young doctors assigned to us, for as soon as they learned to distinguish between quinine and magnesia, they were removed to another field of labor.
The whole camp was divided into wards, to which physicians were assigned, among whom three "rebel" prisoners, Dr. Lynch of Baltimore, Dr. Martin of South Carolina, and Dr. Graham, formerly of Stonewall Jackson's staff, and a fellow-townsman of the lamented hero. These ward physicians treated the simplest cases in their patients' barrack, and transferred the more dangerous ones to the hospitals, of which there were ten or twelve, capable of accommodating about eighty patients each. Here every arrangement was made that carpenters could make to insure the patients against unnecessary mortality, and indeed, a system was professed which would have delighted the heart of a Sister of Charity; but, alas! the practice was quite another thing. The most scandalous neglect prevailed even in so simple a matter as providing food for the sick, and I do not doubt that many of those who died perished from actual starvation
One of the Petersburg prisoners having become sick as to be sent to the hospital, he complained to his friends who visited him that he could get nothing to eat, and was dying in consequence, when they made application for leave to buy him some potatoes and toast them for him. Dr. S. not being consulted, the request was granted, and when, a few hours afterwards, the roasted potatoes were brought in, the poor invalids on the neighboring cots crawled from the beds and begged the peelings to satisfy the hunger that was gnawing them.
When complaint was made of this brutality to the sick, there was always a convenient excuse. Sometimes the fault would be that a lazy doctor would not make out his provision return in time, in which case his whole ward must go without food, or with an inadequate supply, till the next day. Another time there would be a difficulty between the chief surgeon and the commissary, whose general relations were of the strip characterized by S.P. Andrews as "cat-and-dogamy," which would result in the latter refusing to furnish the former with bread for the sick! In almost all cases the "spiritus frumenti" failed to get to the patients, or in so small a quantity after the various tolls that it would not quicken the circulation of a canary.
But the great fault, next to the scant supply of nourishment, was the inexcusable deficiency of medicine. During several weeks, in which dysentery and inflammation of the bowels were the prevalent disease in prison, there was not a grain of any preparation of opium in the dispensary, which no family is ordinary without -- that is, if men ever die for want of drugs.
There would be and is much excuse for such deficiencies in the South -- and this is a matter which the Yankees studiously ignore -- inasmuch as the blockade renders it impossible to procure any luxuries even for own sick, and curtails and renders enormously expensive the supply of drugs of the simplest kind, providing they are exotics; but in a nation whose boast it is that they do not feel the war, with the world pen to them and supplies of all sorts wonderfully abundant, it I simply infamous to starve the sick as they did there, and equally discreditable to deny them medicines -- indispensable according to Esculapian traditions. The results of the ignorance of the doctors, and the sparseness of these supplies, was soon apparent in the shocking mortality of this camp, notwithstanding the healthfulness claimed for the situation. This exceeded even the reported mortality at Andersonville, great as that was, and disgraceful as it was to our government, if it results from causes which were within its control.
I know the reader, if a Northern man, will deny this, and point to the record of the Wirz trial. I object to this testimony, There never was, in all time, such a mass of lies as that evidence, for the most part, could have been proved to be if it had been possible to sift the testimony or examine, before a jury, the witnesses. I take, as the basis of my comparison, the published report made by four returned Andersonville prisoners, who were allowed to come North on their representation that they could induce their humane Government to assent to an exchange. Vana spes. Edwin M. Stanton would have seen the whole of them die before he would give General Lee one able-bodied soldier.
These prisoners alleged (I quote from memory) that out of a population of about thirty-six thousand at that pen, six thousand, or one-sixth of the whole, died between the first February and the first of August 1864. Not at Elmira the quota was not made up till the last of August, so that September was the first month during which any fair estimate f the mortality of the camp could be made. NOW, OUR OF LESS THAN NINE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED PRISONERS ON THE FIRST MONTH OF SEPTEMBER, THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-SIX DIED THAT MONTH.
At Andersonville the mortality averaged a thousand a month out of thirty-six thousand, or one thirty-sixth. At Elmira it was three hundred and eighty-six, out of nine thousand five hundred, or one tent-fifth of the whole. At Elmira it was four per cent; at Andersonville, less than three per cent. If the motility at Andersonville had been as great as at Elmira, the deaths should have been one thousand four hundred and forty per month, or fifty per cent more than they were.
I speak by the card respecting these matters, having kept the morning returns of deaths for the last month and a half of my life in Elmira, and transferring the figures to my diary, which lies before me; and this, be it remembered, in a country where food was cheap and abundant; where all the appliances of the remedial art was to be had on mere requisition; where there was no military necessity requiring the government to sacrifice almost every consideration to the inaccessibility of the prison, and the securing of the prisoners, and where Nature had furnished every possible request for salubrity.
And not that I am speaking of the death record, I will jot down two rather singular facts in connection therewith. The first was the unusual mortality among the prisoners from North Carolina. In my diary I find several entries like the following:
· Monday, October 3d -- Deaths yesterday, 16, of whom 11 N.C.
· Tuesday, October 4th -- Deaths yesterday, 14, of whom 7 N.C.
Now the proportion of North Carolinas was nothing, even approximating what might have been expected from this record. I commit the fact to Mr. Gradgrind. Can it be explained by the great attachment the people of that State have for their homes?
The second was the absolute absence of any death from intermittent fever or any analogous disease.
Now I know well that many of the sick died from this and kindred diseases produced by the miasma of the stagnant lake in our camp; but the records, which I consolidated every morning, contained no reference to them. I inquired at the dispensary, where the reports were first handed in, the cause of this anomaly, and learned that Dr. Sanger would sign no report, which ascribed to any of these diseases the death of the patient! I concluded that he must have committed himself to the harmlessness of the lagoon in question and determined to preserve his consistency at the expense of our lives -- very much after the fashion of that illustrious ornament of the profession, Dr. Sangrado, who continued his warm water and phlebotomy merely because he had written a book in praise of that practice, although "in six weeks he made more widows and orphans than the siege of Troy."
I could hardly help visiting Dr. Sanger the reproaches his predecessor received at the hands of the persecuted people of Valladolid, who "were sometimes very brutal in their grief," and called the doctor and Gil Blas no more euphonious name than "ignorant assassins."
Any post in the medical department in a Yankee prison camp is quite valuable on account of the opportunities of plunder it affords, and many of the virtuous "meds" made extensive use of their advantages. Vast quantities of quinine were prescribed that were never taken, the price (eight dollars an ounce) tempting the cupidity of the physicians beyond all resistance; but the grand speculation was in whiskey, which was supplied to the dispensary in large quantities, and could be obtained for a consideration in any reasonable amount from a "steward" who pervaded that establishment.
I ought not to dismiss this portion of my description of matters medically without adding that the better class of officers in the pen were loud and indignant in their reproaches of Sanger's systematic inhumanity to the sick, and that they affirmed that he avowed his determination to stint these poor helpless creatures in retaliation for alleged neglect on the part of our authorities! And when at last, on the 21st of September, I carried my report up to the major's tent, with the ghastly report of TWENTY-NINE DEATHS YESTERDAY, the storm gathered, which in a few weeks drove him from the pen, but which never would have had the effect if he had not, by his rudeness, attained the ill-will of nearly every officer about the pen whose goodwill was worth having.
I ascend from pills to provender.
The commissary department was under the charge of a cute, active ex-bank officer, Captain G.C. Whilton. The ration of bread was usually a full pound per diem, forty-five barrels of flour being converted daily into loaves on the bakeshop on the premises. The meat-ration, on the other hand, was invariably scanty; and I learned, on inquiry, that the fresh beef sent to the prison usually fell short from one thousand to twelve hundred pounds in each consignment. Of course when this happened many had to lose a large portion of their allowance; and sometimes it happened that the same man got bones only for several successive days. The expedients resorted to by the men to supply this want of animal food was disgusting. Many found an acceptable substitute in rats, with which the place abounded; and these Chinese delicacies commanded an average price of about four cents apiece -- in greenbacks. I have seen scores of them in various stages of preparation, and have been assured by those who indulged in them that worse things have been eaten -- an estimate of their value that I took on trust.
Others found in the barrels of refuse fat, which were accumulated at the cook house, and in the pickings of the bones, which were cut out of the meat and thrown out in a dirty heap back of the kitchen, to be removed once a week, the means of satisfying the craving of meat, which rations would not satisfy. I have seen a mob of hungry "rebs" besiege the bone-cart, and beg from the driver fragments on which the August sun had been burning for several days, until the impenetrable nose of a Congo could hardly have endured them.
Twice a day the camp poured its thousands into the mess rooms, where each man's rations was assigned him; and twice a day the aforesaid rations were characterized by disappointed "rebs" in language not to be found in a prayer book. Those whose appetite was stronger than their apprehensions frequently consisted in joining two or more companies as they successively went to the mess-rooms, or in quietly sweeping up a ration as the company filed down the table. As every ration was, however, obtained at the expense of some helpless fellow prisoner, who must lose that meal, the practice was almost universally frowned upon; and the criminal, when discovered, as was frequently the case, was subjected to instant punishment.
This was either confinement in the guardhouse, solitary confinement on bread and water, the "sweatbox" or the barrel shirt. The war has made all these terms familiar, except the third, perhaps; be it I mean a wooden box, about seven feet high, twenty inches wide and twelve deep, which was placed on end in front of the major's tent. Few could stand in this without elevating the shoulders considerable; and when the door was fastened all motion was out of the question. The prisoner had to stand with his limbs rigid and immovable until the jailer opened the door, and it was far the most dreadful of the peines fortes et dures of the pen. In midsummer, I can fancy that a couple of hours in such a coffin would inspire Tartuffe himself with virtuous thoughts, especially if his avoirdupois was at all respectable.