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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library –

Submitted Information - Union Index - Union Officer Listing
Lt. Col. Seth Eastman

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Arguably the foremost pictorial historian of the American Indian, Lt. Col. Seth Eastman seems an odd choice to be associated with the Elmira Prison Camp. Having already served for many years in the U.S. Army and obtained some fame as a landscape painter, Col. Seth Eastman was the first commandant of the Camp. Born on January 24, 1808 in Brunswick, Maine, Seth was the first of 13 children. His great-great-great-grandfather was Roger Eastman, the first Eastman in the Colonies. Roger Eastman was a young adventurer who boarded the Confidence and left England in 1638. Roger was a carpenter and is listed in the church rolls of Salisbury, Massachusetts.

Much to his family's surprise, Seth chose a military carrier and was accepted into West Point on July 1, 1824. There, he did well in several courses. He also mastered the French language in his studies. It was also while at West Point that Eastman began to perfect his talent at drawing. Eastman was a classmate of Col. William Hoffman, but Eastman didn't graduate the same year as Hoffman. It took him five years to finish West Point instead of the normal four. His schooling was completed on July 1, 1829 when he graduated 22 in a class of 46.

After graduation, Eastman began a long and successful career as a soldier. He served in several frontier forts including:

His accession through the ranks was also remarkable:

Other periods of duty included a 7-year term (January 1833 - January 1840) as assistant instructor of drawing at West Point; the Florida Seminole War (January 1840 - June 1841); post commander four times at Fort Snelling during the 1840s; an illustrator for the Bureau of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (February 1850 to May 1855); commanding officer at Fort Chadbourne (August 1855 to October 1856; two tours of duty with the War Department in Washington, D.C. between 1857 and 1861. When the Civil War began, Eastman took the position of mustering and disbursing officer for Maine and New Hampshire. He kept this post until January 1863 when he was appointed military governor of Cincinnati. It was in this position that he over saw the trial of Clement L. Vallandigham. Vallandigham was a former Democratic congressman who had lost his seat in 1862 and was nationalls recognized as an opponent of the Civil War. He was convicted of "disloyal sentiments and opinions" and became a focal point for Northern Copperheads.

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Seth Eastman self portrait

In spite of his military career, Eastman did find time for a family. He married in 1835 to Mary Henderson, who was 17 at the time. (Eastman has also previously married a Dakota woman during his first term as post commander at Fort Snelling and fathered a child by her.) Mary was a good wife for Eastman, and an accomplish writer in her own right. Her most controversial book was written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Entitled Aunt Phillis's Cabin: Or, Southern Life As It Is, the book was a best-seller in the South as it defended Southern living. Her most popular work was Dahcotah; or Life and Legends of the Sioux Around Fort Snelling, published in 1849, which Eastman illustrated. Mary and Seth had a family of five: four boys and a girl. Their eldest son, Robert Langdon Eastman, was born about 1840. He died in Washington, D.C. in November 1865 after serving in the Civil War and achieving the rank of captain.

Also in 1849, Eastman was sent to Washington, D.C. where he was commissioned to do the illustrations for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, published in six volumes between 1852 and 1857.

While teaching at West Point, Eastman pointed Hudson River with a Distant View of West Point in 1834. Hudson River with a Distant View of West Point depicts the view looking north from West Point toward the Highlands of the Hudson River. The sloping mountain on the left is either Crow's Nest or Storm King. On the right are Breakneck Ridge and Bull Hill, and the low-lying peninsula in the shadows before them is known as Constitution Island. Pollepel Island is visible in the gap between the banks of the Hudson. Eastman's view was painted from an elevated vantage point southwest of the military academy, and some of the school's academic buildings appear as tiny white shapes at the far right. The river disappears downstream behind them. This is one of the few Eastern landscapes that Eastman painted that has survived.

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In 1836, his art work began to attract the notice of critics. In April of that year, some of his work was displayed at the National Academy of Design in New York City. (Between 1836 and 1840 seventeen of his painting were exhibited at the Academy.) His skill was in capturing landscapes (mostly of the frontier forts and Indian life). In 1837 he published a scholarly work on topographical design. In his work, Eastman argued that scientific attention to detail be applied to landscape art. He advised that 'A knowledge of geology is of great assistance to the draughtsman, for if he understand[s] the nature of rocks, he can better represent them." The Treatise on Topographical Drawing became the standard manual on the subject for the U.S. Army. In 1838 he became a member of the National Academy of Design. Today, his painting are on display in the west corridor of the main floor of the Capital building in Washington, D.C. Ironically enough, there is also a painting of his on display in the Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York, only 16 miles from the site of the Elmira Prison Camp.

After completing just three months as the governor of Cinncinatti, Eastman retired due to poor health on December 3, 1863. Unfortunately, his retirement was not to last long. Six weeks after stepping down, he was reactivated and assumed command of the Draft Rendezvous at Elmira, New York on January 21, 1864. Eastman, his wife and their youngest son lived at the Brainard House. As post commander, his primary duty was to have the draft rendezvous ready at all times to receive volunteers and drafted men. Eastman was a good choice for the position due to his long career in the Army and his understanding of the fundamental Army principle: execution of orders from military superiors. Ulitmatly, those orders came from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

In the Spring of 1864, in anticipation of coming troops, Eastman began the construction of new barracks for Depot 3 in Elmira. This set of buildings would become known as the Elmira Prison Camp. In a series of letters between Eastman and General Hoffman in Washington, D.C., the size of the camp was hotly debated. Hoffman insisted that the camp could hold upwards to 10,000 men. Eastman was on the more conservative side with 6,000. Hoffman won out and in an order dated May 19, 1864, Elmira was officially designated a military prison for Confederate soldiers. It was at this post that Col. Seth Eastman remained until September 19, 1864. Broken from the term as camp commandant, and suffering from poor health, Eastman retired form public life. He continued to draw and paint until his death in 1875.