Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Chapter XIII: The Military Prison at Elmira
After General Early had withdrawn his soldiers from the front of Washington, Battery A Fourth United States Artillery joined the artillery reserve then lying in Camp Barry, near Washington. Life in Camp Berry was exceedingly monotonous, and enlisted men and officers alike were impatient to be ordered to active service. There was joy in the camp, one afternoon in lat fall, when an order came, directing the commanding officer of Battery A to go at once to Elmira, New York, with a section of artillery, and to report for duty to the commanding officer of that post. The senior lieutenant, Rufus King, was absent on leave. Lieutenant Cushing, eager to get out of Washington, ordered me to get a section in marching order. I did so, and we marched to the railroad station, and loaded guns, caissons, and horses on the cars, and left Washington in less than two hours after receiving the order.
We had heard that the Confederate soldiers who were confined in the military prison at Elmira were somewhat unruly, and next day, then we reported for duty to a 100-day colonel, we were not surprised to hear that the prisoners were insubordinate, and that an outbreak was imminent. We marched the battery o the military prison. There we found about twelve thousand Confederate prisoners, who were confined in a large stockade, inside of which were many barracks, and through which the Chemung River flowed. The stockade, made of logs set deeply in the ground on end and standing side be side, was about twelve feet high. About four feet below the top of the stockade, on the outside, was a platform, guarded by a handrail, which extended around the prison. This platform was studded by sentry boxes at short intervals. On it sentinels walked to and fro, day and night, and watched the prisoners. During the night they, at half hour intervals, loudly called the number to their post, and announced that all was well. It was almost dark when we arrived at the prison, and we parked the guns in an open space near the stockade. Around us were many camps, which were occupied by disorderly, undrilled 100-day men. We speedily discovered that there was a lack of discipline in the prison. The Confederates were ugly-tempered and rebellious. That night they gathered in mobs, and the Confederate charging-yell rang out clearly. They threw stones at the sentinels. They refused to go into their barracks. Evidently they knew that the men who guarded them were no soldiers. The uproar increased in volume. I was confident that the prisoners intended to break out that night. Our guns were placed in battery, and the ammunition chests opened. We waited, and waited, and waited, and finally I rode over to an infantry camp in search of information, and there found a 100-day colonel, who was playing cribbage with a sergeant. I asked the meaning of the uproar in the prison, and the colonel said, indifferently: "Oh, that is nothing! They generally make twice as much noise," and he continued to move his pegs up and down the cribbage-board. I returned to camp greatly disgusted.
The next day Cushing and I went into the prison, and after carefully examining it concluded that if an attempt to break guard was made it would be directed against the point where the river left the stockade. As we walked slowly around the prison, groups of Confederates looked curiously at us and talked insultingly about us. One crowd of men followed us to the riverbank and jeered us as we inspected the stockade there. Cushing lost his temper and turned savagely to face them, and said in a low, clear voice: "See here, ---- ---- ----! I am just up from the front, where I have been killing such infernal wretches as you are. I have met you in twenty battles. I never lost a gun to you. You never drove a battery I served with from its position. You are a crowd of insolent, cowardly scoundrels, and if I had command of this prison I would disciple you, or kill you, and I should much prefer to kill you. I have brought a battery of United States artillery to this pen, and if you will give me occasion I will be glad to dam that river," pointing to the Chemung, "with your worthless carcasses, and silence your insolent tongues forever. I fully understand that you are presuming on your position as prisoners of war when you talk to me as you have: but," and here his hand shook warningly in the faces of the group, "you have reached the end of your rope with me. I will kill the first man of you who again speaks insultingly to me while I am in this pen, and I shall be here daily. Now, go to your quarters." And they went. We returned to camp, moved the guns to a position, which commanded the river, and then rearranged the ammunition, putting all the canister in the chests of the gun lumbers. And then we waited for the expected outbreak.
A military prison, it matters not what people keep it, is not a place where life if enjoyed. The prisoners are enemies, and their keepers care but little for their lives and comfort. It is probable that we fed the Confederates better than they fed Union prisoners. Personally I know nothing of life in Confederate military prisons, as I was not captured. I saw many thousands of our soldiers shortly after they were exchanged. By far the larger portion of these men were in good condition and fit for service. It is true than many of them were diseased and almost dead when they were delivered to us, and these soldiers were grouped and photographed, very unfairly I think, and the illustrated papers which reproduced these photographs were widely circulated throughout the Northern States. I met no Union soldier who had been confined in a Confederate military prison, who thought it to be a pleasant retreat; and I know that the military prison at good taste. The prisoners,, it was alleged, were allowed the same rations, excepting coffee and sugar, that their guards received. They did not get it. I repeatedly saw the Confederate prisoners draw their provisions, and they never got more than two thirds rations. Many of them were diseased, many were slightly wounded, many were feeble and worn out with campaigning in Virginia, and many more were home-sick; and these men died as sheep with the rot. Almost daily a wagon piled high with pine coffins entered the stockade, and these coffins were filled with dead confederates. The sound men, the men of vigorous constitution, and those possessing aggressive minds, endured prison life without suffering greatly; and this I suspect was true of Union soldiers confined in Confederate prisons. The winter of 1864-65 was exceedingly cold. The Confederate prisoners, thinly clad, enfeebled by campaigning, and further weakened by insufficient supplies of food, were unable to endure the cold of a Northern winter. They died by the hundred. They were mentally depressed, and the inevitable result followed. Their wounds became gangrenous and they died; they were home-sick and they died. Fever stalked among them and struck hundreds of them down. Bowel disorders carried off other hundreds. I have seen groups of battle-worn, home-sick Confederates, their thin blankets drawn tightly around their shoulders, stand in the lee of a barrack for an hours without speaking to one another. They stood motionless and gazed into one another's haggard faces with despairing eyes. There was no need to talk, as all topics of conversation had long since been exhausted.
The majority of the prisoners were exceedingly ignorant. Many of them could not read or write. I often admired the military skill displayed by the Confederate officers in forging these ignorant men into the almost perfect soldiers they were. The discipline in the Confederate armies must have been exceedingly severe to have enabled their officers to control these reckless, savage-tempered men. The prisoners at Elmira were exclusively Americans. I did not see a foreign-born citizen in that prison. These soldiers were penniless. They could not buy clothing or articles of prime necessity. They were eager to work, to earn money to buy tobacco. On pleasant days a few hundred of them were employed outside the stockade in digging ditches and trenches which were never used. For this work they were paid about twenty-five cents per day, which sun they promptly invested in tobacco. I have seen the prisoners display as much eagerness to secure employment, as free men would to secure remunerative positions of trust. And they worked faithfully and honestly, and earned their scanty pay. Thinly clad, with blankets wound arund them instead of overcoats, poorly fed, hopeless, these unfortunate soldiers swung heavy picks, and bent low over their shovels, as the cold wind swept through their emaciated frames as through a sieve. It was pitiful to see the poverty-stiricken Confederates breaking the hard, frost-bound earth, while armed sentinels passed to and fro about them, and a battery of artillery moved swiftly over the frozen plain in menacing drill.
Outside the stockade, and on other side of the road, two tall wooden towers had been built by some enterprising Yankees. The owners of these buildings made a profitable show of the Confederate prisoners. Daily their tops were thronged with curious spectators, who paid the cents each to look into the prison pen. A few weeks after these towers were built, I noticed a young and handsome woman visiting one of them daily. Ir was evident to me that she was communicating with the prisoners, probably to her friends or relatives who were confined in the stockade. One night seven or eight Confederates escaped from the prison by crawling through a tunnel that they had dug, and were seen no more. I was exceedingly glad that these men had escaped. The young women disappeared also. Then I reported what I had seen, and the towers were closed by military orders.
One night the uproar in the stockade was terrific. A rifle shot rang out clearly. I heard a sentinel on post call for the officer of the guard. The long roll sounded in the infantry camps. The noise of infantry falling into line hummed in the air. The night was intensely dark. I stood in the door of my tent listening to the uproar in the Confederate pen. I judged that the prisoners were divided into two groups; one standing by the river bank, the other near the gate. Both groups were yelling at the top of their voices. Some if the soldiers of the regular brigade, which had been sent from the Army of the Potomac to assist in guarding the prisoners, were on duty that night. And I heard these cool veterans caution the Confederates not to cross the dead-line, and to repeatedly tell them to stand back or they would fire on them. Another shot rang out clearly. My battery bugler, a Jew, names Samuels, came to me, bugle in hand." Blow Boots and Saddles," I said. Instantly the artillery camp was alive. Half-dressed men sprang to the guns, horses were harnessed and saddled. I called an old sergeant to me and said: "Trail No. 2 gun on the stockade near the river, and if the prisoners break out, dose the head of the column with double canister until they run over your gun. Fire a blank cartridge to summon Lietuenant Cushing and the enlisted men, who are in town, to the battery. I will take No. 1 gun close to the stockade and smash the flank of the column to flinders if it comes out. I will burn a lantern by the gun so as to mark my position." The sergeant moved off in the darkness. I saw the flash of his gun, heard a shot scream close above my head, and then heard the crash of timber as the shot tore through a barrack. I heard the Confederates cry: "Look out, the artillery has opened!" Instantly the uproar ceased. The great prison was as silent as death, and instantly I knew I was in a scrape, and would probably be court-martialed for firing on the prisoners. Out of town came Cushing, his horse in a lather. I explained to him what had happened. He looked soberly at me for an instant, and then aid: "You will be court-martialed, sure. You must get to your own battery at once (I belonged to Battery H), and get off before the 100-day officers prefer charges against you." An officer from headquarters rode up and complained bitterly of the outrage of firing on the prisoners. From him we learned that it was a stone instead of a shot that had been fired into the prison. Early the next morning I left Elmira, having been ordered by a speedily procured telegram to join Battery H, Fourth United States Artillery, in the department of the Cumberland. I afterwards learned that a few Confederates were wounded by splinters when the stone struck the barrack, and that they never again made the night hideous by their yells and howls.