Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[Originally written April, 1929. Complied and edited by Peter Wilson, Ph.D.]
Cyrus's health did improve some, but he was still far from being fit for active duty. Shortly after Gettysburg, he appeared before an Examining Board with the result that sometime in November he was transferred to the veteran reserve Corps (VRC), established by the army for injured men who could still perform limited duties. This was in line with a new program whereby men were no longer allowed, as in the past, to recuperate from wounds and illness at home, a privilege that had been greatly abused.
Cyrus's son described the effect on Cyrus and his mother after Cyrus was reassigned to the VRC:
Cyrus's assignment to the VRC was in the "quiet sector" around Washington relieved mother largely from the anxiety and fear that was present in her heart during his active service at the front. But it was quite evident that Father failed to realize fully the enormous strain whish she labored in trying to support a family of three on a Sergeant's pay of $24 per month. As a soldier, his food, clothing, and shelter were supplied and its cost did not concern him personally.
Cyrus's son continues:
With mother it was quite different. The cost of everything needful for the family had advance gradually to unheard of figures and no one could foresee the end. Indeed, how she managed to feed and clothe the family during all those years is beyond imagination. My elder sister Lina recalled that her grandmother gave her an ewe when she was a year old and the lamb had twins every year until she had twenty-five sheep. My mother spun the wool and grandmother wove the cloth that made out winter garments. Lina recalled, "When the war came on we had to sell them." Hence, when father in his letter of March 13, 1864, make the suggestion that they save their money and buy a farm, she tells him a few things:
Such a delusion once visited my brain too, but has long since departed. There is no use of thinking of such a thing, while food and clothing are so high. By saving as I can, I cannot make our income meet our expenses. Perhaps you think that I do not do the best that would be done, so I will give you some idea of what things now cost.
She then gives Cyrus these examples: muslin has gone to 6 cents per yard to 50 cents, Calico from 5 cents to 30 cents, and tea is 20 cents per pound. She finishes with:
I am almost discouraged, for as you know, there is nothing here that I can do to help support the family.
As her son observed:
Her courage did not fail, and, although the economic situation became more and more difficult before father came home to stay, this was the first and last time she spoke of a situation, which at times must have been desperate in the last degree.
About Cyrus's time at Elmira, his son wrote the following:
During the summer of 1864, Cyrus was transferred and assigned to duty at the Confederate prison camp at Elmira, New York. This camp, which had been used as a rendezvous for various New York troops, was refitted to receive Confederate prisoners, the first contingent arriving July 6, 1864.
A high board fence with sentry boxes at convenient intervals surrounding the camp. Of course, the prisoners were of great interest to the citizens but civilians were not allowed inside the prison fence. So the only opportunity to see the prisoners was while they were detraining at the station or were marched to the prison. These activities always attracted a large crowd.
There were enterprising citizens of Elmira who saw an opportunity to capitalize on this natural curiosity to their personal profit. They erected an observatory with a refreshment stand on the first floor across the street from which the prisoners within could be had for the small sum of 15 cents. Immediately they were doing a rushing business, but they soon had a rival.
A second Observatory, taller and more imposing than the first, sprang up father down the street, and between the two, numerous wooden booths like those at a county fair, grew in the night to do business the next morning. All of them sold cake, peanuts, popcorn, pop, lemonade, beer and stronger drinks. But they were short of life. The commanding officer ordered all of them razed.
A prisoner in the camp wrote wittily of the curiosity excited by the presence of the prisoners. "I am greatly surprised, he said, "that Barnum has not taken all of the Confederate prisoners off the hands of Abe, and carried them in barred cages through the country after the manner of wild animals to turn an honest penny by the show.
Cyrus's service at the prison was uneventful. He was in charge of a group of prisoners, and his principle job was to see that they were well taken care of and did not escape. Of the thousands that passed through the camp, it is safe to say that nearly all at one time or another had visions if not actual plans of escape. However, the records show that only seventeen men succeeded. One escape deserves special attention.
It was part of the prisoner's duties to care for their own dead. They made the coffins, placed the bodies inside, nailed them up, and loaded them on the "dead" wagon on which they were carried out the main gate and to the cemetery for burial.
A Confederate sergeant prevailed on his comrades to nail him up in a coffin, not too securely, and to load the box on the wagon, being particular to place it on the top of the load. The cemetery was some distance from the prison and he was too anxious to go that far. So, when the wagon was well outside the prison, he kicked off the lid, jumped out of his coffin, climbed the opposite slope, and only stopped in the distance skyline, long enough to wave good-bye to the startled driver who in all long life had never before seen so lively a corpse.
The driver went on to the cemetery and managed to have the empty box buried without arousing suspicion, and thereafter, maintained a discreet silence about the affair. But the story was too good for the prisoners who nailed him up, to keep for long, and the details gradually leaked out.
In conclusion here are a few brief words about Cyrus, his unit, his family, and his community.
Since Cyrus's time at Gettysburg, his unit, still within Hancock's Second Corps, participated in the battles at Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg. Most of the unit and its colors were captured at Five Forks. The unit was however, present at the surrender ceremonies at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.
Hancock's Second Corps is remembered by Mike Sharra, author of Killer Angels, as the Corps, which captured more prisoners and colors, and suffered more casualties than the entire rest of the Army of the Potomac. Only one Union regiment in this war lost more officers than Cyrus's. Among the 300 Union prisoners with the highest mortality, Cyrus's ranked 37. Eighty percent of his Company was listed as casualties at the end of the year. There is no published history of his Regiment.
Cyrus remained in Elmira until he was discharged in September 1865. He returned home where he continued working for a number of years before he and his wife moved into the home of their second eldest daughter in South Dakota.
Only those close to him knew how the war affected him. As his son tells us:
His poor physical condition and profound mental depression, which naturally resulted, are not difficult to understand. The wounds he received at Fredericksburg, under modern surgery would not be regarded as serious, but the infection that resulted from the piece of cloth that was left in the wound in his left shoulder was a much more serious matter and put him in the hospital for four months. In less than a month after returning to duty, he passed through the Chancellorsville campaign, and after two or three weeks in camp, marched more than 100 miles in the heat of a Virginia summer to Gettysburg, where he did his part in as desperate a piece of fighting as the history of war records, only to be left behind amidst the filth and human wreckage of battle. The wonder is, not that he was physically and mentally depressed, but that he survived through it all.
Of this time of his mother's life, her son would write: "But there came a time when the boys marched away to the strains of martial music. Of the four, grim years that followed, my mother would not often talk, and, not talking, I think mercifully she forgot. Only the pleasant memories remained." Cyrus and Catherine lived to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.
One can speculate on the after effects on Cyrus's community. Histories provide many reasons that migration from such communities occurred after the war. One should not ignore that many families escaped the acrimony and the depression of those years by leaving the community and making a fresh start somewhere else.
In honor of the 12,122 Confederate prisoners who were incarcerated at Elmira and to the 2,963 who died there of sickness and exposure.