ELMIRA PRISON REVISITED
The pastoral scene shows no signs of the death and disease which gripped this place from July of 1864 to July of 1865. The Chemung River flows gently towards the Susquehanna. Trees are in their full foliage and flowers are in bloom. It is spring in southern New York.
One-hundred-thirty seven years ago, on this site, nine Confederate prisoners of war were dying each day. This is the site of the infamous Union prisoner of war camp at Elmira, New York. The men and boys of Gloucester imprisoned here called it "Hell-mira." Between July 6, 1864 and July 10, 1865 three thousand prisoners died, one of every four.
From my research, I have determined that 126 of Gloucester’s men were imprisoned here, 100 from the 26th Virginia Infantry, and the remainder from the 34th and 46th Infantry and the 5th Virginia Cavalry. Sixty-four of those one hundred twenty-six never saw Gloucester again. Those from the 34th, 46th and 5th came to Elmira from various engagements over a scattered period of time, but I will concentrate on the 26th Virginia Infantry and how its men got to this place. First, however, I must deal with some fundamental issues regarding the War and the current trend towards "political correctness" in lieu of facts.
As a descendant of slaveholders, I have struggled with the issue of slavery. As a descendant of Confederate soldiers who were not slaveholders, I have wondered about their involvement in the conflict. I know where I stand on both subjects. Slavery was a despicable institution, and I apologize here and now to any reader whose ancestors were enslaved by my ancestors. The scars from slavery are still with us, and all the wounds have not healed. I can not undo the past, but I can deal with the present.
As to my Confederate ancestors, I honor their memory and their service. When the Confederate flag is used to honor that service, it is appropriate; however, when that same flag is used by the Klan, neo-Nazis and other hate groups, I am sick to the pit of my stomach. Such usage desecrates our ancestors’ service. Anyone who believes the watermen of Guinea, Timberneck Creek and Robins’ Neck or the woodcutters of Adner and Signpine fought to protect slavery, knows nothing of the history leading to the War Between the States. These men and boys fought and died because Virgina had been invaded by a foreign Army. Just as African-Americans from Gloucester fought and died for the Union Army, free African-Americans from Gloucester, including Alexander Davenport, fought for the Confederacy.
Now, back to Elmira. The 26th Infantry was stationed at Gloucester Point from May of 1861 until May of 1862. The first death recorded was of Robert J. Fary, who died at Gloucester Point of disease August 20, 1861.When the Confederacy abandoned the fort at Gloucester Point ( and all of Gloucester County) in 1862, some of the soldiers of the 26th joined the 34th, 46th and 5th Virginia Cavalry. The remaining members moved off in the direction of Richmond, some participating in the Battle of Seven Pines, where the 26th experienced its first battle death . Between 1862 and 1864, the soldiers of the 26th were stationed in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. They were involved in some minor skirmishes, but were relatively unscathed.
The Gloucester soldiers returned to the Richmond-Petersburg area in the Spring of 1864. By this time, it was clear that the future of the Confederacy was in serious doubt. It was essential that Richmond and Petersburg be defended at all cost. By late May, the 26th Virginia was in the trenches around Petersburg. By June 15th, 100 Gloucester men had been captured, and several dozen were dead. For the captured, their first stop was the Union prison at Point Lookout, Maryland.
Point Lookout was extremely overcrowded, and the prisoners were ordered to Elmira, New York to the site of an existing U.S. Army post to an area called Barracks # 3. Barracks # 3 was the Elmira Prisoner of War Camp. The first soldiers from Gloucester arrived July 6, the day the prison opened. By the end of July, over 4,000 Confederates were imprisoned. One indication of the number of prisoners from Gloucester comes indirectly from Mr. William Post of Elmira, a local grocer. Mr. Post delivered groceries to the POW camp. He also took trinkets the prisoners had made and sold those items in town, then bought goods the soldiers requested. Mr. Post wrote " In those days, oysters were put up in pint cans, and I used to take many a pint to those Virginia boys." No doubt, Mr. Post was delivering canned oysters to Gloucester’s oystermen.
As with any POW camp, Elmira acted as a place for local citizens to come see these "strange creatures called rebels." Local entrepreneurs erected an observation platform across the street from the prison, where the prisoners could be viewed for the price of 10 cents. Lemon drink, ginger cakes, beer and liquor could be purchased by viewers. The local newspaper wrote that "..people from the country won’t go home after their shopping is done without a peep at these varmints…" James Fleming of Gloucester wrote of hearing arguments from the visitors. Some of those visitors supported the prison, while others were called "Copperheads" [southern sympathizers.] In all fairness, the same types of activities occurred around the Confederate prisons for Union soldiers at Andersonville, Georgia and at other locations. In War, it is always easier to hate the enemy if that enemy is portrayed as being "different from us."
By August 21st, one of the 26th was dead. James Fleming wrote of holding his brother John’s hand as John died, and of making a wooden marker for his grave. Before James Fleming returned to Little England the following July, sixty-three other men and boys from Gloucester were dead from disease and starvation. The dead, all 2,963 of them, are buried a mile away at Woodlawn National Cemetery.
The fact that marked graves with headstones exist at all is due to the efforts of John W. Jones, sexton of the cemetery during the time. John Jones was born a slave in Loudon County, Virginia and had worked his way north via the Underground Railroad, and was an established businessman in Elmira. He kept meticulous records of each death, and supervised each burial personally. He insisted on respect for the Confederate dead, in opposition to the wishes of Union commanders. Mr. Jones even had the task of burying two grandsons of his former owner. The largest number of soldiers buried in any one day was forty-eight.
Because of John Jones, I can tell you that Cornelius Coates is at grave # 1862; Robert Gwyn lies at # 1286; J.T Milby at # 2935; John Fleming at # 31; William Wyatt is at # 857; James Bristow at # 671; Joshua Rilee rests at #1023; John Robins at # 2393. There are fifty-five other Gloucester soldiers whose graves I visited. In a common grave lies R.P Haynes. Haynes is one of the 26th who died along with forty other prisoners and eight Union guards in a train accident on July 15th while being transported to Elmira.
My first stop in Elmira was the Chemung County History Museum, where microfilm copies of original camp records are available, as well as numerous stories on the prison and files of recorded recollections of soldiers who survived. The list of the dead and their grave numbers is also available. From the museum, I proceeded to what is left of the original prison site. I walked over a dike to get a view of the layout of those 300 acres. A monument and flagpole are all that remain at the original site. From there I proceeded to Woodlawn National Cemetery. It was, to say the least, an emotional journey.
When, not if, you go to Elmira, I suggest that you visit the Museum before going to the POW camp and the National Cemetery. The museum staff will help you place the other locations in perspective. Elmira is a one-day drive from Gloucester just above the Pennsylvania/New York line. The names of Gloucester’s soldiers imprisoned at Elmira reads like a history of Gloucester --- Ash, Bland, Booker, Brown, Clements, Croswell, DuVal, Eubank, Fary, Hogg, Howlett, Jenkins, Kemp, Leigh, Marshall, Milby, Newbill, Nuttall, Oliver, Pointer, Rilee, Rowe, Sears, Shackelford, White, and dozens of others. The graves of some of your ancestors and cousins have not been visited by family in over 137 years. Don’t you owe your people a "thank you" in person ?