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Captured! Firsthand Accounts of Prisoners of War from the American Civil War Collection

Posted on 06/12/2014

Opinions on prisoners of war and prisoner exchanges have dominated recent news cycles. The June release of The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society also provides a number of views on these contentious issues, including both Northern and Southern perspectives. Related topics covered are prison conditions, the care and treatment of prisoners and their escapes. (All of the images in this post are found in The Elmira Prison Camp, discussed below.)

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

Journal of Alfred Ely, a Prisoner of War in Richmond (1862)
Edited by Charles Lanman

On Saturday, July 20, 1861, participating with many others in the anxieties of the day, and curious to witness what should occur, I applied to General Winfield Scott, in Washington, for a passport to visit our troops, then encamped at Fairfax Court House and Centreville, near what is known as ‘Bull Run,’ where it was expected a battle would take place on the following day. The General made several inquiries relating to my birthplace and parentage, and I told him that we had met before.

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

The day following his diary entry above, Alfred Ely, U.S. Representative from New York, was taken prisoner while witnessing the First Battle of Bull Run. He was imprisoned in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, for six months before being released on Christmas Day 1861 as part of a prisoner exchange. Congressman Ely’s journal tells of his capture, treatment, and eventual release. However, it is particularly notable because it contains an appendix of the name, rank, company, regiment, and place of confinement of nearly 3,000 Union officers and soldiers then imprisoned in the Southern States.

Prison Life of Jefferson Davis. Embracing Details and Incidents in His Captivity, Particulars Concerning His Health and Habits, Together with Many Conversations on Topics of Great Public Interest (1866)
By Bvt. Lieut.-Col. John J. Craven, M.D.

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

On May 19, 1865, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in a casemate at Fortress Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, where he remained for two years, some of which he spent in irons, before being released on $100,000 bail. In addition to a near daily record of Jefferson Davis’s health, Dr. Craven’s 380-plus page tome includes the thoughts and perspectives of the former President of the Confederate States on a wide range of topics. Perhaps not surprisingly, Davis discusses his views of President Lincoln’s assassination and its effect on the future of the South; however, when the discussion comes back to fishing, Davis takes an unexpected turn:

To change the subject, he returned to fishing, of which we had been speaking… Izaak Walton had been one of his favorite authors; and one of the counts he had against Benjamin Franklin, was the latter’s fierce attack on the gentle fisherman. Indeed Franklin had said many things not of benefit to mankind. His soul was a true type or incarnation of the New England character – hard, calculating, angular, unable to conceive any higher object than the accumulation of money. He was the most material of great intellects. None of the lighter graces or higher aspirations found favor in his sight; and with true New England egotism, because he did not possess certain qualities himself, they were to be ignored or crushed out of existence everywhere. The hard, grasping, money-grubbing pitiless and domineering spirit of the New England Puritans found in Franklin a true exponent.

Three Years in Field Hospitals of the Army of the Potomac (1867) 
By Anna Morris Ellis Holstein

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

Like Dr. John Craven, Anna Holstein also wrote from a caregiver’s perspective. She had cared for Union soldiers wounded in battle as well as those who had been held as prisoners of war. Some of the soldiers she attended had been held at Andersonville, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia, of which she wrote;

By the bedsides of dying skeletons, as they shudderingly recalled their prison life, I have written their sad stories, which often ended with: ‘We can never tell the half of all we endured; it would not be credited, if we did.’ All the horrors that I had seen and known during these memorable years, faded into insignificance when contrasted with this heinous crime – a systematic course of starvation to brave men made captives by the chances of war!... In one of the wards of the hospital at Camp Parole, a man belonging to the 5th Indiana Cavalry was reclining in a large rocking-chair near the stove; his features sharpened by suffering, the eyes sunken, skin tightly drawn over the lips, as thought they could never smile again; the whole face had an unearthly, smoke-dried parchment look. Upon asking him where he was from, he answered plainly: ‘Anderson; that cruel treatment, no shelter, with want of food and water, had brought him to this condition.’ His age was almost eighteen; I should have said at least forty.

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

Capture and Escape: A Narrative of Army and Prison Life (1908)
By John Azor Kellogg, Colonel of Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry and Brevet Brigadier-General

Col. John Kellogg was far from the model prisoner. He plotted revolts, embarked on extensive tunneling operations, and finally led an escape during a prison transfer by leaping from a speeding train. His escape led him through a South Carolina swamp replete with alligators, lizards, poisonous snakes, and a Confederate picket. Kellogg and his fellow escapees, including L.G. Billings, were eventually recaptured after being tracked by bloodhounds. Reflecting on the incident, Kellogg wrote that shortly after the war the owner of the dogs,

…exhibited his pack of bloodhounds in New York City, and among those who attended the exhibition was my friend L.G. Billings. I should have supposed his curiosity would have been gratified in South Carolina. For my own part, although I am fond of dogs and of hunting, I confess that it makes all the difference in the world to me, which end of the dog is toward me when the hunting is being done.

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

The Elmira Prison Camp: A History of the Military Prison at Elmira, N.Y., July 6, 1864, to July 10, 1865 (1912)
By Clay W. Holmes, A.M.

New York’s Elmira Prison, dubbed “Hellmira” by its inmates, was in use from the summer of 1864 to the autumn of the following year. During those 15 months more than 12,100 Confederate soldiers were incarcerated there, and nearly a quarter of them died from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. Clay Holmes, writing nearly 50 years later, attempts to contest claims of mistreatment and poor conditions. “The refutation of these charges is important, not only for the credit of the National Administration of war times, but as a defense of the citizens of Elmira who were loyal not only to their country but to the principles of Christian humanity.” Noble as Holmes’ motives may have been, his explanations appear callous and disingenuous:

It is not attempted to deny that, during the winter in question, there was physical suffering. This was caused chiefly by the severity of the climate, to which should be added, in the case of many of the weaker prisoners, the agony from homesickness. It may be admitted also that there were incidental cases of individual cruelty; but the pages of this volume will make clear… that in no Northern prison were the prisoners treated with greater consideration. The records also make clear that such hardships and privations as were encountered were due to exceptional climatic conditions, and to certain causes, the responsibility for which did not rest with the officers in charge of the prison or with the citizens of Elmira.

From The Elmira Prison Camp (The American Civil War Collection)

For more information about The American Civil War Collection, 1860-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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