The Ironic Role of African Americans in the Elmira, New York Civil War Prison Camp

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The Ironic Role of African Americans in the Elmira, New York Civil War Prison Camp, 1864-65

Ten years after the end of the American Civil War, Democrats regained control of the United States Congress. Once back in power, the party, with its strong Southern base, sought to secure a moral amnesty for those who participated in the rebellion. One way to do this was to point out the inhumanity of the South's victorious foe. During a two-hour speech in the Senate in January 1876, Benjamin Hill, a Democrat from Georgia, denounced the inhumane conditions Confederate prisoners faced at the Civil War prison camp at Elmira, New York. Hill labeled Elmira ten times worse than the notorious Southern prison at Andersonville, Georgia. He asserted that Confederate prisoners at Elmira were starved, robbed, and forced to drink foul water, and that tight living accommodations bred killer diseases throughout the camp. He noted that because prisoners had to lie out of doors, many contracted such degrees of frostbite that toes and fingers fell off. And when Confederate prisoners died from improper care, Hill asserted, the Yankees simply dumped them into the ground, unconfined. Because no Yankee prisoner suffered such atrocities at the hands of the Confederacy, Hill believed that, "the Confederacy should stand acquitted from all responsibility."(2)

Hill's portrayal of the Elmira prison camp stimulated debate across the Mason-Dixon line. Northern newspapers and public officials responded. New York Congressmen Thomas Platt defended the camp with the judgment of B.F. Tracy, the camp's late commandant, that "there was no suffering at Elmira inseparable from a military prison." Southern pens answered. Some even suggested that the treatment of the Confederate soldiers was the fruit of a federal conspiracy. Not surprisingly, Northern historians subsequently sought to refute what they perceived as unjust treatment in the Southern argument. Such a defense is the objective of the most thorough account concerning the camp -- Clay Holmes's, The Elmira Prison Camp. Commencing his work in the aftermath of the national debate following Hill's allegations, Holmes hoped to end the fuss by arguing that the government accommodated a tragic situation the best it could. So the debate raged, and, fair or not, it earned for Elmira the reputation as having been "the Andersonville of the North."(3)

The one-dimensional writing and debating about the Elmira camp has tended to tire people of hearing about it. (Just a few years ago an Elmira city councilman asked rhetorically, "Why do you want to remember that hell-hole, anyway?"(4)) But in addition to making people weary in the present, for over a century the debate over conditions in the prison has served to overshadow other equally important issues surrounding the camp.

One important dimension lost in the attention to the camp's inhumanity is the positive, humane, and, consequently ironic role African-Americans played in the camp's history. Matters surrounding the use of black troops in the war were behind the coming into existence of Northern military prisons in general, and African-Americans were largely responsible for what good the Elmira camp had to offer its Confederate residents: in addition to bringing order to an unruly and dangerously unsettled prison, African-American soldiers were responsible for much of the decent treatment that deceased Confederates received. White Southerners who decried the camp's conditions would have been loath to admit that it was "lowly Nigras" who mitigated the effects of Elmira's "hell-hole" for surviving Confederates and who saw to it that those who died received a decent burial.

As soon as South Carolina forces attacked the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, in April 1861, beginning the Civil War, black freedmen and slaves began to manifest their belief that the event signaled their chance to gain freedom after years of bondage and degradation. As the war raged on and slaves across the South watched an increasing number of Southerners leave for the front, more and more of them realized that this might indeed be the "War for Freedom. …