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The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 49, Number 1, March 2003
pp. 83-84 | 10.1353/cwh.2003.0006

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Civil War History 49.1 (2003) 83-84

The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison. By Michael P. Gray. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001. Pp. 256. $35.00.)

Michael P. Gray adds to the literature on Civil War prisoner of war camps with this thoroughly researched and engagingly written volume on Elmira, New York's camp. When the war broke out, Elmira was a quiet rural town, but its location as a railroad center led to its designation as a mustering site for New York troops. In 1864 the depot became a prisoner of war camp. Originally designed for ten thousand men, the camp grew to more than twelve thousand.

Gray gives a thorough discussion of conditions inside the camp. Food was reasonably plentiful, although not varied enough to prevent the prisoners from contracting scurvy or from hunting rats. Gray discusses both the legitimate trade done by the post sutler and the black market in food and other goods, including jewelry manufactured by the prisoners. Although all the prisoners were housed in barracks by the beginning of 1865, the winter was extremely cold causing considerable suffering for ill-clad Southerners unused to temperatures below zero. Sanitation was a continual problem. The lack of rain failed to flush out the local pond that was being used for sewage; a proposed drainage project was expensive and delayed. Smallpox broke out killing four hundred prisoners. Punishment, including the use of the "sweatbox," a wooden box that could be compressed to squeeze the prisoner, could be harsh. A flood in the spring of 1865 wreaked considerably damage on the camp, but by that time the war had ended and the prisoners were gradually being released.

Throughout the story Gray balances sources from Southerners and Northerners, prisoners and captors. Gray's strength is his ability to tell a story and capture the characters of the men imprisoned at Elmira and their guards. Readers will encounter the local tourists who came to gawk at the Southerners from specially built observation tours; the sexton of the local cemetery, a free black named John W. Jones, who made a small fortune from the burial of Confederate soldiers; and Washington Traweek, a Confederate soldier who, after participating in a mass escape, dropped the camp's commandant a note from Richmond to let him know they had safely made it home.

This is a handsomely produced volume with numerous illustrations, including a two-page color drawing of the prison camp. The chief failure of this volume is that it provides absolutely no context or discussion of larger issues about Civil War prisoner camps. In a chapter on the legacy of Elmira, Gray mentions that postwar Southerners cited Elmira as a Union equivalent of the notorious prison in Andersonville, Georgia. Gray reports that the mortality rate at Elmira was exceptionally high for Union camps (at about one prisoner in four) but does not evaluate whether that fact legitimated the Southern claim. In fact, Gray does not discuss the literature on the Civil War camps at all and so fails to give any perspective as to Elmira's importance either as an exception or as a typical Northern prisoner of war camp. This defect renders this interesting book less valuable to historians.


Nicole Etcheson
University of Texas at El Paso