Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Eyewitness Account of Prisoner of War Concentration Camp That Once Stood in Pelham

Few in Pelham know that a prisoner of war concentration camp once stood within the boundaries of the Town of Pelham.  The camp opened in April, 1865 -- the very month the Civil War ended -- and remained in operation until the last rebel prisoners were released in July, 1865.  The prison was basically open to the elements, although a few tents were provided to the prisoners.  It stood on the north end of Hart Island (also known as Hart's Island) which, at the time, was part of the Town of Pelham.

The rebel prison's monthly sick reports for April, May, and June, 1865 indicate that the mean number of prisoners held in the concentration camp was 3,031.  The reports further indicate that conditions were horrendous and cases of diarrhea and dysentery were rampant.  Cf. Woodward, Joseph Janvier, THE MEDICAL AND SURGICAL HISTORY OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION, Part II, Vol. I, p. 39 (Washington, D.C.:  Gov’t Printing Office, 1879).

I have a significant interest in the POW camp.  One of my wife's great-great grandfathers was a Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg and was part of Pickett's Charge.  He was captured in the last days of the Rebellion and was shipped north to Hart Island in Pelham as a prisoner of war where he died in a hospital on nearby Davids Island of "chronic diarrhea".  His name was Nathaniel H. Bouldin. 

I have written of Nathaniel Bouldin before.  See Mon., Mar. 29, 2010:  Nathaniel H. Bouldin, a Poor Confederate Prisoner of War Who Died in Pelham in 1865.  I also have written of the sad day that prison guards announced to the rebel prisoners held on Hart Island that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated.  See Fri., May 21, 2010:  The Announcement of President Abraham Lincoln's Assassination in Pelham, NY on April 15, 1865.

Recently I located an interesting, but sad, eyewitness account of the POW camp in June, 1865.  That month the POW camp was releasing rebel prisoners and moving them south on transports so they could make their way home.  In mid-June, however, several hundred rebels remained imprisoned at the camp.  The condescending and sad account shows that so-called "ladies and gentlemen" were escorted to the POW camp daily to gawk at the emaciated soldiers dressed in rags.  Visitors were told to bring "trifling sums" of money to dispense among the prisoners just to see their "eager faces light up" as they realized they might use the few cents given them to acquire a plug of chewing tobacco or crackers to supplement their shockingly-meager rations. 

Detail of Map Published in 1893 Showing Hart
Island East of City Island, on Extreme Right of Detail.
Source:  Bien, Joseph Rudolph, Atlas of Westchester
County, New York, p. 3 (NY, NY:  Julius Bien & Co., 1893)
("Towns of Westchester and Pelham. (with) Villages of
Westchester and Unionport. (with) Village of Pelhamville"). 

The eyewitness account that appears below is taken from the memoirs of Brevet Major Jacob Roemer published after his death.  Roemer served with Battery L, Second New York Artillery and the Thirty-Fourth New York Independent Veteran Volunteer Light Battery, the members of which were mustered out of service on Hart's Island on June 21, 1865.  His account describes the few days in June when his unit was sent to Hart Island to be mustered out and includes descriptions of what he saw and experienced at the POW camp that once stood in Pelham.  I have transcribed the account below, followed by a citation to its source.

"“As soon as the banquet was over, the members of the Battery were furloughed to visit their friends, with orders to report at 10 A. M., June 9th, at the College Point Dock, to take the steamer for Hart’s Island, to prepare for the final muster out.  At 11 A. M. on that date, the Battery left College Point and arrived at Hart’s Island at 12 o’clock noon.  Here the men were quartered in the government barracks and the work of making out the muster-out and pay-rolls was begun without delay.  I returned to Flushing the next day, Saturday, June 10th, to pay some bills incurred in behalf of the Battery and to spend Sunday with my family.  Many friends from New York and Flushing called on me that Saturday evening to pay their respects.  I had sixty callers in all.  It made me feel very happy to be once more with the folks at home and see how much I was thought of by them.

On the 12th, I returned to the Island and found that no progress had been made in the muster-out rolls, as all but one of the lieutenants had taken leave of absence.  Lieuts. Johnston and Balkie had gone away leaving Lieut. Durfee in command.  I forthwith called in an extra clerk to hasten matters.  June 13th was one of the hottest days I ever experienced, and being quite unwell with a fever haning over me, I thought I could not possibly go through the day.  I sent my son, Alexander, who was staying with me on the Island, to Flushing for his mother and sister.  This day the first copy of the muster-out roll was finished and found to need but little correction. 

[Page 304 / Page 305]

At noon of the 14th, quite a party of ladies landed upon the Island.  Among them were my wife and daughter, Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Hamilton.  They were shown all through the barracks and the officers’ quarters and then escorted down to the rebel prison pen where 273 prisoners of war were confined.  All these were dressed in rebel gray uniforms or what was left of them, and some were literally in rags, and many looked as if a little soap and water would be beneficial to both faces and clothes.  Many of them had made little trinkets of wood they had obtained, and when the ladies passed by they asked the ladies to buy these trinkets.  No one passed without either buying something or giving them some small sum of money.  When my wife passed them with me, one of them asked her for a five-cent stamp, and she took out her purse to give him one.  This was a signal for about fifty of them to come crowding about the ladies and saying, ‘Good lady, give me a five-cent stamp to buy some tobacco.’  Having visited them myself previously and learned their tricks, I had advised the ladies, before going to the prison, to provide themselves with small change.  To see the eager faces light up when they had received their gifts made it a pleasure to the visitors to contribute these trifling sums, although they were ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy.’

These prisoners were served with the same kind of rations that were dealt out to our own soldiers, and here, at least, they did not die of hunger, as thousands of our poor fellows did at Andersonville.  The prison camp was at the north end of Hart’s Island where they had a fine view of Long Island Sound.  The prison camp was separated from our Union camp by a very strong twelve-foot fence.  The entrance to the prison camp was through a very strong and massive door or gate.  The whole camp was most strongly guarded by numerous sentries on land and by patrol boats

[Page 305 / Page 306]

On the water, and it was thus quite impossible for any one to escape from the island.

At the south end of the island were the recruiting stations where the majority of all the New York Volunteers were mustered into the service.  There were also a number of barrack buildings and officers’ quarters fitted up with every convenience for men, and officers and all had a very pleasant time during their short sojourn in these fine quarters.  Numbers of ladies and gentlemen visited the island daily and all points of interest were shown to all who came.  The rebel prisoners were the greatest attraction, and they were always glad to see visitors for they had learned to know that the liberal hearts of northerners would respond to their appeals.  One of them remarked to me once, ‘Your people are very kind to us.’

The muster-out rolls were completed at 1 P. M., June 16th and at once sent to the mustering officer.  The next day was passed in making out discharge papers for all officers, non-commissioned officers and privates, (128 in all), except Private James D. Sprong, who had still to make up time lost by desertion.  I was sick all day on the 18th and confined to my quarters with a fever; I was therefore unable to go to Flushing as I had promised.  On the 20th the last ordinance returns for this command were made out; this was a very easy matter as nearly everything had been turned over to the proper authorities at Washington on the 3d of June.  At 4 P. M., June 21st, 1865, the members of the 34th New York Independent Veteran Volunteer Light Battery were mustered out of the service of the United States by the mustering officer, Lieutenant Dolan, 2d United States Infantry, and on the 24th all were paid off except the commanding officer.  The members of the Battery now separated to go to their respective homes, and thus the military service of the Battery came to an end.”

Source:  Roemer, Jacob, REMINISCENCES OF THE WAR OF THE REBELLION 1861-1865 BY BVT.-MAJ. JACOB ROEMER, BATTERY L. SECOND N.Y. ARTILLERY, AND THIRTY-FOURTH N.Y.V.V. IND. LT. BATTERY, pp. 304-06 (Flushing, N.Y.:  Estate of Jacob Roemer, 1897).

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