Report on Prisoner Deaths at the Confederate POW Camp in Pelham During the Civil War
A Civil War prisoner of war camp once stood within the Town of Pelham. The POW camp opened the very month the war ended as Union troops overran the Confederacy and sent waves of captured troops northward during the final weeks of the war.
Pelham's prison, opened to accept troops in early April 1865, operated until the last Confederate prisoners were released from the facility in July 1865. What happened at the POW camp in Pelham during those four months in 1865, however, is among our saddest moments.
The POW camp 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 northern tip of the island was a lowland area. There, lightly-constructed prison "barracks" were built. The barracks were basically open to the elements with open windows and a door on only one side of the building (to reduce avenues of possible escape). Additionally, a few tents were provided for the prisoners as overcrowding became a bigger problem.
The prison's monthly sick reports for April, May, and June, 1865 suggest that the mean number of prisoners held in the camp was 3,031 during that three-month period. 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).
Admittedly, I and my family have more than a passing interest in the Hart Island Confederate POW camp. One of my wife's great-great grandfathers, Nathaniel Henry Bouldin, was a Confederate soldier who fought at Gettysburg and was part of Pickett's Charge. He was captured during the Battle of Five Forks in the last days of the Rebellion and was shipped north to Hart Island in Pelham. He arrived as a prisoner of war on April 7, 1865 in the first group of 500 prisoners sent to the facility. He suffered "chronic diarrhea" and was moved to the De Camp General Hospital on David's Island where he died on May 1, 1865, barely three weeks after his arrival. He was buried on Hart Island, but his remains later were removed during the 20th century to Cypress Hills National Cemetery, 625 Jamaica Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 11208, Section 1, Site 2677.
I have written before about the Confederate prisoner of war camp in the Town of Pelham. For examples, see:
Wed., Oct. 21, 2015: Ministering to Troops on Hart and Davids Islands During and Shortly After the Civil War.
Thu., Jun. 12, 2014: Eyewitness Account of Prisoner of War Concentration Camp That Once Stood in Pelham.
Fri., May 21, 2010: The Announcement of President Abraham Lincoln's Assassination in Pelham, NY on April 15, 1865.
Mon., Mar. 29, 2010: Nathaniel H. Bouldin, a Poor Confederate Prisoner of War Who Died in Pelham in 1865.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog provides information about the prisoner of war camp and details the horrendous conditions of the Pelham POW camp based on a report prepared by George H. Lyman, a U.S. Army Medical Inspector, prepared on June 21, 1865. Medical Inspector Lyman prepared his report to comply with an order dated June 17, 1865 commanding him to investigate the causes of mortality among the Confederate prisoners at Hart Island.
Despite the passage of more than 150 years, the Medical Inspector's report still sparks feelings of sadness and outrage. It is replete with transparent efforts to whitewash the atrocious conditions of the camp and the high mortality rate among the prisoners. It also sought to deflect blame from those responsible for the atrocities.
The Prisoner of War Camp at Pelham
The facility was tremendously overcrowded. During the three months of April, May, and June, a total of 3,413 prisoners were held in the camp with the mean number of prisoners held at any one time in the camp being 3,031. The men were confined in such close quarters that each had the equivalent of 102 cubic feet of air space -- the equivalent of less than five feet by five feet by six feet high. Digital images of the orders and prisoners' registers for the Confederate prisoner of war camp on Hart Island are freely available online. See FamilySearch.com, United States Records of Prisoners of War, 1861-1865: NY, Hart Island, Prison Camp - Orders, Prisoner Registers, 1865, v. 265-69 (259 pages; visited on Feb. 20, 2016).
We know from an officer's memoir published well after the War that the prison, which was located at the northern end of Hart Island, was separated from the Union camp and military facilities on the remainder of the island by a "very strong twelve-foot fence." Entrance to the prison camp was through "a very strong and massive door or gate." The entire prison facility on the north end of the island was guarded by sentries stationed on land and guards in patrol boats that patrolled the island. See 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).
According to General Order No. 1 in the Register of Orders of the Hart Island Prison Camp: "The prisoners of War when received at this port will be assigned to companies, each company to include not exceeding three hundred and thirty three men, to be under charge of a Corporal, who will make to the Provost Marshal a written report of its condition every morning showing the changes made during the preceding twenty four hours, giving the names of the 'joined,' 'transferred,' 'deaths' &c. . . . The companies will be assigned to Divisions, each division to consist of not less than three nor more than six companies, to be under charge of a Sergeant who will superintend the issue of rations, clothing, and contributions to his division, make all details for police and other duties required for it, and report such details to the proper officer."
Source: "General Order No. 1," image nos. 6-15, paragraphs X-XI (Apr. 8, 1865) in HART ISLAND, N.Y. PRISON CAMP: General Orders and Register of Letters and Telegrams Received, with Endorsements Sent, Apr.-June 1865; Special Orders, May 1865; Registers of prisoners, 1865; HILTON HEAD, S.C., PRISON CAMP: Receipts for Letters Containing Money Addressed to Prisoners, Nov. 1864-Apr. 1865. [v. 265-269] (NARA Series M598, Roll 79) available via FamilySearch.org (visited Feb. 20, 2016).
47, No. 1328, p. 128. NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.
The 1865 image immediately above depicts a portion of Hart Island and seems to show the island as viewed from either a pair of rocky outcroppings including Rat Island between City Island and Hart Island or, perhaps, from City Island. If so, it would appear that the low area on the far left is where the Confederate prisoner of war camp was located, separated from the rest of the facilities (located on the high ground of the island) by the previously-mentioned twelve-foot fence.
General Order No. 1 of April 8, 1865, referenced above, outlined much of what prison life would be for the Confederate prisoners. Clothing clearly was a major issue in the handling of the prisoners. Paragraph XXXIV of General Order No. 1 even provided that "Clothing left by deceased prisoners, will be given to such prisoners as require it." Indeed, clothing -- as one might expect -- was an important way quickly to distinguish guards and other Union military men from the Confederate prisoners. Paragraph XXXVII of General Order No. 1 provided that outer garments of the Confederate prisoners "must be of 'grey' or Dark Mixed color and of inferior quality; only one suit of outer clothing and a change of inner clothing will be allowed."
The same General Order No. 1 authorized operations by a Sutler to sell specified articles to the Confederate prisoners. The only materials that could be sold by the Sutler to prisoners, however, were: "Writing Materials, Postage stamps, Tobacco, Cigars, Pipes, Watches, combs, soap, Tooth brushes, hair brushes, Scissors, thread, needles, Handkerchiefs, Towels, Pocket-looking glasses, and Religious or Light Reading matter." No sales were permitted before 8:00 a.m. or after one-half hour before sunset each day. For the most part, according to the order, no supplies or money were permitted to be provided to any prisoner by friends or relatives.
"Loyal Clergymen" were permitted to hold services within the prison on the Sabbath, but the clergymen were not allowed to speak with individual prisoners "except in the case of prisoners seriously ill in Hospital when, if they request, they may be assisted by a clergyman."
Toilets, sinks, and urinals, according to General Order No. 1, were to be constructed over the waters of Long Island Sound. The toilets, sinks, and urinals were separated from the prison camp by a fence with gates that were "closed at Retreat and kept securely locked until Reveille, when they will be opened for the day." The order further authorized "Night sink boxes" for the use of prisoners and guards during the night hours and provided "the boxes will be removed to the water, and thoroughly cleansed immediately after Reveille daily."
To ensure sufficient light to allow guards to observe the camp during the dark of night, the order further provided that "Reflecting lamps, will be placed upon the interior of the parapet to light the Area of the Camp sufficiently for guards to enforce order and quietness among the prisoners."
Other General Orders in the camp papers provide further insights into the daily camp life of the Confederate Prisoners. Between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., the men were required to be outside the barracks in the open air -- rain or shine -- unless excused by a Surgeon to be permitted to remain in the barracks. The prisoners were assembled by "beat of the drum" and had both sick call and roll call daily. According to General Order No. 3 (April 17, 1865) for example, "At each roll call, the prisoners as their names are called, will answer distinctly, 'Here,' step 4 paces to the front and form by the right roll call to be inviolably verified by a count, and squads remain -- in line, until All First Sergeants have reported to the Sergeant-Major, the number of men absent without authority, and received order to dismiss their squads."
In addition, every day the prisoners were required to parade on the grounds twice. According to General Order No. 3: "All prisoners not on duty or excused from duty by Surgeon, will be paraded daily, Sunday excepted, in four ranks, and marched around the parade from 10. a.m. until 12 N. and from 4 p.m. until 5 p.m."
The June 21, 1865 Medical Inspector's Report
The Medical Inspector's June 21, 1865 report began by reciting the number of prisoner deaths at the camp. During April, May, and early June there were 217 deaths which the report claimed as 6.3% of all prisoners. The report noted: "The principal diseases were: Pneumonia, 107 cases, 45 deaths, 42 per cent.; chronic diarrhea, 321 cases, 71 deaths, 22 per cent.; scurvy, 51 cases, 1 death; measles, 26 cases, no deaths primarily; smallpox, 21 cases, 1 death; erysipelas, 18 cases, 1 death." The nature of the deaths is entirely consistent with the circumstances of the prison camp: overcrowding within inadequate shelter during wet and cold weather (pneumonia, measles, and smallpox), poor sanitation and unclean water (chronic diarrhea), and inadequate and insufficient rations (scurvy). Eventually, it should be noted, 235 Confederate prisoners died while being held as prisoners of war in the Hart Island complex.
The Medical Inspector's June 21, 1865 report makes clear that the Confederate prisoners were provided with no clothing or bedding. They had only what they had brought with them after their capture. According, once again, to the previously-mentioned officer's memoir, the Confederate prisoners "were dressed in rebel gray uniforms or what was left of them, and some were literally in rags."
Although the report seemed to gloss over the inadequate shelter afforded the prisoners, it readily admitted that medical treatment and hospital facilities for the Confederate prisoners were "insufficient." According to the report, there were:
"Six hospital tents outside the prison ward, containing 48 beds, and such beds as could be spared in the post hospital (111 in all having been treated at the latter), and 25 sent at different times to the general hospital at Davids Island, comprise all the hospital beds which have been available. The remainder of the cases were treated in the prison barracks, a portion set apart from the purpose, but without the extra diets and comforts afforded those sick in the hospital proper."
In short, despite the massive number of prisoners who fell ill, there were only a few more than 73 hospital beds available to treat the hundreds and hundreds of ill prisoners. This seems to have been particularly critical in the context of hospital rations versus standard rations. As the report noted, "The hospital ration (in the hospital proper outside the prison) has been such as is used in our own hospitals, but for those who are necessarily treated in a part of the barracks within the inclosure these extra comforts were not provided." Because the vast and overwhelming number of ill Confederate prisoners were treated in the "barracks" rather than in the hospital, they simply did not receive the rations thought appropriate and necessary to recover from serious illness.
The report further tried to deflect blame for the high rate of illness and shocking mortality rate by arguing that the prisoners arrived sick: "The chief cause of the mortality, however, is to be found in the fact that large numbers of the prisoners arrived at the depot broken down in advanced stages of the disease; some, in fact, moribund and others past all hope from treatment." Of course, such an argument cannot make up for the fact that the prisoners typically arrived from other Union-controlled prisoner of war camps and came to a facility that had woefully inadequate medical facilities to treat such illnesses whether the prisoners arrived ill or not.
The report closed with a whitewash. As many would say, "the fix was in." The report ended, glibly, with the following: "In view of the condition of the prisoners on their arrival, their destitute condition and the state of the weather, combined with the usual depressing effect of prison life, the sickness and mortality occurring here do not seem excessive."
The Confederate prisoner of war camp in Pelham on Hart Island was no Andersonville Prison. Yet, it was supremely awful and cost hundreds of lives unnecessarily. During the closing days of the American Civil War the lives of many southern men were lost unnecessarily in our little Town of Pelham.
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Immediately below is the transcribed text of the June 21, 1865 report of the U.S. Army Medical Inspector regarding deaths at the Confederate POW camp on Hart Island in Pelham. It is followed by a citation and link to its source.
"NEW YORK, June 21, 1865.
MEDICAL INSPECTOR GENERAL U.S. ARMY:
COLONEL: In compliance with the inclosed order. . . dated Washington, June 17 ,1865, instructing me to investigate the causes of mortality among the prisoners at Hart's Island, I have the honor to report that 2,027 prisoners were received April 7 from City Point; 794 prisoners were received April 10 from New Berne; 592 prisoners were received April 11 from City Point. Of the whole 3,413 prisoners, 1,847 have been under medical treatment and 217 deaths have occurred, amounting to 11.7 per cent. of the sick or 6.3 per cent. of all the prisoners. The principal diseases were: Pneumonia, 107 cases, 45 deaths, 42 per cent.; chronic diarrhea, 321 cases, 71 deaths, 22 per cent.; scurvy, 51 cases, 1 death; measles, 26 cases, no deaths primarily; smallpox, 21 cases, 1 death; erysipelas, 18 cases, 1 death. Some of the cases of pneumonia were sequelae of the measles, and if so reported would diminish very materially the percentage of mortality from the former. Of 588 treated in April, 41 deaths, there were hospital accommodations for 72. Of 724 treated in May, 112 deaths, there were hospital accommodations for 165. Of 535 treated in June, 64 deaths, there were hospital accommodations for 115.
From the above it will be seen that the hospital accommodation was insufficient. Six hospital tents outside the prison ward, containing 48 beds, and such beds as could be spared in the post hospital (111 in all having been treated at the latter), and 25 sent at different times to the general hospital at Davids Island, comprise all the hospital beds which have been available. The remainder of the cases were treated in the prison barracks, a portion set apart from the purpose, but without the extra diets and comforts afforded those sick in the hospital proper. It is asserted that this has had little influence upon the mortality, the gravest cases being transferred to hospital, and a few of those retained in barracks being fatal. It is fair to presume, however, that the absence of proper accommodation, hospital diet, and comforts in the incipient stages of disease may have given a subsequently fatal tendency to cases which under other circumstances would have recovered.
The chief cause of the mortality, however, is to be found in the fact that large numbers of the prisoners arrived at the depot broken down in advanced stages of the disease; some, in fact, moribund and others past all hope from treatment. The New Berne detachment, captured chiefly in the Carolinas, were nearly all broken down on arrival. It is said that less than 100 of them could be considered as well men, or even in fair health. The surgeon then in attendance having been relieved, more precise information on this point is not now available, but it is certain that the largest percentage of sickness and mortality occurred in that detachment.
The largest proportion of deaths, as seen above, occurred from chronic diarrhea, brought with them, and pneumonia, which began to appear a few days after their arrival. The few cases of smallpox (more properly varioloid) did not begin to show themselves until after vaccination had been nearly completed. The men being poorly clad, the weather wet and cold, and the barracks provided with no other bedding than such as the prisoners brought with them, the pneumonia cases developed rapidly and the reduced vitality of the patients favored a typhoid type of that disease, increased, probably, to some extent by the crowded and unventilated condition of the barracks. These appear, by measurement, to have afforded but 102 cubic feet of air space to each man, and with no other ventilation than that afforded by the doors and windows on one side. Quite recently openings for ventilation have been made upon the other side of the barracks, it constituting the outer wall of the prison inclosure.
The rations have been good and in the quantity ordered by the Commissary-General of Prisoners, which is sufficiently liberal. The hospital ration (in the hospital proper outside the prison) has been such as is used in our own hospitals, but for those who are necessarily treated in a part of the barracks within the inclosure these extra comforts were not provided. The air space afforded these last was 207 feet. The drainage from the camp is superficial, but good. The sinks are outside the camp, but over tide water. The water for cooking and drinking is abundant and of excellent quality from wells. The prisoners have had access, under guard, to the beach, and have availed themselves of it freely for salt-water bathing. They have also been required to take daily exercise. The hospital tents were found in excellent order, with bedding and medical supplies sufficient, except a deficiency the past week of opium and stimulants. The requisition was made the 4th of June, but from some irregularity in form, arising from the inexperience of the surgeon in charge, was not promptly forwarded. In view of the condition of the prisoners on their arrival, their destitute condition and the state of the weather, combined with the usual depressing effect of prison life, the sickness and mortality occurring here do not seem excessive. I think, however, that better ventilated barracks and ampler supply of clothing and enlarged hospital accommodations would have reduced this to a greater or less extent. The number present the 20th, the day of inspection, was 833, including forty-eight in hospital. As all are to be released this week, I have recommended that the few remaining sick be transferred to Davids Island general hospital.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant.
GEO. H. LYMAN,
Medical Inspector, U.S. Army."
Source: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II, Vol. VIII, pp. 664-66 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899).
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