Monday, September 15, 2014

Only surviving Elmira prison camp building to be reassembled, serve as museum

A view of the Federal prison camp in Elmira, N.Y. (Library of Congress)

Two loads of lumber brought into Elmira, New York, last Friday on flatbed trailers will start taking shape soon as volunteers and roofers reconstruct what's believed to be the sole surviving building of the Civil War prison camp there.

Minus a few cracks and a little rot, the lumber – thought to be pine -- is in pretty good shape for having been out in the elements and in storage for 150 years. Even a couple of windows are intact.

Years of study and conjecture have failed to bring a firm conclusion on how the building was used.

“There are rumors, theories,” said Marty Chalk, president of the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

Possibilities include a commissary, a pharmacy or a “death house” that contained the bodies of Confederate prisoners before burial. Or it may have been a granary.

“In the interior, some of the wood is a little pitted,” said Chalk. “It is believed the pitted area came from loading and unloading grain. That’s just a theory.”

One thing for certain is the friends group, working with government officials and the Chemung County Historical Society, plans to use the building as a visitor/learning center and museum.

The building has been on a long journey before its return to the prison site, near a pumping station operated by the Elmira Water Board.

Once a Union recruiting center, the camp, sometimes called “Helmira,” was transformed into a prison facility that opened in July 1864 and eventually housed 12,123 Confederates. Nearly 3,000 died, a staggering 24% death rate.

Chalk said the building was moved after the war to nearby Hoffman Street, where the owner used it as an outbuilding for storage. It eventually was taken down and moved to a couple locations before ending up in a barn about five miles outside the city.

The Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp has a budget of about $9,000 for the project, but has benefited largely from volunteer work and donations. It is trying to raise more money.

The site will include a foundation for the old building and a fence. The nonprofit group has found a source for square nails and will bring in a roofing company for that part of the work. Chalk said he expects the building will need to be augmented about 20 percent by new lumber.

Officials hope to reassemble the building by early spring 2015, with the learning center ready for visitors by mid-2015. “Our plan is to have a climate-controlled environment,” said Chalk.

The center is expected to include artifacts, rifles, interpretive panels, an 1863 artillery piece and original or copied prisoner letters, including some in possession of a North Carolina man.

Chalk said visitors to Elmira currently stop by Woodlawn National Cemetery and the Chemung County Historical Society to learn about what occurred at the Union prison.

An original flag pole and a marker greet those who walk part of the prison site.

“There really isn’t much there. We have numerous people from the South who come to that site, asking questions. They take all the pictures they can,” he told the Picket. “Unfortunately, there is not much to see right now.”

The friends group hopes the city and county get a little tourism boost from the welcome center, which will be a tangible link to the past. “Elmira probably should be more of a Civil War town than it is,” Chalk said.

He said Southerners who visit want to see graves of loved ones and where they were imprisoned. “If I had a relative who died at Andersonville, I’d want to know as much as I could.”

Re-enactors who have been on site treat the grounds along the Chemung River as hallowed.

“I got a phone call from a woman in South Carolina,” said Chalk. “Her comment was interesting. She said, ‘Don’t you dare glorify what happened in the Elmira Civil War prison camp.’ I told her our purpose is not to celebrate anything. It is to educate.” 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A loss for Georgia river city and its history

The Calhoun-Griffin-Mott House in Columbus, Ga., destroyed Sunday by fire, had historical significance dating back to the Civil War. When Union forces took the city during a night battle in April 1865, the home’s owner, a unionist, invited Maj. Gen. James Wilson to stay at his house. The riverfront property is owned by TSYS, a credit card possessing company. • Article

Friday, September 5, 2014

Memorial set for Longstreet granddaughter

(Courtesy Dan Paterson)
The Longstreet Society in Gainesville, Ga., will host a memorial reception on Sept. 13 celebrating the life of Jamie Louise Longstreet Paterson, granddaughter of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.

Jamie Paterson died at age 84 on Aug. 5 in Virginia after an extended illness. She was a resident of Bowie, Md.

The society will host the reception beginning at about 11 a.m. at the Piedmont Hotel, 827 Maple St., following a private burial service at Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville. The family will welcome all visitors, the society says in a Facebook post.

Jamie Paterson was born in Gainesville to Fitz Randolph Longstreet – one of the general’s sons -- and Zelia Stover Longstreet. She never knew James Longstreet, who moved to Gainesville in 1875 and operated a hotel.He died in 1904.

• Previous Picket article about Mrs. Paterson

Picket update 2: And the winner is .....

You may recall last week's preview of a lecture about four generals crucial to the execution and result of the Atlanta Campaign during 1864. Author Steve Davis spoke at the city's Lovett School about their character and integrity. Beforehand, he told the Picket he wanted his pick of the man possessing the most laudable character kept a surprise.

George H. Thomas
We can now share his summary:

-- Would I want to be remembered as a delayer and retreater? (Joseph E. Johnston)

-- Would I want to be remembered as a demonstration of the Peter Principle? (John Bell Hood)

-- Would I want to be remembered as "vicious, cruel and mean"? (William T. Sherman)

-- No, I'd rather have my gravesite remind everyone that in character I was solid as a rock. (George H. Thomas)

Thomas earned the title "Rock of Chickamauga" for rallying forces and preventing a complete rout at the 1863 battle in northern Georgia. Born in Virginia, he stayed loyal to the Union and contributed significantly to victory in the west. He died in 1870.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Thoughts on Atlanta's surrender: 'Your government can't protect you'


On this day, 150 years ago, Mayor James Calhoun and other officials rode up to Federal troops in northwest Atlanta to surrender the city. Much has written about the significance of the Sept. 2, 1864, fall of Atlanta. The Picket asked historians and others to share their thoughts.

Charlie Crawford, president, Georgia Battlefields Association:

The Confederate evacuation of Atlanta over the night of 1-2 September 1864 had significance beyond the normal abandonment of territory by the losing side.  Many people in the north perceived the war effort as going poorly, and the prospect of more years of fighting made them inclined toward a peace negotiation that would likely result in letting the southern states leave the Union.  On 23 August 1864, less than ten days prior to the fall of Atlanta, President Lincoln was convinced that he would not be re-elected because Grant appeared to be stalled before Petersburg and Sherman was unable to take Atlanta.  The news of the fall of Atlanta, telegraphed to Washington on 2 September, changed the perception of Lincoln and much of the northern populace.  They couldn’t know that the fighting would end less than nine months later, but the prospect of defeating the Confederacy on terms dictated by the United States government was enhanced, and more voters would support the man who had led them to this point.  What happened on this day 150 years ago meant the war would be fought until victory was achieved, the Union would be restored, and slavery would end.  

Ken Johnston, executive director, National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus: 

The surrender of Atlanta on September 2, 1864 can be (and has been) spoken of in terms of military, economic, or political significance – and rightly so on each count. The thing that stays with me, however, is the psychological significance. There had been major southern cities that were reclaimed by Federal authority before, but they tended to be cities where US military power was more easily projected along water ways by the US Army and Navy – places like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. A southerner could take comfort, if so inclined, in the knowledge that Federal forces hadn’t penetrated into the deep heartland of the southern states with “boots on the ground”. Atlanta changed that.

After the surrender of Atlanta no southern partisan could realistically maintain that a city – or home – was beyond the reach of the US military. A heavily fortified southern city, over one hundred miles past previous front lines, defended by one of the two principal field armies of the Confederacy had surrendered to an army that had marched overland into the heart of territory previously untouched by war. The message was clear: “you are not safe, your government can’t protect you”. The psychological fall-out of fear, anxiety, and depression would be crippling to the Confederate war effort – and the surrender of Atlanta was but a prelude to the demonstration of power that General Sherman was soon to make.