'Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War' Excerpts Page 7

'Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War' Excerpts Pg 7
Portals cover

By Lonnie R. Speer

© 1997 by Stackpole Books
5067 Ritter Road
Mechanicsburg, Pa. 17055

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other Stackpole Books, go to
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NYCHS presents
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Hart Island: City's Concentration Camp

The final prison established by the Union was on Hart Island in New York City and it quickly evolved into the city's most horrible site. Located in Long Island Sound about twenty miles north of the city and just a few miles south of David's Island, Hart Island wasn't even used until April 1865, the month the Civil War came to an end, yet 235 POWs perished there.

[Excerpts Editor's Note: Monument erected by the NYC Army Reserve, on May 10, 1877, in memory oi the Veteran Union Soldiers and Sailors buried at the Civil War Cemetery on Hart Island. The monument still stands on Hart Island, although the remains of these dead were removed to Cypress Hills National Cemetery in 1941.]

It, too, was nothing more than a concentration camp. The first POWs arrived on April 7 and were immediately placed into a stockade enclosure of about four acres. "Two thousand and twenty-nine prisoners of war were received," noted Henry W Wessells, the prison commandant. "They seem to be healthy with few exceptions, and tolerably well clothed ... The guard is entirely insufficient consisting of a small detachment sent with them from City Point. Three hundred and fifty effective men are required."

Hart Island originally served as a draft rendezvous camp for this area of New York. Colonel Hoffman suggested using the site to confine POWs as early as August 1864, and added that "the guard and prisoners ... be placed in old tents until it becomes absolutely necessary to put them in quarters, when sheds may [then] be erected by the labor of prisoners."

PAST
AND
PRESENT

Riker's Island has continued to grow since the Civil War. While confining POWs, the island consisted of eighty-seven acres. . . .increased to four hundred acres, from the dumping of old metal, cinders, dirt from subway excavations, and refuse, today, appropriately enough, the entire island is used as a [jail complex] for the city of New York.

Hart's Island . ..over the years developed into the city's reformatory prison, and [now] serves as the city cemetery.

Fort Schuyler still survives, but not as a military installation. It was used for military purposes up until 1911, and then the garrison was moved to new facilities on nearby Fisher's Island. The site remained idle until it was leased to the state of New York in 1937 to house the New York State Merchant Marine Academy. That school still uses those facilities today.

Ward's Island now houses the Manhattan Psychiatric Center, and although the Ludlow Street Jail no longer exists, it lasted well into the 1890s. David's Island was ignored over the ensuing years and gradually returned to a natural state.

Since the Civil War, Bedloe's Island has been renamed. After the prisoners were transferred from the island's fort in October of 1861, it remained idle until reactivated as a POW facility in October of 1863. The fort then continued in this role until December 1864, after which it served as a POW hospital facility. Today, Bedloe's Island is referred to as Liberty Island. Fort Wood, named in honor of Eleazar Wood, a hero of the War of 1812, was renovated to serve as the base for the Statue of Liberty erected on the site in 1886. Ironically, what has become one of the nation's most prominent landmarks-one that symbolizes freedom to the world-is supported by a fort that once held Americans prisoner.

Although tents were used for the overflow, for the most part a portion of the rendezvous barracks were used for both guards and prisoners from the day the prison began its operation. Within three weeks, a total of 3,413 POWs were crammed into the post's tiny enclosed area.

"We were placed in wards of a hundred to each ward, with three rows of bunks and two men to a bunk," advised J. S. Kimbrough, Company K, 14th Georgia. "The first ward was composed mostly of jail birds, blacklegs, and toughs from Petersburg, and their nocturnal rounds of robbery and thieving were a terror to the camp."

"Our rations," Kimbrough continued, "consisted of four hard tacks, a small piece of pickled beef or mule, and a cup of soup per day. Often have I eaten my two day's rations at one meal and subsisted upon water and wind until the next drawing."

Hart Island wasn't completely cleared of prisoners until July 1865. Within those four months, nearly 7 percent of all those "healthy and tolerably well clothed" prisoners had died. "The largest portion of deaths," declared U.S. Medical Inspector George Lyman, "occurred from chronic diarrhea, brought with them, and pneumonia, which began to appear a few days after their arrival.... 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 ... increased, probably, to some extent by the crowded and unventilated condition of the barracks."

Fort Schuyler, Riker's & Ward's Islands

Nearby Fort Schuyler, having a capacity of five hundred prisoners, also came into use as a POW facility in 1864. This fort, named for the Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler, had been acquired by the Federal government in 1833 and was located on a Bronx peninsula where Long Island Sound joined the East River. Although briefly manned as a defensive post during the Civil War, when it came into use as a prison, the POWs were held within several large rooms of the fort's interior.

About the same time, Riker's Island, in the East River south of Fort Schuyler, was also pressed into use. There were only about two or three storage buildings on the site and fresh water was scarce, yet authorities estimated the island was capable of holding up to one thousand prisoners. Within a short time barracks were built for the guard, and Confederate prisoners were moved onto the island. Water was eventually supplied by cisterns filled with runoff water from the roofs.

Another New York City location used for confining POWs for various periods before the war ended included Ward's Island in the East River just west of Riker's Island.



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NYCHS presents
these excerpts
with the author
and publisher's
permission.
Their rights
are retained.
Portals cover © 1997 by Stackpole Books
5067 Ritter Road
Mechanicsburg, Pa. 17055

To access more information on this and
other Stackpole Books, go to
http://www.stackpolebooks.com