Monday, May 28, 2012

John W. Jones and the Confederate dead of Elmira Prison Camp, 1864-1865

John W. Jones

There was no attempt at any ceremonial at the burial of the dead from the prison camp, no services of any kind or character at the grave. Each body was put into a pine box and nine were taken to the cemetery at a time, just a good load for an ambulance. In a trench large enough to contain a number of these boxes they were laid side by side or foot to foot. On the top of each box was written the name of the person occupying it, his company, regiment, and State where from; this information, if it could be obtained, for not in every instance did the prisoner give his right name, although if he got into the hospital he was pretty sure to announce it. Some curious instances of fictitious names are met with. One was borne on the record for some time as "Registered Enemy," the person giving it known by it until he was taken sick and was sent to the hospital. Then the bitterness that caused him to give such a name evaporated and he told his true name, Henry Matthews.
(Ausburn Towner, Our County and Its People, Elmira NY 1892)

Memorial Day, once commemorated as a remembrance to American soldiers as Decoration Day, has its origin in the Civil War. Like many things about "the recent unpleasantness," as the War is still referred to in parts of the South, the location of the first observance of Memorial Day rituals has both its northern and southern partisans.
During the War's final year, the Confederate dead at a Union prison camp received a careful -- if not grand -- burial in the new local cemetery at Elmira, New York. Burial preparations and records were kept by John W. Jones, a runaway on the underground railroad through Elmira. His records were so thorough that the Confederate burial grounds were eventually designated as part of a national cemetery.

Elmira's participation in the underground railroad was significant due to its location between Philadelphia and St. Catharines, Ontario, the final destination for many runaway slaves. At one point as early as July 1845 when Jones arrived from Virginia, 17 fugitive slaves were in the Elmira area, hiding on farms and at other places including the home of the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Jones eventually became a church sexton and in charge of the interment of nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers at Woodlawn. The remains of nearly all of them are still there, one hundred fifty years later, in the Confederate section of Woodlawn National Cemetery; the only exceptions have been soldiers returned home by request of family members. A 40-foot high granite monument dedicated to Civil War soldiers and sailors was erected in 1892 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
A plaque at the Confederate burial section, placed in 1997, explains: "They have remained in these hallowed grounds ... by family choice because of the honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man."
Jones became the cemetery's sexton in 1859 on behalf of the First Baptist Church and buried or supervised the burial of 2,973 Confederate soldiers and marked each grave with the best information available, sometimes given by the dying soldiers themselves. He preserved the memory of men whose identities might easily have been buried with them -- not only by keeping complete records of each burial but also placing a glass bottle in each coffin with the soldier's identification.
At Woodlawn, prisoners who died at the camp known as "Helmira" by Confederate troops were buried between July 1864 and August 1865 in graves now numbered from 1 to 2,963. Four headstones have two numbers and the names of two soldiers buried below. Ten markers contain the names of two soldiers each but only one number, bringing the total number to 2,973.

Each original wooden marker contained at least the name of the man or men buried in the plot. Most included the soldier's unit, and many also had his rank and the date he died, and only seven Confederate graves are marked as unknown. This is Jones's remarkable feat of record-keeping for a camp where dysentery, starvation, malnutrition, and wintertime exposure were factors in a death rate that reached more than a quarter of the prison's population in fifteen months. 

What the conscientious Jones preserved on record the northern weather had physically obliterated by the time Towner's history Our County and Its People was published in 1892:
These names written on the tops of the boxes were copied by Sexton John W. Jones, and the location of each was recorded. Wooden headboards were erected on which was painted the information written on the boxes, but these soon rotted away and the grounds in a few years presented a very dilapidated and forlorn appearance, not at all in harmony with the other portions of the well kept and beautiful cemetery.
At one time there was a suggestion that permanent headboards of iron were to be erected, but it was never done. The grounds were surveyed, a map made, the location of each body accurately set forth, and now the plot is and for some years has been a fair smooth lawn with no evidences apparent that underneath the sod are reposing the remains of nearly 3,000 men.
White marble stones provided by the federal government have been in place at Woodlawn since 1907. By then, some relatives of the buried soldiers had already placed permanent headstones on graves, a few of which had no marker previously, and those remain. The information that was on the original wooden markers now appears on the stones.
The national cemetery of American war veterans also contains the remains of 49 Confederates and 17 Union soldiers who were killed in the crash of a prisoner-of-war train near Shohola, Pa., as it headed to Elmira. A monument to those who died in the crash lists Confederate names on one side, Union names on the other.
Visitors who come to see the gravesites and the monuments usually arrive unannounced, individually or in couples or small groups. Certain days will draw the most people to the Confederate section, including Confederate Memorial Day, which is observed on various dates, usually at the end of April, in different Southern states. 
A few years ago the United Daughters of the Confederacy put a Confederate flag on each gravesite, but federal regulations require that Confederate flags in the cemetery be removed by sundown. Throughout the year, employees at Woodlawn occasionally discover a small Confederate flag or other memento left by a visitor, which they remove later that day and file away in the office.
In addition to flags of various sizes there have been soldiers' photographs; a container full of Georgia red clay; a branch from a cotton plant, with cotton ball attached; a prayer book, and other items. Some people place stones atop the grave markers. When requested, a small sample of soil from a gravesite will be sent to a family member. American flags are placed on every grave in the national cemetery on Memorial Day and stay in place from Saturday through Monday of that weekend.
Most people who visit the Confederate section are on their first, and probably only, trip to the cemetery, and they usually need help finding the gravesite they're looking for. The Confederate section was renovated five years ago when a government contractor raised and aligned all the white stones (the first time that had been done to the entire section at once) and put down new turf.
Despite the appearance of complete uniformity at a glance over the field, there are ten private stones, including one that is black marble.
The regulation stones are shaped differently at the top for Confederate and Union graves. The Southerners' stones come to a point at the top; the Northerners' are rounded.
The Woodlawn staff was told by a Southern visitor: "It's to keep the damn Yankees from sittin' on 'em."

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