Old Days at the Famous Northern Prison.
By Marcus B. Toney
Volume XXIX, Richmond, Va.,
January -December. 1901
  Pages 194-197


Old Days at the Famous Northern Prison. 


Marcus B. Toney Glives His Impressions of a Recent Visit and Incidentally Mentions Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. 

The Elmira (N. Y.) Advertisers, in a recent issue, contains an interesting article in the way of
a reminiscences of prison life from the pen of Marcus B. Toney, the well-known railroad man and ex-Confederate soldier of this city. Mr. Toney reached the prison at Elmira, August 2, 1864, and left there July 8, 1865. The recollections of the old days were recalled by a recent visit to Elmira. Mr. Toney's article follows: 

"When I left my home, in Nashville, Tenn., for a visit East I promised my people I would stop 
at Elmira and report the condition of the graves of our Confederate dead buried there, so I arrived in your city August 10th, after an absence of thirty-six years. While waiting for a car 
I met a young man, R. H. Ker, of your city, who kindly consented to go with me to the cemetery, and introduced me to the keeper, Charles Abbott, who showed me a large charge hanging in his hall, which contained all the graves and the number of  each. 

On a table under the chart was a large book, in which were enrolled alphabetically the names 
of the dead correspondence with the chart and the name, company, regiment, and date of death, Mr. Abbott being busy, Mr. Ker said he would point out the graves, which was only a short distance. 

I going through the cemetery I pictured in my mind the graves grown over with briars, weeds and thistles. Imagine my surprise on beholding such a nice green, grassy spot. Not a weed to be seen ! With only a narrow path dividing, sleep the boys who wore the blue, and the only difference in the graves were the marble slabs of the blue, where our wooden head boards
had all rotted away.I thought Mr. Abbott gave special care to our graves, knowing there were
no hands to care for them. 

As I stood by the graves of our fallen heroes, memory went back to the mothers of those boys, who have nearly all passed over the river. I thought of their widows, daughters and sisters, now the Daughters of the Confederacy, and I thought how futile would be your efforts to mark in marble the names of our dead. It can only be done by the general government. 


"I went from the cemetery over the old prison site, near the Chemung River. Your city had so encroached upon it I could not have identified it, but for the northeast and southwest stone, erected by Baldwin Post, in 1900. I reached Elmira prison August, 2, 1864 and left July 8, 1865. I had charge of Ward 36, which, contained some 300 prisoners. Where my ward stood now stands the city pumping station, and the camp fronting on the street is filled with residences. . Near where the old cook-house was is now a large nursery, and in front of the ice-houses is where the tents stood that contained the small-pox patients.

I had the varioloid, and the doctor said I must go to the hospital. I thought first of the horrors some six days' sojourn there, with two of my bunkmates who died with confluent small-pox, I received orders to go take a bath. Away went my suit, and I was clad in the blue, with a long frock coat. While I was admiring the coat -he started cutting off my skirt. 'Hold on,' said I, 'don't disfigure my uniform.' He replied: 'Do you reckon I am going to leave you in this condition? You would walk out as one of our guards.' 

"I was fortunate in my recent visit in meeting Postmaster M. M. Conklin, who was on special duty in the prison for some months, and we talked over the prison days. He told me the old darkly, named John W. Jones, died only a few weeks ago. I wish I could have seen the old man again and talked to him about the burial of the dead, and the big scare he got one day. 

The old man drove the horse that pulled the small wagon hauling the dead piled deep out to the cemetery. Our sergeant, who had charge of preparing the dead for burial, agreed with another prisoner to feign dead. Accordingly he straightened himself out in the box and had the lid nailed lightly on and loaded in the wagon on top of the other two boxes. When the old man reached
the cemetery he heard a groan witnessed a resurrection. He fled to the prison in terror and the prisoner fled in another direction. Thereupon Major Beale appointed my friend, M. M. Conklin, on especial duty, one of his duties being to see that no prisoner was sent our of there dead, unless he was much dead. As most of our men  were captured in the Wilderness, I gave my friend Conklin a sketch of that terrible field of carnage. In seven Days 50,000 men fell. May 1, 1864, General Lee issued two orders. 

"First: 'Send all extra baggage to the rear; Second, cook up three days' rations;' both easily complied with, because we had little extra baggage; our three days' rations consisted  of three pones of cornbread. May 4th, General Grant crossed the Rapidan with 117,000 men, the flower of the Federal army.

Confronting him in the Wilderness was General Lee, with 55,000 ill-clad and poorly fed Confederates. May 5th, General Grant charged us in the Wilderness with three columns across Palmer's old field. Result; 1,100 killed in few hours; 146th New York nearly annihilated, and its commander, Major Gilbert, killed. Continued fighting 'till May 12th. Dead angle in front of Spotsylvania Courthouse, in which 1,100 of the Elmira prisoners were captured. 


"Late in the evening, May 10th, we reached this spot, and General Lee considered it a strategic point, and in order to hold it he led a charge in person. General Gordon caught the bridle of his horse and led him to the rear. At 10 o'clock at night, by aid of the engineers' voices, they formed in the shape of a horseshoe, and we were ordered to fortify. We had no tools, but dug all night with our bayonets, shoveling out dirt with the tin plates we carried to eat on, provided we could get anything to eat. By nightfall, May 11th, we were about four and a half feet in the ground, and by throwing the dirt in front and putting a pine log on top, we were nearly six feet in the ground. 

It drizzled rain all night May 11th. We were muddy and wet. At early dawn on May 12th, General Hancock attacked us with three columns in front, and while we were resisting his attack General Thomas Francis Meagher's brigade broke our left, and in a few minutes his whole line was in our rear. I heard one of my men say: 'Don't shoot again; they will kill all of us.' Then I heard a voice in our rear saying: 'Surrender, G- d-your!" I looked, and a strapping big Irishman had his gun within two feet of me, with his finger on the trigger. Why he did not shoot, I will never know, as I saw some of our men killed after surrendering.  The 1,100 could not get to the rear, therefore,  went into the three columns in front of the logs we had been fighting for been over. We in front, four guards to each prisoner, to go back to the rear with us. Of course, I knew it was not on account of our personal safety, but the guards wanted a little respite from the conflict that was still going on in the front, and continued 'till nightfall. When we reached by double quick a point some miles in the rear, we came to General Grant's headquarters. 

"He was busy dispatching couriers with orders to his various commanders. When he saw us a smile came over his face. I think we got to him ahead of the news of capture from General Hancock. He turned to one of his aids and said: 'Detail officer to take charge of those prisoners, about one guard to four prisoners. Order all the other men to the front at once.' 

"We marched in the rain all day to Fredericksburg, and all day the conflict raged over the dead angle. Twice the stars and stripes waved from its ramparts, and twice they were replaced by
the stars and bars. At nightfall General Lee held the angle, which was piled full of the blue 
and gray. Attesting the severity of this conflict is the stump of a 16-inch history tree, now in 
the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, which was literally cut down with minie balls, for
the Wilderness was such that artillery could not be used. "Major-General Edward Johnson, of Virginia, was captured with me in the trenches, and as we were going to the rear I said to the general: 'Throw off your coat and go as a private. In case of retaliation you will suffer.' He  did not take my advice, and was sent to Fort Delaware. 

On the march to Fredericksburg we met 25,000 soldiers who had been going garrison duty at Washington, and ordered to join General Grant. We were meeting each other for some hours and they guyed us all along. I recollect one said, 'Hello Johnnies. We were taking you North to give you something to eat  and put some shoes on your feet.' Some of us needed shoes. In fact, we were hatless, shoreless, and coat less. 

We were taken to Point Lookout, Md., and after three months transferred to Elmira. Major H. G. O. Weymouth, of the Seventeenth Massachussets was command of Point Lookout. I had a pleasant chat with him yesterday in Boston. He was kind and considerate, and allowed the Masons to make an appeal to the Baltimore fraternity for clothing. We had 1,200 negro guards at Point Lookout, but white troops at Elmira. 

"I desire to express my thanks to the members of Baldwin Post for their attention to our graves, and the honors they showed our dead Decoration-Day. 

Also for the pleasant call from Post- Commander M. M. Conklin, Van Wagoner, and Brother Wingfield S. Moody, I wish to say in conclusion, that while we ex-Confederates repudiated the suggestion as to pensions from the National Government, yet we applauded President McKinley's utterance at Atlanta ,the Baldwin Post, of Elmira, N. Y., will do all in their power to help mark in marble the names of our beloved dead. 


 Return to Treatment of Prisoner Index