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Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Michael P. Gray, The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2001. xv + 228 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87338-708-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Pamela Nickless, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

I’m sure most of the readers of this review know the name Andersonville — the notorious Confederate prison. Although approximately one-quarter the size, the death rate at the Union prison at Elmira, New York rivaled that of Andersonville. Of the twelve thousand Confederate prisoners sentenced to Elmira, almost one quarter would die in captivity. Elmira Prison operated from April 1864 to July 1865 and prisoners suffered from poor planning, poor organization, and a terrible winter followed by one of the worst spring floods in Elmira’s history. Elmira grew from a town of less than 9,000 in 1860 to a city of 12,000 by 1864. The prison and the military base that preceded it and co-existed with it until war’s end changed the town and provided its citizens with wartime employment in the prison and provisioning both soldiers and prisoners.

This book is based on Michael Gray’s doctoral dissertation completed at Kent State University and is a well-written narrative history of Elmira Prison. The story of the prison and the military organization that built and operated the camp is a complex one but the story is told clearly and well. The best chapters are the ones that deal with camp organization and society, which evolved as prisoners sought to supplement their inadequate diet and clothing through entrepreneurial activities. Prisoners with some education or skill were able to increase their chances of survival by either acquiring prison jobs (as clerks or accountants) or by making goods (mostly jewelry) to sell outside the prison walls. Gray’s explanation of the licensing of sutlers to sell goods to prisoners and the role of guards and other prison personnel in providing a conduit for prisoners’ handicraft sales is very interesting and clearly presented. Not all the inmates left prison ragged and emaciated, a few left with money jingling in their pockets and Gray’s analysis of the social order of inmates is intriguing.

The story of the men who ran the camp, their problems with provisioning the prisoners, their frustration with bureaucracy and at times their concern with costs over prisoner welfare is also well told and interesting. The role of the camp’s surgeon, Eugene F. Sanger, was particularly interesting — Gray appears to have solved a minor mystery about why Sanger left the camp in December and his subsequent career. Sanger repeatedly had asked to leave Elmira and complained that he “…could not be held responsible for a large medical department with over a 1000 patients without power, authority, or influence.” But he was held responsible for the high death rate and bungled care by both former prisoners and later historians who labeled him the Scourge of Elmira. In a letter defending his record at Elmira after the war, he blamed “… the inevitable red-tapeism and routine of army regulations …” for his difficulty in dealing with the problems of Elmira. Gray’s story of the horror that was Elmira is one not so much of deliberate mistreatment of prisoners but of bungling and endless bureaucracy that delayed crucial activities that ranged from constructing appropriate drainage to distributing clothing. (The delay in getting adequate clothing to the prisoners in a brutal winter was particularly appalling and both sides participated in the bungling — clothing provided by the Confederacy could not be distributed except by (captured and paroled) Confederate officers and a delay of several weeks ensued until three Confederate officers finally arrived in Elmira.)

Gray’s book will be of interest to those who study Civil War prisons or who are interested in the war generally. Economic historians will find it a frustrating book since it does not deliver on its promise to examine the economic impact of the prison and military base on Elmira. There are two reasons for this — the first is that the book ends rather abruptly with the end of the war and the closing of the prison. One is left with the impression that Elmira grew and prospered because of the war, but what happened next? What was the transition to a peacetime economy like for Elmira? Did the experience of the war represent only a gigantic misallocation of resources or was some infrastructure or pool of skilled workers or capital created that benefited Elmira during Reconstruction?

Gray also seems unaware of the problem with inflation during the war. The price index for the Union rose from 100 in 1861 to 175 by 1864. (See Roger Ransom, “The Economics of the Civil War,” EH.NET Encyclopedia.) Gray reports lots of prices and costs but not one is corrected for changes in the price level. Since the camp only operated for a period in which the price level did not change dramatically (April 1864 to July 1865, this is not a problem for the story of the camp. But it is a problem if you want to know about the economic impact of the war on the surrounding countryside. For example, the $375 rent paid William Foster for the use of his land seems to have been the same from 1861 to 1865. If so, Foster was certainly not profiting from the war. In 1865 dollars, the rent would have to be $669 to equal the purchasing power of $375 in 1861. (It would also to be useful to know what one could buy with 15 cents in 1864, other than a turn on the observation tower built by a local entrepreneur to profit from those willing to pay to watch Confederate prisoners.) Comparisons with the costs of other prison camps are also problematic. Gray has presented a wealth of price data but it is not useful in its current context.

Professor Nickless is the Director of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Her most recent work is on the impact of the Civil War on North Carolina businesspersons. It is forthcoming in an anthology from Ashgate edited by Beth Harris and titled Famine and Fashion.