Sunday, March 25, 2012

James Hogan Dendy: Elmira POW

© Kathy Duncan, 2012

James Hogan Dendy was one of the first ancestors I was able to put on my pedigree chart. For decades, I thought I knew him well. As it turns out, I only knew the basics: He was born on 11 May 1837 in Alabama to William C. and Nancy (Williams) Dendy. He married Lydia Pugh after the Civil War on 13 Nov 1866 in Pike County, Alabama. Shortly afterwards they migrated, first to Wood County, Texas and then to Bowie County, Texas. I found them on every census year from Pike County, Alabama to Bowie County, Texas, and located their burials in Hubbard Cemetery in Bowie County, Texas.

Better yet, I had Lydia A. (Pugh) Dendy's widow's pension papers. Generally speaking, such pensions provide valuable information. Lydia's was no exception. An affidavit made by S.J. Rushing and A.L. Burdick in 1913 stated that they had served with James Dendy, who served as a 2nd sergeant in Company C, 60th Alabama Infantry and that they all enlisted together in Pike County, Alabama in July 1862. The pension states further that James Hogan Dendy "enlisted July 1862, served until the close of war, was a prisoner at time of surrender." Family tradition holds that James Hogan Dendy was wounded in the war and that his suffering in later years from his war wounds inspired his son Joseph Benion Dendy to become a doctor. According to the story, James Hogan Dendy's war wound especially bothered him when he sat in his wheelchair. James Hogan Dendy died of Bright's disease on 29 June 1892.

That all seemed pretty straightforward until I recently searched the Confederate Service Records for James H. Dendy and S. L. Rushing. Their records add a new dimension to Lydia's pension papers. James H. Dendy actually enlisted at Troy, Alabama in May of 1862 into Company D of the 2nd Battalion of Hilliard's Legion, where he served as a First Sergeant. All of his later service records state that he enlisted at Montgomery County, Alabama. S.L. Rushing enlisted in July of 1862 from Montgomery, Co., Alabama into Company D of the 3rd Battalion of Hilliard's Legion. James H. Dendy is present on the company muster for Hilliard's Legion through October of 1863, and S.L. Rushing is present though August of 1863.

On September 19 and 20, 1863, Hilliard's Legion fought at Chickamauga, losing 45 percent of its men. The 2nd Battalion planted their colors on the enemy works. Their flag was pierced by over 80 bullet holes. Both James H. Dendy and S.L. Rushing survived Chickamauga. However, Hilliard's Legion was dissolved on November 25, 1863. The 2nd and 4th Battalions merged into the 59th Alabama Infantry while the 1st and 3rd merged into the 60th Alabama Infantry. Thus, James H. Dendy served out the remainder of the war in the 59th, and S.L. Rushing served in the 60th.

On June 17, 1864, James H. Dendy was captured during the Petersburg Campaign and became a prisoner of war. He arrived at City Point on June 24, 1864 and was held at Point Lookout, Maryland. Then on July 27th he was transferred to Elmira, New York, arriving there on July 30th. He was held until the close of the war. J.H. Dendy signed his Oath of Allegiance in Elmira on June 21, 1865, on the same day he was released.

Elmira!

Until this point, I only knew that Elmira was regarded by southerners as the Andersonville of the North. What was James Hogan Dendy's experience as a prisoner of war for a year in one of the most notorious Civil War camps?

Before leaving Point Lookout, James H. Dendy probably received a small pox vaccination, as did the prisoners who arrived at camp Elmira before him.

To begin his trip to Elmira, James Hogan Dendy boarded a steamer at Point Lookout that took him to New York City. From there he was taken across the Hudson River to Jersey City, where he was crammed into an Erie Railroad boxcar. The trip by rail to Elmira, New York was 17 to 20 hours. During that trip huge numbers of men could be expected to die, especially the wounded.

James H. Dendy was one of 850 Confederate soldiers to arrive in Elmira at noon on Saturday, July 30, 1864. A column of soldiers, four deep, extending a quarter of a mile, were marched from the Elmira depot down Railroad Street to the camp. A carnival atmosphere dominated in Elmira. The streets were lined with citizens who had turned out to watch the prisoners march to compound No. 3. Like prisoners who had arrived before them, James Hogan Dendy probably had a large, deep wound on his arm from his small pox vaccine. One eyewitness described these wounds as being deep enough to sink a fist in. These shots, which were given to prisoners across the North ,were of an inferior quality and frequently resulted in amputations from gangrene and death.

The next evening, July 31st, there was unrest in the camp. A group of prisoners concocted a plan to escape by breaking into the guardroom, taking shovels and picks, and demolishing the fence that held them in the camp. Their plan, however, was discovered and foiled. The New York Evening News proclaimed that the new prisoners were "desperate and turbulent spirits" who were "difficult to control."

Near the end of July, the citizens of Elmira erected two observation towers. For fifteen cents, spectators could climb up to the observation deck and look at the prisoners through looking glasses. The streets of Elmira were lined with booths selling vegetables and baked goods. The whole town took on a festival quality. In a short time, the military put a stop to the observation tower enterprise, taking over the towers for their own purposes.

By the end of July 1864 there were 4,424 prisoners at Elmira. The first arrivals at Elmira filled the barracks. When room in the barracks ran out, tents were issued. A tent could sleep three men. By August 7, the tents had run out. On August 12 another shipment of tents arrived, but there were not enough. James H. Dendy was probably lucky enough to be assigned to a tent. Otherwise, he would have been among the unfortunate, half-clothed men who were sleeping in the open. By the end of August, the prison population of Elmira had swollen to nearly 10,000 men. Eventually, all of the tents would be replace by barracks.

There was also an immediate for clothing for these men. Southern families shipped clothes to Elmira. The clothes were not distributed until Col. Eastman could get permission to issue them. When permission finally arrived, it was with the condition that only gray garments could be given to the prisoners. Clothes of any other color were ordered to be burned. Very few articles of clothing reached the prisoners. If James Hogan Dendy was like most of the men, he was not lucky enough to receive any new clothes.

On August 18, rations were reduced to bread and water. By September 11, men were dying of diarrhea and dysentery. Scurvy broke out and was epidemic. Soon men were dying at the rate of ten a day. At that point, Elmira's ten deaths a day was the leading death rate among the northern camps.

In October, like the other prisoners, James H. Dendy received a small ration of fresh vegetables. He and the other prisoners ate onions and potatoes for three out of every five rations. This only lasted for two weeks. The prisoners resumed their bread and water diet, which was not broken until December when they received a ration of poor quality meat.

Prisoners were starving to death at the rate of 25 a day.

Foster Pond was located in the camp. Runoff and sewage flowed into it. Soon it was a stinking, rotting, green, scum filled mess that attracted rats. The rats became an alternative food source as well as part of the bartering system in the camp. Any man lucky enough to catch a rat had something of substance to eat.

Desperately hungry men were reduced to eating hospital scraps even thought they knew this could make them extremely sick or kill them. One man was seen eating a castoff poultice that had been used on wounds.

Winter arrived early in Elmira that year. By December, 1,600 half naked men, many with no blankets, stood in the snow for morning roll call. Most of the prisoners stood in the ankle deep snow with only rags on their feet. Twice the temperature dropped to 18 degrees below zero. The result was frostbite.

Prisoners were allowed to receive and send one page letters to family and friends. Censors read all their letters; no letters containing complaints about the prison conditions were allowed to be mailed.

December also bought with it a small pox epidemic. The hospital filled to overflowing. Many of the sick remained in regular prison quarters because there was no room for them. There is no way of knowing if the smallpox vaccines that had caused such gruesome wounds provided the men with any protection for the illness itself.

Late in December, Washington sent a few stoves to Elmira: two for each barrack and few for the men in tents. The men drew a chalk circle five feet away and around each stove. This was the distance that they had to keep from each stove so that all of the men could benefit from the heat.

On the night of March 16, 1865, heavy rains caused the Chemung River to overflow and flood the camp. If James H. Dendy was in the hospital, he was rescued on a hastily built raft. If he was among the other prisoners, he scrambled with them onto the roof of the barracks as the icy cold water rose half way up the barracks.

By May 1865 the release of prisoners had begun and continued until the camp was empty on July 5th. The sickest left last. Of the prisoners, one eyewitness said, "I speak with reverence when I say that I do not believe such a spectacle was seen before on earth...on they came, a ghostly tide, with skeleton bones and lusterless eyes, and brains bereft of but one thought, and hearts purged of but one feeling - the thought of freedom, the love of home."

James Hogan Dendy signed his Oath of Allegiance at Elmira on June 21, 1865 and was released the same day. He had been imprisoned there just short of eleven months.

When it was over, Elmira had a death rate of 24 percent. Out of 12,123 prisoners, 2,963 died. More detailed accounts of the harsh conditions at Elmira are readily available.

In light of the evidence, it seems that Lydia (Pugh) Dendy relied heavily on information provided by James Hogan Dendy's war buddies. Mostly, S.L. Rushing provided his own service record - enlisted in July 1862 and served in Co. C of the 60th Alabama Infantry. Currently, no service record for A.L. Burdick has been found. James Hogan Dendy's rank is listed incorrectly - he was a 1st sergeant not a 2nd sergeant. His imprisonment at Elmira is reduced in the pension to just "in prison at the end of the war."

A little more that a year after his release James Hogan Dendy married Lydia Ann Pugh on November 13, 1866 in Pike County, Alabama They migrated to Texas in late 1869 or early 1870 with two children in tow. The baby in arms was my great-grandfather, Buford Watts Dendy. By 1870, the survivors of Elmira were publicly telling their stories of abuse.

Until recently, the descendants of James Hogan Dendy gathered in DeKalb, Texas for an annual reunion. The Hubbard Cemetery, where James Hogan and Lydia Dendy rest, is only a few miles away. Among the descendants at the reunions were several surviving grandchildren of James Hogan Dendy's. Most of that generation is now gone, but for many years, we swapped pictures, stories, and family research. Not one of us ever mentioned that James Hogan Dendy had been a prisoner at Elmira.

He seems to have remained silent about his experience at Elmira. Luckily for his family, he endured.

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