A Short Diary from Elmira

ECW welcomes guest author Ray Stoll

Churchill’s Diary

The 98th Regiment New York National Guard is known only to those specializing in the Elmira prisoner camp. It was a 100-day unit organized for prison guard duty. An 18-year old farm boy named Franklin Churchill mustered into that unit’s Company G in August 1864. His surviving diary covers the period from a few days before he departed by train from Buffalo, New York, through October.

The diary, written in pencil, speaks of the weather, apples, religious services, sick days, and keeps track of letters sent and letters received. When he mentions relatives or friends, and, what I believe are mentions of letters from his future wife, it’s often with initials. And the prison guard sparingly mentions “Rebs.”

But despite the weather reports and individual affairs, there are historical events that get documented.

The Sept 3 entry includes, “There is considerable fiering to day celebrating the fall of Atlanta.”

The Sept 26 entry includes, “There was a salute fired in honor of the taken of Mobile.”

The diary dovetails with a well-known third party.

The book, Turned Inside Out, by Frank Wilkeson, is an excellent resource, cited by many authors. It details the Overland Campaign fighting almost like no other. Lt. Wilkeson’s artillery unit was dispatched to Elmira prison camp to help control the prisoners. According to Wilkeson, the prisoners at night, “gathered in mobs, and the Confederate charging-yell rang out clearly.”

Churchill’s diary entries support Wilkeson’s retelling. His diary entry for Sept 2 mentions that “the Rebs are uneasy.” On Sept 7, Churchill includes, “there was a battery of 2 guns of flying artillery came here to day.” Sept 15 includes, “we went up to see the artillery drill.” And on Sept 18, “There was 4 guns fired by the battery this PM. Don’t know what the cause was.” Wilkeson recounts that one night one of his guns fired a load of stone into the prisoner camp, leading to no deaths but which led to a sudden transfer of his artillery unit away from Elmira.

Overnight on October 6-7, 1864, Elmira prison camp suffered an escape. Churchill’s diary records on Oct 6, “It rained some in the pm so there was no drill,” and on Oct 7, “There was some prisoners escaped by digging from their tent under the fence. 4 escaped.” According to other sources, including the book “Hellmira,” by Derek Maxfield, which has an appendix detailing the execution of the prison camp escape, the actual number of escapees was ten.

Before a harsh upstate New York winter sent thousands of Elmira’s little-protected Confederate prisoners to the grave, many other prisoners were sent back to the South in exchanges. Franklin Churchill performed escort duty on a prisoner exchange, and on October 16, 1864, he records that he “passed the place where the Monitor performed so galently,” and then was near “Genl Handcockks head quarters.” where he was “at one time only 1-2 a mile [half a mile] from the Rebel Lines.” He “caught quite a hard cold” on the train ride back to Elmira from Virginia.

There is more there than these highlights. Two camp sermons he cites relate to Matthew 10:16 and Romans 1:16, for example.  But after performing his duty in a prisoner exchange, his diary entries dwindle down to one word per day and the last dated entry is October 29, although there are further undated entries of a personal nature. In its own humble way, this little diary presents considerable history even if its author didn’t fight on Little Round Top or charge with Jackson at Chancellorsville.

I highly recommend reading a Civil war diary and getting to know its author. This diary caused me to research census records, local history books of who’s who and who works where, and online ancestry databases, among other sources.

Via eBay I obtained a circa 1894 envelope sent from “Brady & Maltby,” a Buffalo, New York company where at the time Franklin Churchill worked as a bookkeeper. The envelope was a common one with a common stamp but the seller claimed that the postmark was perfectly centered and wouldn’t move much on price, but for all that, I paid up for the envelope due to its clearly written address.

Juxtapose the writing on the addressed envelope with that in an image from the diary where I tried to highlight some handwritten text for comparison. The diary image is from the entry reading as, “We arrived at Fortress Monroe this morning & changed boats & started for City Point. Arrived there about 5 & took the cars for the front.”

Compare “Fortress” and “boats” in the diary image vs “St” and “City” on the envelope. See how the ‘t’ is crossed with the horizontal bar after the vertical in both? See the double letter ‘o’ with unclosed loops (“took” vs “Foot”;) see the capital “S”s, and the full word “City” in both examples. Even after decades, his handwriting style remained the same. After having transcribed the diary I recognized that hand on eBay immediately. And so, to obtain this envelope was like a homecoming to me.

Online, I bought the book, Spirit Power, published in 1922, written by May Thirza Churchill, one of Franklin and Celia Churchill’s three daughters. In it, I found a beautiful, loving dedication to her parents, which I am including to show the kind of person, and parent, Franklin Churchill grew to be.

Ray Stoll hails from Western New York and became an avid Civil War student due to the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.  He has two great-great-relatives that were Union cavalry, has re-enacted, and enjoys walking the battlefields in admiration of the bravery of those men and women.  His CW library is eclectic but has concentrations on Gettysburg and the Overland Campaign.

Bibliography:

Diary:

Churchill, Franklin, 10 August 1864 – 29 October 1864, possession of the author.

Online:

New York State Military Museum,  https://dmna.ny.gov/historic/reghist/civil/infantry/98thInfNYSM/98thInfNYSMMain.htm

New York State 1892 Census, accessed through Ancestry.com

Books:

Buffalo City Directory, Buffalo NY (1880)

Elmira: Death Camp of the North, by Michael Horigan (2002)

Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison by Derek Maxfield (2020)

Spirit Power, by May Thirza Churchill (1922)

Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac, by Frank Wilkeson (reprint, 1997)

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