CANNED OYSTERS FOR OYSTERMEN
I suspect that the people of Chemung County are weary of stories about the events at Elmira Prison between 1864 and 1865. I do not blame you. After all, no one in Elmira asked that the prison be there, and no one in Elmira was responsible for the War or the events that followed. Among the 12,000 Confederate soldiers imprisoned at Barracks # 3 were 126 from the 26th Virginia Infantry, a unit recruited in Gloucester County, Virginia and captured at Petersburg in June 0f 1864. Just as New York state provided the largest proportion of soldiers for the Union Army, Virginia provided the same for the South. Half of these 126 men never saw home again.
I want to tell you about these soldiers. Gloucester County lies at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay on the York River. These soldiers’ ancestors had fought the British during the Revolution and again in the War of 1812. When their land was invaded by a foreign Army, they took the same action the people of Chemung County would have taken under similar circumstances. The men and boys of the 26th did not own slaves; however many of them owned oyster boats.
William T. Post of Elmira was one of the men who delivered groceries to the camp. Some soldiers made crafts which Mr. Post sold for them in town, and in turn bought goods the prisoners requested. He wrote " In those days oysters were put up in pint cans, and I used to take many a pint to them…" There is no way Mr. Post could have known he was delivering a staple of their pre-War diet. Thank you, Mr. Post. You were delivering oysters to oystermen, and in my heart I know you gave my great-great grandfather John W. White a taste of home.
When John W. Jones, sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery, insisted on an accurate record of deaths and burials of the Confederate dead, I doubt he ever considered that I, a descendant of two of them, would come to Elmira in 2001 to pay my respects. Thank you, Mr. Jones. It would have been very easy to forget who these men were. Sixty-three of them were my people.
My great-great grandfather James C. Fleming, who watched his brother John die in his arms August 21, 1864, was paid a visit by "a woman from town and her daughter" on July 9th of 1865, the day before he departed for home. These ladies promised to return the following day. In 1924 James Fleming wrote " I never think of Elmira Prison and its horrors but what the faces of those two kindly souls come before me and remind me of the one bright spot in my somber thirteen months in that institution." Thank you, ladies. You reminded my ancestor that kindness can be found everywhere.
The next time you drive by Woodlawn, remember that some of the finest oystermen from the Chesapeake Bay lie beneath her soil. I had often wondered why our son chose Syracuse University for law school, and why our daughter followed her brother there. I wonder no more. It was intended by my ancestors that I see Elmira.