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Civil War prisoners of war in York County, Pa.

Recently fellow blogger Jim McClure and I were chatting about prisoner of war camps here in York County, Pa. Many locals are aware of the two dedicated sites, Camp Security for British prisoners in the American Revolution and a WWII camp for German prisoners in southern York County. The old York jail also held officers from the American Revolution for a time.

During the American Civil War, there were no full-time prison camps, but there were several temporary holding places. The most notable was the Oddfellows Hall, which still stands at the intersection of S. George and W. King streets in downtown York. Wounded Confederate prisoners of war were housed and treated here after the battle of Gettysburg because the chief surgeon of the local U.S. Army General Hospital at Penn Common refused to admit them. He had been mistreated when the Rebels had taken him prisoner in the days before the battle when the Rebels captured the hospital during the early hours of the Confederate occupation of York.

Here are a few other accounts of prisoners of war held in York County:

When the Confederates occupied York on June 28, 1863, they captured Dr. Henry Palmer (a major by rank) and a handful of critically ill or wounded patients at the Army Hospital on Penn Common. Palmer stayed with these men, who were too fragile to be moved when Palmer earlier evacuated the rest of his patients to Columbia. So, in a real sense, the hospital became a prison camp, at least until June 30 when the Rebels marched west toward Heidlersburg. They took Palmer with them, but he managed to escape and return to York.

More than 20 Union soldiers from the 20th Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia were captured at the Skirmish of Wrightsville on June 28, 1863. They included Lt. Col. William H. Sickles of Philadelphia. Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon brought the sullen prisoners back to York the next day, and they were paroled in downtown, likely at the courthouse which was CSA HQ. The prisoners had to find their own ways home. Sickles decided to use a railroad handcar to head east, but it overturned when it struck a section of rail earlier damaged by Rebel cavalry. The unfortunate Sickles broke a leg in the accident.

During Jeb Stuart’s July 1 occupation of Dover, Pa., his staff paroled more than 150 Union prisoners of war he had taken in skirmishes in Rockville and Westminster, Maryland, and at the battle of Hanover. Most were herded into the town square, lined up, and then issued parole papers by the staff of Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton, who was using the office of Dr. John Ahl on the northwestern corner of the square as his HQ. The released prisoners walked down to York, where the residents fed them. Stuart would retain a few prisoners who would eventually be sent to Libby Prison in Richmond.

Among the dozens of Yankees taken prisoner at Hanover was Sgt. Joseph Gabbart of Company F of the 1st West Virginia Cavalry. He had enlisted at the age of 26 on September 20, 1861. The Rebels likely captured him during their sweep through the streets relatively early in the battle. He would later be exchanged and return to duty.

Stuart was not the only general whose troops guarded prisoners after the battle of Hanover. He listed 58 men as missing; most were captives. They were taken to various locations in Hanover under guard (several were wounded and needed medical attention). Eventually most were taken to Fort Delaware or to Elmira (NY) Prison Camp. Some of the officers would wind up in Ohio at Johnson’s Island out in Lake Erie.

Among the latter was Pvt. James B. W. Foster of the 2nd North Carolina. He was 61 years old when he was captured, and was one of the oldest troopers in the battle of Hanover. Taken to Fort Delaware, he died of “general debility” on August 26, 1863, scarcely a month and a half after his last day of freedom.

On the other extreme was Pvt. William R. Grant of the same regiment. He was only 23 when he died at Point Lookout, Maryland, after being transferred there from Fort Delaware. Several other Confederates who were captured at Hanover likewise never returned to their homes, including Pvt. William H. Sumner who died at Fort Delaware and is buried nearby in Salem, NJ.

For much more on the 2nd NC at Hanover, see Roger Herman Harrell’s fine book The 2nd North Carolina Cavalry.

On July 1, as Stuart marched to Dillsburg, his men captured a few isolated Union soldiers who they encountered on the roads or in their homes, and took them prisoner. Most of these captives were still on active duty, and were at home on furlough or in between assignments. A few had retreated all the way home to York after Rebels drove the 87th Pennsylvania and other regiments from the field at the Second Battle of Winchester on June 13-15 down in the Shenandoah Valley.

Historian George Prowell listed one of these prisoners as John M. Griffith, who was seized near his Rossville home according to Prowell’s History of York County. However other accounts suggest that Griffith was wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill in the Shenandoah Valley and hid with a nearby family. He was not back in Warrington Township when Stuart supposedly captured him.