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The Story of Westtown’s Little-Known Civil War Camp

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To get what Camp Elder was all about, consider Eminiar VII, the scene of “A Taste of Armageddon,” a 1967 episode in the original Star Trek series. What James T. Kirk and the Enterprise discovered on planet Eminiar VII was a civilization that had reduced war to a computer game. Rather than risk war’s threat to their civilizations, the Eminiarians and their enemies on Vendikar simply looked at screens to see who’d been killed by military “strikes.” Those casualties then cooperatively marched off to disintegrators, but no cities were laid waste—and civilization continued. Spock declared it “fascinating.”

Located on a farm at South Concord and Oakbourne roads in Westtown, Camp Elder was a Civil War parole camp where the Union army confined about 2,000 of its own soldiers. All had been captured by Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg, then released back to Union authorities in exchange for a promise to keep them out of the ranks until they’d been officially swapped for an equal number of Confederate soldiers. The Confederates did the same. It was all very chivalrous.

On the Union side, more than 50 such parole camps operated in the early years of the war. “It was really about logistics, not humanitarianism,” says Michael Gray, professor of history at East Stroudsburg University and author of The Business of Captivity, a book about Civil War prisons. “Neither side was well equipped – either in experience or facilities – to hold large numbers of hostile prisoners.”

The first parolees arrived in West Chester on July 9, 1863, just five days after Robert E. Lee began his retreat from Gettysburg. Several hundred cavalry troopers, including members of George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan “Wolverines” brigade, had surrendered to Jeb Stuart at Hanover on June 30, and been paroled the next day.

In West Chester, there was no warning that these men were coming. They were initially housed at Horticultural Hall or in private homes, then moved to the county fairground, now the site of West Chester University. But when more than 1,500 additional Union parolees arrived at the train station on July 12, it became obvious that the fairground was too small, so the men were marched out to what was then the Enoch Williams Farm.

Camp Elder’s approximate location.

The Williams’ farm had previously been selected to be the site of a U.S. Colored Troops training camp by a Union captain named James Elder. Before it could be established, however, a site was needed for a parole camp. As it turned out, the training camp was never created, though Elder’s name stuck.

John Heed, a 14-year-old farm hand who was out chopping weeds, didn’t notice the mass of approaching men until they were almost upon him. “The first thought that entered my head was, ‘Them’s the Jonnies (Confederates) sure,’” Heed recalled years later.

Knowledge that Lee’s army was in Pennsylvania had made many residents nervous, so Heed hid behind a tree until he noticed the men weren’t armed. When he stepped out, all they wanted was food. Heed shooed the family milk cows into nearby woods while the parolees stripped a nearby orchard of its ripening cherries.

Eventually, tents and provisions were issued. A Mr. Shaw of West Chester won a contract to supply beef to the men for 9.75 cents per pound “killed and dressed.” The soldiers—who hailed from 10 different states, plus several other countries—settled down to a life of colossal boredom. According to the rules, the men were supposed to remain in camp, and guards were supposed to keep them there. But rather than assign combat troops to such a task, Washington called in local militia units, including Co. F of the 179th Pennsylvania militia. The green troops got little respect from men who’d fought at Gettysburg.

Some men were given leave to help local farmers with harvesting. But many parolees also slipped out regularly to drink and carouse in the taverns of West Chester. “Several times, the camp guard had to form a battle line on Market Street with loaded rifles and prod the prisoners back to camp at bayonet point,” according to David Walter, chair of the Westtown Township historic commission, who advocated successfully for a Camp Elder historical marker in 2013.

In 1893, West Chester resident Win S. Bishop spoke of helping parolees get back to camp. “They would get into the wagon, cover themselves over with the meat and clothes, and thus successfully elude the vigilance of guards,” he said.

At least two marriages resulted. One was James Gill of the 56th Pennsylvania, who met Mary Larkin, a Quaker woman, and returned to West Chester in 1864 to marry her after his three-year enlistment was up. Another, Irish-born Thomas Nolan of the 25th Ohio, went out to work for a local farmer to discover that the farmer’s wife was a woman he’d once courted in Ireland. After the farmer died later that year, Nolan returned to West Chester and the two were married.

All this was a result of the Dix-Hill Cartel, an agreement struck in 1862 between Union Gen. John Dix and Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill. The deal established a scale of equivalents, with enlisted men swapped evenly, and captured officers valued, depending on rank, at a specified number of privates.

Early in the war, the Union government had taken a tougher attitude, shunning any agreements that might seem to recognize the Confederacy’s legitimacy. But in the Civil War, the Union was always on the offensive, so more of its soldiers were captured. In 1861, more than a thousand were taken at First Bull Run. Subsequently, public opinion in the North demanded action, and a joint Congressional resolution requested “systematic measures for the exchange of prisoners in the present rebellion.”

The agreement was always haphazardly applied. While more than 2,000 Union soldiers captured at Gettysburg wound up at Camp Elder, the total of prisoners taken by Robert E. Lee’s forces was more than 6,000—many of whom were subsequently marched to prisons in Virginia and elsewhere. The difference depended on the circumstances in which they were taken, the commanders involved and their individual understandings of Dix-Hill, plus the fog of war.

According to Gray, Dix-Hill fell apart for two reasons. One was the treatment of black soldiers, whom Confederates insisted on treating as escaped slaves and ineligible for parole. Another was simple math. “Grant understood the numbers game,” said Gray. “The North had more men than the South, so it had less to gain.”

In August 1863, Union authorities ruled that the inmates of Camp Elder had been improperly paroled and ordered them back to the front. Chivalry is lovely, but if you want to fight, you have to be willing to face Armageddon.