On the Edge of Discovery: Civil War POWs near West Chester!

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Originally Posted April 17, 2012

Lieut. Wheeler, 1st West Virignia Cavalry, POW at Camp Elder

It is amazing how much of Civil War history of Chester County, PA can be told through the CDV (carte-de-visite or photographic visiting card) collection at CCHS.  I pulled out a file indexed on Prisoners of War and held in my hand a piece of the history of Camp Elder, not far from West Chester. This group of photos is sure to be featured in On the Edge of Battle: Chester County and the Civil War opening October 18, 2012.

 Although no Civil War battles were fought in Chester County, PA, the Battle at Gettysburg was too close for the comfort of the residents. According to personal accounts, the sound of gun fire resounded on the local hills. Hard to believe they could hear the cannons from 115 miles away? Think about it, there was no noise pollution from traffic and airplanes. Remember how quiet it was after 9-11 when there was no air traffic for a week? I can believe it.

 After the Battle of Gettysburg some of the wounded and prisoners of war came to Chester County.  Here were six CDVs of men who were sent to Camp Elder. I had heard of Camp Elder, but looking at the CDVs and learning their story was fascinating.

 After Gettysburg, both sides had taken large numbers of prisoners, neither side was prepared to feed and house so many men. So according to an honor system, each side was to guard its own prisoners and promise to not permit them to return to duty until a prisoner exchange agreement could be worked out.


"Captain McIrwin"  of Illinois, Commandant of Camp Elder.  Note: Commandant's name has not been able to be verified.

 This is a real deal for the soldiers who did not have to face going to any one of the deplorable Confederate prisons such as Andersonville, etc. However, they did not see it that way. They wanted to fight and resented the company of emergency militia from Philadelphia who guarded the camp.

POW George Clime of Lebanon, served with the State Militia

 The most interesting account of Camp Elder has been recounted by John Heed which can be found in the West Chester Daily Republican on December 16, 1891.  In 1863 Heed was a young boy, working on the farm of Enoch T. Williams on Little Shiloh Road in Westtown Township clearing brush.  It was a lonely job, with only the cows and birds nearby, any maybe a passing townsperson in a carriage once and a while. Suddenly, on the road were 2,000 men in uniform!  Heed jumped behind a tree, thinking that maybe they were the Rebels invading the county! Soon he was to discover that they were Union Prisoners of War, who were sent to camp on the land he was clearing.

 The six CDVs in CCHS collection were donated by Anna Mary Heed Earle, the daughter of John C. Heed.  He swapped CDVs with the soldiers he befriended, some at the time, and others through correspondence after the war.

 Camp Elder only lasted a month, when Union commanders decided that the Confederates were not meeting the terms of the agreement and released the POWs back to fight with their units.

 Some of the wounded soldiers were taken into private homes to recuperate. The soldiers and townspeople made a lasting bond and continued to correspond through the years. The experience of meeting the soldiers made an impact on John Heed that he remembered all his life, symbolized by the treasured cartes-de-visite.

 Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist