Sunday, May 24, 2015

52 Ancestors #21: Died at Elmira POW Camp

Ancestor Name: Peterson Stanfield Key (1828-1864)

Peterson Stanfield Key was born on 21 June 1828 in Bedford County, Virginia, to Stanfield and Frances (Jones) Key. He married my first cousin three times removed, Frances "Fannie" Beard on 21 December 1858 in Bedford County. On 14 June 1860 when the census was enumerated they lived near the Peaksville post office. Peterson was a farmer and valued his real and personal property at $1,200.

Just four months after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Peterson traveled to Staunton, Virginia, and enlisted as a private in Captain C. C. Otey's 4th Virginia Heavy Artillery. On 8 March 1864 orders were issued changing the status of the 4th Heavy Artillery to infantry. From that time until the end of the war, the regiment was known as the 34th Virginia Infantry.

Drawing of Peterson Stanfield Key; courtesy of member James Kinked

General Lee's forces had been in contact with Union troops under General Grant for severals days. On 15 May 1864 the 34th Virginia Infantry marched toward Port Walthall Junction. The war was about to find the men of the regiment.

The 34th, along with the other regiments under General Wise continued to move to the left along the defensive works near Petersburg, Virginia. By 15 June 1864, Wise was at Battery No. 5. Grant had been held at Cold Harbor earlier in the month and had suffered severe losses. He then turned his attention toward Petersburg. He sent General William Smith with XVIII Corps across the Appomattox River near City Point just north of Petersburg. The Union forces numbered 15,000 men as they approached the defensive works north of town. While the Dimmock Line was strong and well placed, the men who held that portion of the line barely numbered 2,000.

General Smith felt the forces opposing him were small in number and decided to send several skirmish lines rather than launch a major assault. His troops began to attack near dusk and soon breached the right of the Confederate line near Batteries No. 7 and No. 8. As the federal troops continued forward, they were in the rear of Battery No. 5 and behind the men of the 34th Virginia Infantry. Sergeant Robert Hicks of Company I wrote:

"The drove our pickets in. We was in our outer line of works. No troups on the line but our brigade. And they was scattered...They shelled us and amed to charge our works but was repulsed as weak as our line was...they was reinforced on our left and taken our works on the city point road...we was moving on the line all night."

Map of the Battle of Petersburg; from 34th Virginia
Infantry by Johnny L. Scott

The 34th began to retreat. This proved to be a costly move. Peterson was captured by Union soldiers at Battery No. 5 near Petersburg, Virginia, on 15 June 1864 along with nearly 40 other men of the regiment. Prisoners were marched first to nearby Bermuda Hundred and held overnight. On 18 June 1864 Peterson was send to Camp Lookout in St. Mary's County, Maryland. It may have been the second worst Union POW camp in the country.

Prisoners at the camp were kept in the "bull pen," a 1,000-square-foot area surrounded by a 14-foot fence with guard posts. The prisoners were given only thin tents for shelter. When high tide came, the low-lying bull pen would flood, often creating knee-deep mud and swamp-like conditions.  There would often be 16 or more men to a single 15-square-foot tent. Three or more men would share a single blanket.

On 9 July 1864, Peterson was sent back to Virginia, to Fort Monroe in Hampton. Likely, he was put on ship bound for New York. On 12 July 1864 he arrived at Elmira, New York, the most infamous Union POW camp. It was dubbed "Hellmira" by its inmates. The sanitary conditions were atrocious from the first days the camp became a prison and did not improve much during the war. The camp hospital was a tent and a military surgeon was not assigned. The prison was served by a local physician. Twenty-five percent of the Confederate prisoners held at Elmira died of illness caused by poor nutrition, disease, and lack of protection from the harsh winter weather.

Elmira Prison Camp; photograph courtesy of the Chemung Valley
Living History Center

Peterson Stanfield Key died at Elmira Prison on 19 October 1864 of chronic diarrhea. He was interred in nearby Woodlawn National Cemetery.

Peterson Stanfield Key headstone with the incorrect initials, a final indignity;
photograph courtesy of Find A Grave volunteer Jim Hackett

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge optional theme Military.

Peterson Stanfield Key was the husband of my first cousin three times removed, Frances "Fannie" A. Beard (1839-1903), daughter of Granville and Elizabeth (Dooley) Beard.

No comments:

Post a Comment