Camp Elder Civil War Paroled P.O.W. Camp

Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Located in Westtown Township, Chester County, Camp Elder was a holding facility for the Union’s paroled Prisoners of War (POWs) from mid-July to August 1863. Because of logistical problems associated with holding enemy prisoners during the American Civil War both Union and Confederate armies issued hundreds of thousands of paroles to soldiers captured in battle. Terms of this practice were officially established by the Dix-Hill Cartel, an agreement formed by Union Army negotiator Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D. H. Hill in July 1862. Some paroled soldiers were sent to camps overseen by their own armies where they would wait until notified they had been exchanged for soldiers from the opposition. At that point they were returned to their regiments for duty. Other parolees were simply sent home on the honor system that they would not return to the battlefront nor engage in military activities until informed of their exchange. After the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg more than 5,300 Union soldiers had been captured by Southern forces. The Confederates immediately offered a mass parole to these prisoners. The primary camp that had been established to hold paroled POWs was appropriately named Camp Parole in Annapolis, Md. This camp was not prepared to accommodate the large number of troops paroled at Gettysburg so other makeshift camps had to be hastily established.

Camp Elder had been designated as a site for a training camp for United States Colored Troops earlier in 1863. Captain James Elder had toured the area and selected a tract of Enoch Williams’s farm in Westtown Township. Due to slow results of recruiting efforts and the large number of paroled Union POWs following the bloodshed at Gettysburg, the land was repurposed for a paroled POW camp. No barracks had been constructed, nor provisions made, for the influx of approximately 1,500 troops. There had been no notification that these troops were being sent to the area, and citizens in nearby communities scrambled to make accommodations for the men. Some residents opened their homes to officers and badly injured soldiers. A makeshift hospital was set up in a school gymnasium and a local doctor treated the wounded. Many women provided food and supplies or assisted with the care of the maimed.

Several companies of emergency militia from Philadelphia and Delaware Counties were dispatched to Camp Elder to guard the “prisoners.” While this unseasoned security detail caused some resentment among the soldiers, the arrangement turned out to be satisfactory. Because the guards were part of the Union Army they tended to be lax. Many detainees considered their time at Camp Elder a welcome break from the brutal warfare they had endured. A number of imprisoned soldiers left the camp to work in nearby farmers’ fields, visit their wounded comrades or socialize with residents of the community. Several romances began that resulted in marriages after the end of the war. Several POWs corresponded with local residents for many years following the war and, in some cases, returned to Chester County to renew old acquaintances. Dozens of the wounded and sick died at Camp Elder and were buried in West Chester’s Green Mount Cemetery. The camp remained in operation for little more than a month until the federal government determined the Confederates did not follow proper procedures when issuing battlefield paroles and declared them void. The soldiers quickly returned to active duty with their former regiments.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Brandywine Valley Civil War Roundtable dedicated a state historical marker for Camp Elder Civil War Paroled POW Camp in September 2013. Highlights of the event included a parade by the Bayard Rustin High School Marching Band, musical selections from the Civil War period performed by the 69th Pennsylvania Regimental Irish Band and presentation of the colors and musket volley by a color guard of Civil War reenactors.

 

Karen Galle joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1995. Following ten years as office manager of the agency’s former Commonwealth Conservation Center, in 2005 she began coordinating the State Historical Marker Program, assigned to PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.