Sunday, February 28, 2010

New Book on "Helmira" Prison Camp

Pointe Coupee soldier inspires book

In a Memorial Day 2006 ceremony, author Diane Janowski places soil from Pointe Coupee Parish on the grave of Confederate soldier Michel Fortlouis in Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, N.Y. Janowski said the story of Fortlouis, who died in the Elmira camp for prisoners of war, inspired her to write a book about some of the nearly 3,000 soldiers who died in captivity during the winter of 1864.


An Elmira, N.Y., writer and photographer credits the story of a Pointe Coupee Parish Confederate soldier for inspiring her to write a new book about an infamous Civil War prison camp in her hometown.

Michel Fortlouis, a member of the Pointe Coupee Artillery, had the misfortune of being captured near Clinton in 1864 and sent to the Elmira facility, where he became one of the 2,963 Confederates who died there in captivity. Confederate soldiers named the camp “Hellmira,” according to a history of the prison on the city of Elmira’s Web site.

Diane Janowski said she mentioned the prison camp when she and fellow photographer Allen C. Smith visited with New Roads historian Brian Costello several years ago.
“I just started asking him if he knew anybody who was captured and brought up here. He thought there was one, Mr. Fortlouis, and I just started doing research on him,” Janowski said.
Costello, who has written extensively on Pointe Coupee history, said he was aware of Fortlouis but had not done any research on him or his two brothers who served in the Civil War.
He said his grandmother had a cousin who married into the Fortlouis family, but no one by that name now lives in the parish.

Before she returned to Elmira, Janowski scooped up some Pointe Coupee cane field soil and eventually took it to Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira. “It was powerful. Right after I talked to Brian, I scooped up some dirt because I wanted some to put on his (Fortlouis) grave the next time I was there. It was Memorial Day, 2006, and I had my own little ceremony right here in Elmira. It was just a personal little ceremony, but still it was very meaningful,” she said.
Using Internet sites, Janowski was able to find more information about Fortlouis. “He was pretty well documented, so he was pretty easy to track. I didn’t do a lot of genealogy on him because I just wanted to know how he got from there to here,” she said.

Fortlouis and his brothers enlisted in June 1861 and served in the siege of Vicksburg. His unit then joined the Army of Tennessee, which was active in the Atlanta campaign, Janowski said.
Union troops captured Fortlouis on Aug. 20, 1864, in Clinton. He was sent to Ship Island, Miss., in October of that year, and transferred to Elmira Prison about a month later. He died 10 days after his arrival. “I believe he deserted. He went missing about the time of the siege of Atlanta, and he was reported AWOL,” Janowski said. “Just recently I read that they sort of knew he was over in Clinton, and somehow they must have picked him up as he was walking back to New Roads.”

Although Fortlouis inspired the book, and Janowski found out as much as she could about him, she also expanded her research to talk to descendants of other Confederate soldiers sent to the camp. The result is her book, “In Their Honor: Soldiers of the Confederacy — The Elmira Prison Camp,” published through New York History Review Press.

“The book is not a history of the Elmira prison camp, because there are many books about that. This is about how the descendants talk about that; how they remember their relatives,” Janowski said. “Their stories are pretty well what you’d think they are: Elmira was a pretty bad place, and we had a very cold winter that year and medicine, blankets and tents were scarce. It was hard,” she said.