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An American Hebrew's Heroic Life


A Reminiscence of Andersonville Prison

by Alice Hyneman Rhine

The Menorah, December 1888

Unlike the mass of war literature of the period, the following sketch in place of treating of the generals in command is simply a chronicle of passages in the war record of the "rank and file." A humble sergeant, who among the many generous high-spirited young men volunteered in "61" to fight for the perpetuation of the Union, and who through a self-negation equal to Sidney's heroic act, suffered captivity and death in the prison pen at Andersonville.

Elias Leon Hyneman, one of the martyrs of our Civil war, was the son of Rebekah Hyneman, a poetess whose position in American Jewish literature corresponds to that of Grace Aguilar's among English writers. His father was the brother of Leon Hyneman, the well-known Masonic author and editor. From both parents he inherited a handsome form, dignified bearing and oriental type of face. A portrait taken in his uniform July '61, represents him, a tall fine-looking young man with the bearing of a soldier. One can almost imagine fire flashing from the large luminous black eyes, and expect to hear the word of command issue from the small resolute mouth, over which curls a thick, soft black moustache drawn military fashion away from the thin curved lip. It is a beautiful face, haughty and high spirited. Every lineament in it is indicative of pride and lofty resolve. There is the aquiline nose, square determined chin, broad high forehead shaded by waving black hair, finely penciled brows, and a massive well shaped bead, poised firmly above the broad shoulders, holding itself proudly and defiantly erect as though its owner instead of being an ordinary soldier, commanded armies or ruled the destinies of a world.

Having lost his father while but a few years old, Elias Hyneman's teaching depended on his mother and his family surroundings. She being a poet, taught him not only to speak plain the word country," but,

"That a country's a thing men should die for at need."

If in her writings, as has been said, Rebekah Hyneman "Set Jerusalem as a sign upon her hand and as frontlets between her eyes," it was only as the glories of this city of the past represented to her poet's soul, that pure eminence men strain to see beyond earth's clouds. Jerusalem was the country of her dreams, America, that of her earthly love, hopes and desires. From her the son inherited a passionate love of country, that made him not only willing but eager to offer himself up for the interests of his native land.

When the war commenced, young Hyneman was in his twenty-fourth year. Like the majority of people, he believed that the Union forces with one effort would conquer the rebellion, and so made no attempt to enlist until the disaster of Bull Run proved that the war was not to be a holiday pastime for men, nor alas! for women, either.

This roused him; he waited no longer, but threw aside his business, said farewell to his mother and friends, and started at once for camp. On the mother's part, the parting with this son was an exceeding sacrifice. She was a widow. Elias was the elder of her only two children, and the younger was afflicted with phthisis, a disease to which he succumbed before the cruel war was over. Elias was the pride of her life, the one to whom she looked to be the, solace of her future years; yet with a sublime patriotism she not only made no opposition to his enlistment, but after preparing what comforts or necessaries he could take, took leave of him with the courage of a Roman matron, repressing for his sake the outward signs of her own heartbreak.

The regiment to which he was assigned was the 5th Pa. Cavalry, of which he was one of the first members. The first letter to his mother, dated from "Camp Stoneman," Washington, was quite an event in the household of his uncle, Leon Hyneman, where he had lived with his mother and brother from the time of his father's death until manhood. In this letter, he tells his mother that "he knows the only way to allay her anxiety is to write often and above all to do his duty as a soldier and a man." He reiterates a promise made before leaving, not to be tempted into touching liquor or cards, a promise so faithfully kept that in '64 he could write, " I feel that I owe my continued good health to the temperate manner in which I live. Liquor I never touch, as it is against my principles, and now that the boys know it they no longer importune me. Cards I have not touched since I have been in camp." This abstemiousness was the more creditable as he resembled his mother in having "a social nature full of fire and personal charm." Able to tell a good story, sing a good song, quick at repartee, gifts that were sufficient to make him a favored guest in any company.

Once settled in camp, Hyneman is well satisfied with everything. Whatever happens of hardship, his exclamation is "This all goes in a soldier's life and I like it." "To be on horseback is a pleasure. I can sit in the saddle for weeks," he writes, "and never get sore or tired. I love it!"

Deprived of food for days, or living on raw meat or hardtack, sleeping on the ground exposed to all kinds of weather, he says : "This manner of living is making me so strong, I feel ashamed to be in such robust health while brother is so weak. It would make me happy could I share my strength with him." At another time he boasts that he has "bared his breast to the sun, wind and rain until the elements have made it black as an Ethiope." A very Hotspur to resent even the semblance of an insult, he becomes such a favorite with his companions, that he writes: "Everyone is so particularly good to me, that in place of being rude and passionate, I begin to fancy myself quite an amiable young man. My 'corns' have not been trodden on for a long time. Strange if war should make a peaceful creature of me."

Only the inaction of '61 chafes him. Enlisted for the war, he pines for active service, as did all those other ardent souls who had volunteered with the expectation of putting down the rebellion by hard fighting. While personal discomforts are disregarded, he complains that 'the scouts and skirmishing done by the cavalry amounts to nothing." With the beginning of '62, his letters are more hopeful. McClellan in command of the Army of the Potomac promised, in a ringing address, to soon lead the soldiers on to victory. Hyneman's regiment is ordered to Virginia. He, promoted to the rank of sergeant, thinks "all looks well." But at the end of the year he again writes home: "It is scout, scout, scout; move, move, move; and with no tangible results from the skirmishes,—they cannot be called battles—that we have been engaged in. All are thinking that the war is to have neither beginning nor end."

The Battle of Gettysburg in '63 set this fear aside. In this, one of the mightiest combats of the war, Hyneman's regiment participated. Writing an account of it he says : 'I had the good luck to be one of the twelve skirmishers to make the advance upon the enemy, and although I expected every moment would be my last, still I was as cool and calm as I am now, and would not have changed places with any one. We advanced by the bugle to within two hundred yards of the Confederates and halted. Then for a while, as the balls whistled pleasantly by, one might have truly exclaimed, 'There's music in the air!' For detailed account of the battle you must look to the newspaper correspondents. The soldier knows nothing except what is going on just in front of him."

Almost simultaneous with the battle of Gettysburg, came President Lincoln's proclamation of the draft, and the sequent rioting in some of the Northern States. The feeling of the mass of soldiers regarding this resistance was expressed by him in the sentences, "I hope they will shoot every mail who attempts to resist the draft. I see by the papers that there has been rioting in New York by those who are opposed to the principles of the war. They ought to hang the leaders, shooting is too good for them.' Personally he was not in favor of the Republican administration, but as he wrote, "It represents my government, and I shall stand by it to the last. Right or wrong my flag is the Red, White and Blue. I firmly and faithfully believe in the old Union, and am willing to lay down my life to restore it again."

With the great bulk of the Northern soldiery, Hyneman was a strong Unionist, but not an abolitionist. This cannot be set down to any limitation of intellect, for our own Hawthorne had not advanced to such a point of thinking. The greatest writer perhaps of the age was one who would have bought peace on Southern terms. Hyneman, on the contrary, while sympathizing wholly neither with the Democratic or Republican parties exclaimed "I hate a Copperhead!" When some one asked him to define what he meant by the term, he wrote: "I take a person to be a Copperhead who goes in for Peace and Secession, one who would have the war stopped and the south still divided from the north. Now, while I am no follower of any political party, I am for the Constitution and I want to see every letter of it fulfilled. That this may be done the sooner, I am for fighting with gloves off and do all the mischief we can. No laissez faire method, or rose-water doctrine will avail."

That he did not think McClellan responsible for the lagging of the war is certain from numerous such expressions as "So far as I can learn, the removal of McClellan has given universal dissatisfaction to the army" "There are very few in the army who like the removal of Little Mac, I am sure that for one, I don't." Yet, in spite of this, the energetic movements of Grant when placed in command reconciled the army to the change. His idea was the same as theirs—to push the war to a close with hard fighting. With his accession the cavalry saw hard service. Were the roads such that artillery or supplies could not be moved, the cavalry were sent in pursuit. In the battle of "The Wilderness" Hyneman's regiment fought dismounted. After the battle was over, the cavalry, under General Sheridan, was pushed forward on all the roads to watch the enemy's movements. Encountering the cavalry division of the South a spirited engagement ensued which left free for the Union army the road from The Wilderness to Spottsylvania Court House.

Writing of these events, Hyneman says "At last, after more than two weeks of forced marching and four days without other food than raw meat and severe fighting, I find myself in the hospital suffering from the effects of sunstroke; but shall be out again in a few days. I have been in the hottest fire I ever was in, it fairly rained lead; but although in the thickest of it, I never got a scratch."

Hyneman's hopes of his cure were so well founded that in a short time he was in the field again. A few weeks afterwards he writes "I have no news except that of details of fights and skirmishes." His letters from that time— June 1864— are all dated "In the field." The men were kept in one continued round of excitement. At one time be writes "After we left Bowers Hill, we were thirteen days and nights in the saddle, and never halted more than an hour or two at a time. We were almost a week with nothing but raw meat to eat, and had more or less hard fighting to do every day. Some days we had it all day. In one engagement, I never expected to come out alive, for it fairly rained bullets. The balls struck right at our feet; went just over our heads, or fell close beside us. Men were being mown down all the time beside me killed or wounded, yet I never got a scratch, and felt just as cool as now while writing this. For the sake of the men, I was glad when it was over, as they were all tired out. We fought dismounted and through not being used to it, charging through the woods on foot came very bard on them.

Through all these years, Hyneman had only been home once for a space of two weeks. "His time, he considered, belonged to his country," and while there was work for him he asked for no respite. That this cost him many an hour's home sickness, his letters betray as if involuntary. Describing a return from a foraging expedition, in Virginia, he writes "The night was pitch dark, you couldn't see your horse's head, a miserable road. The cold rain driving square in our faces. I told the boys to give the horses a loose rein and keep as close together as possible. Taking the lead and throwing the reins over my horse's neck I folded my arms and fell to thinking of home: and oh, the magic of memory in an instant the storm and cold ceased to exist for me. I was no longer exposed to them, but was sitting instead by a warm fire with you. Indeed, my dear mother, my thoughts revert more to home than you can have any idea of. I never go to sleep o'nights, without lying awake all hour or two thinking of you all, and you don't know what a comfort it is to me." Hearing of his cousin's return home, he says, : 'I can well imagine how happy Aunt Sarah (his mother's sister) must have been to see her son again, and I think I know how he felt, if he loves his mother as much as I do mine. I wonder, dear, if the time will ever come that shall see our scattered household assembled together as of old. With all my hopes, I have frequent misgivings of late that this is not to be."

These words of doubt, written in April, '64, were in a short time to become a certainty. Grant, in the middle of June, moved the Army of the Potomac to Petersburg, twenty-two miles south of Richmond. The cavalry, placed under the command of Generals Wilson and Kanty, were kept constantly employed. On the last of June, an important cavalry raid was planned, by which the Welden, Danville and Southside railroads with their rolling stock and depots were to be destroyed. Hyneman, as one of the veterans of the war, accompanied the expedition. After accomplishing their work of destruction, the men, attacked by fresh forces of confederates, and having lost their artillery, were compelled to retreat, fighting their way back to camp through largely superior numbers. In the confusion, the regiments became scattered and many of the men were taken captive. Among them was Hyneman, who might have escaped, as he had done scores of times before, but for the assistance he rendered to two companions in their flight.

The story as told afterwards was that, while fleeing from their pursuers, Hyneman halted, dismounted and placed upon his own horse a wounded companion who had the misfortune to have his shot from under him. Proceeding on foot, he observed another comrade with bare, lacerated feet, bleeding at every step. Compassionating him, he took off his boots and made him take them. These pauses gave the enemy such advantage that Hyneman, although strong and fleet, was captured, a fate that he bad always dreaded worse than death. In one of his letters to his mother, speaking on the subject, he had said: "You may be sure I will run no unnecessary risks, but I am a soldier and my duty is plain; I love life, but do not care to purchase it at the expense of honor. I pride myself on my valor, but am neither rash nor foolhardy. So don't you be alarmed; although I will take care of myself, you shall never have cause to blush for me, and never, if I can help it, will I go to Richmond a prisoner."

In place of being sent to Richmond, Hyneman was conveyed to Andersonville, a prison whose horrors were not then fully known. What this meant, few at the present day conjecture, although the name of Andersonville is synonymous with cruelty. This prison, as described by those who visited it after the war, was a bare open space of ground of some 1620 feet. Out of what had previously, been a dense forest of primeval pines, not a tree, not even a shrub, had been left for shade or shelter from tropical suns and storms. The felled pines, stripped bare of branches, were driven into the ground to form an enclosure around this clearing, in which nearly 40,000 human beings were herded together at one time. Through the central portion of the ground a small stream of water, clear and sparkling, had originally coursed. This had become filled with all the disgusting forma of putrid organic life, and was an added infliction and source of danger to the prisoners. All the defilement of the camp drained into it and converted it into a horrible mire, so that besides starvation, the men were consumed with the tortures of an unslakable thirst. According to statistics, the average of deaths in that torture plain was eleven every hour. Men, delirious with the beat of fever and the sun, tried to dig pits in the ground, but failed from lack of implements and strength. Than the horrors of the deaths of these victims of man's cruelty, Dante's "Inferno" pictures none more ghastly.

In little more than six months Hyneman died. Captured on the 29th of June, he languished until the 7th of January, when death relieved him from all earthly suffering. Through the thoughtfulness of some of his companions in misery, his grave was marked by a small piece of wood on which was cut the number of his regiment and the initials of his name. When the war was over, these pointed out his resting place, and his disinterred remains were brought north and deposited according to the wish of his mother by the side of his brother in the old Jewish cemetery in Federal Street, Philadelphia. Among the mourners that followed him to this his last burial, were the two comrades for whom he had sacrificed himself. These had escaped to camp in safety, and were overwhelmed with grief when they learned the fate of him of whom it was said, "that all who knew him loved him as a brother."

From all sides there came to the bereaved mother expressions of sorrow for her loss Not the least of these is the document appended which, as the gifted Nina Morais, one of Mrs. Hyneman's biographers has said, "Is of interest not only because of its authoritative testimony to the noble character of Elias L. Hyneman, but because of the war spirit which rings through its periods. a spirit that in '65 had not lost its enthusiasm nor its rancor.

"I hereby certify on honor, that I was well and personally acquainted with Elias L. Hyneman, who was a Sergeant of Company C, Fifth Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry Volunteers; that the said Elias L. Hyneman was a thorough and efficient soldier, and a person of excellent habits, and known and respected as such by all in the regiment. That he was ever foremost in the line of duty and at the post of danger, and vigilant and patient in the prosecution of his patriotic services. That by his zeal and enthusiasm to be foremost among the defenders of his flag, he was unhappily captured by a merciless foe and consigned to an ignominious and beastly prison house, there to suffer for many months, and at last to yield his noble spirit in death. Even his last life scenes were worthy of a soldier’s soul and full of true manfulness. That I, being a prisoner of war at the same time with said Elias L. Hyneman, heard of his many sufferings with deepest regret. I sympathize sincerely with his afflicted relatives and all who mourn his loss. He fought and fell in the glorious cause of freedom and justice omnipotent.

Given at Camp, Fifth Pennsylvania Calvary, near Richmond Va., this 1st day of May, 1865.


Capt. Commanding Company C, Fifth Penn. Cavalry

Approved: COLONEL, Commanding Regiment.

Mother and son have both long passed to that bourne from whence no traveler returns, and these lines which seek for a time to revive the memory of a gallant act are written in no spirit of re-awakening any bitter war echoes sacred to the past but simply to call attention to one Jewish hero among numberless followers of Judaism who responded heroically to to their country's call, and who dying among the rank and file have left no record to disprove the charge so often made by the reckless historian of today, that "the Jew is destitute of love for his fatherland; that country is to him a word without a meaning."