A thick, gray sky hung over south-central New York State this dead winter’s day in early 1864. Against the darkness and the season’s barren landscape, Elmira Prison looked particularly gloomy. Indeed, Confederate prisoners there were freezing, starving, and sick, clinging desperately to their lives.
On the surface, the widespread suffering seemed to have little effect on one of the prisoners. An icy wind blowing through his long, dark beard, he strolled nonchalantly about the compound alone. Snowflakes frosted the shoulders of his coat, a strange garment that said more about him than any words ever could.
‘He was a large fine specimen of a man and wore a long-tailed coat of brown jeans,’ wrote fellow prisoner John Williamson Alexander of the 5th Virginia Cavalry. ‘He had a mania for buttons — sewn on every available spot of his coat — hundreds of buttons from every state in the union. You could not put down the point of your finger without touching a button.’
Prisoners and guards alike wondered aloud about the unusual coat. ‘The Yanks plied him with questions,’ Alexander wrote. ‘He hesitated and did not want to hurt any feelings. After being hard-pressed, he told them that every time he killed a Yank, he sewed on a button — and this was his second coat!’
Identified simply as ‘Buttons,’ the mysterious eccentric turned up over the years in diary after diary and memoir after memoir. Alexander remembered him as ‘playful as a kitten.’ One writer recalled a’strange character’ who ‘fairly glistened’ in the sunshine.
A true testament to Buttons’s legendary status was the number of apocryphal stories that featured him as protagonist. One of these fabricated accounts, published in Confederate Veteran magazine in 1926, described how he had escaped Elmira by feigning death. According to that article, Buttons lay in a coffin that was en route to the cemetery beyond the prison grounds for interment. Suddenly, he popped open the casket lid, frightening the burial party off into the adjacent woods. He then climbed out and ran away to reunite with the Confederate army.
Despite all the references to Buttons, his true identity remained a mystery. Fellow Elmira prisoners had given him the nickname almost immediately upon his arrival, and for obvious reasons, they remembered it long after they had forgotten his given name. The phenomenon was common among former prisoners trying to record their prison experiences for posterity, according to Berry Benson, a South Carolinian who escaped from Elmira with 10 other inmates in October 1864. ‘It was generally true that whenever soldiers could hit upon a nickname which was in any way characteristic, that name would take preference over the legitimate one,’ he wrote. After a while, the real name was gone, if anyone had ever known it. Such was Benson’s experience with Buttons: ‘I never heard him called by any other name than Buttons.’
The truth behind the legend of Buttons might have been lost forever if not for a woman named Annie Alexander Johnson. A member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she urged her brother to record his memories of his days as a Confederate soldier and prisoner of war. To please his sister, Alexander sketched out the story of his Civil War experience. Once completed, the document lay forgotten in old family files until a descendant in Matthews, North Carolina, discovered it.
In his manuscript, Alexander states that he left his father’s farm in Pond Field, just outside Gaffney, South Carolina, and enlisted in the Confederate army at Orangeburg on June 4, 1861. After serving as a private in Company G of the 5th South Carolina Infantry for 10 months, which included the war’s opening campaign at Manassas, Virginia, he transferred to Company G of the 5th Virginia Cavalry. During the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, 1864, Alexander was captured. Sent to prison at Point Lookout, Maryland, he remained there for three months before being moved north to Elmira.
It was at Point Lookout that Alexander met Buttons. Fortunately for us, Alexander remembered more than his comrade’s nickname, and in the latter pages of his manuscript, he provided the key to the Buttons mystery. Describing the death and disease so prevalent at Elmira, he wrote, ‘among those who died now of the writer’s acquaintance was: that gentle soul, Botts, familiarly called Buttons….’
Further research revealed that ‘Botts’ was Thomas A. Botts, born in 1817 at Abbeville District in South Carolina. He was one of eleven children born to Thomas Cromer Botts and Nancy Moore Botts. No other details have surfaced about his early life.
Information about his adult years is hardly more enlightening. At one point, he was listed as an ‘overseer’ of a farm. On Christmas Eve 1848, he married Matilda Wright at Abbeville. The couple had five children: James (1849), John (1851), Nancy (1857), Asa N. (1859), and E.G., whose exact year of birth is unknown.
As the clouds of war darkened over the North and South, Botts decided to join the Confederate army. On December 28, 1861, he enlisted in South Carolina’s Holcombe Legion Infantry Battalion at Camp Hamilton. The 44-year-old private was assigned to the regiment’s Company F. The following March, he reenlisted for two more years. The last time Botts saw his family and home was during a brief period between March 6 and April 31, 1862, when military records listed him as ‘home on leave of absence.’ Several Botts family descendants speculate that he may have fathered the last of his five children during this furlough.
Later in the war, when Confederate troops were entrenched in defense of Petersburg, Virginia, Botts was captured at Jarrett’s Station on May 8, 1864. His first place of confinement is unknown, but many prisoners captured in Virginia about the same time were briefly held at Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Before long, Botts was at Point Lookout and on August 17, 1864, was moved to Elmira. He died there on May 14, 1865, less than two weeks before President Andrew Johnson ordered prisoners released. The official cause of death was listed as ‘rhuematism.’ Alexander’s memoir recalls some of the burial ritual performed for Botts and the nearly three thousand others who died at Elmira:
…I went to the Dead House often, and his [a Reverend Eddy, chaplain of a Texas regiment] was the last kindly act done for our dead. After they were placed in their coffins, it was he who regulated the wooden shavings, which served for pillows for their last long sleep. This done, those rough grizzled carpenters, who were so familiar with death, formed a line with hats off while this good man repeated short burial services — the last and only service I ever heard while there. This done, the carpenters again got busy and the lids of the coffins were speedily nailed down.
The caskets were then interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, adjacent to the prison compound. That 2.5-acre piece of land was the final resting place for most of the 2,917 who did not survive the rigors of Elmira. In plot No. 2801 lies Thomas A. Botts — Buttons, to those who knew him.
This article was written by Hudson Alexander and originally published in the June 2000 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!