Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Elmira's military tradition dates to 1840. A guard company formed that year became the nucleus of the first regiment in the State of New York mustered into federal service at the start of the Civil War. It was Company K of the 23rd Regiment and it was enrolled at a meeting called here on April 15, 1861, the day President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers.
Three months later - on July 30, 1861, Elmira became one of three military depots on the state under order of Governor Morgan. The others were New York City and Albany. Elmira was chosen because of its location and accessibility, it being on the Erie and the Williamsport and Elmira railroads and the Chemung Canal.
Quickly Elmira became a military center of vast importance to the Union cause. Men streamed into town to volunteer and the town echoed to their cadence tread and the clank of their equipment. Also to their hi-jinks when they could spare the time to engage in them.
To house and feed these men was a serious problem. Storehouses, churches and a barrel factory were taken over for troops. Three areas for barracks were established. One was south of Washington Ave and east of Lake Street, roughly the location of Parker Field. Another was on the Southside where the Pennsylvania Railroad yards are now. The third - so-called "Barracks 3" - some 30 acres along W. Water St. west of Hoffman, lives in history as the site later of the Elmira Prison Camp.
The barrel factory continued in service, being handy to the Erie. A tall wooden building at various times a carriage factory and a school, became a military hospital. It stood at William and Market Streets and came down only about 30 years ago. Another hospital was near where Davis and Clinton Street intersect now - and maybe then. I don't remember. A guard force, urgently needed, I'm sure, was quartered on Market Street about where the Strand Theatre is sitting in its last forlorn days before it falls into its own cellar. My grandfather Cotton, a corporal in Co. G of the 161st once pointed to a brick building with the graceful pediment on Lake Street a bit south of Carroll and said he remembered it as a recruiting office. There were many others but I don't remember where they were any more.
34 Units formed
To enumerate the regiments and the companies sent into action from here would be to long a task. We can establish the scope of Elmira's military importance more easily with some simple figures:
The grand total is 34 organizations and 20,796 officers and men to be enrolled, equipped, trained (at least in part), and forwarded to the battlefield from this military point.
Three regiments were considered "home regiments" by Elmira. These were the 141st, the 23rd, and the 107th, with the last named perhaps the best known. It was raised in response to President Lincoln's call of 1862 by General A.S. Driven with the help (among others) of the redoubtable Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, and mustered into service August 13, 1862. Its roster of 1,016 includes many a famous name. The monument to this regiment in front of the county buildings on Lake Street were dedicated on the anniversary of the Battle of Antietam and survivors long held annual reunions on that date - Sept 17.
As an eloquent sidelight on the 141st, it marched away with 1,200 strong and came out of the war with 380.
The men recruited for service in the Civil War cannot be said to have lived under conditions prevailing at the average picnic. Their uniforms were heavy, harsh and hot and their shoes fitted only if by good luck they got a pair of approximately the right size. The muskets they carried were heavy and awkward and then they were fitted with their long, tapered bayonets, they constituted the last spears used in warfare by any but the most primitive warriors.
As the pace of recruitment and dispatch of troops were accelerated to meet mounting demands from the battlefield, medical inspection cannot be called either complete or searching. Men were lined up, sometimes, and sworn in a company at a time. When they were considered adequately trained and often when they were not, they formed ranks, marched to the station and took their places sometimes in open cattle cars for the ride to Harrisburg. By grandfather William Barber (Co. M, 21st NY) managed to restrain his enthusiasm for the delights of this ride. By standing - which the troops all did if they rode in cattle cars - they commanded an excellent view of the scenery provided they were near the side of the car and provided also that the smoke from the woodburner engine didn't get too thick.
Gifts from Elmirians
Many Elmirians pressed gifts on the departing troops - writing paper, mittens and other items not issued to soldiers. One of these items was a rolled of cloth containing needles, thread, buttons, often a Testament, sometimes a thimble too small for a man who got it and occasionally a pair of scissors. Charlie Cotton carried one of these Elmira-made kits through his first enlistment (50th NY Eng). I have it yet. He left it home when he enlisted for his second hitch which included a sojourn at Port Hudson Prison from which he escaped with nothing and he had it the rest of his life.
Through the war, small boys imitated their elders as boys always have, shouldering sticks, engaging in close order drill and fighting mock battles in some which, when a wooden sword or a wooden gun came into contact with a belligerent of tender years, blood was rather freely shed.
The girls of Elmira College presented a parlor organ to one of the military hospitals and in appreciation a military band marched to the college to express its sentiments in harmonious fashion. This maneuver caused acute distress on the part of the college administration. There was something about a soldier, it seems, even way back in the days when Elmira was a great military depot.
Some Elmira church spires tell a story dating from the Civil War and its tensions. This was a stop on the slave underground. Garrison appeared here and fiery utterances rang from many an Elmira pulpit. John Surrat, Jr. passed through town on his way to Canada and eventual capture. And thirty-four miles away was (and is) Towanda, the home of David Wilmot whose proviso was better known in his time than ours. You can ask ten questions in Towanda today about Wilmot and his proviso and get ten different answers. I know. I've tried it.
The Prison Camp
Elmira's role in the Civil War is remembered best for the Prison Camp established in May, 1864, and continued in operation until the war ended a year later. It occupied so-called "Barracks 3" - a plot of about 30 acres running about 1,000 feet along W. Walter Street from Hoffman and extending south to the river. The tract was enclosed by a 12-foot plank fence, along the top of which was a walk and boxes for sentries.
The first Confederate prisoners were received here in June, 1864. En route, 64 prisoners and 16 guards were killed in a railroad wreck at Shohola, PA. Many of the men received here were sick. Some were very young; some, by military standards, were very old. And all, we can be sure, were unhappy. Towner notes in his history that in one detachment send here from Point Lookout, there was not one well ma. The camp is treated in objective detail in Clay W. Holmes' great book The Elmira Prison Camp.
Wooden booths appeared on Water Street across from the prison camp for the sale of food and beverage - some of it high octane. And competing towers were build near Hoffman Street fur gawkers with some money burning in their pockets. The camp ground were neat. There was no deadline. The prisoners occupied themselves as prisoners always have. They whittled, wrote, read, drew pictures or sat and looked into space. Some made trinkets of horsehair. A visitor's horse, left unguarded for a few minutes, lost an important feature in jig time. Time healed the memory and restored the hair, I hope.
The campo has been under attack of every kind and probably always will be. I was never inside it and so the only information I have is second hand - hearsay, as it were. Purchases of food are revealing, I think - 13,000 barrels of flour and nearly 2 million pounds of meat in one year. The surplus was sold and an account to buy fruit and delicacies for the sick was established. There remained in this account $92,000 when the camp closed.
Prison camps all had vast cesspools and sinks and Elmira was no exception. We had one. Foster's Pond. Into it went everything the prisoners didn't want and from it came everything the prisoners didn't want in the way of odors and disease.
Smallpox broke out earlt in 1865. A St. Patrick's Day flood inundated the camp with results that need not surprise us.
During its life the camp housed 11,916 prisoners of whom, according to Historian Towner, 2,994 died.
Holmes reported that 2,973 men were buried in what is now the National Cemetery. These burials were in charge of John Jones, the one-time slave for whom Jones Court is named. He kept an accurate record of the location of the grave and the name, company, regiment and state of every body he interned. Wooden headboards were replaced in later years with the stones now to be seen guarding the men who rest under the sod and the dew.
Ithaca's distinguished Frances Miles Finch might well have written his beautiful poem about Woodlawn Cemetery. The bronze memorial was erected in 1938 by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
When the war ended, the prisoners were marched out to the camp in grounds. Some stepped forth bravely, heads high, believing that they were to be shot or hanged. I do not believe it to be an exaggeration to imagine that they were probably agreeably surprised when they were given transportation home.
Seventeen men escaped from the camp. There was a reunion here many years after the war of one group of these escapees.
A book could be written about the camp. Come to think of it, one was. I commend it to anyone not familiar with Clay Holmes' valuable work.