Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
By Martha Boltz, Special to the Washington Times, March 4, 2000
The Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., has been a historic symbol of inhumanity, one of the most overcrowded, poorly run and worst prisons existing during the War Between the States. Its warden, Heinrich "Henry" Wirz, was court-martialed and executed for the brutal conditions, ironically becoming the camp's final victim
By a quirk of fate (and the fact that the victors write the history) few know about its Northern counterpart - the prison at Elmira, N.Y. Rarely mentioned, it was better known by the men who survived its appalling conditions as "Helmira."
Elmira prison camp was established in the summer of 1864. President Lincoln had stopped all prisoner exchanges, and Point Lookout in Maryland was overflowing. Camp Chemung, earlier the Elmira Military Depot, was pressed into service as a prison. Its location near the Erie Railway line just over the Pennsylvania border made it convenient for the transportation of prisoners and the shipping of food, supplies and materiel.
The story of Elmira prison is of particular note because of the high death rate, lack of clothing, bedding and normal supplies and, most important, the lack of food or proper medical attention. Prisoners at Andersonville in southwestern Georgia suffered the same deprivations endured by the civilian population because of the Northern blockade. This was not true in New York, which was untouched by the war. Thanks to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's hatred of the Confederacy, the treatment appears to have been especially inhumane.
Weather was an undeniable factor. Winter at its worst in Georgia was appreciably warmer than any in New York; summer could be unbearably hot in either place. The winter of 1864-65 saw temperatures dip as low as minus 30 Fahrenheit, with 18-inch snows on occasion. Andersonville comprised 27 acres; Elmira had 30. There was no structural shelter at Andersonville; Elmira began with wooden barracks. As its population increased, more than 1,000 A-shaped tents were erected, each holding five men. Andersonville held around 30,000 prisoners over a four-year period; Elmira reached 5,195 by late August, and another 7,000 would arrive before its one-year existence ended.
BREAD AND WATER
The town of Elmira almost had two faces; at one end were the barracks housing Union draftees, whose high rate of desertion made constant monitoring a necessity. The prison portion was located beyond the other end. Commandant Benjamin F. Tracy, the 36-year-old local district attorney who was the leader of the New York Volunteers, used all of his administrative talents in running both facilities, which he said were almost like "two prisons in one."
Tracy brought one extra component to his new job: At heart he was a humanitarian, determined to run the prison as decently as possible. At the other end of the administrative spectrum was Stanton. Under his control, Tracy was given strict instructions on how the prison and its hospital should be operated, which frequently conflicted with Tracy's own instincts.
In October 1864, Stanton ordered a cutoff of all supplies of beef to the prison. The announced reason was that a drought had caused beef cattle to be of inferior quality, and not wishing to provide poor meat to the prisoners, he provided none. At the same time, this supposedly "inferior" meat was allowed to be sold to the local citizenry. Historians agree that Stanton's intent was to force a bread-and-water diet for the inmates without actually going on record as ordering it.
The result was the same. The men supplemented their meager rations by cooking the rats that populated the place. One Rebel said, "[I]t warn't too bad, tasted like squirrel to me." On one occasion, an officer's small dog that had free run of the prison also became dinner for several prisoners. Meals normally consisted of a one-third-pound chunk of bread for breakfast and the same amount of bread for dinner, with a thin gruellike liquid said to be soup.
The recollections of survivor John L. King, writing from West Virginia in 1916, made the quantity quite clear: "Many times I measured my piece of bread both in width and thickness. It was very uniform in size, exactly as thick as the distance from the end of middle finger to the first joint inside, and just as wide both ways as the length of a table knife blade, this being 5 1/2 inches wide and 1 1/2 inches thick. Our meat ration was very little smaller and often we could see through the soup to the bottom of the pan."
Tracy attempted to purchase locally grown fruit and vegetables until Stanton stopped that practice. Later, sutlers were allowed inside, and inmates could purchase fruit and vegetables at extraordinarily inflated prices if they had money credited to their prison account. This, too, was stopped, because not enough revenue was going into the prison coffers. A wintertime switch from bread to hard crackers resulted in extreme diarrhea for the men, severe enough to require hospitalization for many.
The "sweat box," termed a form of punishment, in reality was an instrument of torture. For trivial offenses, a man could be confined in the scorching sun of July and August, without food and water, in an unventilated upright wooden box, about 7 feet high and barely wide enough for a normal person's body. When the prisoner emerged, he frequently was near paralysis, his limbs swollen twice normal size. Local residents bore no ill feelings toward the prisoners and attempted to alleviate conditions by tossing packages of food and clothing over the wall. If the guards observed this, the packages were confiscated quickly.
Similar health problems existed at both Andersonville and Elmira. Elmira initially had four wells. Men coming in from Point Lookout were delighted and happily wrote home about the fine drinking water after the tainted water they had found in Maryland. By late August, however, the population had grown to around 9,800 men, all using two 80-foot latrines, which eventually leached into the soil, contaminating the wells.
When a new group of prisoners arrived from Mobile Bay, they brought with them smallpox; this accounted for a high mortality rate as well as deaths from pneumonia, measles and the severest diarrhea. Former prisoner King wrote that "the poor fellows died rapidly, despondent, homesick, hungry and wretched. I have stood day after day watching the wagons carry the dead outside to be buried and each day for several weeks 16 men were taken through the gate. While the prison was occupied by us, which wasabout one year, it was estimated that 3,000 men died." According to various accounts, the number of prisoners who died at Elmira was between 2,933 and 2,963.
Even the smallpox vaccination process became, because of ignorance, an excuse for cruelty. One of the Confederate prisoners, Walter D. Addison, who worked as a "ward master" in one of the hospital barracks, said the barracks contained 85 to 90 men each, sometimes three to a bunk. "I can truthfully say not twenty percent of those in the hospital left it alive. This is no exaggeration of what I believe was a terrible crime growing out of, to put it mildly, the deplorable ignorance of the medical men in charge, if not willful murder."
The hospital was run by Dr. Eugene L. Sanger, but in direct conflict with Tracy. The result was a bedside manner toward the inmates termed "harsh, cruel, and vindictive." Sanger was often characterized as "a brute."
In October 1864, some 300 of the sickest men were released. When the ill, severely malnourished Confederates reached Baltimore, the country finally realized the truth about Elmira, which had been described as being in total contrast to the conditions at Andersonville. The citizenry was properly outraged. By that time, Foster's Pond inside the camp had "turned green with putrescence," and disease had taken an even greater toll. In December, the wooden barracks received limited heat - a coal-burning stove at either end was lit for a few hours in the morning and evening.
The Southerners felt the cold keenly, and many died of pneumonia. There was little bedding. The men tried to whittle wood into shavings to line the bunks, but guards feared this would attract additional vermin and confiscated it. Bedding consisted of oilcloth and one or two thin blankets, if the men had successfully scrounged them. Between the snowfall and wind blowing through cracks of the plank building, there was little warmth.
By January 1865, Tracy had received approval from Stanton to build a new and badly needed drainage ditch. Dug with prison labor, it was funded by the money sent in by relatives to the prisoners' accounts. The bitter winter produced more than a few snowfalls and cold temperatures. Frozen feet and legs were not uncommon.
King stated that while inside, he "wrapped my feet in old rags which kept them warm, but in the late winter we were compelled to stand in the snow every morning for roll call, consequently my feet and shins were badly frozen. In the spring they had the appearance of a gobbler's legs and it was many years after I returned home before they were entirely cured."
The federal government forbade shipments of uniforms to the freezing Confederates and even refused to let well-meaning locals provide pants and shirts, saying that regulations required that all outfits to be of gray cloth. It seemed that each time sympathetic residents of the rural town of 9,000 found something they could do to alleviate suffering and abuse, their own government found a way to stop it.
Conditions worsened in March when heavy snows and thawing forced the Chemung River out of its banks; a few men were evacuated, but most were obliged to remain in barracks, where only the top bunk of three-bunk tiers could be used. The men remained there for a day or two with no food or water, until guards in rowboats were able to get through to take those in the worst condition to the hospital. Although many of the weakest fell into the water, no deaths from drowning were recorded. The hospital buildings - two had been added by that time - were flooded, and the ill were relocated.
Men who were able to work at prison jobs fared better; they had access to more food and escaped much ill treatment. Small trinkets and items of jewelry were carved by more talented men out of gutta percha and other substances; these were taken into town by the guards and sold, the money being remitted to the men's prison accounts. When wagons arrived with supplies, often the horses left with tail and mane hair missing - watch chains and bracelets were woven out of the horsehair and sold.
Early on, a new source of revenue for the prison emerged. Two large frame observation towers were built outside the large gate, less than 50 feet from the wall. Each had three levels, with a long stairway leading to the top. The townspeople were invited in to "have a look" at the captured Rebs, paying as little as 15 cents and as much as a quarter, depending on which level they observed from. Finely dressed young ladies from town made the trek to the top, and it was said that the prisoners almost enjoyed the intrusion because it gave them a brief glance at the fair sex they had not seen for some time.
With the advent of warmer weather, visitors were permitted inside the gates, and young women of the town visited, many trying to make life more bearable for the prisoners, others simply observing with morbid curiosity. King reported that on one occasion, a rather arrogant young woman came through, making a comment about the "nasty, dirty, ignorant beastly Rebels - how filthy they are." It probably was some time after her departure that she found that Bish Fletcher, a rather daring prisoner, had taken the opportunity to place surreptitiously on her clothing two "gray backs" - the men's nickname for the body lice that infected the area.
Statistics of prison camp deaths bear out Elmira's less than enviable record: The national mortality average in Union camps was 11.7 percent - Elmira's 24.4 percent. Among Southern-Confederate camps, the average was 15.3 percent, though Andersonville's was a horrendous 28 percent. All things considered, the death rate basically was comparable; if a difference existed, the blame must be laid to the bitter winter cold and intentional food deprivation at Elmira.
In September 1865, the last sick prisoner was sent home, and Elmira prison was closed. The local paper reported that "too glad to be free, no longer wedded to the demon of secession, every man of them, with few exceptions, goes home to become a good and peaceable citizen."
The dead were buried at what would become Woodlawn National Cemetery. An account in the Daily Advertiser reported that "attempts have been successfully made to beautify the places of sepulture." The article continued, "Our own soldiers . . . have not received that attention paid to the rebel dead; not that the latter should have been worse treated, but our own brave boys' last resting place ought to have been better cared for, and marked with better memorials of our regard for the lives they sacrificed in our behalf."
An escaped slave from Leesburg, Va., John W. Jones, was the sexton. He assured that each Rebel body was properly identified, writing the name, rank, company and regiment, grave number and date of death on the lid of the wooden coffins; he also penned this information on a slip of paper that was enclosed in a stoppered bottle and buried with the body. When marble markers replaced the wooden ones in 1907, the information was transferred.
It is thanks to his dedicated work that the names of some 3,002 Confederate prisoners have been preserved. The town historian, George R. Farr, takes photographs of Confederate graves for descendants unable to make the trip to New York. "I try to undo some of the hard feelings the prison camp is responsible for," he says.
Martha Boltz is a writer in Northern Virginia.