Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
The military order designating Barracks 3 of the Military Depot on West Water Street, Elmira as a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers was dated May 18, 1864. The first contingent of battle weary rebels arrived at the new detention camp on July 16th.
What was to be the fourth group destined for imprisonment at the camp met with a horrible and terrifying catastrophe near the small hamlet of Shohola, Pennsylvania on the Delaware River, 18 miles west of Port Jarvis on the main line of the Erie Railway Company.
It would seem that to a country hardened by three years of war that the news of the accident would be nothing out of the ordinary. To the contrary it was shocking and heart rending.
Forty-eight rebel prisoners and seventeen members of the Union's Veteran Reserve Guard lost their lives in, or as a result of, the collision of Erie Railway trains. The injury count listed 101 Confederates and 19 guards, of whom eight rebel and three Union soldiers died. Four railroad men were killed outright. And all this because one railroad employee failed to carry out the responsibility of his position.
18 Car Train
On July 12, 1864 a contingent of 844 Confederate prisoners-of-war departed from the over-crowded Federal prison at Camp Lookout, Maryland accompanied by 125 Union soldiers and three commissioned officers of the 11th and 20th regiments of the Veteran Reserve Corps as guards. Capt. Morris Church was the train commander. The group arrived at New York City at 3 p.m. on the 145h. They boarded a Pennsylvania Railroad train and were taken to Jersey City where they remained overnight. At 4 a.m. of the 15th they were loaded onto a special train of the Erie Railway which was scheduled to leave at 5 a.m., but whose departure was delayed until 6 by the escape of a few of the prisoners during the transfer. The fugitives were retaken and the train got under way behind Engine # 171 (built by Seth Wilmarth, June 1854) with Engineer William Ingram and Fireman Daniel Tuttle in the cab.
The train consisted of eighteen cars, the first three being box cars and the remainder being passenger coaches. The box cars each contained about 32 rebels and five guards, while the next dozen coaches held about 61 or 62 prisoners each. The last three cars carried the off-duty guards, their officers and equipment.
The run to Port Jarvis was uneventful and at 2 p.m., or a few minutes after, the wood-burning engine left that station with a renewed supply of wood and water. The double track of the railroad ended at Port Jarvis and for the next twenty-three miles the single track followed the sparking Delaware River to Lackawaxen and beyond. Throughout the distance the right-of-way was a succession of sharp curves, with the river flowing on one side and the forest clad hills bordering on the other.
While Engineer Ingram coaxed additional power from his straining 30-ton locomotive, Fireman Tuttle fed 3-foot length of cord wood into the white furnace.
In the cars the Southerners dozed or lazily scanned the passing landscape from the closed windows. The Union guards, two to a platform, stood alert, rifles ready. In the last cars the off-duty guards amused themselves with card playing or idle talk. The heavily laden train rocked and swayed. Occasionally the travelers could hear the sharp exhaust of the engine's cylinders as it hustled the train along at a speed of 20 to 25 miles per hour.
Sparrowbush village was quickly passed abd about 22 minutes later the train clattered through Pond Eddy as Tuttle continued to feed a steady diet of wood into the fire-box. Engineer Ingram kept a watchful eye on both the water supply in the boiler and on the twisting track ahead.
At about 2:50 p.m. the troop train passed the Shohola station, the operator there signaling the train onward with a clear signal. As the last car vanished from his sight, he flashed the time of its passing to the operator, Duff Kent, at Lackawaxen Junction.
"Is the Track Clear?"
Twenty-three miles west of Port Jervis and four miles west of Shohola, the Hawley Branch from the Scranton coal fields merged rails with the mail line at Lackawaxen Junction. Here, at about the time the troop train was midway between Sparrowbush and Rosas, Pennsylvania, a coal train of fifty loaded cars halted on the Hawley Branch with Engine # 237 (weight 30 tons), Engineer Samuel Hoitt. The train was enroute to Port Jervis and to reach there it was necessary for it to pass over the single track eastward from the Junction.
As his train stopped, Conductor John Martin hurried to the operator's station and as he passed his steaming engine Brakeman G.M. Boydon swung down out of the hot cab and joined him. Fireman Philo Prentiss watched them as they entered the station.
The telegrapher, Duff Kent, sat slouched over his desk as the clatter of the instrument filled the warm room. Kent had been intoxicated the night before and the world was not well with him. Later investigation brought forth this fact; also that he was addicted to alcohol.
"Is the track clear to Shohola?" Conductor Martin inquired.
"The track is clear," was the reply. "All trains due have passed."
This despite the fact that Kent had been issued orders to detain all trains at his station until the troop train had passed that point.
Martin returned to the engine and informed Hoitt that the was was clear while Boydon hurried ahead to open the main track switch. Fireman Prentiss built up his wood fire as the train entered the main track. Martin closed the switch behind his caboose, swung a "highball" to the engineer, and as the train vanished from his sight, muddled Duff Kent received the news that he had just started a train to its doom!
Approaching "King & Fuller's Cut," about midway between Shohola and Lackawxen Junction, the track curved northward following the river bank, then swung sharply south, thus forming a convex "s." A high hill shut out the view of the opposing trains until they were 100 yards apart. Indeed it was impossible for Engineer Ingram to see the coal train until almost at the very second of impact. Fireman Tuttle, busy on the cab deck, was in no position to see the coal train. Engineer Hoitt was the first to sight the rapidly approaching danger, for he leaped from the engine and thus escaped death.
The trains met head-on in a crash that shook the earth and rattled stones from the river bank. The reverbertions startled the farmers in their fields and brought the farm women from their kitchens.
The tender of the # 171 of the troop train was heaved on end, tossing its load of firewood into the engine cab, pinning Ingram and Tuttle against the hot boiler-head. Steam pipes burst, filling the cab with scalding vapors. Tuttle was killed instantly, but Ingram lived long enough to talk with would-be rescuers, then died where he stood, horrible burned and walled in by cordwood.
The leading box-car of the troop train was reduced to kindling wood as the second car knifed through it, forced there by the pressure of the cars behind it. The tender of the locomotive was heaved upward and fell back upon the wreckage. Of the 37 men riding in the car, 36 were killed outright. The lone survivor was thrown clear.
The greatest loss of life was suffered in the first three cars where over a hundred rebels and Federal guards were riding. Seven or eight of the next cars were so badly damaged that they were later declared as useless, and no car escaped undamaged.
Train Crew Killed
Prisoners and guards were hurled over heels by the collision, killing some, injuring many. Most of the Union guards riding on the open platforms lost their lives as the wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm of the right-of-way where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened.
Fireman Philo Prentiss and Brakeman Boydon of the coal train were crushed to death when the tender of their engine was lifted up and forced against the cab as the leading coal cars rammed under it.
Those riding in the last cars of the troop train escaped death, though many were injured. Union officers quickly threw a ring of uninjured guards around the scene to prevent a mass escape of the Confederates, though few of the prisoners entertained such thoughts at the time. Despite this precaution five rebels took advantage and were never retaken.
Before the dust had settled, those of the rebels and guards who were able began to pull the wreckage apart to remove the dead and injured. With noting to work with but their bare hands, their efforts were slow and often futile.
A messenger was dispatched to Shohola for assistance. Persons living near flocked to the wreck.
The two ruptured engine tenders towered over the wreckage, their massive floor timbers snapped like matchsticks. Driving rods were bent like wire. Wheels and axles lay broken.
Relief Train Sent
Superintendent Hugh Riddle of the Delaware Division of the railroad dispatched a relief train with extra cars attached for use by doctors. The railroaders and doctors were shocked at what greeted them at the scene.
On an embankment near the wrecked engine lay a group of rebel dead many mangled beyond recognition. A second such group lay in orderly rows beside the wrecked cars. To the rear of the troop train the dead members of the V.R.C. lay wrapped in their blankets at the edge of a field of rye. Some of the rebels had been covered with grass and leaves to conceal the terrible sight.
The relief work continued with renewed efforts as the sun went down. Most of the dead and injured had been removed, but the wrecking crane unearthed more. Forty rebels had been killed with fourteen fourteen of the Federal guards.
The injured were conveyed to Shohola on the wagons and carriages of farmers and villagers. Six doctors rendered medical attention, assisted by volunteers from Shohola and Barreville, a small hamlet north of the river. The ladies of both villages worked tirelessly, bestowing tender care to both Southerner and Northerner. Many prepared hot soups in their kitchens or brought jellies and other delicacies for the parched and fevered men. Clean bed sheets were ripped into bandages.
At 10 p.m. a second relief train arrived from Port Jervis with fresh provisions. Most of the injured had been moved to Shohola and about sixty were quartered in the frieght and passenger rooms of the station with the overflow placed on the adjoining platform. a few had been sheltered ion the Shohola House and two of the rebels were taken to Barreville where they died of their injuries and were buried at that place.
Thomas J. Ridgeway, associate judge of Pike County, Pennsylvania arrived and held a consultation with Supt. Riddle and Captain Morris Church, the train commander. It was decided to impanel a jury for an inquest on the spot. This was done and it was decided to bury the dead beside the track without further delay. All persons connected with the accident were exonerated, including Duff Kent for some unexplained reason. Later it was found that while the task of clearing the wreckage was in progress the telegrapher attended a dance and was in high spirits, but as public sentiment mounted against him he suddenly dropped from sight and was not heard from again.
Railroadmen, assisted by rebels, were set to work digging a trench 76' long, 8' wide and 6' deep between the track and the river. Other men began to hammer together rough coffins, the wood of smashed cars being used for this purpose. Shortly before midnight the railroad's Wood Agent and Paymaster, a Mr. McCormick, arrived with plain pine boxes for the Union dead.
When the mass grave was ready the task pf placing the bodies in the coffins and then into the grave was illuminated by the light of huge fires fed with wreckage. Four Confederates were allotted a single coffin and a single pine box was supplied for each Union soldier. After a record had been made of the corpses and the position of each coffin marked, the workers began filling in the hole. In some cases it was impossible to identify the bodies, but the graves were noted as clearly as possible. Before the burial was complete four of the more severely injured expired and were placed in the grave. The extent of their wounds had forbade movement to Shohola.
|Official Summary of Shohola Wreck|
|Prisoners killed outright at Shohola||40|
|Guards killed outright at Shohola||14|
|Prisoners dying of injuries||8|
|Guards dying of injuries||3|
|To this can be added:|
|Prisoners injured, left at Shohola||7|
|Prisoners injured, sent to Elmira||86|
|Prisoners delivered to Elmira||780|
Injured Reach Elmira
Col. Seth Eastman, camp commander, and Dr. William C. Wey, acting assistant surgeon of the camp, had caused a dozen army wagons to be at the station on Railroad Avenue, their bottoms blanketed with loose hay and straw. Members of the V.R.C. stationed at Elmira guarded the station area and kept the crowds of citizens from the train.
Under the light of flaming torches the wounded guards were removed first and sent to the General Hospital. The train was then moved forward and the injured rebels were unloaded and placed in the wagons. All the injured who could walk were lined up with their uninjured companions and the sorry procession moved off in the night to the West Water Street camp.
The prisoners had been without food, so Col. Eastman had ordered a hot meal to be waiting. One of the regular barracks had been cleared and the injured were quartered there.
Dr. Wey, hindered by the lack of proper bandages, worked until dawn by lantern light and candle light. The normal supply of hospital items was soon exhausted and early Sunday morning the pastors of the area churches called from their pulpits for the ladies of the vicinity to come to the aid of the camp. Monday's newspapers also printed the appeal. The request was heeded and an ample supply of bandages and food flooded to the camp and all prisoners who required attention received it.
The suddenness of the emergency and the lack of medical assistance made it impossible for the wounded to receive attention promply. This was due to the fact that Dr. Wey was the only physician available in Elmira at that time as other doctors were absent or in armed services and Dr. Wey was caring for the civilians during his "rest" hours away from the prison camp. He received some help from medical students and nurses.
In later criticism of the camp, it was said that some of the prisoners received no professional attention for 36 hours after their arrival in Elmira. The reason was that Dr. Wey devoted all his attention to the amputee cases first. The less injured were left to the last. It is to the everlasting credit of Dr. Wey that he pushed himself almost beyond human endurance. The Union guards were the unfortunate victims of the situation, being grossly neglected, and wholly dependent on inexperienced nurses, Dr. Wey giving all his time to the rebels. Of all the injured received at the camp only one died of his wounds.
On July 22 Captain Church was ordered to Shohola to escort to Elmira as many of the injured rebels at that place that could be moved. He returned with all seven men, all stretcher cases, and all subsequently recovered.
The War Between the States ended and for forty-seven years the men of the Union and the confederacy lay beside the busy right-of-way of the Erie R.R. Weather and railroad construction soon erased all signs of the accident. The make-shift wooden markers rotted away. No visible evidence remained. Countless thousands of train passengers passed the spot, ignorant of both the wreck and the unmarked graves.
About 1900 John Vogt, near whose residence the accident had happened and who assisted the relief work, pointed out the grave site. Wooden stakes were set out and public agitation was started for the proper care of the burial place, but little was accomplished.
At the time of the wreck Vogt was employed as a track-walker by the railroad and was some distance away when he hears the trains strike. He hurried to the scene and gave what aid he could. His home was stripped of everything that could be made into bandages and blankets, bedding and clothing were also utilized. As many as twenty-five bodies were laid out in his yard until they could be placed in the mass grave.
Reburial in Woodlawn
In early 1911 the U.S. Government ordered that the bodies of the guards and rebels be removed from the spot and taken to the National Cemetery at Elmira, The task was assigned to Capt. Charles W. Fenton, 2nd Cavalry, of Governors Island and he arrived in Port Jervis on the evening of June 4.
The Chief Quartermaster had made arrangements with a Port Jervis funeral director for the removal of the bodies. The next morning the long trench was opened, but there was little or no remains left and the workers failed to locate the 72 bodies which the government stated were supposed to be there. Sixty remains were found, which count was closer to Captain Church's report of 1864. It appears that only 63 bodies had been intered there. Perhaps some of the bodies had been washed away by the Delaware River floods.
The remains were packed in small boxes and these, in turn, were placed in four large packing cases averaging 336 lbs each.
On the morning of June 8 the cases were shipped from Shohola to Elmira, accompanied by Captain Fenton. The charge was $275. The two Confederates who had been buried at Batteville were left there. The next morning the remains were released to the superintendent of the National Cemetery and Captain Fenton saw them placed in the ground in another common grave. There was no ceremony and no evidence that any spiritual words spoken.
Because of lack of evidence it was impossible to identify the individual bodies, so the government ordered that a single stone be erected to mark the burial spot. One side was to bear a bronze tablet with the names of all the southern soldiers; the placque on the opposite side to carry the names of the Union soldiers.
The stone was erected as ordered and is known as the "Shohola Monument." It is located on the north side of the older section of the National Cemetery and the burial site of the wreck victims is to the south and directly in front of the stone. It is a small lawn covered spot with no individual head-stones as in the other portion of the cemetery.
One last aspect remains. At the time of the wreck five rebels managed to escape and apparently their identity was not known - therefore it is highly possible that some of the names on the Shohola Monument are those of the escapees; while some of the rebels who were killed were listed as having escaped. With the mutilation of the bodies absolute identification was impossible.
New York Tribune, July 18, 1864
New York Herald, July, 1864
Elmira Prison Camp, Clay Holmes, 1912
The Story of the Erie, Edward H. Mott, 1899
Elmira Star-Gazette, June 12, 1911
Elmira Advertiser, July 19 and 19, 1864