Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[The Historical Society is indebted to the Shoemaker family for the loan of copies of "Elmira Prison Camp" used in compiling this account. This article originally appeared in the Chemung Historical Journal September, 1964.]
Elmira Was the gateway to the Civil War for Upstate New York.
We were the funnel for troop movements because we were the railroad link with Dixie.
We were the point of departure for 34 regiments, most of them raised elsewhere and brought here for outfitting and brief training. For Western New York, we were the Military Rendezvous.
And for 3,000 Confederates, Elmira proved to be a rendezvous with death.
Various authors have evaluated Elmira's role in the Civil War.
Arch Merrill of Rochester wrote that it brought "feverish activity, some grim drama and considerable prosperity for the old town."
Charles Barber in his history of Elmira College told of "blue-clad troops whose dashing presence and easy conduct created problems for the college administration."
What of the Southern view of Elmira and its infamous Elmira Prison Camp?
The most violent attack came some 10 years after the war from Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia, speaking on the floor of Congress.
Elmira, said Hill, was 10 times worse than Andersonville or any other prison in the South. He claimed the prisoners were starved, robbed and made to drink foul water from a frog pond, that hundreds were starved to death and the sick uncared for; that the dead were dumped into the ground uncoffined.
Mr. Hill's charges were false, says Elmiran Clay W. Holmes in his book, "Elmira Prison Camp."
Mr. Holmes set about to "refute certain false charges...as a defense of the citizens of Elmira who were loyal not only to their country but to the principles of Christian humanity."
In his research Holmes corresponded with the War Department, studied all Civil War period issues of the Elmira Advertiser, and corresponded with or interviewed many Northerners and Southerners connected with the Prison Camp. During the first three years of the war, Elmira as the Military Depot had four assembly points.
By early 1864 Barracks No.3 on West Water St. was practically empty and the government grasped the opportunity of utilizing them for a prison camp.
At the time of its conversion to a prison camp, Barracks 3 consisted of 35 wooden buildings, each about 100 feet long, 16 feet wide and high enough for two rows of bunks. They were parallel with Water St. and were on the high ground between Foster's Pond and Water St.
The government ordered that a 12-foot fence be built, the frame being on the outside, with a walk for sentinels on the outside about three feet below the top, thus giving them a good view of all that passed within. The barracks could quarter 4,000 prisoners and there was ground room for tents for another 1,000. The mess room could accommodate 1,200 to 1,500 and the kitchen could cook daily for 500.
The first order for movement of prisoners to Elmira was dated June 30 and addressed to the commander of Point Lookout, on Chesapeake Bay, ordering him to forward 2,000 enlisted (not officers) prisoners to Elmira. They were to be divided into parties of 400, guarded by 100 men.
On July 6, 1864, the first prisoners arrived. The train pulled into the depot at 6 a.m. and unloaded 400 prisoners. They were of two classes-old and young-middle age having a very small representation. They wore all sorts of nondescript uniforms, beside their regular dark, dirty gray. Some wore only drawers and shirts. In double column they were marched south to Water St. and then west on that dirt road to the camp. A. J. Madra of Jackson's First Corps of Sharpshooters was the first prisoner to enter the enclosure.
Even as the camp opened a medical inspector reported to Washington the area lacked facilities for the care of the sick. The sanitary drainage was inadequate.
'Ragged and Dirty'
On July 11 the second batch of Confederates arrived at 5 a.m. and The Advertiser said "they were ragged and dirty, as usual. One was barefoot and the rest indifferently shod." Another batch came July 12, making 1,151 prisoners in camp.
On July 15 a trainload of prisoners bound for Elmira was wrecked at Shohola, Pa. with heavy loss of life.
By the end of July the camp had 4,425 prisoners. For the night guards, 41 large kerosene lamps, with large reflectors, were hung along the stockade.
No citizens were allowed to enter the grounds and the only view outsiders had of the prisoners -- at first -- was while they were being transferred from the depot.
But late in July two entrepreneurs named W. and M. Means erected an observation platform across Water St. from the camp. They took newspaper advertisements to promote their three-story platform, admission 10 cents. This was about 400 feet west of Hoffman St. A second observatory was built at Hoffman and Water. Between the two towers, in fact all along the street, sprouted wooden booths where lemon pop, ginger cakes, beer and hard liquor were dispensed. The second tower and the shacks didn't last-the commander ordered them down. But the first tower remained through the war and there is a picture of it in the Brady collection.
One 1865 photo shows troop barracks along the west side of Hoffman St, between Water and Gray. There were barracks along Gray St., too. Today there are four small homes on Gray St., just east of now-covered Hoffman Creek, that originally were officer homes, moved from Water St. after the war.
Religious worship was arranged for the prisoners soon after the camp opened. The first sermon was preached in camp July 24 by the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, who had seen the war close up while serving as a chaplain. Five pastors alternated in conducting services at the camp, and the Rev. Martin Kavanaugh administered to the Catholic prisoners.
By the end of August there were 9,619 prisoners on hand. The 35 buildings were full and half the Rebs were in tents. In late September the prisoners were suffering from the cold, some lacking stoves and blankets. Shed barracks were erected in November and December. And the camp purchased 150 coal stoves from the E. H. Cook and Co. hardware at Lake and Water.
As the population grew in the fall of '64, more concern was expressed about the stagnation of Foster's Pond. Correspondence with Washington noted "the continued prevalence of disease and death in the camp.
We have both the Confederate and the Union versions of how the Southern prisoners were received by the citizenry of Elmira.
One prisoner, L. B. Jones, in an 1865 letter, wrote:
"The train was soon emptied of its living freight, and the column formed four abreast, headed toward the prison camnp. The depot was thronged with people, the greater part ladies and children, all handsomely dressed, gazing upon us with a variety of expressions; some with gladness, some with sadness, and some with a sympathetic look as if moved by a Christian heart, touched by a common feeling for suffering humanity."
The local press took a detached view. A local paragraph from The Daily Advertiser in July, 1864 said:
"The Johnny rebs are quite the lions for the visitors to Barracks No. 3. The cracks and knotholes of the fence are numerous enough to afford a sight. People from the country are hardly willing to go home after their shopping is done without a peep at the varmints..."
The Clay Holmes book quotes an observation of Sgt. Berry Benson of McGowan's South Carolina Sharpshooters. Benson told of arriving by train July 25 and added:
"As we marched through the streets of Elmira, two by two, ragged, dirty faces pinched with hunger, the people came out on the sidewalks to see Lee's soldiers going to prison. Had I seen any of the men, I know I would have hated them, but I had eyes only for the pretty girls."
The Sgt. Benson just quoted was one of the men who took part in the famous October tunnel escape from the Prison Camp. He made his way south by way of Corning, Fall Brook, Canton, Williamsport, Sunbury, Harrisburg, York, Baltimore and finally Richmond.
That October 7 tunnel escape culminated weeks of stealthy burrowing by many of the Confederates. Apparently some of the prisoners started digging after spending only a few weeks in the camp. The October 7th group later told of their frustrations. The morning after they began their tunnel, digging down through the floor of a tent, they discovered to their horror that the dirt they had piled outside was a different color than the dirt already there. Later they weren't sure their tunnel was following a straight course. Finally one of them pushed a ramrod up through the sod from the extreme point of digging and they discovered they had veered 30 degrees off course.
But the hardy 10 finally completed tunneling under the stockade one night and broke through the crust of Water St. just outside the fence at about the same time a sentry was proclaiming "Four and a half o'clock and all is well." Eight of the escapees skedaddied south and two traveled north to the vicinity of Auburn where they worked and saved enough to finally get back to their home-land.
John Fox Maul, writing in the Montgomery, Alabama, Advertiser, recollected: 'We lay all day at the side of the mountain . . . We saw the forsaken prisoners gather around our tent and witnessed the great stir among them..."
Washington Traweek of the Jeff Davis Artillery, wrote: "With a little spyglass we looked down on the confusion... We could also see the cavalry rushing around through the valley in search of us."
Cecrops Malone told how he made his way up Water Cure Hill, to Ithaca, Varna and to Auburn.
In all, 17 prisoners escaped during the existence of the camp.
One of the earliest escapes was in late July. A Confederate sergeant bribed his way into the dead house, into a coffin, and was shipped aboard the dead wagon for Woodlawn Cemetery. The coffin lid had been lightly nailed. Near the cemetery he lifted the lid, jumped out and took off across a field. The startled after just sat there. In fact he took his time about disposing of the box and kept quiet about the escape for some time. The escapee, who became a resident of Baltimore, paid a postwar visit to Elmira to verify his death-defying departure.
A Friend In Waverly
Sgt. Joe Womak of Wade Hampton's Confederate Cavalry Legion, wrote the story of his escape after the war. He had first tried a tunnel escape but his tunnel ran into someone else's and was discovered by what lie called "the lynx-eyed officers and men of the guards."
Eventually Womak forged a printed pass he had discovered in a book. He liberated an officer's coat and got through the gate on the phony pass.
"Striking a dignified gait," he later wrote, "I moved down the road toward the city." He hid the stolen coat in an alley "and stepped forth a full fledged citizen with just 10 dollars in my pocket."
He hastened to tile depot and, finding the train was late, hiked down the track, reaching Waverly about dawn A tavern keeper a Democrat of the McClellan School -- befriended him after hearing his story and said, "Why, bless your soul, my dear sir, you are in the house of your friends.
Our hero made his way to New York, borrowed some money from "a true Southern woman" and continued to Cumberland where he rustled a Federal cavalryman's horse. He reached Richmond returned to service, lived to write a history of the Kentucky troops in the Confederate army. Long after the war, Womak came back to Elmira for a visit to Woodlawn and the camp site.
Another prisoner, a youth named Beanie Orcult, escaped by borrowing a coat one day at dusk. He passed himself as the same-sized son of Capt. B. F. B. Durriars, who was on duty inside the camp.
The climactic escape came in April when a prisoner climbed into one of the swill barrels being taken out of the compound on a wagon. All but his nose was submerged. He made his getaway. It was presumed that the driver must have helped him "recover a presentable condition" before he headed South.
Homesickness probably was a principal factor in motivating the escapes. There is no evidence to indicate the men were fleeing from prison brutality.
Elmira Prison Camp had no "deadline" as some prisons had.
Punishment is mentioned by the Confederate author, Arthur M. Keiley, who was a prisoner and worked as a clerk in the camp. Keiley wrote that those who stole another's food received either confinement in the guard house, solitary confinement on bread and water, the sweat box or the barrel shirt. The sweat box was wooden, about 7 feet high, 20 inches wide and 12 inches deep. It was placed in front of a major's tent. Those confined in it had to stand with limbs rigid and immovable until the jailer opened the door.
Prisoners led a boring life in Elmira, for it was not a work camp.
William T. Post of Elmira, one of the men who delivered groceries to the camp, shed some light on the crafts and hobbies of the prisoners. He wrote:
"When I began to go to the prison camp I had to watch my horse very closely to keep the 'Johnnies' from stealing all the hair out of his toil, but as the boys got to know me, they respected my horse, because they found I could be of service to them.
"They would bring their horsehair chains, rings and other trinkets, and I took them to town and sold them for whatever price they indicated, and turned the money over to them, or bought anything they wanted. In those days oysters were put up in pint cans and I used to take many a pint to them."
Mr. Post was luckier than some other horse owners who found their steeds virtually "detailed" by the horsehair scroungers.
Weather A Hardship
One of the great hardships on the Southerners was the northern climate, The winter of 1864-65, from newspaper accounts, was extremely severe, Cold set in early, with snow in October. A secret agent, M. M. Conklin, who lived in the camp, reported that the stronger prisoners stole clothing from the weak.
A Baltimore group wanted to send an emissary through the camp distributing gifts of clothing. Col. Benjamin. F. Tracy, who had charge of the camp, was sympathetic but the War Department was not. Col. Tracy wrote that his "heart nearly bled for these poor sufferers." The report concluded: "The brutal Stanton was iriexorable to all my entreaties and turned a deaf ear to the tale of their suffering."
Later the prisoners did get supplemental clothing. The South shipped a large amount of cotton to New York and proceeds of the disposal of it were applied to the purchase of clothing for the prisoners.
In February a party of Confederate officers came to Elmira to arrange a clothing distribution. One hundred and fifty suits of Confederate uniforms were given out.
Exchange of prisoners began Feb, 21, when 500 prisoners left. There were 8,225 in camp on that date. All accounts agree that prisoners received food equal to that served to Union troops.
If the food was adequate, the shelter passable and the clothing marginal, why did one of every four Confederates die in Elmira Prison Camp?
Holmes in his book said, "The government is challenged for proof that they were not inhuman. He presents documentation in the form of official correspondence to prove that indeed, the government was not inhuman. Yet he presents hearsay evidence that some inhumane and greedy individuals were responsible for some of the deaths.
There were four principal factors contributing to the high death rate in Elmira Prison Camp. They were:
A highly respected Elmiran, H.Rockwell, who visited the camp frequently as an Express Company worker, testified as to the poor physical condition of prisoners sent to Elmira. Many had been confined at Point Lookout. They had been captured at Cold Harbor, Spotsylvania and in other eastern battles.
While Rockwell said medical facilities were plentiful, be described the arriving prisoners as "sallow, emaciated and weak, a condition which my experience leads me to believe was caused by hard campaigning and coarse and insufficient rations." They were little better in the matter of clothing. Rockwell noted that Elmira's Masonic lodges raised funds to give clothing to their brethren who were prisoners. Also, the Masons conducted funeral rituals for deceased prisoners who were Masons.
Another Elmiran, Stephen Hoffman, wrote in 1912;
"Some of the men who came from Point Lookout were in dreadful condition. They had been vaccinated at Point Lookout, and there must have been something wrong with the vaccine matter. In the arms of some of them there were great sores, big enough, it seemed, to put your fist in. Under the skillful care and treatment they received in Elmira, however, most, if not all, of them recovered."
John T. Davidson, speaking at Scranton in 1892, said "many were sick and in the last stages of life..."
R. H. B, Dumars of Elmira, a newspaper publisher, said in 1876 that "many of them were walking skeletons...with disease of some kind fastened upon them."
It is a matter of irony that the very surgeon who protested at first about the sanitary conditions eventually became the nearest thing to a scapegoat for the shame of Elmira Prison Camp.
He was Major Eugene L. Sanger, appointed surgeon of the camp on Aug. 8, 1864, with five assistants.
He first directed his attention at the prevalence of scurvy among the prisoners. Of the 9,300 prisoners in camp Aug. 26, 793 had scurvy. The Army authorized purchases of anti-scorbutics.
But the pond was the chief health problem. By Nov. 1 Surgeon Sanger advised the Surgeon-General that at the rate of sickness "the entire command will be admitted to the hospital and in less than a year, and 36 per cent die." The undrained pond was green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death, the vaults give out their sickly odors, and the hospitals are crowded with victims for the grave," reported Sanger.
But very suddenly, on Dec.22, at a most critical period in the history of the camp, Dr. Sanqer left. He was relieved of duty, but the War Department has no records to show why.
We must take the verdict of Clay Holmes and same of the distinguished Southerners confined in Elmira in deducing what happened to Sanger. Remember that even Holmes conceded that the mortality record was the most serious charge against the camp. Holmes, was part owner of The Advertiser, president of Hygela Refrigerating Company, the manufacturer of Frostilla lotion and president of a savings and loan association when he undertook his history of the prison.
Holmes' verdict was that "there was something wrong with Sanger."
The longer Sanger was here, the more he bridled at interference by subordinate officers. Citizens of Elmira, said Holmes, were of the opinion that Sanger took a very considerable amount of the "medicine" which the government furnished for the sick prisoners.
In September, a Surgeon Sloane, acting for the government, made an inspection after a Sanger complaint that it was impossible to obtain what he deemed necessary. Sloane told him to refer all his wants in proper form for approval of the Medical Director. From then until Nov. 5 no complaints were made by Sanger, nor were any requisitions ever received from him as above instructed, except the usual ones for medical supplies,
On Oct. 16 Cal. Tracy ordered an investigation of the probable causes of disease -- the diet, effects of the pool, the competency and efficiency of the medical officers on duty.
On Nov. 1 Sanger wrote: "I cannot be held responsible for a large medical department of over 1000 patients without power, authority or influence."
Sanger complained that "all direct communication has been cut off and I am ordered by him (Tracy) to report to a junior military officer..."
This Col. Tracy who offended Sanger was Benjamin F. Tracy of the 127th Colored Infantry. He was named depot commander Sept 20. He was described as a new and vigorous" commander and one of his first acts was to obtain wooden barracks to replace the tents. Tracy was white, his colored troops helped the white militia guard the camp.
For the Southern estimate of what was wrong with Elmira Prison Camp, Clay Holmes quoted liberally from a book, "In Vinculis" published in 1865 by Anthony W. Keiley, who was a prisoner in Elmira. After the war Mr. Keiley became mayor of Richmond, publisher of the Richmond Sentinel, and member of the House of Delegates from Petersburg, Va. Keiley wrote:
"The chief of the medical department was a club-footed little gentleman with an abnormal head and a snaky look in his eyes, named Major F. L. Sanger. He was simply a brute, as we found when we learned the whole truth about him from his own people. If he had not avoided court martial by resigning his position it is unlikely that even a military commission would have found it possible to screen his brutality to the sick."
Keiley claimed most of the medical officers were a motley crew. He claimed the camp was used for the education of young doctors who "as soon as they learned to distinguish between quinine and magnesia" would "remove to other fields of labor."
"Spiritus frumenti failed to get to the patients," said Keiley, "or in so small a quantity after the various tolls that it would not quicken the circulation of a canary."
As a camp clerk Keiley kept tab on the deaths for a one and one-half month period. Two singular factors were noted: the unusual mortality among North Carolina prisoners, and the "absolute absence of any deaths from intermittent fever (malaria) or analogous diseases." Sanger would sign no report which ascribed death to any of these diseases, Keiley wrote.
Vast quantities of quinine were prescribed that were never taken, said Keiley, "the price (eight dollars an ounce) tempting the cupidity of the physicians beyond all resistance; but the grand speculation was in whiskey." He said the better class of officers were loud and indignant in their protests of Sanger's systematic inhumanity to the sick.
Clay Holmes queried the War Department about Dr. Sanger in 1912 and was told "nothing has been found on record to show why Sanger was relieved from duty Dec. 22, 1864."
When Sanger left, Dr. Anthony F. Stocker was assigned as surgeon in chief. Hospital conditions improved rapidly in spite of the ravages of smallpox. Four hundred deaths were attributed to smallpox.
Ditches were dug to divert the pure water of the Chemung River through Foster's Pond, and the sanitation situation was relieved. A spring fresher in March innundated the smallpox hospital but the patients were evacuated. The food improved and a committee of six Southern governors visited the camp by permission of the President. They pronounced the bread and soup fine, and one said, "better than we get down home at our hotels."
As spring arrived Cal. Stephen Moore the new commandant, set same prisoners to work making a lawn and flower garden. Then a German musician organized a prisoner band.
With the coming of May the prisoners began to be paroled and sent home in large squads. The windup was in July, except for some hospitalized men, the last of whom departed Sept. 27, 1865.
The mortality percentage for Elmira Prison Camp was 25. Of 12,123 prisoners, 2,963 died. In the North, only Camp Alton, Ill., had a higher percentage. Of Alton's 7,117 prisoners, 2,218 died for a percentage of 31. Rock Island, Ill., had a mortality percentage of 20; Point Lookout, Md., had a percentage of 9. All told, Northern prisons held 227,570 prisoners, of whom 26,774, or 11.7 per cent, died.
The South had 26 prisons compared with the North's 24. The total of Federal prisoners confined in the South was 196,713, of whom 30,212, or 15.3 per cent died. Deaths at Andersonville totaled 13,705, or 27 per cent mortality.
Woodlawn National Cemetery is a constant reminder to Chemung County that nearly 3,000 Southern soldiers sleep here. There are 36 trenches extending across the plot, north to south, all occupied by Confederate dead. On the north side are two trenches extending the entire length of the plot from east to west, in which are buried Confederate soldiers on the east and Union soldiers on the west end. Union soldiers are buried on both sides of the flagpole. Seven graves are marked "Unknown."
John W. Jones, the Negro sexton and ex-slave, had charge of the burial of every Confederate soldier. He transcribed every record which appeared on the coffin lids into a book he kept for that purpose. The largest number of buriels in a day was 48. Mr. Jones saw that the buriels were properly and reverently conducted. He received from the government a fee of $2.50 far each body buried, and the fees helped him amass a comfortable fortune after the war. Besides his Woodlawn duties, John Jones was sexton of the First Baptist Church, and supervised all interments in the city cemeteries.
The community loved this noble man, who died in 1900, and for whom Jones Court municipal apartments were named.
The marble markers at the head of each grave in Woodlawn National Cemetery were placed there in 1907, replacing wooden ones. In 1911 the bodies of the Shohola wreck victims were transferred to Woodlawn.
Soon after the war three bodies were removed by friends and taken South for reburial. But the other graves remain, and a memorial was placed in Woodlawn by the Daughters of the Confederacy around 1925.
Elmira Prison Camp has now vanished without a trace except for Foster's Pond and two boundary markers along Water St. But the cemetery is a monument to the harsh indifference of war and constantly revives the act of remembrance which, in the words of Bruce Catton, calls first of all "for a brooding awareness of the immensity of the tragedy that once befell our country."
Elmira Prison Camp (1912). Clay W. Holmes
Daily Advertiser, 1664-1665