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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Submitted Information - Chemung County Historical Journal:
Elmira 1861-1865: Civil War Rendezvous by Thomas E. Byrne

It became Elmira's destiny 100 years ago to serve as the main artery of Western New York in the movement of manpower to the Civil War battlefields.

In the 19th century prose of Messrs. H.B. Pierce and D.H. Hurd in the 1878 four-county history, Elmira was thusly described:

At the breaking out of the Rebellion, as the various calls for troops were borne along the wires, quickly the quotas of Chemung and other counties were filled. Al Elmira the brave volunteers from the beautiful valleys and hills of the distant portions of the State collected. As regiment after regiment arrived they were equipped and means of transportation provided, with but little time for military drill going to the front. Guard-mounting and dress-parades varied with infantry or artillery exercise, were the order of the day. Mounted orderlies hurried from post headquarters either to Lake Street barracks or the River barracks No. 3.

For months the pavements resounded with the tramp of citizen soldiery, and the strains of martial music reverberated along the northern heights of Mount Zoar of the lofty hillsides which skirt the valley. Many of the daring men returned; but, alas! many of them met a soldier's grave. The flowers of the valley now bloom o'er many gallant graves "where sleep the brave who sink to rest."

One of Three Depots
Elmira was designated as one of the state's three military depots on July 30, 1861 by Governor Morgan. Albany and New York were the other depots. The commanding officer here was Brig. Gen. Robert Van Valkenburg of Bath.

When conscription was decreed Elmira became the draft rendezvous for upstate New York

Elmira became a hub of the Civil War because of its advantageous railroad connections. The main line to the front from the section was the Northern Central Railroad, not the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Abolitionists Active
Elmira was on another "main line" - the Underground Railroad - for a quarter-century before Fort Sumter. The village had been witnessing anti-slavery activity since 1836 by the Rev. John Frost and others. A group of Methodist abolitionists attempted to hold a regional meeting here in 1837 but encountered three obstacles. First the village trustees forbade the meeting on the plea of creating a disturbance. So the abolitionists obtained permission to hold their gathering on Davis Island in the Chemung River. The trustees of the Presbyterian Church passed a resolution forbidding the meeting, and in the words of a historian, were "laughed at for their pains." The ministers went ahead with their island convocation, only to have it broken up by a noisy rabble equipped with tin horns, pans and rattles. Finally, on the T.S. Day farm at the foot of what is not Washington Street, the abolitionist rally was peaceably held, attended by about 200. But Mr. Frost was finally forced to withdraw from the pastorate of the Presbyterian Church.

The division over abolition was the factor that led to the dismissal of 40 members of First Presbyterian Church in 1846 and to the formation of Park Congregational Church. Another division in 1861 led to the formation of the Second Presbyterian Church, now Lake Street Presbyterian Church.

23rd Regiment
The first call for troops reached Elmira April 15, 1861, and a mass meeting was held that evening at Concert Hall located at Lake Street just north of Water. The hall was packed and the oratory was by Judge James Dunn, Archibald Robertson, Daniel F. Pickering and General William W. Gregg. Chairman of the meeting was the renowned Gabriel L. Smith.

A company knows as the Southern Tier Rifles was raised May 16, 1861, from volunteers and it became Company K of the 23rd Regiment, N.Y.V., Col. Henry C. Hoffman. This company fought at Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam and Fredericksburg. Its casualties reflected the side effects of harsh campaigning. The 23rd lost 17 killed, 3 died from fever and general deaths from illness totalled 21.

When Elmira was designated a military rendezvous, Lt. W.W. Averill was the first U.S. officer sent here to muster troops. Later commanders whose names afterward became familiar through residence after the war were Capt. J. Riley Reed, Campt. Madison Earle, Capt. David Scott, Capt. Emerson H. Liscum, Capt. Mills and Mapt. William Falck, all of whom found wives in Elmira.

1862 "War Meeting"
In the early months the Civil Was was a brave new exercise in ruffles and flourishes in swords and roses. In it's second year, however, the grimmer overtones crept into the newspaper accounts.

The Advertiser and Republican of July 19, 1862 reported:

The War Meeting at Ely Hall last night was a mighty success...

The following gentleman were chosen officers:

President, Hiram Gray. Vice President -- John Arnot, Samuel Partridge, Wm. Foster, Robert Covell, Wm. Hoffman, Benjamin Vail, Uriah Smith, John J. Sexton, Asher Tyler, B.P. Beardsley, S.L. Gillett, J.B. Clark, J.T. Rathbun, Tracy Beaddle, Stephen McDonald. Secretaries -- C.G. Fairman, Horton, Tidd, R.R.R. Dumars.

Adopted was a resolution heartily approving our President's call for an additional 300,000 men to reinforce our armies now in the field...[as] the only way to obtain a speedy and successful termination of the war.

This was after the failure of the Richmond campaign.

The following resolution was adopted:

That forbearance and charity toward the rebels has ceased to be a virtue; that henceforth the Government should treat then with the rigor and severity due the great crimes they have committed...capture of rebel cities and towns and the defeat of their armies has failed to humiliate them -- no offers of peace having as yet come from their leaders...on the contrary they carry on the war with a cruelty and barbarity unexampled in the history of civilized nations.

A Soldiers Relief Association was formed for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers (July 19, 1862).

Managers included Miss Marianna Arnot, Miss Diven, Samuel G. Hathaway Jr., the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, Miss Mary M. Rathbun, John Arnot, Jr., the Rev. Dr. Lincoln (president). A committee was chosen to secure a hospital camp in Elmira and soon too military hospitals were operating, one on William St. near Market and one on Davis north of Clinton St.

It was during this critical period that Elmira most public spirited and able men put aside their vocations and devoted their talents to the war effort. The war - as was ever the case - brought out the best in men. And as subsequent events demonstrated, it also brought out the worst in some.

A Call to Arms
A call to arms came in mid-1863 from Col. Van Valkenburgh. Addressed to the entire Southern Tier, it said:

Come all, leave the cradle and the scythe, quit the counting house, and the office, and with one united, determined purpose let us

STRIKE - till the last armed foe expires
STRIKE - for our altars and our fires
STRIKE - for the green graves of our sires, God and out native land!

As a military depot Elmira had Barracks No. 1 located in Arnot Field, just north of what is now Parker Field. Barracks No. 2 in Southport near the present Pennsylvania Railroad yards. Barracks No. 3 on West Water St. west of Hoffman Creek, and Barracks No. 4 on the south shore of the river where the West Hudson St. playground now is. A large military storehouse was at Church St. and Railroad Ave.

Twenty-four infantry organizations were mustered here, plus four artillery companies and six cavalry units, a total of 20,796 officers and men.

"Home Regiments"
Considered "home" regiments were the 23rd, 107th, 141st and 179th.

Phisterer's New York in the War of the Rebellion 1861-65 lists the following Elmira companies in the regional regiments:

Infantry - 23rd Cos. F, K; 86th Co. E; 103rd Cos. B, K; 107th Cos. A, A, G, H, K; 137th Co. L; 141st Cos. C, G, I, K; 161st Cos. B, C; 187th Com. H. It also notes artillery, engineer and cavalry companies from Elmira.

The 23rd Infantry, mentioned previously, went to the front in 1861.

The 141st NYV was mustered Sept. 11, 1862 under Col. Samuel G. Hathaway. He later was succeeded by Col. John W. Dininny. The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher was chaplain. Major Robert M. McDowell was adjutant. The 141st marched away 1,200 strong and came out of the war with 380. Three companies were from Chemung County, five from Steuben and two from Schuyler. Its major battles included Lookout Mountain, Peach Tree Creek, Dallas and Pine Mountain.

The 179th was raised early in 1864 by Maj. William M. Gregg of Elmira. Many of its members were from the old 23rd. The regiment lost heavily in the battle before Petersburg on June 17, losing more than one-third its number in killed and wounded. On April 1, 1865, before Petersburg, the 179th led a charge upon Fort Mahone ("Fort Damnation") and Col. Gregg was wounded and his second in command , Col. Franklin B. Doty, was mortally wounded. Nine men of the 179th died while prisoners of war. Two were executed for desertion.

The 107th, mustered July 15, 1862, was one of the largest Union volunteer regiments, with a total of 1,320 men mustered. The first to answer Lincoln's "second call," it was the Banner Regiment of New York State. It lost approximately 187 killed or wounded.

Both its colonel Van Valkenburg and its lieutenant colonel Alexander S. Diven, were members of Congress. At the urging of Secretary of War Stanton, they had dropped everything in Washington to hurry home and devote their full efforts to the war. At 52, Diven was the oldest man in the regiment. He had already achieved prominence as a director and attorney for the Erie Railroad and as a principle builder of the railroad from Elmira to Williamsport.

The 107th first tasted glory at Antietam, but later there was boredom, sickness, disease and death in camp at Maryland Heights. It was a time for hardiness and humor. As for the latter, one officer of the 107th recalling how they had left home to the heroic lines of Gibbons' Father Abraham dashed off a parody that began:

We have come, dear Father Abraham, been here a month or more.
And tramped all over Maryland until our feet are sore.

The 107th marched with McClellan to Antietam, with Hooker to Chancellorsville, with Mead to Gettysburg, with Thomas to Atlanta, with Sherman to the sea, and finally, down Pennsylvania Ave. at the Grand Review in Washington. All told, the 107th marches 2,580 miles.

The 107th lost 63 men in its first engagement, Sept. 17, 1862, at Antietam. A monument to the regimental dead, at Lake and Market Sts., was unveiled 20 years after Antietam, to the day.

Bad Day at Dallas
But the worst single day of the Civil War proved to be May 25, 1865. Ironically, in view of the recent national tragedy, the place of the calamity was named Dallas.

But this was a little crossroads in Georgia along the route of the Union advance from Chattanooga to Atlanta. For a time the Union forces under Hooker and Sherman had hopped and skipped down a railroad line, outflanking and striking again and again. But the day came when the Confederate General Johnson stopped retreating, and a 27-day battle ensued.

Resaca, Georgia, was the first stumbling block for Hooker's proud XX Corps. General Hood fortified the "Resaca ring." Union losses were heavy in penetrating it, and six Chemung Countians of the 141st NYV were among those killed at Resaca May 15.

But 10 days later, May 25, the 107th entered the dark woods at Dallas. For 50 years afterwards, GAR veterans told of the carnage.

The 107th lost nearly 200 men that day. Chemung County casualties were 14 killed and six wounded.

One of the dirges of the time was lent a special significance. It began:

Somebody's darling, somebody's pride:
Who'll tell his mother where her boy died.

News from the battlefronts was comparatively slow in reaching Elmira 100 years ago. While the telegraph had been here for nearly 10 years, it was used primarily by the Erie railroad until late in the war. Elmira had three newspapers, the Advertiser, Gazette and Daily Press.

Letters from a Soldier
An insight to the activity of a century ago is to be found in letters from soldiers, specifically Arthur Smith Fitch of the 107th NYV. An October letter in 1864 tells of a presidential review. Of Lincoln, Fitch wrote: "He looks just as he did last August when we saw him in Washington." When the President concluded his inspection, Fitch heard him say, "Well General, I reckon we may as well be going."

Another letter describing Chaplain Beecher said, "He looks as good as ever and as little like a minister as he always did."

Smith drew $17 a month as a sergeant and sent $10 home as an allotment either for the family's use or for deposit "at Mr. Van Campen's bank." Fitch's letters discussed the illnesses of others, but he kept his health. In fact, he lived on to be secretary of Baldwin GAR Post for 37 years.

Detailed to Elmira in August, 1863, he wrote that "the town is full of soldiers again, made up of conscripts, returning soldiers after them, parts of companies just reorganizing, etc., making quite lively times again." Of the conscripts and substitutes, he said, "they are not to ne trusted and run away every chance they get." Notwithstanding, "I have enjoyed myself bully since being here." he wrote.

Still here in September, he wrote:

The town is full of shoulder straps and blue coats and things are quite lively. The places of amusement have been scarce but this week promises to be more abundant with them. A one-horse theater is in operation at Concert Hall. Professor Packard gave two concerts...this week...he had some 200 children on the stage."

Brawls and Quietude
A paper written in 1930 by A.G. Steen, telling of the war days, states the saloons did a big business. He related a fight in a Railroad Avenue saloon in which a soldier was killed and for which two Elmira men went to prison. He also describes a near-riot on Water St. that developed after a Michigan cavalry regiment tried to paint the town red. The Veteran Reserve Corps was called. Shots were fired, one rioter was killed, two wounded and a reservist lost an arm.

The New York World sent a correspondent here in June, 1861, and he reported:

The townspeople of Elmira are gradually relapsing into their pristine quietude, not that the volunteer troops quartered here have come to be looked upon as a permanent institution.

Even a battalion drill fails to draw, as such things formerly did, bevies of rustic maidens, laden with smiles for the junior officers, and wondering dames, whose reminiscenses are ever of the War of 1812.

The writer found the entire rendezvous in admirable trim. He ranked it among the best in the North. As he complimented W.T. and G.F. Post for developing steam cookers to expedite feeding nearly 4,000 soldiers a day.

The city prospered during the Civil War. The population of Chemung County was 26,917 in 1860 and in 1865 it grew to 31,923. Elmira's transition to a city from a village came in April, 1864. Our grocers, butchers, hardware stores and the Woolen Mills, did a land-office business. It was a colorful period of dress parades, of farewell parties.

That was Elmira, the military rendezvous of 1861-1863.

But Elmira was to become a rendezvous with death for hundreds of Southern soldiers in 1864 and 1865.