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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Personal Information – Elmira Prison, New York: The Shame of the Union by William Hesseltine

Elmira was outside of New York City. It was only there for one year, yet it had the highest death rate, per capita, of any prison camp North or South. It is a shameful spot on American history. The vindictive U.S. commissary-general of prisoners & the camp's Chief Medical Officer, Col. William Hoffman, bragged in public, that he had killed more Confederate soldiers then any union soldier in the field. When a soldier dies in the field, that's war. When he dies this way, it's cold-blooded murder. After the war, the Yankees tried their best to keep the whole incident hidden from the public. They gave the Chief Medical Officer a promotion in rank and a medal for services rendered. Elmira had a death rate of 24 percent. The mad doctor and everyone associated with Elmira should have been tried for war Crimes.


Official statistics for the worst six month period at Elmira:


Month          Prisoners       Sick       Dead


September      9,480             563      385

October           9,441             640      276

November        8,258             666      207

December        8,401             758      269

January           8,602           1,015      285

February          8,996           1,398      426


Elmira was on a 30-acre site, along the banks of the Chemung River. A one-acre lagoon of stagnant water, called Foster's Pond, stood within the walls of the stockade. The lagoon was a backwash from the river and served as a latrine and garbage dump. Prison buildings were located on the high northern bank of the pond. The lower southern level, known to flood easily, later became a hospital area for hundreds of smallpox and diarrhea victims. Remember Foster's Pond, it will be important later in the story. A more unsanitary spot could not have been chosen. Elmira prison camp was established on May 15th, 1864, when Adjutant General E. D. Townsend reported several empty barracks could be used to house a large number of "rebels" recently captured. The buildings were to house as many as 10,000 men.


Two barracks, "built to comfortably accommodate 3,000 troops without over crowding," had been set-aside for 4,000 prisoners.


An additional 1,000 men could be quartered in tents on surrounding grounds. The Camp Bakery had adequate facilities for feeding 5,000 prisoners. No camp hospital existed, but tents were available for any men who might become ill. Not until two weeks before the first contingent of confederate prisoners arrived did Commissary General of Prisons William Hoffman point out again that as many as 10,000 prisoners might be sent to Elmira. Preparations were never made for more than 5,000 men. On June 30, 1864, Elmira was said to be ready to receive prisoners. Inside the fenced in area (known as "the pen") stood 35 two-story barracks, each of which measured 100 by 20 feet. Ceilings were barely high enough to accommodate two rows of crude bunks along the walls. Unsealed roofs characterized the wooden buildings. The floorings were of green lumber, without foundations, and had little resistance to wind and water. Behind the rows of barracks was a group of buildings converted into a dispensary, adjutant's office and guardrooms. To their rear, extending to the northern bank of Foster's Pond, were the cookhouses and mess halls. The first group of prisoners to arrive at Elmira quickly crowded t allotted barracks. Subsequent arrivals lived in "A" tents scattered around the prison area. At the time of their arrival, most prisoners were unaware of one last and deadly factor. Elmira was located in a region of New York State, where for at least four months of the year, the weather was bitterly cold. One prisoner from Virginia wrote the compound was, "An excellent summer prison for southern soldiers, but an excellent place for them to find their graves in the winter."


The first contingent of prisoners arrived from New York by train. Prisoners were pleasantly surprised when sympathetic citizens, at many stops, distributed food and clothing to them. Yet, wrote one prisoner, "these agreeable incidents were occasionally diversified by the insults of some sleek non-combatant, whose valiant soul found congenial occupation in fearful threats of our indiscriminate massacre, if he could only lay hands on us."


The first group reached Elmira at 6 am on July 6th and numbered 399 men - one soldier escaped enroute. The second group arrived early in the morning of July 11th, followed by 502 Confederates the following day. Before departing their earlier prison camps, the prisoners received vaccinations for smallpox. The injections were of poor quality vaccines, and seen on many arms "were great sores, big enough, it seemed, to put your fist in."


On July 15th, an Erie Railroad train jammed with prisoners, collided with a freight train near the hamlet of Shohola. Forty-eight prisoners and seventeen guards were killed. 100 prisoners and eighteen guards were injured. The injured prisoners were put in wagons and transported to Elmira. Several days after the accident the Confederate prisoners still lay on the floors of the makeshift hospitals of Elmira, their wounds still untreated

and clothing stuck fast to the dried blood of cuts and fractures.


By the end of July, 4,424 prisoners were packed in the compound, with another 3,000 enroute. The total number leaped to 9,600 by mid-August. It took three hours to feed 10,000 men in shifts of 1,800 at a time. The camp commander complained of the over crowded conditions, and was told as long as the men got through their breakfast by 11 a.m., and dinner by 6 p.m., nothing more was necessary.


The runoff and sewage going into Foster's Pond was beginning to have its effects on the prisoners. It was getting to be offensive to the nostrils and a danger to the health. One of the surgeons at the prison stated the case more pointedly. An average of 7,000 prisoners released daily over 2,600 gallons of urine - "highly loaded with nitrogenous material"- into Foster's Pond. Moreover, he noted, the pond received the contents of the sinks and garbage of the camp until it became so offensive that vaults were dug on the banks of the pond for sinks.


Washington was notified as early as August 17; not until late October was permission received to use prisoner labor to dig drainage ditches to remove the water and it's rotting matter. By December the odor was gone, but by then scores of prisoners were down with disease.


Housing was still a problem and getting worse. Less then a month after the camp opened, almost 10,000 Confederates were inside its crowded compound. Tents ran out on August 7; a new shipment arrived on August 12, but there weren’t enough of them. Hundreds of half-clothed prisoners had to sleep in the open, many of them without blankets. Late in November, a Medical Inspector pronounced the barracks to be "of green lumber, which is cracking, splitting, and warping in every direction."


In a feeble effort to lessen the number of prisoners at Elmira, late in September, Washington issued a directive that prisoners physically unfit would be exchanged. The order stated that no Confederates would be shipped southward that were "too feeble to endure the journey." The Camp Commander was ordered to

"have a careful inspection of the prisoners made by Medical Officers to select those who shall be transferred."


On October 14, five Washington Surgeons examined the 1200 prisoners who arrived by train at the Capitol. Five had died en route; scores of others were reported by one doctor as being "unable to bear the journey." The physical condition of many of these men, he added, "was distressing in the extreme, and they should have never been permitted to leave Elmira." By the time the train halted at the city point exchange base, forty men were reported dying and another sixty were reported as being "totally unfit for travel."


Surgeon C.F.H. Campbell wrote a strong letter to Col. Hoffman: "these men are debilitated from long sickness to such a degree that it was necessary to carry them in the arms of attendants from the cars to the ambulances, and one man died in the act of being thus transferred." the spectacle, he concluded, was "disgraceful to all concerned."


Despite an outcry that the deed showed "the grossest indifference on the part of the government" the Officers

responsible for the prisoner transfer remained at their duties. The episode became one of the major marks against the prison it's occupants had dubbed "Hellmira."


In the mean time, life at Elmira had become routine and, in most instances, revolting. Prisoners not packed in the flimsy barracks swarmed around the yards and vied for space within the few ragged tents. The first troops designated as guards at Elmira were Negroes who, one Georgia soldier sneered, "had been decoyed north and Organized into companies and regiments to guard their former masters." Units of the Veteran Reserve Corps, and New York state troops later became the provost guard. Late in July the prisoners underwent a unique indignity. A group of townspeople erected two observation platforms immediately outside the prison walls. For the nominal sum of 15 cents, spectators could observe the prisoners as they endured life inside the compound.


Initially, one of the more pressing needs of the prisoners was for clothing. The cry for clothing brought an instantaneous response from southern families and friends. Yet Col. Eastman withheld issuance of the clothing until he could get permission for distribution from Col. Hoffman. The permission came in late August, but only clothing of the color of gray could be issued. Piles of clothing of other colors were burned. All but a few coats, shirts and pairs of trousers were destroyed.


Winter struck early at Elmira. Prisoners lacking blankets and clad in rags collapsed in droves from exposure. By early December, 1,600 half naked men "entirely destitute of blankets," stood ankle-deep in snow to answer morning roll call. In the second week of December, the federal government issued clothing for 2,000 men to 8,400 confederates then quartered at Elmira. In January, Confederate authorities sent a shipment of cotton northward under a flag of truce, the proceeds, from the sale of the cotton, went to purchase clothing for the prisoners. If insufficient clothing, inadequate quarters, and the stench of disease-laden Foster's Pond were trying ordeals for the men, other factors taxed human endurance. High on the list were food rations. On August 18, in retaliation for the conditions in Southern prison camps, Col. Hoffman ordered prisoner rations restricted to bread and water. The results were, by late August, an epidemic of scurvy was in full force; on September 11, no less then 1,870 cases had been reported. In October the prisoners received a single small ration of fresh vegetables. Onions and potatoes, wrote a prison doctor, constituted three of every five rations for two weeks of that same month; then their distribution stopped. Not until December was the meager diet of bread and water supplemented with a meat ration. However, stated Captain Bennet Munger, a prison inspector, the meat was of such inferior quality that a quarter-beef weighing 92 pounds yielded but 45 1/2 pounds of meat, "when carefully taken off the bone." Men were dying of starvation at the rate of 25 a day. The prisoners turned to a large rat population that inhabitated the banks of Foster's Pond. Once, a small dog followed a wood cart into the compound. The dog was captured and slaughtered, and its carcass was hidden in the barrack rafters until dark. The prisoners were caught in the act of devouring their meal, and arrested by guards.


Close on the heels of the scurvy epidemic came an even larger outbreak of diarrhea. Moreover, by November 1864, pneumonia had reached plague proportions. A month later dreaded smallpox came to Elmira and in it's first week struck 140 men and killed ten. Smallpox was ever-present thereafter. One prisoner wrote, "there is not a day that at least twenty men are taken out dead."


Medical treatment of prisoners from the outset was bad, and it just got worse as time went on. As early as July 11, 1864 - five days after the arrival of the first group of prisoners, Surgeon Inspector C.T. Alexander reported, "I found the sick.... in no way suitably provided for except for shelter; diet not suitable; some without bed sacks; blankets scarce." On September 21, Ward Assistant Anthony Keiley wrote in his diary: "as I went over to the first hospital this morning early, there were 18 dead bodies lying naked on the bare earth. Eleven more were added to the list by half past eight o'clock." By November the death toll in the hospitals had reached 755 men. A large portion of mortalities stemmed from nearby Foster's Pond - which one observer described as being "green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death." At the rate of sickness then present, a Doctor informed Washington, "the entire command will be admitted to the hospital in less than a year and thirty-six percent will die."


Washington ignored or denied repeated requisitions for badly needed medicines. An urgent request for straw on which the sick could lay was ignored. Hoffman turned down repeated requests to complete the ceilings and roofs on the hospital buildings without any reasons given.


An official in the U.S. Sanitary commission was turned down flat when he asked permission to attend to the sick and dying. By late December at least 70 men were lying on the hospital floors because of a lack of beds and straw; another 200 diseased and dying men lay in the regular prisoner quarters because there was no room for them in the wards. As one guard wrote, "prisoners died as sheep with the Rot." A federal inspector wrote in October with a sense of relief, "The number of deaths this week is but 40."


The number of sick and dead rose sharply at the end of 1864, when prisoners, fighting disease, filth and starvation, could not weather the bitter cold of a New York winter. The winter was so severe, and clothing so scarce, that prisoners stood in deep snow with only rags tied around their frozen and swollen feet to answer morning roll calls. Late in December, after repeated urgent pleas, Washington sent a few stoves to Elmira. There were two small stoves for each barracks, and a few for the men still housed in tents. Prisoners received small wood rations only at 8 am and at 8 pm. During the 12-hour intervals they had to get warm as best they could. Moreover, with an average of 200 men to a barracks, each stove therefore was the sole means of warmth for 100 men. Imagine, if you can, the weather 10 to 15 degrees below zero, 100 men trying to keep warm by one small stove. Each morning the men crawl out of their bunks (those that had bunks) shivering and half frozen to fight for a place by the warm stove. The sick and weak were literally left out in the cold.


On the night of March 16, 1865, unusually hard rains caused the Chemung River to over run it's banks. Federals and Confederates alike hastily assembled crude rafts to evacuate prisoners from the smallpox hospital in the flats, and they did succeed in floating most of the sick to safety. Other prisoners crowded the upper stories of the barracks as icy water rose halfway up the first level. The camp's Col. Tracy reported jubilantly that the transfer of prisoners to high ground resulted "with but slightly increased loss of life."


A month later General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, and the prisoners received much improved treatment, and were not guarded as closely.


The paroling of Elmira's prisoners began late in May. Except for those still confined to the hospitals, the prison camp was vacant on July 5th, and ready for demolition a month later. The last prisoner, named Kistler, did not leave the hospital and start home until September 27, 1865.


Elmira's death rate in March of 1865 was an average of sixteen Confederates a day. Of a total of 12,123 Confederate soldiers imprisoned at Elmira, 2,963 died of sickness, exposure, and associated causes. Of the survivors who stumbled forth from the stockade, an eyewitness made the observation; "I speak in all reverence when I say that I do not believe such a spectacle was seen before on earth... on they came, a ghastly tide, with skeleton bones and lusterless eyes, and brains bereft of but one thought, and hearts purged of but one feeling - the thought of freedom, the love of home."

Today all that remains of Elmira is a well-kept cemetery.