Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
[This article originally appeared in the Chemung Historical Journal, March, 1985.]
BY J. MICHAEL HORIGAN
All persons who have studied the Civil War prison camp at Elmira agree that Clay Holmes' book, "The Elmira Prison Camp," is a reasonably well-fired star in our local historical firmament.
This article respectfully takes exception with some of Clay Holmes' conclusions. Having said this, I wish to emphasize the fact that no one has inspired me more in my research than Clay Holmes. His book aroused my curiosity; his research won my respect; his realization that the story had to be told gained my gratitude. Therefore, in no way is this article meant to serve as an attach on the integrity of Clay Holmes,
Also, please keep in mind that no greater tribute can be paid to a historian who has come forth with an original thesis than to have others pursue his ideas - and possibly arrive at different conclusions. Personally, I think Clay Holmes would be happy to know that his book is the subject of lively debate rather than sterile agreement. Standardized thought would relegate his book to the glass museum case, and that would be a tragedy.
Elmira's current Civil War Memorial project has sparked renewed interest in the Elmira Prison Camp of 1864-'65. The project has brought together the descendants of the Union and the Confederacy in a concerted effort to mark what happened in Elmira during America's Civil War. Also, what has emerged through newspaper articles and talks to local groups is a distinct difference of opinion as to what caused the high death rate in the Elmira Prison Camp.
This very worthy endeavor to memorialize Elmira's part in the Civil war certainly makes it appropriate to review the story of the Prison Camp. To put the camp in its proper perspective, one must begin with Elmira's role in the war first as a military depot and then as a draft rendezvous.
On July 30,1861 Gov. Edwin B. Morgan officially designated Elmira a "Military Depot." In 1863 the United States Government officially declared the town the "Elmira Military Draft Rendezvous." Elmira was selected because of its excellent east-west, north-south railroad connections. Also, the Chemung Canal (located on the present site of the Clemens Center Parkway) connected Elmira with points as far north and west as Duluth, Minn.
A Staging Area
Enhanced by this superb transportation network, Elmira became a staging area where troops from as far away as Michigan were mustered and sent south to the frontline. Infantry groups, artillery companies and cavalry units consisting of 20,796 officers and men departed for battle from Elmira.
There were three barracks in Elmira, with Barracks No.3 (the "River Barracks") located on the south side of West Water St. It ran west from Hoffman St. to 811 West Water and then south to the Chemung River, It is believed that the main entrance of Barracks No. 3 was located at the present site of 7231/2 West Water St. The River Barracks, the area destined to serve as the prison camp, consisted approximately of 30 acres and encompassed Foster's Pond. In addition to the three military barracks, two military hospitals, a military police barracks, military warehouses, artillery ranges and drill fields lent to the fact that Elmira (population 13,130) was a bustling town of wartime activity.
As the war progressed, Elmira continued to play an essential part in the Union's effort to defeat the Confederacy. In July of 1862 the Union and the Confederacy arrived at a very shaky agreement on the question of prisoner exchange. Both sides frequently violated the agreement. Ironically, the rationale for a prisoner exchange was based on the correct assumption that quartering and feeding prisoners would burden both sides.
All this changed in the autumn of 1863 when Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton suspended the prisoner exchange by publicly stating that the Confederacy was in constant violation of the 1862 agreement. Privately, Stanton reasoned that a suspension of the prisoner exchange would cut into the Confederacy's already limited manpower. Among others, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant agreed with this decision. Grant became General-in-Chief of the Union Army in March of 1864.
Defeats for South
Between July 1 and 4 of 1863 the South experienced catastrophic defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and from that time to the culmination of the war the Confederacy was on the run. Stanton's suspension of the prisoner exchange only made it more apparent that the struggle was reduced to a war of attrition. As the war moved toward its grim conclusion, activities in areas such as Elmira slackened. Also, by the spring of 1864 the question of housing Confederate prisoners became an acute problem for Stanton's War Department.
In the spring of 1864 the overcrowded conditions at the Point Lookout (Maryland) Prison Camp prompted Washington officials to look elsewhere for the quartering of Confederate prisoners. In May of 1864 correspondence that passed between Secretary of War Stanton and Col. William Hoffman (the Commissary-General of Prisoners) concluded that Barracks No.3 at Elmira could adequately house 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners. This false assumption would result in the first of several major blunders.
On May 19 Lt. Col. Seth Eastman, Commander of the Elmira Draft Rendezvous, received instructions from Col. Hoffman to prepare Barracks No.3 for 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners. Eastman's May 23rd response to Col. Hoffman stated that 4,000 men could be quartered in barracks and 1,000 more could be housed in tents. He added that the kitchen could cook daily for 5,000 and the mess hall could seat 1,200 to 1,500 men.
On June 22 Col. Hoffman instructed Eastman "to enclose ground enough to accommodate in barracks and tents 10,000 prisoners." On June 30 Eastman and Capt. J.J. Elwell, Assistant Quartermaster at Elmira, (in separate letters) informed Washington, D.C. that Barracks No.8 was in completed condition for the accommodation of 10,000 prisoners." In fact, this was not correct.
At this point there are a number of poignant questions that to this day continue to mystify those who seek answers to the Elmira Prison Camp. Why didn't Hoffman acknowledge Eastman's correct claim that only 5,000 men could be accommodated at Elmira? Where did Washington, D.C. arrive at the figure of 10,000 prisoners? Why didn't Eastman state in his June 30 letter that Elmira could not house 10,000 prisoners? All this is very puzzling and can, in a cavalier manner, be written off as being part of the warp and woof of Byzantine military logic. More importantly, 12,123 human beings were destined to be quartered in an area that would breed disease, malnutrition, and broken spirits. Indeed, the awesome specter of death would be ever present in the camp. An average of eight prisoners a day would die in Elmira.
On July 6, 1864 the Elmira Prison Camp officially opened. On that day 399 Confederate prisoners arrived from Point Lookout, Maryland. They were divided into companies of 84 men and by the end of July the camp census reached a total of 4,411 prisoners.
On July 14 Surgeon Charles T. Alexander, Acting Medical Inspector, submitted a report of his inspection of Barracks No.3 to Col. Hoffman. The camp housed 1,150 prisoners on that day and Alexander reported that Elmira "is at present in good condition."
Alexander went on to call attention to Foster's Pond as a potential source of disease and recommended that immediate steps be taken toward proper drainage. He also stated that the diet was not suitable, and there was a shortage of bed sacks and blankets. Finally, he stated that care for the sick was inadequate and he called for the immediate assignment of competent doctors to administer the camp. At that time Dr. William Wey, an overworked local surgeon, visited the camp once a day.
On July 16 the Shohola, Pa. train wreck resulted in the deaths of 48 prisoners and 17 Union guards. Prisoners were transferred to a second train and that night at 9:30 the survivors, including 85 injured men, arrived in Elmira.
On July 20 Col. Hoffman inspected the Elmira Prison Camp and expressed satisfaction with the camp's condition. Again, one must question the judgment of Col. Hoffman. How could he be satisfied in light of Surgeon Alexander's report? Also, it is a bewildering type of satisfaction when one considers that Col. Hoffman observed those injured in the Shohola mishap and other sick prisoners at a time when there was no camp doctor.
Delay in Staffing
It was not until Aug. 8 that Major Eugene F. Sanger and two assistant surgeons arrived in Elmira to assume the camp's medical responsibilities. Within a week three more surgeons arrived to boost the camp's total to six doctors. At that time the camp's census was approximately 4,500. Apparently there is no explanation as to why a staff of doctors was not assigned to Elmira before the camp was well into the fifth week of its existence.
One of the ironies of the camp is that much of the blame for what happened at Elmira is placed on the shoulders of Major Sanger. As the camp's chief surgeon, Sanger was always at the center of the storm during his stay in Elmira. The prisoners hated him. In articles and memoirs published by survivors of the camp, Dr. Sanger was often accused of being the villain. He is described by many as being a man of grotesque physical features. He lacked compassion; he was ill-tempered, and he was short on patience. Anthony Keiley, a prisoner who survived Elmira, described Sanger as "a club-footed little gentleman with an abnormal head and a snaky look in his eyes, who "was simply a brute."
Much of what the prisoners said about Sanger was true; i.e., he was miserable, difficult man. However, the prisoners were in no position to know that Sanger was constantly complaining to his superiors about the quality of life in the camp. Between Aug. 13 and Oct. 17, Sanger submitted nine reports to Col. Hoffman stating that the pond was a major source of disease and that an immediate remedy was in order. Sanger fought for, and finally obtained, improved laundry conditions for the camp's hospital. On numerous occasions he complained of the camp's lack of a proper diet. Also, Dr. Sanger called attention to the fact that there was a shortage of winter clothing and proper housing. His written reports went to the Commissary-General of Prisoners, the Surgeon-General or the Commander of the Elmira Draft Rendezvous. One may ponder at this point: Are these the actions of a man who has no interest in the well being of the prisoners?
Clash of Personalities
There is yet another dimension to Sanger's stay in Elmira. Apparently he got along with Lt.-Col. Eastman, but when Eastman was replaced by Col. Benjamin Tracy on Sept.20 1864, as Elmira 5 commander, there would be a clash of personalities. On Nov. 1 Sanger complained in his monthly report to the Surgeon-General that he lacked direct communication with Col. Tracy. Sanger also complained that his requisitions, requests and recommendations were either denied or delayed. All of Sanger's complaints were substantiated on Nov. 12 when an Army surgeon from the Medical Director's Office in New York City inspected the Elmira camp and reported to the Surgeon-General that Sanger was telling the truth.
For that matter, Col. Tracy made no attempt to conceal his dislike for Sanger. In an Oct.16 report to Col. Hoffman, Tracy openly questioned "the competency and efficiency" of the medical officers assigned to the prison camp. On Dec. 22,1864 Dr. Sanger was mysteriously relieved of his duties at Elmira. Clay Holmes, in attempting to discover the reason for Sanger's dismissal, received a response from the War Department in 1912, which tersely stated "Nothing has been found of record to show why Surgeon E.F. Sanger was relieved from duty in charge of prisoners of war at Elmira, N.Y. on Dec.22, 1864."
In his book, Holmes views Sanger as one of those mainly responsible for the camp's poor conditions. Holmes, in suggesting that Sanger's behavior bordered on insubordination concludes: "It nowhere appears that Col. Tracy was in fault, but rather in his effort to introduce proper working conditions, he offended the touchy doctor, who from that time worked at cross purposes with the commanding officer."
Sanger a Villain?
Holmes, in making the camp's surgeon a villain in this piece, ignores the fact that the person who most accurately chronicled the tragic shortcomings of the camp from August to Dec. of 1864 was Surgeon Eugene F. Sanger. Sanger S reports (many of them written in uncompromising detail) reflect no ulterior motives of working at "cross purposes" with his commanding officer. If Sanger wished to be "simply a brute" in his relationship with the prisoners, he could have very easily undermined their welfare by falsifying the camp's conditions in his reports to his superiors. But the candor of Sanger's official accounts stands as unimpeachable evidence that he did not do this.
Dr. Anthony Stocker replaced Sanger as the camp's chief surgeon. What is noteworthy of the official correspondence from Elmira after Sanger's departure is the positive nature of almost all reports.
Curiously during the months of February, March and April of 1865 Elmira's death rate was the highest of any camp housing Confederate prisoners.
Foul Foster's Pond
One thing that Sanger and Tracy agreed on was the unsanitary condition of Foster's Pond. For those who survived and wrote about their experience in Elmira, the pond became the camp's tragic metaphor. There are at least 16 specific reports to Col. Hoffman on the condition of the pond.
Yet it was not until Oct.23, 1864 that the construction of a sluice to relieve the unsanitary state of the pond was approved. Clay Holmes accepted Hoffman's delay of approval when he wrote: "Not being directly on the ground, and being pressed on all sides with matters of equally great importance, things naturally had to be taken in their turn. Unfortunately, the subject of the ditch got buried under the mass and it took a long time to get it out." The best that can be said for Holmes on this point is that he seemed to be content with the common clay of the military bureaucracy From July through December of 18641,263 prisoners died in Elmira. In the months of September and October Elmira's death rate was the highest of any prison in the Union. The sluice to correct the unsanitary condition of the pond was completed on Jan.11 1865. This is not to say that the grim presence of death would have been eliminated in Elmira from July through December, but it is logical to conclude that the death rate would have been much lower had the problem of the pond been remedied at an earlier date.
One must not forget that Col. Hoffman had a firsthand look at Foster's Pond on July 20. Also, the large number of urgent reports concerning the pond over a 90-day period raise the question of Hoffman's judgment. Was he incapable of meeting the rigors of the occasion? Was he guilty of dereliction of duty? Did the matter go beyond Hoffman? Was the delay in the matter of the pond part of a devious strategy that had its genesis in the office of the Secretary of War?
Food and Diet
Another controversial subject during the days of the prison camp was the question of food and diet. The written accounts of Confederates who survived Elmira reflect an alarming concern for a lack of food. Insufficient food rations and the unsanitary pond form the common threads that run through their thoughts.
Many observations (prisoners' and official documents alike) conclude that there was an abundance of bread and a shortage of vegetables and meat. Provided there is no other source of documentation, much of what the prisoners said about the lack of food can be dismissed as an emotional reaction to a traumatic experience.
In examining the voluminous sources (published and unpublished) of the prisoners, one will readily find serious charges of a lack of proper diet leveled against the Union military command in Elmira. Typical prisoner accounts of a lack of food include:
Marcus Toney: "In the cook house were a large number of kettles or caldrons in which the meat and beans were boiled. I suppose these caldrons would hold 50 gallons. I have heard the boys say four beans to a gallon of water."
Anthony M. Keiley: "The meat ration ... was invariably scanty; and I learned on inquiry that the fresh beef sent to the prison usually fell short from 1,000 to 1200 lbs. in each consignment."
John Brusnan: "For breakfast I get one-third of a pound of bread and a small piece of meat; for supper the same quantity of bread and not any meat, hut a small plate of warm water called soup.
In a letter to the Commissary-General of Prisoners, Col. Tracy vehemently denied Brusnan's charge. Tracy stated:
"It is almost unnecessary for me to say that the statements made by the prisoner Brusnan are outrageously false. The daily ration for each prisoner is uniformly as follows: For breakfast, eight ounces bread, eight ounces meat; for dinner, eight ounces bread, one pint and a half soup of excellent quality, made from the meat, potatoes, onions, and beans."
One must go beyond the subjective opinions of the prisoners and the heated denial of Col. Tracy. It is a fact that Major Sanger's numerous reports to the Surgeon-General's office and to Col. Hoffman attest to a shortage of vegetables and meat. Also, in a Nov. so report to Washington, Tracy (perhaps unwittingly) revealed that at that time each prisoner was receiving an average of 2.2 ounces of vegetables per day. The full text of the report indicates that Tracy saw nothing wrong with the vegetable ration.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against Col. Tracy's defense of the camp's diet is found in his own Special Order No.336. This order was dispatched to Maj. Henry V. Colt and Lt.-Col. Stephen Moore, the two officers directly in charge of the camp, on October 3, 1864; it stated: "Whereas the fresh meat now being furnished at the post is, in the opinion of the Colonel commanding, unfit for issue, and inferior in quality to that required by contract, therefore, Lt. Col. Moore and Maj. Colt are hereby designated to hold a survey upon fresh beef furnished and to reject such parts, other whole of said beef, as to them appear unfit for issue, or of a quality inferior to that contracted for."
It is difficult to explain away Co!. Tracy's order as something that was carried out in the name of the welfare of the prisoners when the acceptance of a poor grade of meat was better than no meat at all. Was Tracy's order sanctioned by the Secretary of War? It is hard to imagine that it was not in light of the fact that Stanton, on May 5, 1864, requested permission from President Lincoln to issue limited rations to certain Confederate prisoners in retaliation for policies "that are practiced against either soldiers or officers in our service held by the rebels." Indeed, the man at the top in the War Department was thinking in terms of a policy of revenge. Special Order No.336 was a thinly-veiled attempt to carry out a bread-and-water order.
Impact of Weather
The diseased pond, a lack of food, and dissension between Sanger and Tracy were not the only problems that haunted the Elmira Prison Camp. The vagaries of the weather struck severe blows in the forms of an extremely hot dry summer and a harsh winter that was capped by a flood on March 16, 1865. Those who say that the poor weather conditions contributed to the camp's death toll are correct. However, it is a mistake to ignore the responsibility of the Union military chain of command.
Certainly decisions in the areas of housing and clothing did not enhance the quality of life within the camp. On Aug.28, 1864 Col. Hoffman was notified of the need for winter quarters in Elmira. On that date 3,890 prisoners were sleeping in tents. The camp census on that date was 9,499. New barracks were not completed until Dec. 15.
A Dec. 28 inspection report stated that 900 prisoners were still sleeping in tents. There is no reasonable explanation as to why the construction of winter barracks was not initiated in the months of July and August. The prisoners certainly could have served as a labor force, and winter quarters would have been ready for occupancy long before the cold weather set in.
The clothing question serves as another illustration of Secretary Stanton's devious tactics. A Baltimore group expressed a desire to send winter clothing to Elmira. The group's first request was officially filed in August of 1864. There were some valid concerns about the color of the clothing because all prisoner issue had to be gray. This was straightened away, but then Stanton came forth with a quid pro quo. The delivery of the clothing could come only after a large amount of cotton was shipped from the Confederacy under a flag of truce to New York City. Stanton, knowing full well the question would be bogged down by bickering between the Union and Confederate governments, waited. The cotton was finally delivered; the winter clothing arrived in Elmira on Feb. 9, 1865.
Questionable Decisions The Elmira Prison Camp officially closed July 10, 1865 During its existence of one year and four days, it quartered 12,123 Confederate prisoners; 2,963 of these men died. The camp's overall death rate was 24.4 percent. The overall death rate in Union-administered prisons was 11.7 percent. The overall death rate in southern prisons was 15.3 percent.
Most certainly there were problems within the camp that were beyond anyone's capacity However, the personal and political shortcomings of the camp's decision makers should always remain an important dimension when one seeks answers to what really happened at Elmira And that is because the story of this camp lends credence to the idea that the word "humane" is one of history's most loosely defined terms in man 5 relation to man.
William Hesseltine, (ed.), Civil War Prisons (1962).
Clay W. Holmes, The Elmira Prison Camp (1912).
James Hutfman Ups and Downs of a Confederate Soldier (1940).
Anthony Keiley, In Vinculis (1866).
Marcus Toney. The Privations of a Private (1907).
Fred Ainsworth and Joseph Kirkicy (eds.), The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records (1899). (Series II, Vols. VII & VIII).
Frank Wilkeson, Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1887).