Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
The Great Shohola Train Wreck by Frank Evans
Here is a first-person account of the Great Shohola train wreck, in which 52 Confederate prisoners of war died in Shohola, Pennsylvania. Frank Evans, a Union Guard, wrote it.
"It was about the middle of July in 1864. I was in the Union Army, and was one of the guards of 125 soldiers who were detailed to take a lot of Confederate prisoners from Point Lookout, Virginia (ed note: It was really Point Lookout, Maryland) to the prison camp at Elmira, New York, which had just been made ready to receive them. There were ten thousand prisoners in all to be transferred, and this lot was the first installment to be moved. There were about 800 of them.
Two guards were stationed on the platform at each end of each car. We got started from Jersey City about 5 o'clock in the morning. I was one of the guards stationed well back on the train, and a lucky thing it was for me that I was so stationed.
We passed through the little village of Shohola in the after noon, going something like twenty-five miles an hour. We had a run a mile or so beyond Shohola, when the train came to a stop with a suddenness that hurled me to the ground, and instantly a crash arose, that rivaled the shock of battle, filled that quiet valley. This lasted a moment. A second or two of awful silence followed it, and then the air was filled by the most appalling shrieks and wails and cries of anguish.
I hurried forward. On a curve in a deep cut we had met a heavily laden coal train, traveling nearly as fast as we were. The trains had come together with that deadly crash. The two locomotives were raised high in the air, face-to-face against each other, like giants grappling. The tender of our locomotive stood erect on one end.
The engineer and firemen, poor fellows, were buried beneath the wood it carried. Perched on the reared-up end of the tender, high above the wreck, was one of our guards, sitting with his gun clutched in his hands, dead!
The front of our train was jammed into a space less than six feet. The two cars behind it were almost as badly wrecked. Several cars in the rear of these were also heaped together.
There were bodies impaled on iron rods and splintered beams. Headless trunks were mangled between the telescoped cars. From the wreck of the head-car, thirty-seven prisoners were taken out dead. The engineer of our train was caught in the awful wreck of his engine, where he was held in plain sight, with his back against the boiler, and slowly roasted to death.
That frightful accident occurred about 2 p.m., Friday, July 15, 1864. The cause of the accident was a drunken telegraph operator at Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, four miles west of the scene of the disaster. The official report of the killed that were buried, places the number at fifty-one Confederate and nineteen Union soldiers.
At 9 p.m., a train was sent from Port Jervis with provisions and due to the kindness of the railroad officials, a New York Tribune reporter was permitted to visit the scene. Upon their arrival at Shohola around 10 p.m., they found most of the wounded had been brought to the village and were occupying the freight and passenger rooms and adjoining platforms. Over sixty injured lay in this locality and several more in the Shohola House [hotel].
The citizens of Shohola and Barryville [New York; across the Delaware River from Shohola] were untiring in their efforts to alleviate the sufferings of the wounded. Men, women and children vied with each other in their acts of kindness. "After viewing the wounded and suffering victims, and having no reason to remain," the Tribune writer, "we passed out among the guard and prisoners who had come through this unhurt. We were now on our way to the actual spot where the collision had taken place."
A trench 76 feet long and 8 feet wide was dug, in which to bury the bodies and, according to the Elmira Advertiser, there were 48 Confederate and 17 Unionists buried there. But there are a variety of estimates as to the exact number of casualties, depending on the source.
During an inquest held at Shohola, everyone connected with the wreck was exonerated, including Duff Kent, who gave the coal train the right-of-way. He should have known the train carrying the prisoners was on the track. Persistent reports say that he was a drinker and could have been under the influence of alcohol. He did not take the wreck very seriously and according to a story, which circulated, he went to Hawly to attend a dance. The next day the public became so incensed with his actions that Kent left for parts unknown and was never heard from again.
The following day the track was cleared and a new train made up to take the prisoners and some of the injured to Elmira. During the night, a heavy guard was placed around the Southerners. Despite this, however, five managed to escape.
According to Art Meyers of Narrowsburg, who personally interviewed an old woman many years ago that lived in Yulan at the time and recalled going to Shohola to view the wreckage when she was a very young girl. On the way she and a girl companion encountered two strange men who apparently were escaped prisoners.
The dead from the wreck rested in their common grave located between the tracks and the river for 47 years. They were then exhumed in 1911 and taken to Elmira and reburied in the Woodlawn National Cemetery with others from the prison camp. Captain Charles W. Fento, 2nd Cavalry, A.D.C. was in charge. He contacted C. E. Terwilliger, a Port Jervis undertaker. Fred I. Terwilliger, prominent Port Jervis businessman, recalls furnishing boxes for the bodies. Captain Fenton reported to Chief Quartermaster at Governor's Island that 60 bodies were removed. It is apparent that the Delaware River waters washed five of the bodies out.