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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Submitted Information - Medical and Surgical History:
Sickness and Mortality: Prison Camp and Hospital at Elmira, NY

[This article was found in the Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, Volume V, pages 56-57.]

PRISON CAMP AND HOSPITAL AT ELMIRA, N.Y. -- Elmira barracks were built at the beginning of the war as a general recruiting depot; but in July, 1864, Division No. 3, of the barracks, called afterwards Camp Chemung, was converted into a prison camp. This division was situated on the riverbank a mile and a quarter west of the town. The site was believed to be healthy; it was level, and having a sandy soil resting on a stratum of coarse gravel a few feet below the surface, affording good underground drainage. At the date mentioned twenty of the old barrack buildings were considered for the occupation of the prisoners and the new ones were constructed. The former, 88 x 18 x 8 feet, were intended to accommodate each one hundred men. Mess halls and kitchens were suitably furnished. The barracks were built of pine they were well lighted, warmed by stoves and provided with ridge-ventilation. The bakery could turn out six or seven thousands rations per day. Good water was obtained from two wells, and any deficiency was supplied from the river. Lavatories and baths were not at first specially provided. Drainage was by means of pits dug to the porous subsoil. The sinks were covered pits, which were filled up when necessary.

A fence surrounded the grounds of the camp, comprising thirty-five acres, twelve feet high with a platform four feet from the top. In August, over a thousand tents were pitched, each to accommodate five persons. In one inspection report the drainage is said to have been into an open pond within the camp, thus forming what was called a perfect pesthole; but on the recommendation of the inspector this pond was afterwards drained and an underground sewer constructed, while defects in the surface drainage were remedied from time to time. Nevertheless the grounds were frequently reported as in a muddy condition during wet seasons.

The prisoners were insufficient clothed, there being at the same time a great want of blankets, especially among the prisoners in quarters. A supply is said to have been received on one occasion from the Confederate authorities. Sometimes the want f clothing was incompatible with the maintenance of health, and hospital patients, after having sufficiently recovered to be up, were obliged to keep their beds for want of pantaloons. Needs of this kind, and others less urgent, on becoming known, were relieved by the issue of hospital clothing. Bedding was supplied in quarters only to the sick, and consisted of sacks of straw and blanket. The men in confinement here had the full prison ration as supplied as the other prisons depots. Desiccated vegetables were at first furnished, but as they were not acceptable to the prisoners, fresh onions and potatoes were substituted. Inspector LYMAN reports on November 11, 1864, that onions and potatoes were supplied on three days out of five, and in each of his subsequent reports speaks of the supply of vegetables as sufficient. On one occasion he reported the beef as of inferior quality, but generally the diet was represented as good and well cooked, the kitchen being under the supervision of a special officer.

On the arrival of the prisoners, and while the hospital was in course of erection, the sick were treated in a pavilion set far apart for their reception. Medical supplies and accommodations were deficient at this time. An inspection report dated July 15, 1864, says:

They are absolutely without the necessary medical and hospital supplies. Requisitions were made three weeks ago. Until the day of my inspection the sick were laid on the naked bunks from the inability to obtain straw. This was finally procured by the commending officer after considerable difficulty, and arrived during my inspection. When the requisition for medicine and hospital supplies is filled they will be in every respect suitable provided in a sanitary view.

In August, medicines were reported abundant: but the sickness was large and the mortality great. "This," said the inspector, "is due to the broken-down condition of the prisoners on their arrival." There were at this time 9,170 prisoners, of whom 553 received hospital attendance and 558 were prescribed for at sick calls.

The medical staff consisted of a surgeon in charge and eleven or twelve assistants. Confederate surgeons sometimes assisted in attending to the sick. Visits by the medical officer were made twice a day, and in special cases oftener; and any complaint against a medical attendant of inattention or harshness was prompted investigated. Competent persons were selected from among the prisoners to compound prescriptions and to act as nurses and cooks. In August the hospital consisted of three wards of seventy beds each, and one of eighty-two beds, with 624 cubic feet of space per bed. On October 14th there were 9,063 prisoners, of whom 3,873 slept in the barracks and 5,190 in 1,038 tents. The air space in the larger barrack buildings was 111 cubic feet per man, in the smaller buildings 92.5 cubic feet. There were 1,560 men on the sick report. The hospital had been extended, consisting now of six new wards averaging 62 beds each, with 654 feet of air-space per bed, and four barrack-buildings averaging 70 beds, with 342 cubic feet per bed.

On November 11, and additional hospital ward of 62 beds, with 654 feet of space per bed, had been completed, and one of the old 70-bed wards was vacated for use as quarters.

In January, 1865, with a view to diminish the sickness and lessen the mortality, the Medical Inspector made the following recommendations:

The condition of the camp at the date mentioned is thus described:

The whole appearance of this camp is greatly improved since the last inspection. The sick in hospital and quarters are now vigilantly watched; the food is good and well cooked; coal stoves have been substituted for wood, and the police of the barracks is quite as good, and, I think, better than in most regimental barracks.

Smallpox broke out among the prisoners about this time. From December 1, 1864 to January 24, 1865, there had been 397 cases. To isolate these properly smallpox hospital had been improvised with tents; but a new pavilion was being constructed to replace it. During January 5,600 vaccinations and revaccinations were performed. To replace, and afford better shelter than the tents, twenty-four new barracks, each 100 x 24 x 12 and 3 feet pitch of roof, had been completed by the middle of March, and six more were in course of construction. These are said to have given 180 cubic feet of air space per man. At this period there were 1,738 on the sick-list in a total of 5,934 prisoners, and many of those in quarters were very sick and stood as much in need of suitable ward-accommodation as those in hospital, into which, for want of room, they could not be received. Said the inspector:

The condition of the patients is pitiable; the diseases are nearly of all type, and much of the sickness is justly attributed to crowd poisoning. In addition to this, the clothing during the winter was insufficient. The deep mud prevents the exercise o the prisoners in the open air, and there is no occupation for most of them to relieve, in a measure, the depressing influence of prison life. The Fort Fisher prisoners, especially arrived in cold weather very much depressed, poorly clad, and great numbers were soon taken sick with pneumonia and diarrhea, rapidly assuming a typhoid character. The surgeon was recommended to press constantly upon the commandant the necessity for appropriating some of the best barracks for additional wards, the immediate completion of the floor-ventilation, the alternation already commenced in the hospital latrines, and the free use of the permanganate of potash throughout the barracks ad of bromine in the wards. I would renew the recommendation, made in my January report that additional light be given to the old barracks, and greater facilities for warm and cold bathing as prophylactic measures.

Subsequently, up to June 22, 1865, the date of the last report, the sanitary condition of the camp and buildings is reported as having been good. The number of prisoners continued to diminish and the ratio of mortality grew steadily less.