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Elmira Prison Camp OnLine Library
Personal Information:
Portals to Hell, Chapter 11: Elmira by Lonnie Speers

Elmira, NY: 1864 to 1865, capacity 5,000, most held 9,441, escapes 17, deaths 2,933

Sources: National Archives: RG 109, M598, Roll 67, Vols. 222-23. Elmira register of POWs confined and deceased.

The tragic period of Civil War concentration camps was inaugurated with Elmira Prison in the North and Andersonville in the South.

The most remarkable aspect about Elmira Prison is that, unlike the other POW facilities around the country up to that time, it didn't start out as a fairly acceptable place of confinement and then slowly degenerate into a concentration camp; Elmira Prison was one from the very day it began.

"Elmira was nearer Hades than I thought any place could be," declared G. T. Taylor, Company C, 1st. Alabama Battalion of Heavy Artillery. "If there was ever a hell on earth, Elmira was [it]," added prisoner E S. Wade. No one ever confined at Elmira Prison disagreed. One prisoner summed it up later by saying when he arrived he found it not only to be a hellhole, but a hellhole under siege.

The site-one mile west of Elmira, west-central New York, about six miles north of the Pennsylvania border-was originally established in 1861 as a rendezvous and training camp for new recruits. In 1862, Union authorities considered enclosing its barracks at the same time that Camp Chase, Camp Douglas, Camp Morton, and a number of other locations were utilized as prisons.

What later became Elmira Prison was originally known as Post Barracks, one of four recruit camps around Elmira, and known as Camp No. 3 to the Federal authorities. Of the four camps situated in different parts of the town, as well as other camps at Albany, Utica, Rochester, and Buffalo considered for prison use back in 1862, the one later utilized was the one described as the worst of all.

[It is on] a plot of ground quite level, not easily drained and considerably lower than the surrounding country," reported Captain Henry Lazelle. "In consequence ... [it] becomes at wet seasons quite soft and muddy... The water from the wells on the grounds and from the junction canal south of it is unfit for use and must be hauled." The other posts originally considered were on higher ground with better water supplies. Still, due to the severe overcrowding of their existing prisons and the constant accumulation of additional POWs, authorities proceeded to convert Camp No. 3 in May 1864.

"You will receive instructions from the Adjutant-General," Colonel Hoffman advised Lieutenant Colonel Seth Eastman, commander of the "Draft Rendezvous camp" at Elmira, "to set apart the barracks on the Chemung River."

Eastman answered, "There are two sets of barracks at this post, situated about two miles apart. They are designated as Nos. 1 and 3. The latter is on the Chemung River.... These barracks were built to comfortably accommodate 3,000 troops without crowding. The bunks are double. The buildings are in excellent condition and well ventilated. Four thousand prisoners of war could be quartered in them, and there is plenty of ground room in which tents could be pitched to accommodate 1,000 more.... There is no hospital at these barracks; hence hospital tents will have to be used for the sick. A new hospital for 200 patients is being erected about one mile from the barracks."'

"Barracks No. 3 has been placed in complete condition for the accommodation of 10,000 prisoners," Quartermaster General Meigs declared when he notified the office of the assistant quartermaster nearly five weeks later, ignoring Eastman's recommendation that no more than five thousand could be accommodated. "Eight acres of land have been enclosed with a substantial board fence, twelve feet high, with sentry boxes and elevated platforms have been constructed. Wells have been sunk, and all the necessary arrangements made for immediate occupations

Nothing was done to increase the capacity of the thirty-five barracks that sat in compound No. 3. Similar to the training camp barracks of Camp Butler and Camp Douglas, the one-story wood structures measured sixteen by one hundred feet and accommodated ninety-five to one hundred troops comfortably in each. The ceilings were just high enough to allow two rows of crudely built double bunks, forty-five to fifty in each building. Short of expanding each building or constructing more, neither of which was attempted, funded, or authorized by the Federal government, the maximum capacity remained at 4,000 with an additional 1,000 to be housed in tents. Meanwhile, Hoffman and Meigs continued to refer to a capacity of 8,000 to I 0,000.

On July 6, 1864, the first POWs arrived at the Elmira Prison Camp. They consisted of 399 of the 400 originally transferred from Point Lookout to help relieve the overcrowding there. One escaped on the way. On July 11, 249 more arrived from Point Lookout, and on July 12, 502 more.  

"We were escorted to the 'pen' by a large concourse of admiring citizens," reported Anthony Keiley, a member of one of the first three groups transferred from Point Lookout. "A march of about a mile [from the train depot] brought us to our prison. We filed in, were counted, divided into companies of a hundred, the roll called, and we were led off to our quarters."

"Back of the thirty-four or thirty-five barracks," reported Keiley, "is a row of wooden buildings containing the adjutant's office, dispensary, various rooms of Yankee sergeants, store-rooms, and the like, and back, again of these, the mess rooms and cook-houses, which extend to the lagoon."

In immediate command of the prison, under Lieutenant Colonel Eastman, was Major Henry V. Colt of the 104th New York Volunteer Regiment. "[A gentleman, fair and fat, of not quite forty, five and a half feet high, with a florid complexion," according to Keiley, "[with] a very prepossessing appearance and manner, a jaunty way of cocking his hat on the side of his head, and a chronic attack of smoking cigars, which he invariably holds in his mouth at about the angle at which mortars are ordinarily fired"

There was [also]," continued Keiley, "a long-nosed, long-faced, long-jawed, long-bearded, long-bodied, long-legged, endless-footed, and long-skirted curiosity Captain [William] Peck, ostensibly engaged in taking charge of certain companies of 'Rebs,' but really employed in turning a penny by huckstering the various products of prisoners' skill-an occupation very profitable to Peck, but generally unsatisfactory, in a pecuniary way, to the 'rebs."

On July 15, a fourth trainload of POWs en route to the prison collided head-on with an eastbound coal train outside of Shohola, Pennsylvania, along the Delaware River in Pike County. Forty-eight prisoners and seventeen guards were killed, and ninety-three POWs and sixteen guards were injured. In the confusion, five POWs escaped. "We were roused about midnight," related Keiley, "with a request that we would come and help the wounded in, a train having arrived with the surviving victims of the catastrophe. Many of them were in a horrible condition, and when I went to the hospital the following Monday I found the wounds of many still undressed, even the blood not washed from their limbs, to which, in many instances, the clothing adhered, glued by the clotted gore."

Throughout the following days, POWs continued to arrive from all directions. By the end of the month, 4,424 were confined there, two had managed to escape, and eleven had died. "You are authorized to lease a half-acre lot in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira as a burying ground for deceased prisoners of war," Hoffman advised Colonel Eastman at the end of the month, "and you are also authorized to employ a laborer at $40 per month to dig the graves." Eastman obtained the services of the Woodlawn Cemetery sexton, John W Jones, a former slave from Leesburg, Virginia, who lived near the prison, to take charge of the Confederate burials. Jones would go on to do a meticulous job and keep accurate death records throughout the existence of the prison.

By the end of august, there were more than 9,600 POWs confined at Elmira. The initial arrivals had filled the barracks and A-tents were now in use. "The barrack accommodations did not suffice for quite half of them," observed one prisoner. "Thinly clad as they came from a summers campaign, many of them without blankets, and without even a handful of straw between them and the earth, it will surprise no one that the suffering, even at that early day, was considerable."

By August 7, the tent supply was exhausted. Tents arriving the following week still were insufficient. Many men, poorly clad, with some wearing nothing but dirty underwear and having no blanket, found themselves sleeping out in the open air with no shelter whatsoever. By the end of August there were 115 more deaths. In September, another 385 perished."

A majority of the deaths during this period were from diarrhea and dysentery. Exposure was, no doubt, a contributing factor, and scurvy also broke out in epidemic proportions during the month. By September 11, there were 1,870 reported cases. Before long, Elmira led all the northern prisons in its death rate-ten per day.

Colonel Eastman soon complained to Washington authorities that the camp was overcrowded and requested them to stop sending prisoners. Besides the housing problems, he pointed out; it required three hours to feed nearly 10,000 POWs in shifts of 1,800 at a time. "If they can get through their breakfast by 1 A.M. and their dinner by 6 P.M.," Colonel Hoffman curtly reported, "then nothing more is necessary."

Eastman also complained that the pond inside the camp had become a cesspool, that it was causing illness, and that something had to be done to remedy the situation immediately. "The drainage of the camp is into this pond or pool of standing water," agreed Post Surgeon E. E Sanger during his inspection, cc and one large sink used by the prisoners stands directly over the pond, which receives its fecal matter hourly... Seven thousand men will pass 2,600 gallons of urine daily, which is highly loaded with nitrogenous material. A portion is absorbed by the earth, still a large amount decomposes on the top of the earth or runs into the pond to purify."

In spite of Eastman's and Sanger's concerns, they received the full impact of responsibility for the unsanitary, chaotic, and wretched conditions of the camp. "On the 21st of September," noted prisoner Keiley, who was assigned as clerk of death records, "I carried my report up to the major's tent, with the ghastly record of twenty-nine deaths yesterday." The subsequent recriminations led to Eastman's removal shortly thereafter.

Colonel Benjamin E Tracy took over as prison commandant, with his regiment, the 127th U.S. Colored Troops, taking over guard duty. In September, construction of additional hospital wards and barracks began. Hoffman advised that the buildings, 100 feet by 22 feet to accommodate 120 POWs with a 20 by 22-foot kitchen on the end of each, be "erected upon the cheapest plan and to be neither plastered nor ceiled." In addition, three-tiered bunks would be crammed into the facilities. All labor would be done by the prisoners.20 In October the death rate was an average of nine a day. At the end of November, a total of 483 POWs had died in the previous sixty-one-day period. No doubt, the sexton at Woodlawn found himself overworked and underpaid. At the rate the prisoners were dying, he was barely averaging more than sixteen cents per burial for all his work and record keeping.

"Since August, the date of my assignment to this station, there have been 2,011 patients admitted to the hospital and 775 deaths out of a mean strength of 8,347 prisoners of war, or 24 per-cent admitted and 9 per-cent died," explained the post's medical officer in a formal letter to the surgeon general. " We have averaged daily 451 in hospital and 601 in quarters.... At this rate the entire command will be admitted to the hospital in less than a year and 36 per-cent will die."

The medical staff went on to emphasize the problems with the lagoon at the camp. "The soil is a gravel deposit sloping at two-thirds of its distance from the front toward the river to a stagnant pond of water 12 by 580 yards, between which and the river is a low sandy bottom subject to overflow when the river is high. This 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 and the whole left a festering mass of corruption, impregnating the entire atmosphere of the camp with its pestilential odors, night and day... The pond remains green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death, the vaults give out their sickly odors, and the hospitals are crowded with victims for the grave.

One benefit Foster's Pond provided in its deplorable, wretched, condition, however, was that it became a haven for an alternative food source. "We invented all kinds of traps and deadfalls to catch rats," admitted prisoner E S. Wade. "Many found an acceptable substitute in rat, with which the place abounded," agreed another prisoner, "and these Chinese delicacies commanded an average price of about four cents apiece." Rats quickly became part of the prison's complex bartering system. One rat could be traded for five chaws of tobacco, one haircut, or a number of other items.

As at several other prisons, the POWs also resorted to eating dogs and cats that strayed into the compound. "Every day Northern ladies came in the prison, some of them followed by dogs or cats," continued Wade, "which the boys would slip aside and choke to death. The ribs of a stewed dog were delicious, [but] a broiled rat was superb. "

Clearly the daily rations provided by the Elmira authorities were inadequate or, as one prisoner later put it, "seemed to be only enough to feed disease." Another prisoner remembered, "About eight or nine in the morning we were furnished a small piece of loaf bread and a small piece of salt pork or pickled beef each, and in the afternoon a small piece of bread and a tin plate of soup, with sometimes a little rice or Irish potato in the soup where the pork or beef had been broiled."

With no more to eat than that, an atmosphere of starvation constantly existed at Elmira. It wasn't uncommon to see prisoners going through the refuse barrels or garbage heaps behind the cookhouses, or to see them pick up apple peelings and other "edibles" that had been trampled down into the mud of the pathways, wipe them off, and eat them with hardly any hesitation.

"I have seen a mob of hungry 'rebs' besiege the bone-cart," admitted one prisoner, "and beg from the driver fragments on which an August sun had been burning for several days."

By December, their miserable existence and fight for survival intensified. The frigid cold weather swept in and, with it, smallpox arrived from Governors Island. Within weeks, smallpox became epidemic, which led to a smallpox camp established away from the prison at nearby South Creek. "The camp was several wall tents," advised prisoner Miles 0. Sherrill, "with cots having two Confederates laying on each in reverse order-heads on opposite ends of the cot."

As winter pounded the area, the southern POWs found this part of New York State intolerable. "For at least four months of every year," complained Keiley, "anything [here] short of a polar-bear would find locomotion impracticable."

Most of the additional barracks and wards authorized by Colonel Hoffman had been completed by mid-October; however, many tents were still in use, and the new buildings, without insulation, interior walls, or ceilings, didn't provide much additional comfort.

"The winters are exceedingly cold and bleak at Elmira," admitted U.S. Surgeon William J. Sloan, "and the buildings were hastily erected of green lumber, which is cracking, splitting, and warping in every direction."

Each barracks had one stove to serve two hundred or more occupants. "Around each stove was a chalk mark, five feet from the stove, marking the distance we should keep, so that all could be warm," explained one prisoner. It wasn't unusual to see Elmira's prisoners standing ankle-deep in snow for roll calls during this time of year. "Snow and ice several feet thick covered the place from December 6 to March 15," complained one prisoner. The temperature dropped to eighteen degrees below zero on at least two different occasions. "My health is not good in this cold climate," complained prisoner Sitgreaves Attmore in a letter written to his cousins back home, "every thing now being covered with ice and my clothing thin and scarce ... I sometimes fear I shall never see you all again.""

It was no wonder then, that in addition to smallpox; pneumonia struck down Elmira's POWs as well. From December 1864, through March 1865, 1,471 prisoners of war succumbed to the ravages of the camp. Nearly 500 died in the month of March, alone, averaging more than 15 per day.

It was also in March that the inevitable finally happened. With the spring thaw, and the heavy runoff of melted snow, the Chemung River nearby began to run fast and furious.

"The rapid rise of the stream on the night of the 16th," reported Colonel Tracy, "made it clear that the low flat upon which the smallpox ward was located would be whelmed and the fence swept away." The quickly rising water left nearly three hundred sick POWs stranded and isolated at the smallpox camp. "Rafts were accordingly built to convey this number," continued Tracy, "and the removal was accomplished without any casualty. They were placed in six old barracks on the highest ground of the camp. These barracks are very old and nearly useless, having been kept standing through the winter only by means of props and braces outside.... The river continued to rise until the entire camp, except about an acre, was flooded ... I immediately took measures to rebuild the fence ... About 2,700 feet were carried away."

As early as July 1864, a number of Elmira citizens had erected an observation tower, similar to the one at Camp Douglas, outside the compound. For the nominal fee of fifteen cents each, spectators were allowed to climb up to the platform to observe the POWs in their daily activities. In August, W and W Mears went into direct competition with that tower by building a similar observatory nearby that was twenty feet taller, charged a reduced admission of only ten cents, and sold refreshments at its base.

"A clearer view across the different avenues of the enclosure can be seen from this Observatory," claimed its local newspaper ads, "than from any other position." Although the observatory was built at "considerable expense," apparently such ventures were profitable. According to one prisoner, "one of the proprietors, who was part of the management of our pen, assured me that the concern paid for itself in two weeks. "

While the towers might have brought profit to some prison officials, they seem to have inspired humanitarian efforts from the town's citizens. As at Fort Delaware, however, such efforts were often hampered by the Federal authorities. Several women from town established a school at the prison and entered daily, bringing books for the prisoners. At the same time, townsfolk gathered clothing for them, but prison officials refused to distribute it. Religious services for the POWs were also conducted several times by Thomas Beecher, brother to famed abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher and author Harriet Beecher Stowe, but they ceased with the arrival of the harsh winter months because prison officials refused to provide an enclosed shelter.