Union Civil War Prison Camp an All-but-Forgotten Relic of Brutality
Like some rusty bayonet or tattered battle flag hidden away in the attic, the Elmira prison camp is an all-but-forgotten relic of the Civil War.
Considering the human suffering involved, maybe memories of the prison, which opened 125 years ago this month, are best left undisturbed.
Except for a flagpole, a small monument and two stone markers, there’s nothing in the quiet Elmira neighborhood where the prison camp once stood to mark its presence. But buried beneath tidy rows of white headstones and shade trees at the Woodlawn National Cemetery are the remains of 2,973 Confederate soldiers who died at Elmira, many from starvation.
The Confederacy’s Andersonville prison in Georgia is remembered as the most infamous example of the inhumanity and deprivations of the Civil War, even though records show that a soldier imprisoned in Elmira stood little better chance of surviving than did one in Andersonville.
Questions linger over whether those 2,973 Rebels died mainly because of the primitive state of medicine and sanitation during the Civil War, or whether they were victims of the Lincoln Administration’s retaliatory neglect of some prisoners of war.
“Can one say that, by design, this was a death camp?” asked J. Michael Horigan, an Elmira history teacher who spent much of the past year researching records from Civil War prison camps in Washington, D.C., and in the South. “I think one can say it, but you can’t document it. The records on this camp are very incomplete. But circumstantial evidence certainly makes it look that way.”
Union officials ordered in May, 1864, that a complex of barracks at Elmira that had been used for three years to house Union soldiers be converted to a prison camp for captive Southerners. A 12-foot-high fence was immediately thrown around a 30-acre portion of barracks.
There were 35 wooden buildings in the complex, each about 100 feet long and 16 feet wide. Union officers in Elmira wrote the War Department that the barracks could accommodate 3,000 men comfortably and 1,000 more in a pinch.
Orders came back from Washington that 10,000 men were to be housed in the camp. Men not lucky enough to get places in barracks would sleep in tents. Wooden barracks weren’t constructed for all the men until well after winter had set in.
On July 6, 1864, a train pulled into Elmira with the first 399-man contingent of prisoners on board.
It was a ragged group of prisoners. Most had been captured during the grinding battles of the Wilderness in Virginia. Elmirans noted that their ragtag uniforms hardly made the men look like members of the same army. Some prisoners wore only shirts and underwear. Many had no shoes.
Things went wrong at the prison camp almost from the beginning.
On July 15, a train loaded with 844 Confederates and 128 Union guards bound for Elmira smashed head-on with a coal train near Shohola, Pa. Many of the wooden cars were reduced to kindling in the accident, which killed 49 prisoners and 17 guards.
Five prisoners escaped during the chaos, and it took three days for some of the wounded to receive medical treatment.
Meanwhile, inside the camp, a peril just as lethal, although slower in its effect, was taking shape.
A stagnant body of water, called Foster’s Pond, was within the fences of the prison. With so many men being sent to the camp--there would be more than 4,400 by the end of July, and 9,600 by the end of August--the water quickly became fouled. The pond became a breeding ground of disease amid an extended heat wave that summer.
Less than three weeks after Elmira opened, a local newspaper reported that a “deleterious miasma” hung over the camp due to the stagnant water. One Union surgeon called it a “festering mass of corruption.”
Prison administrators asked the Union’s commissioner general of prisoners, Col. William Hoffman, for permission to dig canals connecting the pond with the nearby Chemung River to allow fresher water to pass through it.
Approval for that project didn’t come until October--and prisoners didn’t complete the canals until Jan. 1, 1865.
“I think this falls into the realm of circumstantial evidence,” Horigan says. “This is what I call the politics of delay. The sluice could have been done by August, 1864.”
In the meantime, men were dying in droves.
“The scurvy was among us, and as the cold weather advanced the death rate increased rapidly,” wrote prisoner L.B. Jones. “Scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia and finally smallpox broke out to an alarming extent, carrying off great numbers of the poor fellows.”
Emory Thomas, a history professor at the University of Georgia, says doctors at Elmira weren’t different from those practicing elsewhere during a war in which twice as many men died from disease than from battle-related wounds.
“The doctors really weren’t convinced about the germ theory of disease at this point,” he said. “At this time they were dealing with very, very nuts-and-bolts things, like how to set a fracture properly and whether chloroform would kill and if ether was better than chloroform. These are important things, but we’re not talking about great leaps forward in medical practice.”
The food at Elmira could have been another problem. Elmira prisoners after the war said a day’s rations generally included two, 1-inch-thick slices of bread, 2 ounces of meat and a pint of soup, often only the thin broth in which the meat was cooked. Union officers insisted after the war that rations at Elmira were more generous.
“I was assured by a guard that the same rations were issued to the prisoners as to the U.S. troops stationed there,” Confederate soldier Erastus Palmer recalled after the war. “There seemed to me to be some bad leak in it before it got to us.”
In May, 1864, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had ordered that prison rations to Confederates being held in Northern camps be reduced to the same level as those Southern troops in the field were receiving. This coincided with the Lincoln Administration’s general hardening of its treatment of Southern prisoners starting that year as news began to filter north of the deprivations being endured by Union soldiers at Andersonville, the Libby prison in Richmond, Va., and other Confederate camps.
Horigan calls Stanton a “very vindictive man” who exercised virtual dictatorial control over the Northern prison camp system.
“Abraham Lincoln had very little to do with any decision-making as far as the prison-camp system was concerned,” Horigan said. “One of the characteristics of his presidency was that he (delegated) power to his Cabinet members. He gave them an enormous amount of power and an enormous amount of leeway.”
Many of Elmira’s prisoners blamed Stanton too.
“It is my honest opinion that Secretary Stanton did this in retaliation,” Virginia soldier Enos Lyons later wrote of conditions at Elmira. “Yes, men died in Elmira prison I know from hunger and want; this in a land of plenty. I was young and strong and determined I would not be carried out if I could help it, but many poor prisoners lay right down and died of hunger.”
More than 20% Died
According to figures compiled by an early-century historian of the Elmira prison, Clay Holmes, 27% of the camp’s captives died. Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War historian James McPherson places Elmira’s mortality rate at 24%.
By way of comparison, 13,000, or 29%, of the 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville died.
For the Civil War as a whole, 15.5% of the Union soldiers imprisoned in 28 Southern camps died while in captivity and 12% of the Confederates in 24 Northern camps died.
Why, then, have Elmira and other Northern prisons with high death rates--Camp Alton, Ill.; Lookout Point, Md.; Johnson’s Island, Ohio; and Rock Island, Ill.--escaped Andersonville’s notoriety?
“To the extent that Elmira and others lack infamy, I would guess it has to do with who won the war,” Thomas said.
Mismanagement on Both Sides
Andersonville’s commandant, Henry Wirz, was the only soldier executed after the Civil War as a war criminal, an act that caused lingering resentment for decades among some Southerners who claimed that he was made a scapegoat for the mismanagement of prison camps on both sides.
And the only historic site operated by the National Park Service at a former Civil War prison camp is at Andersonville. Events including historic re-creations, memorial services and even an archeological dig will be held throughout this year to mark Andersonville’s 125th birthday.
But Elmira’s anniversary will pass quietly. The chances are good that most of the people living in the well-maintained, turn-of-the-century homes around the former site of the camp won’t give the historic significance of this year a second thought.
“The people in the South know Elmira,” Horigan said. “They know their granddaddy was there or whatever. And quite a few compare it to Andersonville. I don’t think they’re correct in doing so. Nothing else was Andersonville.
“But why we only think of Andersonville when we think of Civil War prison camps I don’t know. These places were bad places, all of them were. It was despicable, the way both the South and the Union treated their prisoners. It was the darkest chapter of the war.”
A Union surgeon called the camp a ‘festering mass of corruption.’