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Elmira Prisoner of War Camp

Search, View, Print Union & Confederate Civil War Prisoner of War Records, 1861-1865

Union 1864-1865
Elmira, New York

The most notorious camp of the North was located in Elmira, New York where one of the 4 camps that made up the western New York Union Army rendezvous was refitted for use as a prisoner of war camp. Originally known as Camp Rathbun and designated as Camp No. 3, this camp during the course of its existence from the summer of 1864 until the end of the war housed approximately 12, 000 Confederate enlisted men. Of this number, approximately 3,000 died. The camp was located facing West Water Street between Hoffman and Guinnip Avenue. The rear of the camp was almost to the banks of the Chemung River.

Confederate prisoners were transported mostly from the prison at Point Lookout, Maryland by rail to Elmira. Some groups came from Old Capitol Prison in Washington and some from as far away as Louisiana. For the most part their physical condition on arrival was poor, and their numbers soon overwhelmed the facilities at the camp.

During the summer and fall months the weather was mild, however 900 prisoners were not housed in barracks until the first week in January. The coming winter would prove to be one of the harshest seen in Elmira with severe freezing temperatures and a heavy snowfall.

Until they were moved into barracks, the prisoners were housed 3 in a tent. The tents were erected on the parade ground in front of the previously existing Union army barracks. The tent’s floor was dirt and each tent had a stove for heating purposes. The barracks were poorly heated and, there were insufficient blankets. Monthly clothing shipments to the prisoners were delayed adding to their discomfort and misery.

Elmira prison was located on a 30 acre site, ( the camp may have reach 40 acres), along the banks of the Chemung River. A 1-acre lagoon of water, called Foster's Pond, stood within the walls of the stockade. The pond was a backwash from the river and served as a latrine and garbage dump. Prison buildings were located on the high northern bank of the lagoon. The lower southern level, known to flood easily, later became a hospital area for hundreds of smallpox and diarrhea victims.

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Almost 25% of the 12,123 Confederate soldiers who entered the prison camp at Elmira died. This death rate was more than double the average death rate in other Northern prison camps, and only 2% less than the death rate at the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia. The deaths at Elmira were caused by diseases brought on by terrible living conditions and starvation, conditions deliberately caused by the vindictive U.S. commissary-general of prisoners, Col. William Hoffman. The prison camp was only there for 1 year, yet it had the highest death rate, per capita, of any prison camp north or south.

A stockade was built around an unused Union army training camp to create Elmira Prison in June 1864. The prison contained 35 barracks and was intended to house as many as 5,000 prisoners. On July 6 the first 400 arrived, and by the end of the month there were more than 4,400 prisoners, with more on the way. By the end of August almost 10,000 men were confined there, many of them sleeping in the open in tattered clothes and without blankets.

On August 18, in retaliation for the conditions in Confederate prison camps, Hoffman ordered that rations for the prisoners be reduced to bread and water. The overcrowded conditions ensured that any disease introduced to the malnourished population would spread rapidly.

Without meat and vegetables, the prisoners quickly succumbed to scurvy, with 1,870 cases reported by September 11. The scurvy was followed by an epidemic of diarrhea, then pneumonia and smallpox. By the end of the year, 1,264 prisoners had died, and survivors had nicknamed the prison "Helmira".
The winter was bitterly cold, but when Southern families sent clothes for the prisoners, Hoffman would allow only items that were gray to be distributed. Clothes in other colors were burned while the sons and husbands for whom they were intended literally froze to death.

Inside the fenced in area (know as "the pen") stood 35 2-story barracks, each of which measured 100 by 20 feet. Ceilings were barely high enough to accommodate 2 rows of crude bunks along the walls. Unsealed roofs characterized the wooden buildings. The floorings were of green lumber, without foundations, and had little resistance to wind and water. Behind the rows of barracks was a group of buildings converted into a dispensary, adjutant's office and guard rooms. To their rear, extending to the northern bank of Foster's Pond, were the cook houses and mess halls. The first group of prisoners to arrive at the prison quickly crowded the allotted barracks. Subsequent arrivals lived in "A" tents scattered around the prison area. At the time of their arrival, most prisoners were unaware of one last and deadly factor. The prison was located in New York State, where for at least 4 months of the year, the weather was bitterly cold.

The first contingent of prisoners arrived from New York by train. Prisoners were pleasantly surprised when sympathetic citizens, at many stops, distributed food and clothing to them.

The first group reached the prison at 6:00 A.M. on July 6th and numbered 399 men, one soldier escaped enroute. The second group arrived early in the morning of July 11th, followed by 502 Confederates the following day. Before departing their earlier prison camps, the prisoners received vaccinations for smallpox. The injections were of poor quality vaccines, and seen on many arms "were great sores, big enough, it seemed, to put your fist in."

On July 15th, an Erie Railroad train jammed with prisoners, collided with a freight train near the hamlet of Shohola: 48 prisoners and 17 guards were killed: 100 prisoners and 18 guards were injured.
By the end of July, 4, 424 prisoners were packed in the compound, with another 3,000 enroute. The total number leaped to 9,600 by mid-August.

The runoff and sewage going into Foster's Pond was beginning to have effects on the prisoners. It was getting to be offensive to the nostrils and a danger to the health. One of the surgeons at the prison stated the case more pointedly. An average of 7,000 prisoners released daily over 2,600 gallons of urine-"highly loaded with nitrogenous material"-into Foster's Pond. Moreover, he noted, the 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. Washington was notified as early as August 17; not until late October was permission received to use prisoner labor to dig drainage ditches to remove the water and it's rotting matter. By December the odor was gone, by then scores of prisoners were down with disease.

Housing was still a problem and getting worse. Less then a month after the camp opened, almost 10,000 Confederates were inside it's crowded compound... tents ran out on August 7; a new shipment arrived on August 12, but there wasn't enough of them. Hundreds of prisoners had to sleep in the open, many of them without blankets. Late in November, a medical inspector pronounced the barracks to be "of green lumber, which is cracking, splitting, and warping in every direction."

In a feeble effort to lessen the number of prisoners, late in September, Washington issued a directive that prisoners physically unfit would be exchanged. The order stated that no Confederates would be shipped southward that were "too feeble to endure the journey." The camp commander was ordered to "have a careful inspection of the prisoners made by medical officers to select those who shall be transferred."

The prisoners journey south was to be by train to Baltimore followed by steamer to City Point for exchange. On October 14, Washington surgeons examined the 1200 prisoners who arrived by train at Baltimore. Five had died in route; scores of others were reported by one doctor as being "unable to bear the journey." The physical condition of many of these men, he added, "was distressing in the extreme, and they should have never been permitted to leave Elmira.

The episode became one of the major marks against the prison it's occupants had dubbed "Helmira."
In the mean time, life at prison had become routine and, in most instances, revolting. Prisoners not packed in the flimsy barracks swarmed around the yards and vied for space within the few ragged tents. The first troops designated as guards at the prison were Negroes. Units of the Veteran Reserve Corps, and New York State Troops later became the Provost guard.

Late in July the prisoners underwent a unique indignity. A group of townspeople erected 2 observation platforms immediately outside the prison walls. For the nominal sum of 15 cents, spectators could observe the prisoners as they endured life inside the compound.

Initially, one of the more pressing needs of the prisoners was for clothing. The cry for clothing brought an instantaneous response from Southern families and friends. Yet, Col. Eastman withheld issuance of the clothing until he could get permission for distribution from Col. Hoffman. The permission came in late August, but only clothing of gray could be issued. Piles of clothing of other colors were burned. All but a few coats, shirts and pairs of trousers were destroyed.

Winter struck early at the prison. Prisoners lacking blankets and clad in rags collapsed from exposure. By early December, 1,600 men "entirely destitute of blankets," stood ankle deep in snow to answer morning roll call.

In the second week of December, the Federal government issued clothing for 2,000 men to 8,400 Confederates then quartered at the prison. In January, Confederate authorities sent a shipment of cotton northward under a flag of truce, the proceeds from the sale of the cotton went to purchase clothing for the prisoners.

On August 18, Col. Hoffman ordered prisoner rations restricted to bread and water. The results were, by late August, an epidemic of scurvy was in full force; on September 11, no less then 1,870 cases had been reported. In October, the prisoners received a single small ration of fresh vegetables. Onions and potatoes constituted 3 of every 5 rations for 2 weeks of that same month; then their distribution stopped. Not until December was the meager diet of bread and water supplemented with a meat ration. However, a prison inspector said the meat was of such inferior quality that a quarter-beef weighing 92 pounds yielded but 45 1/2 pounds of meat. Men were dying of starvation at the rate of 25 a day.

Close on the heels of the scurvy epidemic came an even larger outbreak of diarrhea. Moreover, by November 1864, pneumonia had reached plague proportions. A month later, the dreaded smallpox came to Elmira and in it's first week struck 140 men and killed 10. Smallpox was ever-present thereafter.

Medical treatment of prisoners from the outset was bad, and it just got worse as time went on. By November the death toll in the hospitals had reached 755 men. A large portion of mortalities stemmed from nearby Foster's Pond, which one observer described as being "green with putrescence, filling the air with it's messengers of disease and death."

Washington ignored or denied repeated requisitions for badly needed medicines. An urgent request for straw on which the sick could lay was ignored. Hoffman turned repeated request to complete the ceilings and roofs on the hospital buildings down without any reasons given. An official in the U.S.

Sanitary Commission was turned down flat when he asked permission to attend to the sick and dying.
The number of sick and dead rose sharply at the end of 1864, when prisoners, fighting disease, filth and starvation, could not weather the bitter cold of a New York winter. The winter was so severe, and clothing so scarce, that prisoners stood in deep snow with only rags tied around their frozen and swollen feet to answer morning roll calls. Late in December, after repeated urgent pleas, Washington sent a few stoves to the prison. There were 2 small stoves for each barracks, and a few for the men still housed in tents. Prisoners received small wood rations. During the 12 hour intervals they had to get warm as best they could. Moreover, with an average of 200 men to a barracks, each stove therefore was the sole means of warmth for 100 men.

On the night of March 16, 1865, unusually hard rains caused the Chemung River to over run it's banks. Federals and Confederates alike hastily assembled crude rafts to evacuate prisoners from the Smallpox Hospital in the flats and they did succeed in floating most of the sick to safety. Other prisoners crowded the upper stories of the barracks as icy water rose halfway up the first level.

A month later, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appromattox, and the prisoners received much improved treatment, and were not guarded as closely. The paroling of prisoners began late in May. Except for those still confined to the hospitals, the prison camp was vacant by July 5th, and ready for demolition a month later. The prison's death rate in March of 1865 was an average of 16 prisoners a day. Of a total of 12,122 Confederate soldiers imprisoned at the prison, 2,933 died of sickness, exposure, and associated causes.

Beginning in February of 1865, prisoners who swore an allegiance to the Union were classified for release. Subsequently, groups of approximately 500 were each given a food ration, money and or transportation vouchers and placed on a train for City Point, Virginia. City Point was the major Union army supply depot in northern Virginia and from there each prisoner was provided assistance to his home destination. However, due to the fact that the war was still ongoing and the overall condition of transportation in the South was poor it is very conceivable that these men had a difficult time reaching home

Those soldiers who survived were released in groups at the end of the war and provided the same assistance for returning to their homes in the South. By the end of 1865, the camp was fully closed, all buildings torn down or moved to nearby locations.

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