By George R. Farr, Historian, Town of Elmira
Chemung County, New York State
The American Civil War or the War Between the States or whatever you may call the most destructive war in the history of the United States, wreaked havoc on the prisoners of war on both sides of the conflict. Neither the North nor the South could overcome the conditions brought on by the war that lead to the deaths of many of the prisoners of war.
Neither side should receive a greater portion of the blame for the tragedies that were the prisoner of war camps.
The most notorious camp of the North was located in Elmira, New York where one of the four 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 of war 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 three 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 prison records show that prisoners typically died from Typhoid Fever, Chronic Diarrhea and Pneumonia. What the records do not show is that the cause of death was often partly due to malnutrition. It is evident that military officials, many with a strong hatred of the South, from Secretary Stanton on down had some part in preventing adequate supplies of food being furnished to the prisoners. There can be no other explanation because this prison was located in a fertile rich agricultural part of New York State where food shortages just did not exist.
The same was true for the medical treatment of the prisoners. While some of the local military officials protested the lack of supplies, there was not enough to provide proper medical care. The most tragic sight was that of the small pox hospital which mainly consisted of several remote tents where the sick were moved and literally forgotten. It was not uncommon to see a stiff frozen body lying outside a tent waiting to be loaded on the buckboard for transportation to the cemetery.
Another contributing factor to the problem of disease was stagnant pool known as Foster’s Pond. This pond stood between to camp and the river. Although it was eventually reconfigured to allow the river to flow through it, it should have been done much earlier when the camp was first established.
If these conditions were not bad enough there were more. The barracks were poorly heated and, there were insufficient blankets. Monthly clothing shipments to the prisoners were delayed adding to their discomfort and misery.
Each day the deceased were placed in coffins and loaded on to a buckboard, nine at a time. The wagons accompanied by prisoners and their guards traveled approximately a mile and a half to the cemetery. At the cemetery a long trench was dug and the coffins placed in it side by side. The cemetery’s sexton John W. Jones made a record of each burial. Each coffin had the soldiers name, regiment and company painted on the cover as well as a small bottle with the same information placed in the coffin. Afterwards a wooden marker was erected with the soldier’s grave number, name, regiment and company.
The wooden markers, badly deteriorated, were replaced with stone markers in 1908. Today the Confederate soldier’s graves are part of the Woodlawn National Cemetery and are maintained in the very best condition as befits soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country. The Confederate section of the cemetery is identified by an almost life sized statue of a Confederate soldier placed there by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1937.
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. Approximately 140 were released to the regional army hospital in Elmira where they were treated until they were fit to travel. Unfortunately seventeen of them never recovered.
By the end of 1865, the camp was fully closed, all buildings torn down or moved to nearby locations. Today a few buildings remain near the site of the camp and a memorial
has been erected within the site of the camp.
The camp is all but forgotten to most of the citizens of Elmira. It may be hard to understand, but most of them probably don’t know that it ever existed. It certainly isn’t something that the city is proud of, but neither is it something that is deliberately hidden.
There are a number of Elmirans who are aware that it did exist, and they try to do everything they can to make people understand what happened here. Annual tours, and memorial services are a common occurrence, and the local historical society attempts to provide help to all persons arriving here from the south seeking information about their ancestors who were held prisoner at Elmira.