Elmira’s Civil War prison camp operated from July 6, 1864, until July 11, 1865, incarcerating a total of 12,121 Confederates. Here are 20 facts about that dark period in the city’s history to mark its 150th anniversary this month:
1 One day after the first 400 Confederates arrived from Maryland, two prisoners scaled the Elmira prison camp’s 12-foot stockade wall and escaped.
2 At the beginning of the Civil War, Elmira had been a military recruiting depot where soldiers attended basic training. Later in the war, Elmira was chosen as a draft rendezvous, and then it was turned into a prisoner of war camp.
3 When rats became a problem at the prison camp, a medium-sized black dog was used to catch them. Rat meat was sold to prisoners for 5 cents, but few could afford it. Eventually, two Rebel soldiers from North Carolina were sent to the guardhouse for 30 days after they captured and cooked the dog.
4 Insufficient food, extreme bouts of dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, smallpox, inadequate medical care and flooding of the Chemung River resulted in the deaths of 2,963 prisoners at the Elmira prison camp, a mortality rate of about 25 percent. Prisoners dubbed the camp “Hellmira.”
5 The sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery, John W. Jones, a former slave who arrived in Elmira via the Underground Railroad, buried or supervised the burial of each Confederate soldier that died in the prison camp. Of all the prisoners he buried, only seven are listed as unknown.
6 An observation platform with chairs and binoculars was built outside the prison camp across Water Street west of Hoffman Street. Visitors were charged 10 cents apiece to look at the prisoners. Refreshments were sold to spectators while the Confederate soldiers starved.
7 After the Civil War, a House committee that investigated the condition of prisoners in Confederate camps declared that evidence proved Confederates were determined to kill Union prisoners. However, the Union’s mistreatment of its prisoners of war was dismissed as rumor for more than a century.
8 The Confederate section of Woodlawn Cemetery, where prisoners who died at Elmira’s prison camp were buried, became Woodlawn National Cemetery on Dec. 7, 1877. In 1907, the government replaced the original wooden markers with marble headstones.
9 While on a sick furlough, Confederate Cpl. Henry R. Evans was captured near Vernon, Fla., on Sept. 28, 1864. He was held at the Elmira prison camp until his release on July 7, 1865, after signing a loyalty oath. An old family story says he had to walk home, and he was so emaciated when he arrived that his brothers and sisters didn’t recognize him.
10 There were many attempts to tunnel out of Elmira’s prison camp, but only one succeeded. Ten men with help from a few others successfully escaped by digging out of the prison camp, starting their first tunnel on Aug. 24, 1864.
11 The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher of The Park Church in Elmira conducted the first Sunday service for prisoners at the camp on July 24, 1864. Local clergymen took turns conducting the services.
12 Though more than 12,000 Confederate POWs were assigned to the Elmira prison camp, there was only enough barrack space for 5,000 prisoners. Many Rebels were forced to live in tents along the Chemung River, even during freezing winter weather.
13 Confederate Cpl. Michel Fortlouis went AWOL and was captured by Union troops in Louisiana in August 1864. He arrived at the Elmira prison camp on Nov. 19, 1864, and died of pneumonia 10 days later at age 27. Both of his brothers survived the war.
14 Three granite markers still survive that were dedicated in 1900 by the Baldwin Post of the Grand Army of the Republic: at West Water and Hoffman streets, marking the prison camp’s northeast corner; on West Water Street east of Gould Street, marking the camp’s northwest corner; and one on display at the Chemung Valley History Museum in Elmira.
15 Confederate soldier James Owens Lowder was captured at Fort Fisher, N.C., on Jan. 15, 1865. He arrived at the Elmira prison camp on Jan. 30, 1865, and was released July 3, 1865 after signing an oath of allegiance. A little more than a year after leaving Elmira, he was killed by a falling tree when a tornado struck his farm in Clarendon County, S.C.
16 Those who died at the prison camp were placed in prisoner-made coffins with their name, rank, regiment and date of death inscribed on the lid. That information was also written on a slip of paper, put into in a sealed jar and placed inside the coffin with the body. The coffins were transported nine at a time from the prison camp to Woodlawn for burial.
17 Thomas A. Botts, a Confederate prisoner at the Elmira prison camp, got the nickname “Buttons” from the hundreds of buttons he collected and sewed to his coat. He died of rheumatism less than two weeks before the release of all prisoners was ordered and is buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery.
18 Forty-eight Confederate soldiers who died in the great Shohola train wreck on July 15, 1864, while en route to the Elmira prison camp, are buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery.
19 During a disturbance at the prison camp on July 31, 1864, A.P. Potts of the 38th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment was shot by guard Granville Garland. The bullet was removed, and Potts survived.
20 After sitting many years disassembled, the only surviving building from Elmira’s Civil War prison camp is to be reconstructed at the former prison camp site behind the Elmira Water Board’s pumping station on Winsor Avenue. The building is to be turned into a museum and learning center.
Sources: Star-Gazette research; the Chemung County Historical Society; Chemung County History: Elmira, New York; the Institute for Historical Review; “Recollections of Washington B. Traweek: Escaping Elmira” by Washington B. Traweek; and “In Their Honor: Soldiers of the Confederacy, The Elmira Prison Camp” by Diane Janowski.
From: The Star Gazette