I lived in Elmira for five years in the late 1960s, covering fifth through ninth grade. You’d think that I at least heard about the major events in the history of the city that is close to the Pennsylvania border in south-central New York State. Yet somehow, I have no recollection that Elmira was the host of what probably was the most notorious prison camp of the Civil War – at least from the perspective of the Union. Maybe I was sick that day in middle school.
I picked up some references to the facility several years ago, and was still curious. Then I came across a book called “Hellmira,” by Derek Maxfield. It isn’t a massive book, but it certainly covers the information that Civil War buffs might want to know about the place.
First of all, the camp was only open for about 13 months, from the middle of 1864 to the middle of 1865. It had 12,000 prisoners during that time, and 2,900 of them died. That’s a percentage of 24.3 percent. It’s not as high a percentage as the one for Andersonville (Ga.), controlled by the Confederacy. That checks in at 29 percent. Elmira was picked for the camp because it already a major railroad hub for Union operations. The idea was to hold about 3,000 prisoners, but the commander was told to expect 10,000.
Conditions weren’t exactly terrible at the start, even if there were few permanent buildings for the prisoners. At least it was warm. Many prisoners slept in tents for long periods of time. A creek ran down from the hill into the Chemung River nearby, and it quickly became a less than sanitary source of water. Dysentery and diarrhea quickly followed.
Naturally, winter came early that year, as the first snow turned up in early October. The barracks had a couple of stoves, but usually fuel was scarce as temperatures dropped well below zero. Rations were skimpy, and medical care was spotty. Then in the spring, the long winter’s snowpack turned to water … which led to a huge spring thaw into the river that flooded the camp. The war ended in April, 1865, and the last prisoners left in July of that year. By December, you’d never know a prison camp had been there.
That’s the way it stayed until 1985, when a marker went up on Water Street near downtown. In 1992, a monument (shown above) was placed by the water pumping station along the river where the prison was located. Nearby is a replica of one of the barracks. Meanwhile, some Confederate soldiers are buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery, which also holds the remains of Mark Twain.
As tourist attractions go, a Civil War prison isn’t exactly Monet’s Garden when it comes to popularity. There are other sights to see in Elmira, including Twain’s study and a spectacular lookout of the valley from Harris Hill. Still, it was worth a stop on a recent road trip to see where the prison was located – now the site of housing on the edge of downtown. The camp is a part of town history, and it’s no longer a secret – at least to me.