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A Prisoner Experience in Elmira, N.Y.

Burials in Woodlawn National Cemetery From the Elmira Prison Camp

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Alabama's Dead at Elmira

"The death rate at this prison camp was 25% and it was only used for one year!"
In May 1864 the U.S. War Department learned there were vacant barracks in Elmira, N.Y., that had been used as a rendezvous point earlier in the war. Men were sent to encircle the camp with a stockade fence and make it into Elmira Prison. By July about 700 Confederate prisoners were being transferred there from Point Lookout, Md., and other overcrowded Federal prisons, and before the end of August they numbered almost 10,000 enlisted men.
Living conditions were bad from the start, with insufficient shelter-the barracks held only half the prisoners; the others were crowded into tents, even in winter-and with a serious sanitary situation presented by a stagnant pond stretching the length of the enclosure, into which sinks drained. The 40-acre camp was below the level of the Chemung River, which bordered it, making drainage difficult.
The prisoners' diet lacked vegetables, and by August there were 793 cases of scurvy. Dr. Eugene F. Sanger, camp surgeon and commandant, feuded constantly about unfilled needs and 1 Nov. 1864 wrote U.S. Army Surgeon General Joseph Kl Barnes: "Since August there have been 2,011 patients admitted to the hospital and 775 deaths. . . . Have averaged daily 451 in hospital and 601 in quarters, and aggregate of 1,052 per day sick. At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and thirty-six percent die."
Winter was severe and prisoners suffered greatly before additional barracks were completed. New prisoners brought the total number confined to 12,122 by 12 May 1865, the last day captives arrived. On 1 July the officer in charge made this accounting of those prisoners of war: released, 8,970; still in hospital, 218; died, 2,917; escaped, 17. 10 escapees had spent 2 months digging a tunnel 66 ft long under the stockade perimeter, and at 4 a.m., 7 Oct. 1864, had crawled through to freedom.
Of the 12,122 soldiers imprisoned at Elmira, 2,963 died of sickness, exposure and associated causes. The camp was officially closed on July 5, 1865. All that remains today of Elmira Prison is a well kept Cemetery along the banks of the Chemung River.
Source of foregoing article: The Historical Times "Encyclopedia of the Civil War.

Michael Horrigan, Author of  Elmira: Death Camp of the North said; "The Civil War generation would not be able to officially place blame, and debate continues even today concerning the unparalleled percentage of deaths. However, residents of Elmira and descendents of the camp's casualties have come to terms with the infamous legacy attached to the town. Memorials to both Union and Confederate soldiers have been erected, and a national cemetery reminds the town and its visitors of the atrocities committed by Americans against Americans.

Prisoner accounts of life at Elmira Prison

Elmira Prisoner John R. King said; "There were nearly 30,000 prisoners at Elmira one time; sometimes less and sometimes more. During the winter those who came from the South felt the cold exceedingly and died from pneumonia. Our clothes poor. The pants I had when arriving at Elmira were in such a bad condition that for a long time I wore nothing but my underwear."

Sergeant G. W. D. Porter of the 44th Tennessee Regiment said about the rations at Elmira Prison Camp; "But here's the ration: The strong sustained life on four ounces of sour light bread and three ounces of salt beef or pork for breakfast; for dinner, the same amount of bread was allowed, and, in lieu of the meat, a compound called soup, but in reality nothing more than hot salty water, in which bags of peas or beans had been boiled, but which were carefully removed and kept for other uses than to make animal heat for cold, starving prisoners of war. This salt-water diet will account for.... read more of his account."

Statement of John J. Van-Allen who was appointed to ascertain the needs of prisoners at Elmira Prison in the late fall of 1864 

"He treated me with consideration and kindness, and informed me that ther were very destitute of clothing and blankets; that not one-half of them had even a single blanket; and that many were nearly naked, the most of them having been captured during the hot summer months with no other than thin cotton clothes, which in most instances were in tatters. Yet he stated that he could not allow me to enter the prison gate or administer relief, as..... read more of this account".

Escape from Elmira Prison!

There had been many efforts to tunnel out of the prison but only one succeeded. Ten with the help of a few others successfully escaped. They were John Fox Maull, J. P. Putegnat, J. P. Scruggs, Shelton, Wash Brown Traweek, J. W. Crawford, Cecrops Malone, Berry Benson, Hickory Jackson, William Templin.  Read the recollection of Washington B. Traweek.

Prisoners who died at Elmira Civil War Prison are buried in Woodlawn National Cemetery.  The cemetery is located at: 1825 Davis St., Elmira, NY 14901.

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Elmira: Death Camp of the North book cover
Elmira: Death Camp of the North
by Michael Horigan
Michael Horigan taught and lectured in American History for more than twenty years. Recognized locally as an expert on the Elmira Civil War prison camp, his views were included in a 1993 Public Television documentary on the subject entitled Helmira: 1864-1865. This is his first book.

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