Late in the Civil War, prisoner-of-war camp populations had burgeoned to overcrowding on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Rather than engage in prisoner exchange, US Secretary of War Edwin Stanton approved a new camp for construction. Elmira, New York was chosen as the site both for its rail connections and abundance of food and lumber. Some argue that its loyal republican constituency made it a prime location to conduct a retaliation for Andersonville.
Barracks No. 3 of the US military training rendezvous already located in Elmira was cleared and reinforced in the summer of 1864. Thirty acres along the Chemung River were enclosed with eight-foot stockade, several forty-foot-long wooden barracks were added, plus a mess hall and bakery. By July, the camp opened its double doors on Water Street near Hoffman and Foster Streets to accommodate 5,000 captured Confederates, most of whom were Point Lookout transfers.
Within mere weeks, the camp swelled to nearly 10,000 men. The overcrowding was dealt with by adding another couple of barracks, and a tent village along the eastern end of camp near the river. Food supplies were cut, the most blatantly deliberate act being perfectly good beef being deemed ‘inferior’, and then sold at a profit to Elmira citizens, rather than nourishing the enemy. Rations consisted of watery broth with a bean or two, and a crust of bread, twice a day for each prisoner.
As the poor sanitation caught up to the sheer numbers, the drinking water became polluted. Water wells were ridiculously close to the latrines, and the engineers’ shoddy efforts to fix the situation came months after outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, pneumonia, small pox and typhoid launched the death rates to 24%, the highest of any camp in the Civil War.
The men relegated in tents were exposed to one of the harshest winters in decades. With meager supplies such as a lack of blankets and new clothes, no new undergarments, and thin canvas walls to house four to six soldiers, it seems miraculous that more didn’t freeze to the ground. Even those in the barracks had little reprieve. Limited coal and wood for the stoves meant frigid air temperatures even under a roof. Green wood used in the construction of the barracks led to gaps and warps where the drafts would blow in unabated.
For these miseries and many untold, the prisoners took to calling the camp Hellmira. Over three thousand soldiers succumbed to the deplorable conditions, most buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery by a former slave named John W. Jones.
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