Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Elmira Prison Camp, part II

Last time we discussed the infamous role that Elmira, New York played in the Civil War as the host of a prison camp with the highest death rate. A full 24% of all Confederates incarcerated as political prisoners in Camp Chemung lost their lives to a plethora of causes from smallpox, to dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, gaillardia, cholera, malnutrition and exposure. As gruesome a picture as this paints, the locals seemed to have little idea of the deprivation and inhumanity that lay within their city limits.

In a particularly maudlin account, it appears that two different entrepreneurs capitalized on the morbid curiosity of Elmira citizens concerning the camp. In late July, the same month in which the camp opened, an observation tower was constructed outside the eight-foot-high stockade and catwalk surrounding the camp. For a nickel apiece, customers could climb the crows’ nest and peer down on the prison population. Shortly after, a second tower rose for the same purpose. By all accounts, these early reality shows made brisk business until the military commandeered both towers in August, slating one for demolition and sanctioning the other for official purposes.

Around the same time, sutlers who had been given access to the camp to sell their wares to prisoners were cut off. For many who received money from home, the sutlers’ fruits and vegetables had been the thin line between them and scurvy or starvation, and their blankets and clothing, the last bastion of protection from the elements. In October, a snowstorm hit, early for Elmira. The cold is described that year of 1864-65 as being particularly bitter and unrelenting. The Chemung River flooded its banks more than once, as well, as if nature conspired ill-will against the hapless rebels.

Some respite was provided in the form of early release to the sickest among the population. Starting in October, trains bound for Baltimore carried away those whose severe illness made their reenlistment unlikely, but who were nonetheless able to travel.

The rails brought prisoners to Elmira from the front, and transported troops from the military rendezvous and training in Elmira back down to the front. In July while the camp was still brand new, a rail accident occurred in a town called Shohola, Pennsylvania. A head-on collision occurred on a single track due to a drunken telegraph operator who failed to report an oncoming coal train. According to Joseph C. Boyd, a noted historian speaking on the incident 100 years later, "...the wooden coaches telescoped into one another, some splitting open and strewing their human contents onto the berm...where flying glass, splintered wood, and jagged metal killed or injured them as they rolled. Other occupants were hurled through windows or pitched to the track as the car floors buckled and opened.” 51 Confederate and 17 Union casualties were reported. All are buried at the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.

For further reading, see: for a first-person account



  1. Hi, Kathleen!
    I left something for you over at my blog.

  2. What a gruesome account. This post and the previous on the Elmira prison camp are very interesting. My step-dad enjoys history and he and his family are from Bath, NY. I'm going to print out these posts for him to read (since he doesn't do the computer).

    Your blog is fascinating, Kathleen.

    I invite you to visit mine at and my historical blog

    Carla (ACFW Northeast)

  3. Carla, WOW! thank you for your kind words! Your dad is just 35 minutes form where I live. Bath is an interesting town.

    See you at your blog!


  4. What a small world! It is beautiful country in upstate NY. I did a little research on Bath for my dad's genealogy book I made for him. It is an interesting area!

    Oh, and by the way, that is so cool about my son, Brandon looking like your characters. When you see your characters you just know it. Feel free to use his handsome face!

  5. Thanks, Carla! Some day, I hope I can. First things first. A publisher, for example. LOL

  6. Hello, Kathleen~
    I replied to your kind comment on my blog.

    This is a great blog, by the way. I just read the entry about Elmira's prison camp. How horrible! There was a similar one in Chicago, as I understand. Oddly enough, we hear mostly about Andersonville in the South. A'ville wasn't even the worst one in Dixie. I still marvel at the total depravity of man. How can it be so? How is it that no one cries out against it? How can they live right next door to such horror and not expose it? Those are rhetorical questions, I guess, for there is only one answer: we are a fallen people. Thanks for this article. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  7. wow! thanks, Sharon! Was there a worse one than Andersonville? Yikes!
    I mention the one in Chicago in my book. Was it Camp Douglas? I'll have to flip through my pages and recall. . . LOL

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