At the beginning of the year, I posted about John W. Jones, Elmira's equivalent of Harriet Tubman. You can read that post here. In addition to this escaped slave's heroic involvement in the Underground Railroad, he was also the sextant of three cemeteries in Elmira, First Baptist, Second Street CEmetery, and most famously Woodlawn National Cemetery. What makes him the hero of Woodlawn is his meticulous and caring interment of 3000 Confederate prisoners who died in Elmira's death camp.
From July 1864 through the end of the war in 1865, Elmira was the site of the infamous Camp Rathbun, more commonly known as "Helmira"--a prisoner of war camp for Confederates where 24% died of preventable disease, starvation, and exposure. Elmira is said to be Washington's retaliation for Andersonville, that terrible camp in Georgia where thousands of Union prisoners died of starvation during the Civil War. What makes Elmira so despised in the South is that whereas the Confederate government was all but bankrupt by the end of the war, the North had no excuse for the conditions inside its death camp, including a festering pond, rampant malaria, cholera, smallpox, pneumonia, and dysentery, plus inadequate food, clothing, and blankets, and half the population relegated to tents in a bitter New York winter. Elmira was a desolate place of suffering where locals could pay a nickel to look inside the stockade walls at their former countrymen and gloat.
John W. Jones used a portion of his own property to arrange burial for these southerners--men who had formerly held him and his people in bondage to slavery. Jones kept meticulous records of names, ranks, regiments, and dates of death with a unique number assigned to each grave. He not only placed a hand painted wood marker at each individual grave, (later replaced with marble headstones) but also kept the information with each body via a paper inside a corked bottle. The War Department commended his efforts with a payment of $2.50 per grave. In those days, that was considered a boon sum. In fact, for a man of color to own his own farm, work for the local church as caretaker, plus manage the care for three cemeteries, in those days was astounding. His industriousness and high quality of work earned him respect among Elmira's citizens in his day and with contemporary scholars and historians who seek to honor his memory.
Perhaps the most remarkable story about Jones' role in burying the Confederate prisoners involves one inmate in particular. John R. Rollins was a name Jones encountered as he supervised the burial of the Southern detainees from Camp Rathbun. This Rollins was reportedly from Virginia. Jones recalled a John Rollins from his past as a slave--the son of his former overseer on a plantation in Leesburg. When entrusted with Rollins' remains, Jones went out of his way to contact the family to verify that it was in fact the same man. Rollins had been listed as Missing in Action, and the family was relieved to have closure. Jones later had the body sent home to be buried in the Rollins family plot.
The grounds at Woodlawn are meticulously kept to this day, and I had the honor to tour their peaceful, verdant acres yesterday on Memorial Day.
Every year on Memorial Day, each of the graves is decorated with an American flag, and each of the thousands of flags is then removed by sunset. The Daughters of the Confederacy has a memorial at the southwest corner, festooned with red carnations. I noticed at least one licence plate from Maryland in the circular drive of the National Cemetery yesterday, perhaps one of the descendants of a prisoner buried here.