A panorama of the Elmira (New York) Prison Camp in December 1864 by photographers William Moulton & John Larkin. This is an early commercially sold view of the camp taken from a platform overlooking Water Street. The camp was built on 30 acres on the former Camp Rathbun or Camp Chemung. The towering platform (on the right) with chairs and binoculars was built by the Means brothers who charged visitors 10-cents to look at the prisoners. Neighbors along the camp sold lemonade, cake, peanuts, crackers, and beer to spectators.

Timeline

1861 - Camp Rathbun built as a training facility with accomadations for 2,000.

1864 May 2 - Lieutenant Colonel Seth Eastman reported that 20 barracks had been constructed.

1864 May 19 - A letter informed Eastman that a "depot" for possibily 8,000 prisoners of war would be needed within 10 days at Elmira. Eastman knew there was only enough room for 4,000 and that kitchen services were illequiped for such a crowd, tents were ordered as a backup.

1864 July 6 - - "Barracks #3" became the Elmira Military Prison.

1864 July 15 - The Shohola, Pennsylvanaia trainwreck killed 48 prisoners en route to Elmira.

1864 October 27 - A drainage system was begun.

1864 November/December - more than 2,000 prisoners were sleeping in tents.

1865 July 11 - Last day of operation. In its 11 month existence more than 12,000 men passed through its gate.

1877 December 7 - Elmira's Woodlawn Cemetery (the Confederate section) became the Woodlawn National Cemetery.

1907 The wood markers at Woodlawn National Cemetery were changed to marble.

Where-What-Who-When & What Went Wrong

WHERE

  • Elmira, New York - a city on the Chemung River


WHAT

  • At the beginning of the Civil War, Elmira had been a military recruiting depot where soldiers attended basic training. Later in the war Elmira was chosen as a draft rendezvous, and then a new prisoner of war camp. The first prisoners arrived at the camp on July 6, 1864. The last prisoners left the camp on July 11, 1865.


WHO

  • 12,122 Confederate enlisted and non-commissioned officers POWs were assigned to Elmira.



WHEN

  • July 6, 1864 - July 11, 1865


WHAT WENT WRONG

  • Elmira had ample barracks at the time. The North needed a place to house prisoners. Barrack space was ample for 5,000 prisoners, but 10,000 arrived and were forced to live in tents along the Chemung River. Keep in mind the weather in New York State from October to April. Lack of nourishing food, extreme bouts of dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, smallpox, lack of doctors and medicine, and flooding of the Chemung River, caused the deaths of 2,963 prisoners who are interned in Woodlawn National Cemetery on Elmira's northside. Forty-eight more who died in the Shohola Train Wreck while en route to the prison are also buried there.


POLITICAL VIEWS THEN AND NOW 

  • In the time of the prison camp in Elmira, the North was right and the South was wrong and the prisoners were (mis)treated accordingly. For over 130 years the mistreatments of prisoners were dismissed as rumor.


"The horrors of a camp where prisoners of war are crowded into a confined space, poorly clad, uncomfortably housed, insufficiently fed, and scantily provided with medical attendance, hospital accommodations, and other provisions for the sick, form one of the most deplorable features of any war, but none of these can apply with truth to the camp at Elmira, nor can they be attached for a moment to the reputation or become a portion of the history of the fair valley of the Chemung."

The History of Chemung County, Ausburn Towner, 1892.

History books of the time held the denial and heralded the excellent care of the Southern prisoners of war. The truth about the camp (the lack of food, medicine, and shelter) finally began surfacing in the past few years with several new books about the Elmira Prison Camp. It had taken over 130 years to admit the abuse.

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© 2019 by Diane Janowski. All rights reserved.