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Civil War, April 1865 - Elmira vs. Andersonville

Linda Roorda


When the Civil War came to an end with Gen. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Grant on April 9 1865, the prisoner of war camps in both the North and the South began to empty.  Unfortunately, many prisoners never saw their home and loved ones again after giving the ultimate sacrifice.  Though a multitude of men did make it back to their families, they took with them the emotional and physical scars of prison camp – from starvation to disease, along with the after effects of war’s emotional turmoil for all soldiers. 

This was a very difficult chapter to write regarding the suffering of America’s men in prison camps on both sides of the American Civil War.  But I believe it is necessary to understand the depths of such tragedies as we honor and respect those of our collective ancestors who were held captive behind those gates.  If only the untold suffering of humanity in war were reason enough to end all wars. 

As noted in my previous Homestead article, April 1865, the involvement and losses of extended ancestral relatives brings this war and its prison camps just a little closer to home.  Four young men went off to war, but only one survived to live a full life.  John D. Leonardson (survived all 4 years, lived to old age) and his brother Henry Leonardson (died after 6 months on the battlefield), brothers of my gr-gr-grandmother, Mary Eliza (Leonardsona) Ottman.  Chauncey McNeill (died at Andersonville March 1865) and his brother DeWitt C. McNeill (died age 22 in 1868 from effects of Confederate prison camp), sons of Robert McNeill, an older brother of my ancestor, Jesse McNeill. 

Just the thought of Civil War prisons strikes fear into us as we pause to think about the inhumane conditions inflicted upon those confined behind the four walls.  For over a century, the deplorable and deadly conditions of two major prison camps left a bitter memory for all too many - one was local Camp Chemung in Elmira, NY, a situation where truth was denied and kept from the public, with the other prison being Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville, in Georgia… equally as nefarious as its northern counterpart, each with similarities to the other, yet fraught with many differences.

Elmira (aka Hellmira) was chosen for southern prisoners by Col. William Hoffman, the commissary general of prisoners in Washington, D.C.  The first captured Confederate soldiers arrived at Elmira’s Barracks No.3 on July 6, 1864, with the last prisoners walking out of camp July 11, 1865. 

Some prisoners, dishonorably called “oathies” or “oathtakers” by fellow Confederate prisoners, were released early if they took the “oath of allegiance.”  Though very few were actually released early from Elmira, those taking the oath at any prison were required to remain in the North for the duration of the war; in fact, several who took the oath were hired for jobs within the Elmira prison camp at 5 cents a day and given better rations.  [Horigan, p. 32] 

Before their release at the end of the war, each prisoner was also required to take an oath of loyalty to the Union before being given a train ticket back home.  “I, ______, do solemnly swear, in presence of Almighty God, that I will henceforth faithfully support, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and the union of the States thereunder; and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with reference to slaves, so long and so far as not repealed, modified or held void by Congress, or by decision of the Supreme Court; and that I will, in like manner, abide by and faithfully support all proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion having reference to slaves, so long and so far as not modified or declared void by decision of the Supreme Court.  So help me God.”  Excerpted from Abraham Lincoln’s “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction” dated December 8, 1863, wording varying in different locales.  [Janowski, p. 190]

Today, there are many within the Elmira community who are totally unaware of what once transpired on the ground upon which they live and walk.  There are monuments, stones and plaques scattered on land which once held a Civil War prison camp, and granite markers have been placed at both the northeast and southeast corners of the prison camp.  The original flagpole, on private property, was donated in 1992 to the city of Elmira.  It was placed next to a stone monument on Elmira Water Board’s property near the Chemung River.  The monument memorializes “the soldiers who trained at Camp Rathbun May 1861-1864 and the Confederate Prisoners of War incarcerated at Camp Chemung July 1864-July 1865.”  [Horigan, pp.196-197] 

Those who died as prisoners are interred at Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira; the white gravestones of Union soldiers are rounded on top while the Confederate gravestones are pointed. 

One of 35 buildings (each about 100 feet long) from the prison compound, stored in pieces, will be reconstructed during 2014-2015 and set up on part of the original prison site along the river.  It will serve as a museum to honor the memory of those Confederate prisoners who once struggled to survive and those who lost their lives.  [WETM-TV Evening News, April 29, 2014]

But monuments alone do not a story tell.  The lives of our collective ancestors were forever affected by this war fought for the preservation of a united nation, and for the freedom gained by thousands of slaves.  This is but one chapter in our nation’s fallible history as we face the stark realities of life 150-plus years ago.

Elmira is a beautiful community established along the Chemung River on land once home to the Iroquois Nation prior to the American Revolution.  Canal boats up to 60 feet long and 18 feet wide plied the local waters of Chemung Canal and the finger lakes to connect with the Erie Canal, a route of great importance in transporting both agricultural and manufactured goods throughout the state.  The productivity of Elmira’s several small factories and the agricultural goods produced locally offered a quality of life that was enviable elsewhere.  Yet, at times, Elmira was “referred to derisively as a ‘canal town’” because of the influx of canal workers and their unsavory character.  [Elmira:  Death Camp of the North, by Michael Horigan, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2002, p. 4.]

Elmira’s flat land along the Chemung River was considered optimal for training volunteer soldiers.  The same ground had twice held the New York State Fair during the 1850s.  Foster Barracks, known as Camp Rathbun by 1862, later renamed Camp Chemung or Barracks No.3, was situated west of the village line.  This area adjacent to the river, including Foster’s Pond and race track, was established as a training and embarkation center in 1861 for New York’s soldiers.  It was ideal with the Erie Railway and Northern Central Railway traversing Elmira, providing transportation of men both into the city and southward to battle.  Elmira’s Camp Rathbun then became an assembly ground for federal draftees in 1863.  With barracks already built to house those thousands of Union soldiers, it seemed the perfect location to confine Confederate prisoners of war in 1864.

“[Ausburn] Towner's history of 1892 and maps from the period indicate the camp occupied an area running about 1,000 feet (300 m) west and approximately the same distance south of a location a couple of hundred feet west of Hoffman Street and about 35 feet south of Water Street, bordered on the south by Foster's Pond, on the north bank of the Chemung River.”   

Lt. Col. Seth Eastman, commander of Elmira’s Camp Chemung, was informed by Col. Hoffman in Washington that he should prepare to receive Confederate prisoners.  Despite Eastman’s reply that Barracks No. 3 could hold, at most, 6000 prisoners (later lowered to efficiently house 4000), Hoffman insisted that Elmira be prepared for more prisoners. 

Camp Chemung (Barracks No.3) was selected to house prisoners not only for its convenient location, but for the fact it already held a mess hall which could seat about 1200 to 1500 at a time.  The building also housed a kitchen equipped to cook for 5000, and a bakery that could supply up to 6000 meals.  Twenty new barracks were built while repairs were made on older existing buildings.  A double-walled fence was also built to encompass the camp’s thirty-two acres.  Guardhouses were built along these fence walls with a walkway for sentries set 4 feet below the top of the fence.  The camp’s main gate was located on Water Street in Elmira while an additional gate on the south side provided access for prisoners to bathe in the Chemung River during good weather.

Confusing communications were continually sent from Hoffman in Washington, with Eastman being told several times to prepare for upwards of 8-10,000 prisoners of war.  Repeatedly informing Hoffman that Elmira could not handle more than 4000 to 6000 prisoners total, Camp Chemung’s numbers ultimately swelled to 12,122 prisoners.  By war’s end, a total of 2950 men had died of disease and exposure, many with a lack of appropriate rations and medical care.  [Horigan, p.180]  Although Elmira’s death rate was 24%, it was still below that of Andersonville’s 29% where just over 45,000 prisoners were held on even less acreage. 

With a lack of proper buildings to house the men, A-shaped tents were used despite the coming bitter cold of northern winters.  The sheer volume of prisoners, a lack of proper living quarters, poor quality of food and water, the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables, limited rations, the lack of blankets, and flooding from the river all resulted in scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia and smallpox.  As these issues served to overwhelm the limited medical staff and what little medication they could procure, death was inevitable for too many men. 

Those who survived Elmira’s prison often did so through their own ingenuity and the largesse of townsfolk.  Rats were killed and eaten.  Unfortunately, clothing for the southern prisoners was restricted to the color gray, that of their uniforms.  When families sent clothing to their loved ones, if it wasn’t gray it was burned – despite the weather conditions and the need for warmer clothing.  Early on, prisoners were able to purchase items from the camp sutler including foods, tobacco, writing paper and implements, clothing, etc. but even this beneficial transaction was eventually limited.  Letters written home were also censored both coming and going.  

Yet, for decades the deplorable and deadly condition of this prison camp were denied and kept from the public.  "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.] 

In reality, it took over 130 years for researchers to begin unearthing the hidden truth about Elmira’s prison camp.  These researchers have now documented the full story and stark realities of Elmira’s prison camp which have been long been silenced. 

Personal stories are being told of some of the thousands of Confederate men who were imprisoned, who died, and who survived.  A unique tribute is In Their Honor:  Soldiers of the Confederacy, The Elmira Prison Camp written by Diane Janowski, a resident of Elmira, New York.  Janowski states, “This book is not about war strategy, nor conditions inside the camp - it is about how the men and boys ended up in Elmira.  Where other books about the Elmira camp are very clinical, this one is very personal.  Families' words and feelings show just how strong Civil War sentiments still are in 2009.  That’s why I’ve written this book.  You can hold this book and point to a name and say, ‘That's my great-great-great grandfather.’” 

The first 400 prisoners behind Elmira’s gates began their journey on July 2, 1864 from Point Lookout, Maryland.  With one dying enroute, 399 entered the grounds of Elmira’s Civil War Prison Camp on July 6th at 6 a.m.  They had been part of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, having seen the worst the war had to offer at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Spotsylvania.  Their experiences clearly echoed what Union Army’s William Tecumseh Sherman (considered the best field commander of the Civil War) had said more than a decade after the war:  “I have seen war in all of its horrible aspects.  I have seen fields devastated, homes ruined, and cities laid waste; I have seen the carnage of battle, the blood of the wounded and the cold faces of the dead looking up at the stars.  That is war.  War is hell.”  [Horigan, p. 34]  But, these prisoners of war had just entered another hell.

A few men who arrived in the ensuing months were recognized by locals as former residents of Elmira or surrounding towns.  Peering through the camp’s fence, townsfolk got a glimpse of the Southern rebels in their midst.  The editor of Elmira’s Advertiser, Charles Fairman, noted that local townsfolk could hardly bypass the camp “…without a peep at the varmints…”  [Horigan, p. 35]  This curiosity even evolved into a venture where, for 10 cents, folks could observe the hated Confederate prisoners from an observatory set up opposite the camp.  As much as “forty dollars per day” was made by “an enterprising Yankee at Elmira.”  [Horigan, p.59]  “Neighbors along the camp sold lemonade, cake, peanuts, crackers, and beer to spectators.”  [Janowski, p.9]

On the ninth day of prisoner occupation, an inspection was made of the premises with a mixed review.  Warnings were tendered on Foster’s Pond, a stagnant liability within the compound, in need of immediate attention.  The low-lying sinks/latrines near the pond were considered to be another source of disease, not to mention the permeating stench.  The inspector indicated that drinking water was of good quality.  Further correspondence again indicated Foster’s Pond was in desperate need of being drained to prevent disease.  Shallow wells were drilled, but they were ultimately contaminated by the latrines draining into Foster’s Pond with deadly consequences. 

With hundreds of prisoners sent by rail to Elmira, the inevitable happened on July 16, 1864 near Shohola, PA.  A major train wreck was caused by a drunken telegraph operator who signaled the prisoner-of-war train that all was clear ahead when, in fact, a coal train was actually heading their way.  Messages of the coal train’s proximity had been missed by the stuporous man.  The crash killed both Union and Confederate soldiers, wounding many others, while five prisoners managed to escape over the mountains, a fortuitous opportunity for them.  The lack of a prison hospital equipped with competent surgeons was now sorely felt as over 80 injured men arrived at Elmira.  Apparently, it took almost five weeks more before a chief surgeon was present on the premises.  [Horigan, pp.43, 44]

The shortage of clothing and blankets was another situation still not rectified as 3000 more prisoners were slated to arrive soon and join the 1900 already there.  By the first of August 1864, the camp had officially acquired 4424 Confederate prisoners, 11 of whom had died, while two had escaped.  And still they kept coming.  On August 6th, Maj. Eugene Sanger of the state of Maine reported for duty as chief surgeon… that is, after the military authorities finally recognized the need of such services at Elmira. 

Proving the commanders had a magnanimous side, the Rev. Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira’s Park Church was granted permission to hold the first religious service inside the camp in late July.  He was half-brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  Her novel, published in 1852, is considered by many to be the book which set the foundation for the burgeoning anti-slavery sentiment which eventually permeated the Civil War ideology.

Skilled artists have left behind their sketches which depict camp life.  Rings and trinkets were made and sold by prisoners.  Union officers bought many of these items, reselling them for greater profit.  Those handy at carpentry skills made furniture with which the Union officers filled their homes.  And the prisoners even began making the pine coffins in which to bury their own.

John W. Alexander of South Carolina, writing his memoirs for family in about 1896, noted that “the guards [at Elmira] seemed to be a part of the climate:  cold, calculating, and merciless.  The only avenue to his soul was the greenback route, and this we were too poor to travel.  …everyone able to walk was supposed to go to the cookhouse twice a day.”  [Janowski, pp.35, 36]   Living in tents, he and the others received their wood for the day; one stick to a tent.  “As our fireplaces were only one foot wide and the wood four feet long, we had no axe – it seemed a problem, but it was soon solved.”  Putting their minds to work, several men created a homemade saw out of a sheet iron band and a small file.  And, with some wooden wedges, they were able to saw and split their wood to burn.  [Janowski, p. 37]  Taken ill with smallpox, Alexander was sent to what was considered the camp hospital.  Though he recovered and was treated well by a Dr. Williams, he remained weak and wrote, “…I did know that we were starving in a land of plenty.”  [p.43]  After release from prison on June 23, 1865, Alexander arrived in Columbia, SC to find that “Sherman had destroyed everything along the way.  All the best houses were burnt, and people gone, and those remaining were starving.  Lone chimneys and dead shade trees told the tale.  ...I was restored to family…on the 12th of July, 1865.”  [Janowski, pp.45, 46]

As of September 1, 1864, a total of 9,480 prisoners were on the rolls.  Including the 115 who had died in August, a total of 126 men had died so far.  Scurvy was now rampant among the prisoners for want of fresh fruits and vegetables.  They were in abundant supply in the outside community, but Col. Hoffman, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and Union military officials in Washington were not buying.  Instead, they determined that retaliation was the answer to the South’s mistreatment of Northern prisoners.  With this in mind, Hoffman had already signed orders that rations for prisoners of war would be cut by 20% as of June 1, 1864. 

“Chronic diarrhea” was most often the term used in diagnosing prisoners who “suffered from dehydration, ulcerative colitis (a fatal infection of the lower intestinal tract), dysentery, and electrolyte imbalance.”  [Horigan, p.75]  With their immune systems weakened by being half-starved on an inappropriate and insufficient diet, and drinking contaminated water, the men began succumbing rapidly to the ravages of disease. 

As summer progressed, Elmira’s prisoners were no longer allowed to buy additional foodstuffs from the camp sutler.  The men’s living conditions continued to deteriorate as the heat of summer turned into the chill of autumn.  Then, winds blew in the bitter cold of a northern winter unfamiliar to the Southern men as thousands remained in tents without sufficient heat, also lacking warm clothing and blankets.  And still, official approval had not been granted for Foster’s Pond to be drained, nor had additional barracks been constructed to house the prisoners, forcing them to remain in tents through the bitter winter weather.

From all of this, Camp Commandant Lt. Col. Seth Eastman retired in poor health.  His successor, Col. Benjamin Tracy (born in Apalachin and educated in Owego where he had practiced law), arrived to take charge of Camp Chemung on September 19, 1864.  And it was an overcrowded camp to which Tracy came with its climbing death rate due to the “…lack of sanitation, prevalence of disease, a shortage of proper housing, margined rations, a paucity of clothing, and inadequate hospital facilities… all the result of inaction on the part of those in command in Elmira and (to a much greater extent) Washington.”  [Horigan, p.89]

With starvation and disease now rampant among the prisoners, substantial quantities of beef designated for the camp to improve rations were unconscionably rejected as unfit by inspectors and, instead, sold to community meat markets.  Those who survived imprisonment, like Walter D. Addison, later recalled:  “No coffee, no tea, no vegetables, but a few beans to make tasteless watery soup consisting of the liquid in which the pork had been boiled.”  James Marion Howard also recalled that “our soup would usually be made of onions, rotten hulls, roots and dirt… but of all the soups, this rotten onion soup has the worst odor…  This, with a piece of bread, was our ration at 3 p.m.  And this was our ration every day.”  Prisoner James B. Stamp remembered that in the winter months the “insufficiency of food increased, and in many instances, prisoners were reduced to absolute suffering.  All the rats that could be captured were eaten, and on one occasion a small dog that had followed a wood hauler into the camp was caught and prepared as food.”  Another prisoner, G. T. Taylor from Alabama stated, “Elmira was nearer Hades than I thought any place could be made by human cruelty.”  [Horigan, pp. 100, 101]  Survivor, R. B. Ewan, recalled 43 years later the “sport of running… [rats] out of their holes.  Our Mart of Trade was in the center of the ground, and at 10 o’clock every day dressed rats on boards and tin plates…were offered for five cents and sometimes more.”  [Horigan, p.140]

Sooner or later every prisoner contemplates escaping his confines, and those in Elmira were no exception.  However, designated spies infiltrated the Confederates, learning of and reporting on escape plans to the camp officials.  Digging the tunnels was no easy task without proper equipment, not to mention the weakened and malnourished condition of the diggers, but it was accomplished.  Unfortunately for the men involved, 28 tunnels were discovered before escape, but one remained concealed.  Thus, on October 6, 1864, ten men escaped before this tunnel was also discovered.  Several swam across the south side of the Chemung River to Mount Zoar.  From this vantage point, six men (in three paired groups, each group not aware of the others) looked down on their former confines as they watched the frantic search for them take place.  Then they turned their backs on Elmira and simply made their way back home.

One man, Berry Benson, related years later that he found corn and apples on a nearby farm before walking west to Big Flats and then to Corning from whence he headed south to his home.  Two other men walked to Ithaca, Varna, and then to Auburn where they obtained jobs.  Saving their money, they eventually took a train to New York City and on to Baltimore before walking the rest of the way home.  Nine men made it safely back home, but the tenth was never heard from again.  Their escape is considered “the most spectacular…in the annals of prison camps administered by the Union during the Civil War.”  [Horigan, p.113]

Others made it out of camp at various times under the watchful eyes of Union guards.  One prisoner stole a Union sergeant’s ankle-length winter overcoat and simply walked away from all the wretchedness through the main gate.  Another prisoner managed to leave with a forged pass. 

Yet another man, known only as Buttons, [supposedly] hid himself in a coffin with the lid secured only lightly.  When the wagon of coffins reached the cemetery, he popped the lid, jumped off the wagon and ran full speed into the woods.  The driver was speechless and too shocked to stop the escape of someone presumed to be ready for burial!  The identity of “Buttons” has been determined to be Thomas A. Botts through the memoirs of fellow prisoner, John W. Alexander.  [Janowski, pp.26-29, 40, 212]  Supposedly, Buttons escaped to rejoin the Confederate army.  However, in tracking his military records, Janowski notes that, after capture in battle, Botts was moved from Virginia to Elmira on August 17, 1864.  Botts died at Elmira May 14, 1865, two weeks before President Johnson issued orders to release all prisoners.  Janowski considers the story of Buttons’ escape a total fabrication as published in the “Confederate Veteran” magazine in 1926.  [Janowski, p.27]

October, the month of escapes, held death for 276 more Confederates, men who were not so fortunate.  This was the highest monthly total of any Northern prison, now bringing the total deceased to 857.

A war of words had been taking place between prison officials, inspectors, the media, and the powers that be in Washington regarding the conditions at the camp and how to rectify them, and whether problems even existed.  In November, Dorothea Dix, superintendant of Women Nurses for the Union, praised the Elmira prison for adequately providing all provisions and necessities to prisoners.  November’s deaths numbered 207, second only to Chicago’s prison death rate that month.

Denials were made by military personnel on learning of leaks to the media about the horrible conditions within the prison.  In fact, the Elmira Advertiser’s editorials informed its readership that “The Confederates confined at Elmira were treated with all the care and consideration that such persons are entitled to receive by Christian nations in any part of the world.  …[the] rations are of a good quality and abundant in quantity..”  When this was published on December 2, 1864, 994 prisoners had died since July; the total figure at the end of December climbing to 1263 dead.  [Horigan, pp. 102-103]

So much went wrong at Elmira’s Civil War prison, and this brief column hardly provides adequate space to enumerate all that which transpired.  Documentation also discloses that the surgeon-in-chief, Major Sanger of Maine, used his position in a chilling manner.  Prisoners later recalled his cold and calloused demeanor, and inappropriate treatment of patients with opium, causing the demise of many who were ill, yet no charges were filed against him.  His own writing indicates his attitude:  “I now have charge of 10,000 Rebels a very worthy occupation for a patriot…but I think I have done my duty having relieved 386 of them of all earthly sorrow in one month.”  [Horigan, p.129]

yet, on the other hand, Maj. Sanger wrote no less than nine reports with complaints about the life-threatening problems facing prisoners in the camp at Elmira.  Action was eventually taken to correct some of the issues, while at the same time Sanger took blame for many failings - some deserved, some not.  At the time of his formal complaints, there were 9,063 prisoners in camp that October.  Of these, 3,873 were in barracks while the balance of 5,190 men were still assigned to 1,038 tents.  Thirty-five barracks were planned to be built; but, with a late start on construction, appropriate housing for the prisoners left too many in tents to endure winter’s bitter cold.  [Horigan, p.132] 

The construction on better housing facilities finally began in October.  However, with a lack of lumber supplies, construction was delayed.  When barracks were built, it became apparent before winter’s end that hasty construction with green lumber contributed to cracks between the boards, and boards that warped, etc.  To complicate matters further, the existing barracks also began to fall into disrepair. 

Late November and early December of 1864 saw over 2000 men still in tents.  By Christmas, 900 some men were still living in tents in the frigid winter weather, without adequate heat or sustenance, let alone warm clothing or enough blankets to keep warm. 

Drainage of Foster’s Pond began after a notice issued October 23, 1864 by the secretary of war, Col. Hoffman.  However, work on the drainage sluice, done by prisoners, was slow in progress due to their own poor health, multiple delays from severe winter weather, quicksand, extremely coarse gravel, and occasional flooding.  The work was completed by January 1, 1865, but 1263 Confederate prisoners had already died, many from drinking contaminated water from the sinks/latrines which leached into the pond and seeped into the shallow wells.

Heavy rains contributed to flooding of the low land, while bitter ice-cold sleet and snow also took their toll on the men.  With many still in tents, the untold human suffering of these prisoners is appalling to contemplate as they had to deal not only with the frigid elements but malnutrition from lack of a proper diet.  In fact, “the winter of 1864-65 was one of the harshest on record.”  [Janowsky, p. 25]  As prisoner Marcus Toney recalled 40 years later, they only had two blankets per bunk for the bitter winter weather.  Each bunk was “wide enough to sleep two medium-sized men…[but four men slept in each bunk while] two of [the prisoners] slept with their heads toward the east, and two with their heads toward the west… and when ready to change positions, one would call out, ‘All turn to the right’; and the next call would be, ‘All turn to the left.’”  [Horigan, p.133]

Another sad chapter in Elmira’s prison history is the fact that several businesses and citizens’ relief committees attempted to send clothing and outer coats to prisoners for the winter.  But, due to Secretary of War Stanton’s initial call for retaliation in April 1864, and his initiation of extended and complicated bureaucratic red tape, efforts to aid the prisoners were given up in despair.  With frustrating military regulations established by his commanders, Eastman, as head of the camp, denied clearance to local citizens who also tried to bring aid to the prisoners.  It was clear to many that their efforts were being thwarted by those wishing to exact vengeance against the Southern captives as retaliation for the Confederacy’s harsh treatment of Union prisoners.

“Deprived of sufficient rations…and of clothing and blankets that remained in warehouses in Washington, the prison camp’s January 1865 death rate reached 285,” for a total of 1548.  [Horigan, p.158]  Even as smallpox compounded the prisoners’ suffering throughout January and February, the city of Elmira held its festive Grand Military Ball in late February.  Six days later, the prisoners’ death toll for February was noted to be 426, an average of 15 per day, bringing the total to 1874.  [Horigan, p.166]  Yet, Fairman’s editorial in his Advertiser noted that “the sick are being taken care of… [and] they have nothing to complain of.”  [Horigan, p.166]   Many of the sick were still actually in tents, ignored by medical staff, though conditions for those in the “hospital” were actually not much better.

Finally, an order from the War Department on February 4, 1865 directed the camp to prepare 3000 prisoners of war to be transferred south for a prisoner exchange.  Up until that time, this was not a viable option for President Lincoln and Gen. Grant as they felt it would simply recycle more men back into the Confederate armies to prolong the war.  Col. Tracy sent 500 prisoners south on February 13, with 500 more leaving on February 20.  By the end of March, 3042 Confederates had been sent south for exchange.  By April 1st, the camp housed only 5054 prisoners with the total death toll now having reached 2465. 

Then came news in early April that Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was losing strength and there might possibly be surrender ahead.  Since Gen. Grant’s siege had isolated Petersburg and Richmond, many believed the war couldn’t last much longer.  Sure enough, further word came north that Robert E. Lee had had no other option but to surrender on April 9, 1865 to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.  And 5054 men in Elmira sighed in relief to think that their last days of prison life were in sight.

At the end of April, the death toll for the month was 267 as the overall total reached 2732.  The balance of men remaining in camp was now down to 4754.  The month of May saw 1,037 more Southerners released while 131 men died in May, for a total of 2863 dead.  On May 31st, only 3610 prisoners remained behind the gates.  The final group of 256 Confederates left Hellmira’s confines on July 11, 1865.  Some, too ill to travel, were transferred to Elmira’s Union Hospital where 16 more died.  The final count of deceased prisoners reached 2950.  Barracks No. 3 was next used to muster out Union soldiers, and in February 1866 the saga of Elmira’s Union camp ended when the camp’s buildings were auctioned off and removed.

Janowski, however, notes inconsistencies in various sources which report “the death toll anywhere from 2950 to 2998.  I use the 2963 figure…as it is the last grave marker number at Woodlawn National Cemetery.” [Janowski, p.11]

Earlier in June 1865 following his release, prisoner James Hoffman returned home to Virginia only “to find destruction, waste and poverty… There was no money; the start must be made from the bottom. I went to work with a will.”  [Horigan, p.178]  The South as they had known it was not the same and never would be.  And the legacy of Elmira’s prison was summed up in one word by the prisoners themselves, “Hellmira.”

Author Michael Horigan presents a long list of well-documented facts that place blame on the federal government and military officials beginning with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton’s retaliatory efforts backed by the war department’s highest officials.  The list also includes the 20% reduction in rations as of June 1864, the determination to house up to 10,000-plus prisoners at Elmira when the facilities could only reasonably hold 4,000, the lack of any medical staff for the first five weeks, the long delay in rectifying drainage of Foster’s Pond, much needed additional hospital barracks and improved camp facilities, no medical staff to treat the prisoners injured in the Shohola train wreck, Col. Tracy’s beef inspection order which resulted in a substantial reduction of meat available for prisoners, delayed construction of additional barracks with prisoners remaining in tents throughout the winter, deliberate denial of winter clothing to the prisoners, the multi-level clashes between military leadership, and much more.   [Horigan, pp. 191-192]

PART B:  Andersonville

As noted above, Elmira is often compared to the death camp of Andersonville in Georgia.  “Yet the most striking contrast between Andersonville and Elmira should be apparent even to the most casual observer,” wrote historian Michael Horigan, author of Elmira: Death Camp of the North. “Elmira, a city with excellent railroad connections, was located in a region where food, medicine, clothing, building materials, and fuel were in abundant supply.  None of this could be said of Andersonville.  Hence, Elmira became a symbol of death for different reasons.” [Horigan, p.193]

The Dix-Hill Cartel of prisoner exchanges broke down in 1862 when Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy refused to exchange captured black soldiers.  Indicating that they would send the black soldiers back into slavery and kill their white officers, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton put a halt to prisoner exchanges.  This, in turn, vastly increased the numbers of prisoners on both sides with permanent prisoner-of-war camps established. 

The search for southern land upon which to build a camp to hold Union prisoners led to a very small village in Georgia – Anderson Station.  It was considered ideal for its proximity to the Central of Georgia Railroad, yet isolated enough to prevent Union troops from raiding the camp to free their countrymen.  Nor would it be easy for those who might successfully escape to find their way back north across the Mason-Dixon line.  The land was also chosen for Sweetwater Creek at the base of the hill.  Thus, a 16-1/2 acre rectangular compound to hold prisoners was built, albeit without barracks to house them. 

Located a quarter of a mile from Anderson Station, Camp Sumter was 11 miles northwest of Americus  and 60 miles from Macon in Macon County, Georgia.  Renamed Andersonville by guards, it has been considered the absolute worst of Confederate prisons.  After only two weeks of construction, its doors opened on February 27, 1864.  Andersonville became a living hell for the blue-coats (Yankees) who had the misfortune of entering the gates of its double-palisade fence.  Pine trees cut by slaves were planted upright, 5 feet below the surface with the remaining 15-17 feet above ground for the fences.  For good measure, a third “fence” was set up about 15 or so feet in from the inner palisade.  Called the deadline, it was an “open” fence about 3-4 feet high with posts upon which thin board railings were attached.  Touch it or cross under it with any part of your body invited a deadly accurate shot by a sentry. 

Lumber and nails were in short supply in the Confederacy, and thus not available to build barracks to house prisoners.  But, men were sent from other over-crowded prisons anyway and left to their own devices for making shelters with many sleeping on the open ground with no protection from the weather or insects.

Many early prisoners came from Belle Isle, an island on the James River near Richmond, Virginia.  They had been in tents while other prisoners removed from Richmond had been housed in warehouses - the lucky ones with a roof over their heads.  Sent by rail, the men were squeezed into railroad boxcars or open cars without much room to move about.  When they arrived at Andersonville, they spread out in search of an area they could call “home” – not an easy task as the number of prisoners increased.  Friends and men from the same units tended to stay together to set up their home on the open ground.

As of April 1, 1864, there were 7160 prisoners which, by May 8, had increased by 5,787 men.  Also, by May 8, 728 had died, 13 had escaped with 7 recaptured for a total occupancy of 12,213 on a little less than 17 acres.  [Burnett, p. 5]   Eventually, the camp was enlarged to 27 acres, still an insufficient amount of land to house the volume of prisoners confined between its walls.

With no buildings or protective shelters on the premises, the men built “shebangs” (from the Irish word shebeen “which refers to an illegal place to serve alcohol”).  [Gourley, p. 48]  Huts or lean-tos were made from whatever logs, branches, or brush had been left inside the compound when the palisade walls were built.  Those who had blankets used them along with their greatcoats and anything else available to make a shelter from the southern sun and its heat.  Some used their ingenuity to take make bricks out of the clay.  Others dug small shelters, i.e. burrows, into the slope of the upper hill. 

And everywhere they went fleas, lice, ticks, flies and mosquitoes pestered their bodies.  In fact, prisoner Bjorn Alakson said, “Killing lice became a game and would help pass the tedious time.” [Burnett, p. 16]  At least once a day, sometimes more often, the men worked at debugging themselves.  If they didn’t, the innumerable pests attacked every inch of their hosts, eating into their weakened bodies, causing illness and death.  [Glennan, p. 46]

As the unrelenting sun beat down on them, with vermin a constant pest, and the lack of proper nourishing rations and the drinking of contaminated water all led to the spread of disease, particularly scurvy, dysentery, diarrhea, smallpox, yellow fever, infections and gangrene with resultant high death rates.  The sinks/latrines were set parallel to the creek with the inevitable runoff rapidly contaminating the creek, all too quickly creating an unhealthy lagoon, not to mention all-encompassing stench.  One can only imagine the filth and deplorable conditions the men were forced to live in.

As Irishman Ed Glennan, author of “Surviving Andersonville,” wrote (original spelling retained), “Our treatment was well Known in the North but Thousands & thousands did not believe it Possibly in a Christian Country that men, no matter how Brutal, Could or would treat their Fellow man as we were treated…& next My Friends I Blamed our own Government for leaving us there.  They well Knew at Washington what we were Suffering, what we were Enduring & the Mortality amongst us.  Yes, I Blamed them.  We had left Home & the comforts of Home Life to take our Chances of war, to Bare our Breasts between the Bulletts of Rebels & the Bosom of the nation willing to take our changes of Death on the Battle Feild or Come Back maimed for Life & as we Had stepped Forward to save our Country in Her Hour of Need & Danger so also did we Expect our Country to Extend Her Hand to us in our Hour of need.  Danger, no, we thought not of Danger, give us our Liberty, give us our Freedom from the Rebell Hell Horde & Place us in the Face of Danger & we ask no Hand but the Hand of God & our Hands with Gallant Comrades to Back & we will Face Danger & take the Consequences.  Like men in Danger then we ask no Help but we are in need, yes, Deathly need, Daily, Hourly & where is the strong Hand of our Government in Her need.”  [Glennan, p. 78]  Not knowing that the prisoner exchanges had been stopped, nor why, the men maintained an eager, albeit futile, hope of being exchanged.  [Glennan, p.80]

Food and containers to hold the limited rations the men received were also in short supply, or often non-existent.  Rations, given out once a day, included rough-ground cornmeal with the cobs and husks ground in (damaging to the human digestive system if they were not picked out), beans or peas, and occasionally 1-2 oz. of meat which often was rancid and covered in ashes.  It was up to the men to find water.  Some prisoners were able to dig small wells up on the hill for fresh, albeit muddy, water compared to the stinking and filthy creek water.  Rations were put into men’s hats or shirt sleeves if they had no containers, which most did not.  How it was fixed to be eaten was up to each prisoner.  Sometimes, a little water, albeit contaminated, was added to create a cornmeal mush to fry – that is, if one could scrabble up a bit of wood to burn and had a container in which to cook.  Some prisoners rented out their cooking utensils to those in need.  Even these limited rations were reduced as the population increased.  At times, prisoners did not report a deceased man from their unit for as long as possible in order to obtain his rations to split amongst the balance of the group.  

Trading of rations for wood, or other items for food, became a necessity.  Many fell back on trades in which they had been employed prior to their military service, or learned new skills to help pass the time.  Those who could carve objects from wood scraps had something to sell or barter for food.  They could send and receive mail, or receive packages from the outside world, but it was all subject to inspection and/or confiscation by guards. 

New prisoners who arrived were called “fresh fish.”  They entered with a stunned look as they faced a sea of ghost-like men staring back at them.  The starving inmates were gaunt, skeletal thin and sickly, with shabby rags for clothing, though many were reduced to wearing very little if anything.  Finding a place to set up your own “home” was not easy.  Neighborhoods meandered along winding “streets” where housing and “businesses” were established.  If you “owned” a site with a well you had dug, you could sell the water.  Obviously, higher ground was more valuable than the low-lying areas near the contaminated bog and creek.  Those prisoners who were able to “make the best of it” with a resilient attitude survived fared better than those who succumbed to depression and resignation over their deplorable surroundings.

Stealing by gang members of the Raiders was rampant until one new prisoner was robbed and severely beaten.   As he cried out while being viciously attacked for his watch, other men came to his aid, an effort which saved his life.  A seasoned soldier who had spent two years on the battlefield, he was unafraid of retaliation as he appealed to the guards.  The commander, Maj. Henry Wirz, was furious at the men who had attacked their own, a violation of unspoken prison camp mores, and would not send in rations until the situation was cleared up. 

Prison justice was carried out by the Regulators, a gang which tried to protect the weaker and helpless.  They sought out the Raiders and engaged them in an intense physical fight, all men being in an already weakened physical state from poor health.  As the Regulators captured each Raider member, they were brought to the guards to be held while the remaining prisoners cheered.  Put on trial, over 100 Raiders were found guilty by a jury of peers with the six leaders sentenced to be hung.  The others had to run the gauntlet when they were put back into the “pen” - beatings by their fellow prisoners as they tried to run through the tight double line.  Many Raiders were injured from running the gauntlet, and several died from their wounds.  But, the looting and violence within the camp promptly ceased.

Plans for escape were always on the prisoners’ minds, but with the two palisade fences set so deep, tunneling was not always the best option.  Even when prisoners did escape, the guards sent dogs into the forest after them where they typically treed the prisoners, or tore into those who were not so fortunate as to be capable of climbing trees.  Escape simply wasn’t worth the effort.

During a fierce storm in August 1864, lightning struck a spot on the hill and caused a spring to bubble up.  Men were able to drink from what they felt was a heaven-sent fresh flow of water.  Unfortunately, the heavy rains of that storm also washed much of the filth on the slopes down into the bog and creek, making the contamination there even worse.  In 1902 a former prisoner, James Madison Page, returned to Camp Sumter to pay tribute to his former fellow prisoners.  With a young boy as his guide, he was taken to Providence Springs, as the men had named it in 1864, and saw that it was still flowing nearly 40 years later.  [Gourley, p.168-169] 

By early June 1864, the number of prisoners had reached 20,000, double the capacity the camp was originally intended to hold.  Maj. Wirz expanded the prison with a 10-acre addition which opened July 1st, though the prison continued to be severely overcrowded as the number of prisoners reached a nadir of 33,114 that August. 

In September 1864, several thousand men were taken from the prison to other locations in preliminary steps between the United States and the Confederacy for a prisoner exchange.  Any man able to walk was transferred out, but about 5000 men who were too ill remained behind.  More continued to be added to Andersonville, remaining through the end of the Civil War in April 1865.  Unfortunately, the elements, lack of sanitation, and insufficient nourishing rations continued to wreak havoc on the remaining prisoners.  [American Civil War: Andersonville Prison, by Kennedy Hickman at

As noted above, my extended relative, Chauncey McNeill, arrived soon after his capture in November 1864 and died March 5, 1865 – just a month before the war’s end, one more sad statistic of war.

Ultimately, a total of 45,615 men had been confined at Andersonville.  August 23, 1864 had the highest recorded number of deaths in one day at 127 men.  With a total of 12,913 having died as prisoners, about 29%, this figure represents about 40% of all Union POW deaths.  [Glennan, p.179]

Commandant of Camp Sumter, Maj. Henry Wirz, was put on trial by the United States government after the war ended.  With his attorneys not allowed to present much in the way of a defense to prove that he was essentially following orders of his military superiors, he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.  Many of his orders had come down from above by those who were not brought to justice, though injustices were definitely meted out by his own decisions.  To his credit, Wirz had sent letters requesting aid, additional supplies and rations for the prisoners, to no avail. 

What many at the time also failed to understand, and did not want to hear, was that the South was in dire straits during Andersonville’s existence.  With plantations, cropland and railroad lines destroyed by the Union armies, what crops did get harvested were often unable to be shipped out to be processed for consumption.  The result was that many crops rotted in the fields or in storehouses.  The war had made its own path of destruction, thus creating a lack of grains and food available to feed either the Confederate armies or their Northern prisoners.  Without regular exchanges, the prisoner population continued to grow.  Whereas the starvation and disease rampant in the Elmira prison has been shown to be the result of military orders from the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton on down, the dire situation at Andersonville was caused more by the effects of war on the land - a grim situation any way you look at it. 

To their credit, those who survived the war and any of the numerous prison camps went on to rejoin their families, to regain much of their health, and to lead productive lives within their respective communities.  Some of the men, however, never fully recovered their health and died from disease or afflictions suffered from wounds or imprisonment as evidenced by my extended relative, DeWitt C. McNeill, who died about three years after the war ended from disease contracted in war.  Even Ed Glennan who wrote “Surviving Andersonville,” continued to suffer the effects of ill health due to his knee injury from a minie` ball on the battlefield and scurvy from imprisonment for the rest of his life.

We are forever indebted to the brave men and women who have fought in all of our nation’s wars, and to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives.  May we ever know that, though “war is hell” as Gen. Sherman once said, there are freedoms we have enjoyed in our United States of America which are unknown to those in many other nations around the world.  To all of our servicemen and women, we give a heartfelt “Thank you!” 

BOOK SOURCES (which I read):

*April 1865: The Month That Saved America, Jay Winik; New York:  HarperCollins, 2006.

*Elmira:  Death Camp of the North, by Michael Horigan, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA, 2002.

*In Their Honor:  Soldiers of the Confederacy, The Elmira Prison Camp by Diane Janowski, New York History Review Press, 2009.

*Surviving Andersonville:  One Prisoner’s Recollections of the Civil War’s Most Notorious Camp, by Ed Glennan, edited by David A. Ranzan, McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC, 2013.

*The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death inside a Civil War Prison, Catherine Gourley, Twenty-First Century Books (division of Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.), Minneapolis, MN, 2010.

*The Prison Camp at Andersonville, National Park Civil War Series, Text by William G. Burnett, pub. by Eastern National, 1995.


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