As I looked back at the 151 blog posts we have produced over the last three years, I realized that we have never posted anything about the Civil War prison camp in Elmira. We’ve done lectures and exhibits and programs about it but never a blog post. Well, that’s going to change now.
Elmira did not become the location of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp out of the blue. On April 23, 1861 the Governor of New York declared Elmira a military depot for western New York. Two years later the U.S. Government named Elmira a military draft rendezvous. What became the prison camp started out as one of the four training camps that were created to accommodate the influx of soldiers. Each camp included barracks, drill fields, and artillery ranges. Over the course of the war 20,796 soldiers were trained in Elmira’s camps.
When prisoner exchanges with the South stopped in 1863, Northern prison camps like Point Lookout Prison in Maryland became very overcrowded. On May 19, 1864, Camp Rathbun, located on West Water Street in Elmira, was ordered to be changed from a training camp to a prisoner-of-war camp to take in the extra prisoners. By that time, two of the training camps had already closed and the remaining two were mostly empty. Over the course of the next two months, a 12 foot tall stockade fence, additional barracks, and a hospital were built to accommodate the arrival of Confederate prisoners. Foster’s Pond lay at the southern edge of the camp. It provided the prisoners with water for drinking and bathing but it quickly became a major source of disease.
On July 6, 1864 the first 400 Confederate prisoners-of-war arrived in Elmira. By August 18 the population was 9,262. From the beginning, the camp was ill prepared and undersupplied. A hospital with six wards was built to care for the prisoners but it was not staffed with a chief surgeon until early August. Outbreaks of measles, scurvy, and waterborne diseases quickly overwhelmed the small staff. The prison death toll jumped from 11 in July to 115 by the end of August. Originally designed for 4,000 men in barracks and 1,000 in tents, the prison camp ended up housing nearly 10,000 prisoners at one time. When a heavy snow storm hit on October 6, more than 5,100 prisoners were still in tents. Shortages of food, warm clothing, and blankets made prisoners even more likely to fall ill. One of the most heartbreaking things to me is that there was enough food to properly feed the prisoners but the government decided to cut rations in retaliation against the South for cut rations to Union prisoners. The North cut rations to punish the South. The South cut rations because it could not feed its own soldiers.
Elmira's prison camp, 1864
Prisoner inspection, early 1865