Monday, December 8, 2014

Elmira’s Civil War Prison Camp

by Erin Doane, curator

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’s Civil War prison camp, fall 1864
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.

Rochester battery training at Camp Rathbun, 1863
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.

Drawing of Camp Rathbun, late summer 1864
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
By New Year’s Day of 1865 all prisoners in Elmira were in barracks but the winter was particularly harsh. Temperatures dropped to 18 degrees below zero twice over the winter and nearly two feet of snow fell during a single February storm.  Prisoners were stilled called out for daily inspection despite the freezing temperatures and their lack of proper clothing.  Severe weather, poor sanitation, shortages of food and supplies, and a smallpox outbreak pushed prisoner deaths to a peak of 491 for the month March.  The spring thaw came with record flooding.  On March 15, prisoners retreated to the barracks’ top bunks as waters rose, washing away 2,700 feet of the stockade wall.  With the word of General Lee’s surrender in April, the prison camp began to shut down.  The last 256 prisoners left on July 11, 1865.  Of the 12,147 prisoners held at the camp, 2,961 never returned home.  Elmira had the highest death rate of any Union prison camp.

Prisoner inspection, early 1865

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