Elmira

 

Elmira New York is the final resting place of Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens). Clemens served for a brief period (two weeks) in the Confederate Militia in 1861. He also worked as a Mississippi River pilot until traffic along the Mississippi was curtailed by the start of the Civil War prompting him to move to the Nevada Territory. Elmira is also the final resting place for the approximately 3000 Confederate prisoners who died in the notorious prison camp located there. Called by some the "Andersonville of the North", it was known to its southern prisoner population simply as Helmira.

 


The Elmira Prison Camp * was located just west of the village along the Chemung River. The view to the left shows west water street looking away from the village with the prison camp to the left. To the right is an observation deck where for a small fee village resident could catch a glimpse of prisoners behind the stockade fence.  A modern day aerial view show the outline of where the camp was located. Except for a few monuments and stone markers, there is no indication of the magnitude of suffering and death that occurred there. The prison operated from July 6, 1864 through July 11, 1865. In that one year of operation, prisoners died at the rate of eight per day so that of the 12,123 prisoners housed there in total, some 24% never made it out! Prisoners died of smallpox, colitis, dysentery, pneumonia, etc. brought on by malnutrition and poor living quarters, as well as, a tainted water supply. The dead (approximately 2,973) were removed to Woodlawn Cemetery for burial. Woodlawn is located about one and one-half miles north of the prison camp. The Confederate Soldiers section occupies some two and one half acres and is located to the left of the main entrance. There they "rest" side by side with Union Veterans.     (*Same view today.)




 Elmira (Camp Chemung) was one of five Northern camps for prisoners of war and the only one in New York State. The death rate at these camps (excluding Elmira) averaged around 12%. The death rate at "Helmira" was 24%. Of the Southern prisoner of war camps, only Camp Sumter (Andersonville) exceeded that death rate - 29%. As the numbers of the dead accumulated, the task of proper burial fell to John W. Jones (1817 - 1900) who ironically was a runaway slave from Virginia. Jones, who was sexton of Woodlawn Cemetery, kept meticulous records for each soldier including name, rank, regiment, and company when possible. Burial markers were not placed over the graves until 1907; but it was Jones' records that enabled the identification and location of individual sites. In a strange twist, among the bodies that Jones came across was that of the son of the overseer of the Virginia farm where he was enslaved! His house (now the John W. Davis Museum) still stands on Davis Street very near the entrance to the cemetery. Like the soldiers he tended to, he is also buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


Blame for the exceptionally high death rates at both Helmira and Andersonville is a matter of controversy. Both camps were assigned more prisoners than they were designed to hold. The lack of proper housing and unusually severe winter of 1865 raised the death rate to near 40% in Elmira during January, February and March. Many of the Confederates who survived the prison camp blamed Eugene F. Sanger, Elmira's chief physician, for the conditions that led to a high death rate. And, indeed, years after the war, Sanger himself acknowledged some degree of culpability. In his book, Elmira, Death Camp of the North, author Michael Horigan, attributes the death rate to decisions made by the War Department and its Secretary, Edwin M. Stanton, as the major cause for the high death toll. Stanton's call for a policy of retaliation against the mistreatment of Union soldiers in southern camps resulted in a reduction of food rations, medical supplies, proper housing and sanitation. All of this resulted in a prison population susceptible to diseases such as scurvy and smallpox.

Andersonville is located roughly 120 miles south of Atlanta, Georgia. Just to the east of the small village was located the south's most infamous prisoner-of-war camp - Camp Sumter. An aerial view of the camp shows its location relative to the village and the cemetery where some 13,000 Union prisoners of the camp, they simply referred to as Andersonville, are buried. Like its counterpart to the north (Elmira), Andersonville only existed a short time (14 months); but during that time some 45,000 Union soldiers occupied the twenty-six and one-half acre stockade* built primarily by slaves from local farms. While death rates at Helmira and Andersonville were roughly the same, because of Andersonville's larger prisoner population; the total number of deaths were three times higher than at any other prison camp North or South.

* View of reconstructed stockade fence at Andersonville National Historic Site.

As with Elmira prisoners suffered greatly from malnutrition, exposure to the elements, and disease. Dysentery, the result of fecal contamination of drinking water, accounted for one-third of all deaths. No tents or barracks were provided and prisoners literally lived in holes in the ground or in small huts, called shebangs, which provided some protection to a lucky few. Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at Andersonville was 19 year old Pvt. Dorence Atwater (Feb. 3, 1845 - Nov. 26, 1910). Atwater was assigned the job of recording the name, state and regiment of the deceased. As "clerk of the dead", Atwater kept a second secret list of the thousands that died there, fearing that prison officials might destroy the original list should the prison be taken by Union forces. At the wars end, he was able to sequester the list pass Confederate lines upon his release from Andersonville in 1865. Later that same year, Atwater, along with Clara Barton, returned to Andersonville and mark the graves of the Union dead.

 

Photo: Andersonville today showing markers for the "deadline" and location of the stockade fence.


Capt. Henry Wirz (Nov. 25, 1823 - Nov. 10, 1865) was the only military figure of the Civil War to be tried and convicted of "war crimes". Wirz was the stockade commander at Andersonville and was responsible for the conditions of the prison. He was accused of conspiring, along with unnamed Confederate "officials", of intentionally withholding food rations and necessary medical treatment from prisoners. Whether Wirz was guilty of any crime or himself the victim of conditions beyond his control is still a matter of debate. Many Southerners think of him as a martyr to the cause of Southern independence and a soldier who followed orders to the best of his ability. In the little village of Andersonville, a monument to Wirz reads: To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice, this shaft is erected by the Georgia Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy." Capt. Henry Wirz was hanged on Nov. 10, 1865 in Washington, D.C. He is buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in D.C. One wonders that if the war had ended differently, would it have been Stanton who was hanged and Helmira that would be remembered as the Civil Wars most notorious prison camp?