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
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
north of the prison camp. The Confederate
some two and one half acres and is located to the left of the main
entrance. There they "rest" side by side with Union
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
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
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
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
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
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?