In May 1864 the U.S. War Department learned there were vacant barracks in Elmira, N.Y., that had been used as a rendezvous point earlier in the war. Men were sent to encircle the camp with a stockade fence and make it into Elmira Prison. By July about 700 Confederate prisoners were being transferred there from Point Lookout, Md., and other overcrowded Federal prisons, and before the end of August they numbered almost 10,000 enlisted men.
Living conditions were bad from the start, with insufficient shelter-the barracks held only half the prisoners; the others were crowded into tents, even in winter-and with a serious sanitary situation presented by a stagnant pond stretching the length of the enclosure, into which sinks drained. The 40-acre camp was below the level of the Chemung River, which bordered it, making drainage difficult.
The prisoners' diet lacked vegetables, and by August there were 793 cases of scurvy. Dr. Eugene F. Sanger, camp surgeon and commandant, feuded constantly about unfilled needs and 1 Nov. 1864 wrote U.S. Army Surgeon General Joseph Kl Barnes: "Since August there have been 2,011 patients admitted to the hospital and 775 deaths. . . . Have averaged daily 451 in hospital and 601 in quarters, and aggregate of 1,052 per day sick. At this rate the entire command will be admitted to hospital in less than a year and thirty-six percent die."
Winter was severe and prisoners suffered greatly before additional barracks were completed. New prisoners brought the total number confined to 12,122 by 12 May 1865, the last day captives arrived. On 1 July the officer in charge made this accounting of those prisoners of war: released, 8,970; still in hospital, 218; died, 2,917; escaped, 17. 10 escapees had spent 2 months digging a tunnel 66 ft long under the stockade perimeter, and at 4 a.m., 7 Oct. 1864, had crawled through to freedom.
Of the 12,122 soldiers imprisoned at Elmira, 2,963 died of sickness, exposure and associated causes. The camp was officially closed on July 5, 1865. All that remains today of Elmira Prison is a well kept Cemetery along the banks of the Chemung River.
Source: The Historical Times "Encyclopedia of the Civil War." edited by Patricia L. Faust
This Page last updated 01/20/02
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