Lincoln’s Andersonville: Elmira, New York
by John Chodes
The name “Andersonville” has an infamous meaning to most Americans. This prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Georgia, held 40,000 Union soldiers during the War for Southern Independence. About one-quarter of them died from starvation, exposure and disease.
Television documentaries, articles, a Pulitzer Prize novel, and a Broadway play on the trial and execution of Andersonville’s commandant, Henry Wirz, have all contributed to the view that Southerners are barbarians.
All this changed in the 1950s, when secret War Department documents were declassified. Northerners, who believed that they were morally superior to the “semi-civilized” Southerners, were stunned to learn of a POW camp at Elmira, New York, which was far more horrifying than Andersonville. It was more like a Nazi concentration camp. It contained Confederate soldiers and New York civilians, whose only crime was to oppose Lincoln’s unjust war. They died from exposure, starvation, disease, and deliberate executions.
This is not mere speculation. Today, Elmira is a national cemetery. Most of the graves list the POWs’ names, regiments and states. But one in five of the tombstones simply reads “citizen.” These are the unidentified civilians.
Official records show that twenty-five percent of the 12,000 inmates at Elmira died while incarcerated, but other official clues indicate the death toll may have been fifty percent. These extreme fatality statistics are directly attributed to Abraham Lincoln’s policy toward Elmira. There are also indications that Elmira was chosen as the site for this death camp as a result of New York governor Horatio Seymour’s vehement objections to Lincoln’s call for draftees to enter the Union army. Governor Seymour refused to comply, stating that conscription was unconstitutional.
Lincoln’s response was a major invasion of the Empire State, which produced a brutal four-day battle with over 30,000 casualties, and the military occupation of New York City. Several months later, as an act of retribution, Elmira was selected as a death camp.
Elmira’s Earlier History
Elmira is located just north of the Pennsylvania border, in Chemung County. In 1860 it was a village of 8,800, an important hub in New York’s transportation grid. The Chemung Canal was Elmira’s connection to the Erie Canal, where goods were moved to all parts of the state. Later, railroads linked Elmira to New York City, Chicago, and the Midwest.
With the surrender of Ft. Sumter, there was a resounding patriotic call to duty in Elmira. Partisan politics, at least for the moment, was pushed aside. Throngs of men converged on the recruiting offices. Church bells rang, bands played martial strains. Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. New York’s governor, Edwin Morgan, designated Albany and Elmira as military depots. Men from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica responded in overwhelming numbers. Elmira became a garrison town, anticipating ten companies of troops. Forty companies filled the town. Finding places to quarter them proved a monumental problem. A barrel factory was converted into barracks. Churches, storehouses, public houses and private homes were designated as temporary military shelters. Then the army finally built official housing to hold 2,000 troops. It was named “Barracks No. 3.”
After basic training, these troops were put into cattle cars for the journey to the South. Anticipating a quick victory, Governor Morgan ordered the closing of Barracks No. 3. Bull Run shattered that illusion. Lincoln saw the reality and called up an additional 500,000 men. New York’s quota was 25,000 soldiers. Immediately Governor Morgan reopened Barracks No. 3.
Lincoln Nationalizes Elmira: Later a Prison
Barracks No. 3 served as a state military facility until July 1863. Then, with the war going badly for the North, and volunteers dwindling, Congress passed a highly controversial bill that empowered President Lincoln to put all state troops and officers under federal jurisdiction. Elmira was nationalized. This was unconstitutional.
In early 1864, six months after the Battle of New York, Secretary of War Stanton ordered Colonel William Hoffman, commissary general of prisons, to find a prison camp for Confederate prisoners in New York. Hoffman informed Stanton that “there are quite a number of barracks at Elmira, which are not occupied, and are fit to hold rebel prisoners.” Elmira was about to become an integral part of the 19th century’s version of Stalin’s gulag archipelago. This Lincolnian POW system, which dotted the North, was politically placed in those states that had defied him: the Gratist Street Prison in St. Louis, Camp Lookout in Maryland, Fort Delaware, Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, Camp Douglas in Chicago, Camp Morton in Indianapolis, Camp Rock Island in Illinois, Alton, also in Illinois, and Johnson’s Island in Sandusky, Ohio. One historian said, “The tragic period of the Civil War concentration camps was inaugurated with Elmira Prison.”
Elmira was officially named Camp Chemung, and opened in July 1864. Its first commandant was Lt. Colonel Seth Eastman, a West Pointer with thirty-five years of military experience, but who was now terminally ill from a lifetime of heavy drinking.
In the early stages of the war, Eastman had been military governor of Cincinnati, and presided over the military tribunal that convicted Clement Vallandigham, the Ohio congressman who was arrested for condemning President Lincoln for using the war as an excuse for converting the United States into a military dictatorship.
Camp Chemung had an absolute maximum capacity of 5,000 prisoners. Soon 13,000 POWs and New York civilian “traitors” crammed the facility. When Eastman arrived, two crises had already developed. No hospital had been provided for the sick and wounded prisoners, and a pond for drinking water, and another called Foster’s Pond, the camp latrine, had merged, polluting the fresh water. Within days many inmates were seriously ill or dying.
It was almost a month after Camp Chemung opened before the War Department assigned a chief surgeon, Major Eugene F. Sanger. His placement at Elmira is of significance, indicating that New Yorkers were being targeted for revenge because they had risen up. Sanger had served as chief surgeon under the infamous Benjamin “Beast” Butler, when Butler was commander of the occupation of New Orleans. Butler had put civilians who committed “treason” on barren Ship Island. Many died of starvation, exposure and disease. Sanger was in charge of the “medical facilities” there.
Sanger was a good surgeon, but his personal characteristics affected his medical judgment. A “deluded martinet, self-righteous and vindictive,” he was responsible for the thousands of deaths at Camp Chemung. Sanger had been wounded at Port Hudson in Louisiana. His left leg was amputated below the knee. With his vindictive personality, he blamed and sought retribution on all Southern soldiers for his disability.
Within two months of the opening of Elmira, hundreds of Confederate soldiers had died from the mixing of human waste with their drinking water. Attempts to get War Department authorization to construct another reservoir for drinking were delayed for months. This delay is now viewed as a deliberate tactic.
Camp Chemung overflowed with inmates. More arrived every day. Not one inch of unused space existed inside the barracks. Tents were erected outside to accommodate the new “guests.”
On July 22, 1862, at Maxwell’s Landing on the James River in Virginia, Major General John Dix of the Union Army met with Major General Daniel Hill of the Confederacy. They signed what came to be known as the “cartel.” This agreement, to exchange prisoners of war, was worked out by the opposing armies, but not the antagonistic governments.
This document specified that once prisoners were released, they could not rejoin the military. The Confederacy then proposed a formal pact between Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln refused. To accede would mean official recognition that the South had created a legitimate, separate nation.
In April 1863 Lincoln ended the prisoner exchange program. Publicly, Ulysses S. Grant said this was because the Confederacy allowed released prisoners to rejoin their units. Privately, he believed that holding CSA men would quickly exhaust the South’s manpower. The North, with a huge advantage in population, would never experience a shortage of troops. A war of attrition would work in the Union’s favor. In a letter to “Beast” Butler, Grant wrote, “Every man we hold, when released on parole, becomes an active soldier against us at once…We will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated…If we hold those caught, they will amount to no more than dead men.”
Prisoner Exchange Failure Leads to Retaliation
In December 1863, a House of Representatives committee released a 30-page “Report No. 67.” It stated that there was evidence that “rebels” planned to kill all Union prisoners. The same Colonel Hoffman who promoted Elmira as a location for a POW camp wrote to Secretary of War Stanton: “I respectfully suggest, as a means of compelling a less barbarous policy toward the Union prisoners in their hands, to allow only half rations for the rebels in ours.”
Lincoln, the Army, and many Northerners thirsted for revenge. The New York Times editorialized for retaliation, convinced that Confederates were “plagued with moral infirmities.” Henry Raymond, the editor of the Times, said, “A chapter will be written by some future historian, on the horrors of Andersonville which will equal in fearful interest, the records of Bastille.” This editorial told of what it claimed to be the deliberate deprivation of food as a policy of torture, calling it “brutally, savagely cruel.” Henry Raymond concluded, “Retaliation is a terrible thing, but the slow wasting away of life of our brothers and friends in those horrible prisons, is a worse thing.”
Retaliation based on the belief that the South deliberately starved Union prisoners is misleading. Unlike the North, where soldiers and civilians were well fed, the Confederacy had been subjected to a two-sided blockade. On the Atlantic coast, the U.S. Navy prevented food from reaching Southern ports. The Mississippi River was patrolled by gunboats. Food from the western side would not reach the east. Southern civilians and soldiers starved. Even “Beast” Butler acknowledged that fact: “If Union soldiers at Andersonville are starving,” he informed Stanton, “their Confederate guards are also on half or quarter rations.”
Yet Stanton and his War Department enthusiastically endorsed retaliation. Then Colonel Eastman, Elmira’s commandant, notified Stanton that rations for the POWs could be substantially reduced. That same day Stanton submitted “Circular No. 4,” which was Eastman’s recommendation for endorsement by the top echelon of the War Department. They all agreed, with one exception: no food reduction for those prisoners who were officially listed as sick. Retaliation was now national policy. Rations at Elmira were restricted to bread and water, and watery soup.
To exacerbate matters, Circular No. 4 proved to be lethal. In 1908, in recalling the restrictions on food, Confederate POW R.B. Ewan stated, “Many hundreds of boxes of provisions were brought into camp, but unless we were in the hospital, then ham, cheese, bread, and pie were put back in the wagon and hauled out to fill other stomachs.” Another prisoner, Anthony Keily, recorded in his diary that all these bans brought on “an epidemic of scurvy.”
Chief surgeon Sanger began to have pangs of conscience. He went over camp commandant Eastman’s head and wrote an official memorandum to Brigadier General John Hodson. This document displayed both bluster and a sense of guilt over his zealous performance of his morbid duties.
First, Sanger requested a transfer out of Elmira. That reflected his feelings of guilt. Then he boasted, “I have now been put in charge of 10,000 rebels, a very worthy occupation for a patriot, and I think I have done my duty, having relieved 386 of them of all earthly sorrows, in one month.”
Sanger’s disturbing revelation is corroborated by prisoner Walter D. Addison, who wrote, years later, that while in the hospital, he observed that opium pills were dispensed to patients, “no matter what the nature of their disease. On one occasion three prisoners were sinking. Sanger directed Dr. Van Ness to administer opium to them. In a short time they breathed their last. No investigation ensued. No reprimand. Dr. Van Ness continued his position.”
According to Addison, there was a desire on the part of the Union officers to kill the Confederate prisoners. “All in authority in Elmira, seemed to be of this opinion.” Anthony Keily agreed with this observation. After the war, he wrote: “In six weeks Sanger made more widows and orphans than the siege of Troy.”
Keily also charged that Sanger refused to sign any report that stated the cause of death was related to malaria because, “In the medical department there were opportunities to plunder…vast quantities of quinine were prescribed, then stolen. The price, $8 an ounce [over $300 in modern-day terms], tempted the cupidity of the physicians beyond all resistance.”
In late 1864, both Sanger and Eastman requested to be relieved of their duties. Both said they were very ill and could not continue. In reality, Sanger was removed when he wrote his scathing report, which implicated Eastman and the newly appointed commander, Colonel Franklin Tracy.
Colonel Tracy started out as a volunteer officer who gained high military rank through his political connections. He had been a Republican in the New York Assembly. As such, he was given command of the 109th New York Regiment. At the Battle of the Wilderness, he won the Congressional Medal of Honor; he later served in the 127th Colored Regiment. He was then assigned to Elmira because he was loyal to Stanton.
Immediately upon his arrival at Elmira, Tracy had major conflicts with Sanger, which brought about the damning medical report and Sanger’s dismissal. Tracy blocked Sanger’s efforts to improve hospital conditions, and demanded an investigation of the administration of the medical facility.
This provoked Sanger to send another report to Tracy, which stated that “the ratio of disease and death has been unprecedentedly large and requires an explanation from me to free the medical department from censure. There were 2,011 admissions to the prison hospital between August and September  and…a death rate of 24%.”
Throughout Eastman’s time as commander, and in the early stages of Tracy’s, Sanger submitted nine written communiqués to them, all unanswered, that “called attention to Foster’s Pond and its deadly poison [the human waste flowing into the drinking water pond] and the existence of scurvy at an alarming rate.”
Alarmed by the implication of this information, if it reached his superiors, Tracy made a belated effort to address these problems, but without authorization from the War Department, he could not begin. He never received it. To circumvent that indifference, and prevent an army investigation, Tracy used prison labor instead of Army personnel to separate the two ponds.
Sanger had another serious complaint, this time about the “great delay in filling my requisitions for the hospital,” and “the sickness and suffering occasioned thereby.” That was the last straw; Tracy placed Sanger under arrest, then replaced him.
Stocker; New Chief Surgeon
On December 22, 1864, Major Anthony Stocker became the new chief surgeon. Before the war he was a prominent Philadelphia physician. Prior to that, he had been a military surgeon in the Mexican War. In May 1861, Stocker received another commission as an Army surgeon, and was placed under General Meade’s command. Shortly thereafter, Meade had Stocker arrested, charging him with unsatisfactory performance of his duties “in relation to the care of the sick.” The charges were later dropped.
In August 1863, Stocker was arrested again, in an incident related to the hospital under his direction. In a court-martial trial he again was cleared. At Elmira, if Stocker made any attempt to correct the horrific conditions there, he left no record of requests for improvement, despite the fact that over 1,200 POWs and civilians died during the first three months of his taking over the hospital.
Attempts to Inspect Elmira
In November 1864 the United States Sanitary Commission requested that it conduct an inspection at Elmira. This was rejected by Stanton. The Sanitary Commission, an independent philanthropy supported by private funds, was dedicated to “preserving and restoring the health and securing the general comfort and efficiency of troops, to the proper provisions of cooks, nurses and hospitals.”
This included similar concerns in Union POW camps, but the Sanitary Commission required the cooperation of the War Department’s Medical Bureau. Instead, there were endless confrontations between these two entities that involved egos, jealousies and political intrigues.
In December, a Dr. Turner of the Sanitary Commission arrived at Elmira without War Department clearance, in hopes of inspecting the prison camp. Colonel Tracy later said, “Deeming it important that the inspection should be made and the report published for the purpose of correcting the impression that the prisoners are cruelly treated, I concluded to admit him, with the understanding that no report be made until my action is approved by you.”
Three days later, a General Wessells informed Tracy that an inspection by civilians was “highly improper, and the publication of a report cannot be permitted, unless under the direction of the Department of War.”
Winter: Order No. 336
In October 1864 it began to snow. Colonel Tracy issued his most controversial edict: Special Order No. 336. “Whereas, the fresh beef now being furnished at this point is unfit for issue to the prisoners and inferior in quality, to that required by contract. Therefore officers are hereby designated to reject such parts as appear to be unfit for issue.”
Most of the meat was rejected and sold to local markets. This came on top of the previous ration reduction. Now, most prisoners were down to just bread and water. The most serious losers were the hospitalized sick, who, up to this point, ate better than the other POWs, with some meat in their diet.
The winter cold increased in intensity. Thousands of the prisoners were quartered in open tents, since the barracks were filled to capacity. Colonel Tracy finally ordered the construction of additional barracks for those living in the elements, but these new buildings were not insulated and were poorly built, so they did not offer any greater protection than the tents.
During this period, a Captain Munger, an inspector for the Army’s Medical Department, arrived at Elmira and reported, “During this past week there have been 112 deaths. 1,666 prisoners are entirely destitute of any blankets.”
All Aid Rejected
On January 6, 1865, a winter snow storm struck Elmira. All train service was suspended. Freezing winds ripped through Camp Chemung. Noah Walker, from Baltimore, sent clothing packages from the inmates’ relatives to Elmira. The War Department returned all the packages.
Not to be denied, Walker tried to send the clothing to the camp through an independent relief agency, which was located as nearby Watkins Glen. This agency sent a letter to Stanton, who responded with a description of the inconceivably complex procedure that the bureaucratic maze required to get the clothing into Camp Chemung.
The head of the aid agency gave up and wrote, “The brutal Stanton refused to listen to all my entreaties and turned a deaf ear to their suffering.”
Then another effort was made at a much higher political level. Judge Robert Gould, who had been the Confederate agent during the prisoner exchange program, took up the cause of bringing about an agreement between the United States and the Confederate governments to supply food and clothing to prisoners on both sides.
Gould wrote to Stanton, to U.S. Grant, to Lincoln, and then to Robert E. Lee. Lee agreed to the plan, and Grant apparently accepted it. Judge Gould’s idea was that the South should provide a large shipment of cotton to the North. It would be sold in New York, and the money realized would be used to purchase coats and blankets for the prisoners.
The simplicity of the plan raised hopes for its success, but a series of delays, deliberately orchestrated by Stanton, eliminated any possibility of the clothing reaching the POWs before the end of the winter. Months passed before the cotton was finally sold. By then, the cotton market had declined sharply and only a fraction of the hoped-for amount of winter clothing could be purchased.
To make matters worse, instead of the original intention of focusing on Elmira alone, the reduced aid was now dispersed to ten Northern POW camps, so that an infinitesimal amount reached each location. Only three boxes of clothes reached the freezing inmates at Elmira.
Mass Burials for POWs and Citizens
The way the dead of Camp Chemung were buried raises many questions about how many died there, which to this day remain largely unanswered.
In mid-July 1864, when Camp Chemung first opened, the United States government purchased half an acre of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery to bury those who died while incarcerated there. As retaliation tightened and the weather worsened, the death toll accelerated dramatically. Union officers asked those Southern captives with carpentry skills to build coffins. The incentive was better food and better treatment. Soon the demand for coffins outstripped their ability to make them.
The burial of the dead was managed by John W. Jones, a runaway slave from Leesburg, Virginia. He was paid $2.50 per burial. One “burial” was nine coffins in one grave. Jones was aided by POWs who volunteered for the burial detail. They also received better food treatment.
This burial section, between the Chemung River and Foster’s Pond, was sarcastically referred to as “The Trans-Mississippi District” by the prisoners. The name, regiment, and date of death were written on a piece of paper and placed in the dead man’s armpit.
Years later, John Jones reflected on the mass-grave process: “Each body was put into a box, then I dug a trench, large enough to contain nine of them. A wooden headboard, marked in large letters, gave information about all nine men and was placed above ground.”
Prisoner Martin Howard revealed, forty years later, why there is a discrepancy between the official death rate and the actual death rate: “We buried our men on what we called ‘free ground.’ The place was low and marshy, and the water often rose to a depth of three feet, where we buried our dead. We had to take a pick and make a hole in the coffin on each side near the shoulders, so it could fill with water and sink.”
Filling the coffins with water made the dead men’s identity papers indecipherable. And the flood waters often washed away the above-ground markers. Those without identifications were not counted as having died.
John Jones was a religious man. He believed that those he buried were Christians, as he was, and that the mass graves were degrading and sinful. On his own time, he re-buried those he could identify. He also devised a codex so that relatives could find the exact locations of their loved ones. Jones’ re-burials, the codex, and the creation of a national cemetery at Elmira are based on the known dead.
End of Camp Chemung
The war ended in April 1865. On the morning of July 11, the last 256 Southern prisoners assembled for the two-mile trek through the dusty streets of Elmira, to the railroad station, to be transported to Baltimore. From there, they were on their own.
One of the last men out was James Huffman. He started the long, painful journey to his home in Virginia. He arrived there seven days later, “to find destruction, waste, and poverty. There was no money; the start must be made from the bottom. I went to work with a will.”
Initially, Camp Chemung was scheduled to be torn down. Instead, it was converted into a military center devoted to mustering out Union soldiers. In February 1866 that process came to an end. The camp was then completely demolished.
Final Death Toll
Elmira’s official death toll was about 3,000, or 24.3% of the total military population. This number represents only those who could be identified and had tombstones. Adding the unknown and citizen groups would bring the percentage of deaths to about 35%. All other Union prison camps had a combined fatality percentage of 11.7%.
On June 23, 1874, Congress established “Woodlawn National Cemetery at Elmira, New York.” In 1997 Elmira’s Southside High School students placed a marker at the cemetery, which reads, “Confederate soldiers were buried here with kindness and respect by John W. Jones, a runaway slave. They have remained in this hallowed ground by family choice because of the honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”