An Angel in the Graves

Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira is home to a Civil War monument unlike any other north of the Mason-Dixon line. Bearing witness to one of the most tragic episodes in our history, a bronze statue of a soldier, placed in 1937 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, stands a sad watch over 2,933 Confederate graves. No other Civil War burial site in the North has been so distinctly recognized by an association from the South.

The soldier gazes out on a 2.5-acre plot known as the Confederate Section. He is the final sentry for the prisoners who died at the federal camp known variously as Camp Rathbun, Camp Chemung, Barracks No. 3 and Elmira Prison Camp. In the hearts and minds of its more than 12,000 inmates, and certainly for the nearly 3,000 men that perished there, it would have only one name: Helmira.

Today, there is an eerie quality to the tableaux of the Confederate Section. The military straight lines of white Confederate markers have a perimeter boundary marked on four sides by the graves of Union dead. As it was in the last days of their lives, the southern soldiers are encircled by their northern captors. This section is rife with visual beauty and strange metaphor. It is fitting. Of all the poignant and ironic stories the Civil War produced, perhaps none is more peculiar than the tale of this Confederate burial ground.

Two blocks south of Woodlawn’s Confederate Section, a small house sits with its front porch squarely facing the road. Surrounded by more than an acre of mowed lawn dotted with small fruit trees, the site sports a large sign identifying the building as the John W. Jones Museum. Visitors will learn that John Jones is bound to Woodlawn cemetery by more than proximity.

Elmira: a hub for every route
In 1861, Elmira’s location on the New York/Pennsylvania border, at the nexus of major rail, canal and river transportation routes, made it an ideal receiving and deportation center for Union troops, supplies and munitions. Soon after the first shots of the Civil War were fired, Elmira was designated by the federal government as a military depot. In 1863, it was a rendezvous destination for Union troops. It became a prison camp destination in 1864 and finally a mustering-out center in 1865. As Michael Horigan so aptly wrote in his book, Elmira: Death Camp of the North, “In all of New York State, no other community was so intimately touched by the Civil War as was the town of Elmira.”

Elmira’s “intimate” dance with the war actually started long before 1861. For decades, the town played a major role in the drama of tensions between North and South. The story of John W. Jones brings this to life.

Jones made his way to Elmira in 1844, along with two brothers and a friend. Having escaped from slavery on a plantation in Loudon County, Virginia, Jones and his companions walked 300 miles to the Elmira area, known to be a haven for those seeking freedom. Within a few years, Jones became sexton of the First Baptist Church, providing caretaker duties for the congregation’s buildings and grounds while also maintaining two, and then three, cemeteries in the community.

Jones’ contributions went far beyond his sexton responsibilities. In the years prior to the Civil War, he was an active “station master” of the Underground Railroad in Elmira, personally providing food, shelter, clothing, transportation and money for hundreds of slaves making their way to Canada and freedom. The establishment of Camp Chemung would begin the last act of Jones’ drama with Dixie, though this time his extraordinary kindness, generosity and work ethic would bring him both respect and wealth.

Horrors at Helmira
Camp Chemung received its first 399 prison inhabitants on July 6, 1864. Over the next 369 days of its existence, a total of 12,199 Confederate prisoners would either walk or be wheeled the one mile from train depot to prison gate. Of that number, 2,950 or fully 24.3 percent of the prison population would die. It was the worst death percentage in any of the Union prison camps. Indeed, only the notorious Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, would claim a higher figure.

From its inception, Camp Chemung seemed destined for infamy. Officials at the War Department knew the Camp could adequately house and feed no more than 6,000 prisoners, yet made the determination to quarter twice that number. Despite early written concerns from the post commander, Lieutenant Colonel Seth Eastman, and others, Colonel William Hoffman, federal commissary general of prisoners, insisted on 12,000, even when the inadequacies of the camp moved from dangerous to fatal.

But more than overcrowding accounted for the dramatic death toll at Camp Chemung. Several factors conspired to make the place more akin to a concentration camp than a prisoner-of-war compound. Certain aspects of the camp’s operation were regularly cited as hazardous in letters and reports by camp staff and inspectors for the War Department.

Men weakened by fatigue and wounds were further debilitated by starvation – their rations were 20 percent less than the standard allotment, and lacked adequate protein and fresh vegetables. Scurvy in the camp was rampant, and prisoners eating rats was a regular sight.

Drinking water supplied by wells became contaminated when a stagnant pond in the middle of the camp leached its foul, bacteria-laden contents into adjacent ground. Severe diarrhea was common.

Lacking warm clothing, boots and blankets, the miserable prisoners suffered from exposure when freezing winter weather struck early and hard. Pneumonia was widespread.

As if this constellation of woes were not enough, the camp’s medical facilities, medical staff and supplies were continually insufficient or nonexistent. Highly contagious diseases, such as smallpox, quickly became epidemic.

Though all these evils were easily remedied, officials in the War Department chose to delay, conceal or complicate every request for relief that came from camp authorities. The result was crushing. In one year, an average of eight prisoners a day died at the Elmira camp, their demise hastened by bureaucratic obfuscation. Efficient burial became a necessity, and it required a steady, trustworthy person.

A kind soul takes a mournful job
Ultimately, the man contracted to oversee removal of the Confederate dead was none other than John W. Jones. Not unlike his role as conductor for the Underground Railroad, Jones as sexton was leading souls to freedom, albeit of a different sort. He received $2.50 for each Southern soldier he ushered out of the prison for burial, and by July of 1865, he had amassed a small fortune from this work. It was a strange turn of events for a former slave, yet no finer individual could have taken on the mournful job.

Jones’s integrity in burying Camp Chemung’s victims was unparalleled. He marked each coffin lid with the dead man’s name, company and regiment, rank, grave number and date of death. He neatly inscribed that same information on a piece of paper, placing the scrap in a small, closed jar under the armpit of the deceased. Finally, Jones mounted a painted, wooden cross over each grave. He completed the burials with such keen respect, evidenced by his record keeping, that after the war only three families chose to remove their loved ones from the Woodlawn site.

Sixty years after the Daughters of the Confederacy paid homage to their dead soldiers, another monument was placed within the Confederate Section in remembrance of the man who had been first to honor them. In 1997, students from Elmira’s Southside High School placed a simple plaque mounted on a low stone that reads: “Confederate soldiers were buried here with kindness and respect by John W. Jones, a runaway slave. They have remained in these hallowed grounds of Woodlawn National Cemetery by family choice because of the honorable way they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Remnants of the past
Camp Chemung was dismantled in 1866. Much of its 32 acres is now a neighborhood of pleasant houses and tree-lined streets. Close to the river, the former camp’s shore is lined with bushes, trees, wildflowers and vines. It has a quiet, gentle look. This place of so much death is not obvious to those not knowing where to look.

A 1985 monument with three flags flying high (Old Glory, the Stars and Bars and the City of Elmira) does commemorate the location of Barracks No. 3, a.k.a Camp Chemung. It’s not hidden, but the monument’s location on a small side street makes it difficult to find. Even when it is spotted, the monument can easily be mistaken for municipal signage, sitting as it does in front of the current Elmira Water Board building.

A last twist leads once more to the small Jones house on Davis Avenue. Moved to its present site in 1997, the building was saved from demolition by a group of dedicated Elmira citizens. It is now on land that was once part of a farm owned by Jones, the place he retired to after his sexton days were done. Elise Johnson-Schmidt, consulting architect to the Jones Museum Board, believes that his final residence came from the grounds of Camp Chemung. One wall inside the tiny dwelling was part of the stockade fence that surrounded the infamous camp. According to Johnson-Schmidt, Jones later added the small front porch. “It is reminiscent of the porches that John W. Jones would have seen on the houses of his childhood,” she said, “It is the type of front porch found in the South.”

Restoring the house and garden
The John W. Jones Museum Board is currently undertaking the restoration of Jones’ house and site, which Johnson-Schmidt calls “an act of love” for all involved. It is a full-scale restoration that will take years to complete. At every step, painstaking research is required to ensure an authentic result. Phases one and two of the restoration plan, already completed, included purchase and movement of the house to its present location, some work to stabilize the building, and restoration of the small front porch. Funds are now being secured to match grants already received from New York State for phase three. Plans that must be approved by the New York State Historical Preservation Board include structural work on the house and restoration of the building’s exterior. When completed, the John W. Jones Museum will be an interactive educational center. For more information visit www.johnwjonesmuseum.org.

In keeping with the restoration plans, heritage trees and a vegetable garden can be found today at the John W. Jones Museum. Diane Fiorentino was the horticulture educator with Chemung County Cooperative Extension at the time the garden was developed by the Master Gardeners of Chemung County. As with every aspect of a restoration, she realized that careful research was needed to ensure the fruits, vegetables and other plants were accurate to the time period and place. Currently, a variety of apple and nut trees from the period has been planted on the grounds. Heirloom seeds were used to develop the 30-square-foot garden plot, which included tomatoes, broccoli and spinach.

According to Ms. Fiorentino, heritage gardens are wonderful but difficult since only methods of the era can be used to plant, cultivate and maintain the garden. Unlike seed and plant varieties of today, which are bred to be disease resistant and high-yielding, heirloom varieties are not. They are delicate. The combination of manual labor and constant attention required to ensure a heritage garden will produce is not a task for the faint of heart. Heritage gardeners ideally must take special care so that their plants are not cross-pollinated with other varieties in order to preserve the plant’s “authentic” status. For more information visit www.cce.cornell.edu.


by Jan Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jan is a freelance writer and pastor’s wife currently living in Newark, New York.