Preserving the History of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp
by Susan Howell Hamlin, with Bethany Snyder and Laurel C. Wemett
Fort Sumter, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Wilderness, Petersburg, Appomattox. These names easily conjure up visions of Civil War battlefields and elicit discussions of grand strategies, tactics and heroism.
Perhaps less well known is the role Elmira played in this pivotal event in American history. In the last year of the Civil War, a prison camp was in operation in this Chemung County city, incarcerating thousands of Confederates.
In 2014, Marty Chalk and John Trice assembled the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp, a group of people that both literally and figuratively preserve the history of the camp. After decades of attempts to establish a venue to share Elmira’s Civil War legacy, the Friends created an opportunity to preserve, protect and promote the unique experience of a northern community far from the battlefield.
Elmira’s prison camp and its subsequent horrors came about due to miscommunication between two colonels charged with the decision of where to locate the camp. With four mustering/training camps already in existence, Elmira seemed a logical place. In Washington, D.C., Colonel William Hoffman knew that the town was capable of quartering 10,000 Union troops, but did not understand that the capacity was divided into four distinct compounds on opposite sides of town.
When Hoffman directed Colonel Seth Eastman to set aside the barracks alongside the Chemung River for the purpose of housing between 8,000 and 10,000 Confederate prisoners, Eastman explained that the barracks could only hold 3,000 men. Whether Hoffman chose to ignore Eastman’s message or miscalculated the number of prisoners Elmira could accommodate, the end result was the same: badly overcrowded conditions.
The presence of thousands of young men arriving to fill the ranks of the Union army, at times exceeding the town’s population, was a direct contributor to the incorporation of the small upstate New York town into the city of Elmira in 1864. Many names of individuals integral to the community’s support and post-war contributions are still reflected in current street, building, school and business names.
The recruitment of volunteer citizen soldiers, training, and equipping of those volunteers, draft operations, hiring of substitutes, handling of deserters, management of prisoners of war and the eventual demobilization of thousands of soldiers affected the lives of the average Elmira resident in ways not often considered. It changed the face of the community for years after the cessation of hostilities, and continues to this day to shape the understanding of Elmira’s history.
About 30 years ago, local Civil War historians led by the late Carl Morrell discovered a small building on lower Hoffman Street believed to have been on the grounds of the prison camp. A deal was struck and the building was dismantled and put into storage, with all parts numbered and tagged. Many years later, the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp set to work figuring out how to erect the building – and where to place it.
Over the course of four years, the Friends acquired the original ground where the prison was located, rebuilt the historic building, built a full-scale barracks replica, and established the beginnings of a dedicated archive. The work provides the foundation from which to build a significant asset for serious study of Elmira’s role in the Civil War.
In 2020, the Friends purchased two additional properties adjacent to the current site, razing several dilapidated structures in preparation for a visitor center. They also published Elmira Civil War 1861-1865, which explores the rich cultural history and contributions Elmira made during those turbulent years and addresses the extensive involvement and impact four years of training and draft operations had on the local community. Drawing heavily on local documentation, the book provides a glimpse into the life Elmirans saw, heard and experienced during these tumultuous years.
Future projects include construction of a 50-foot reproduction of the stockade fence and observation tower from the prison grounds. In 2022, the Friends plan to kick off a capital campaign fund drive to underwrite the cost of building the Elmira Civil War Visitor Center.
For more information, visit elmiraprisoncamp.com or find ElmiraCivilWar on Facebook. See the book review on Elmira Civil War 1861-1865