Beneath the shade of tall oaks along the meandering roadways of Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery repose the bodies of a diverse group of notable Americans – a renowned author, a celebrated pioneer of Hollywood film, and football’s first African-American Heisman Trophy winner. There, too, lie several thousand Confederate soldiers and their unlikely advocate. Who they are, and why Woodlawn became the final resting place of each, is an interesting tale.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was a Missouri native. While on an international cruise, Clemens befriended young Charles Langdon of Elmira and was shown a photograph of Langdon’s sister, Olivia. Immediately smitten, Clemens contrived a meeting, a courtship followed, and in 1870 Samuel and Olivia were married in the Langdon home. For many years thereafter, the Clemens family summered in Elmira at Quarry Farm, the home of Olivia’s older sister. In this sylvan setting, Mark Twain penned many of his most famous works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Olivia Clemens passed away in 1904. After his own death in 1910, Mark Twain was laid to rest with his wife in the Langdon family plot.
The film and television producer, director and actor Hal Roach was born in Elmira in 1892. He was drawn west at a young age, eventually becoming one of the best-known creators of comedy during the early era of Hollywood motion pictures. Roach was most famous for his production of the Laurel and Hardy comedies, and for a series of short films introducing America to “Our Gang” (“The Little Rascals”), a group of neighborhood children and their adventures. In all, he produced hundreds of films that kept America laughing. Roach visited his hometown numerous times over the years, speaking at Elmira College as recently as 1988. Following his death in 1992 at the age of 100, he returned to Elmira for the final time.
After an outstanding high-school football career at Elmira Free Academy, Ernie Davis continued his excellence on the field of play at nearby Syracuse University. Davis starred on Syracuse’s only National Championship football team in 1959, and during his senior year in 1961, was awarded college football’s prestigious Heisman Trophy – the first African-American so honored. In 1962, Davis signed to play professional football with the Cleveland Browns, where he would join all-time great Jim Brown in the backfield. The spectacle of this gridiron union was not to be. Before ever playing a down for the Browns, he was diagnosed with leukemia and tragically died in 1963.
Soldiers from the South
How did almost 3,000 members of the Confederate Army come to rest in Elmira’s Woodlawn National Cemetery? Toward the end of the Civil War, the Elmira Prison Camp, a converted railroad depot, was one of the largest of the sites used by the Union Army. Poor health and sanitation conditions were common to prison camps of the era, and the Southerners were ill-prepared for severe northern winters. In just over a year’s time, 2,963 of the camp’s 12,123 prisoners perished.
Local church sexton John Jones kept precise records, and personally ensured that each soldier who died so far from home was identified, received a grave marker, and was given a respectful burial. It was a noble task performed admirably by a man who had once suffered as a slave in Virginia before escaping to Elmira in 1844. John Jones died in 1900, and was himself laid to rest at Woodlawn.
story and photos by Jim Hughes