February 2004

ELMIRA and  SALISBURY PRISONS
by Kathy Dhalle

      Before Elmira, New York was noted for its prison camp, it was a Military Depot...designated as such on July 30, 1861 by then Governor Edwin B. Morgan.  By 1863, the town was known as the "Elmira Military Draft Rendezvous," chosen because of its superb transportation network.  Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry units came from as far away as Michigan to train on her grounds.

      There were three barracks at the original camp along with two military hospitals, a military police barracks, military warehouses, artillery ranges and drill fields...all the necessities to run a proper training camp.  Approximately 34 Civil War regiments (over 20,796 officers and men) were enrolled, equipped and trained at Elmira.  But, with the war winding down, by early 1864, many of the barracks stood empty.  Prisoner exchanges at this time had more or less come to a standstill, and the U.S. Government was looking for places to put Rebel prisoners to alleviate the overcrowding in other prisons.  Lt. Colonel Frederick Eastman was put in charge of turning the Depot into a prison camp.  Once his initial work was completed, he turned over the command to Major H. V. Colt.  Colonel William Hoffman was Commissary-General of prisoners in Washington.  Locally, it was Captain G. C. Wilton.

      Barracks #3 consisted of 35 wooden buildings, each about 100 feet long and 16 feet high...being wide enough for two rows of bunks.  They were parallel to Water Street and were on the high ground between Foster's Pond and Water Street.  For security, a 12 foot fence was built around the prison.  It consisted of a catwalk for sentinels on the outside, about 3 feet from the top with guard boxes at various intervals all the way around.  This fence was illuminated at night.  Besides outside perimeter patrol, there was an inside guard, who patrolled the camp.  There was no deadline as some prisons had. 

      Prior to the camp's opening, a medical inspector toured the prison and declared it unfit as it lacked facilities to care for the sick as well as having inadequate drainage.  But, these concerns went unnoticed and the camp was opened on July 6, 1864.  On that day, the first 400 prisoners were sent from Point Lookout (enlisted men only).  The second group came on July 11th.  By the 12th , the number was up to 1,151 prisoners and by the end of July, the camp had 4,425. 

      On July 15th, a trainload of prisoners (844 Confederates and 125 Union soldiers) left Point Lookout, Maryland and were headed for Elmira.  Just outside Shohola, Pennsylvania, the 18-car train ran head-on into a 50-car coal train.  40 prisoners were killed outright...another 8 died later of their injuries. 93 more prisoners were wounded in the accident...5 prisoners escaped.  The Union Guards suffered 17 casualties as a result of the wreck...another 16 were wounded.  Townspeople came and assisted with the removal of the bodies from the scene.  The injured were conveyed to Shohola on the wagons and carriages of farmers and villagers and the ladies of the village bestowed tender care to both Southerner and Northerner.

      A panel was organized and it was decided that because of the warm weather, the bodies should be buried as soon as possible.  Railroad men, assisted by Rebels, dug a trench measuring 76 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet deep between the track and the river.  Rough coffins for the Rebel soldiers were thrown together...made from the wood of the smashed train cars.  Four Confederate prisoners were placed in each coffin.  The Union casualties were given single pine boxes that had been brought in specifically for the burial.  A record of each corpse and the position of each coffin was made.  In some cases, identification was totally impossible, due to the mangled condition of some of the bodies.  Once this was completed, the hole was filled in and the graves marked with wooden headstones. 

     For forty-seven years, Union and Confederate soldier laid side by side along that stretch of track.  Over the years, the wooden markers crumbled away and all signs of a burial disappeared.  Finally, in 1900, a local resident named John Vogt pushed for the proper care of the site.  It wasn't until 1911 however, that the U.S. Government issued an order to have the bodies of the Guards and Rebels moved from the accident site and re-interred at the National Cemetery (Woodlawn) at Elmira.  Because of the passage of time, it was impossible to identify individual bodies, so the Government ordered that a single stone be erected to mark the spot.  One side of the stone would list the Confederates while the other side would carry the names of the Union soldiers.  The monument is located on the North side of the older section of the Cemetery and the burial site of the victims is to the South and directly in front of the stone.

     Despite the accident, the Government continued the influx of prisoners to Elmira.  At August's end, there were 9,619 prisoners.  All of the camp's 35 buildings were full and many more were living in tents.  More barracks were erected in the early fall and the camp purchased 150 coal stoves to ward off the cold.

       On September 20th, Colonel Benjamin F. Tracy of the 127th Colored Infantry was named commandant of the prison.  Tracy was white, his colored troops helped the white militia guard the camp.

      October 7th was the date of the infamous tunnel escape.  For weeks prior to the actual escape, approximately 10 Rebel soldiers worked diligently, tunneling their way through the floor of one of their tents.  On the night of the 7th, they finally broke through the topsoil of Water Street, just outside the fence.  Eight of the men traveled south, the other two made their way to Auburn where they worked and saved their earnings until such time as they could afford to head back home. 

      A total of 17 prisoners made their way out of Elmira during the period of its existance.  The earliest escape was in late July when a Confederate Sergeant bribed his way into the dead house and into a coffin.  He was shipped aboard the dead wagon for Woodlawn Cemetery.  Because the coffin lid had been lightly nailed, he was able to make his way out of the coffin and make good his escape.

      Another escape was made when one of the prisoners forged a printed pass, and by stealing an officer's coat, got through the gate and headed home. 

     The winter of 1864-65 was one of the most severe and it definitely took its toll on the Southern prisoners.  A secret agent, M. M. Conklin, who lived in the camp, reported that the stronger prisoners preyed on the weaker ones, stealing their clothes.  Although some items of clothing were distributed to the prisoners, it appears that it was too little, too late. Exposure to the elements was to blame for many winter deaths.

      Some reports would show that the prisoners were provided with the same rations as Union soldiers. The accounts of the Confederate prisoners on the other hand, stated that there was a definite lack of food.  According to one source, "rations were meager."  Although prisoners were allowed to purchase fresh vegetables from a local townsman, the privilege was soon stopped and the rations reduced in August.  This was allegedly done in retaliation for the treatment of Union prisoners in Southern camps.  Bread and water would be the menu of the day and meat and vegetables would not be added to the diet again until December.  This could possibly account for the overwhelming number of prisoners suffering from scurvy.  By mid September 1864, there were 1,870 cases of scurvy reported.   Some prisoners "found an acceptable substitute in rats with which the place abounded.  These Chinese delicacies commanded an average price of four cents apiece--in greenbacks." 

       Another complaint was the unsanitary conditions of Foster's Pond.  Although there were continual complaints to Colonel Hoffman regarding the unsanitary condition of the pond, nothing was done about it until October when drainage ditches were dug.

       Finally, they complained over the lack of medicine and medical facilities for the sick.  The camp Surgeon was a Major Eugene L. Sanger.  According to A. W. Keiley, who wrote "In Vinculis" (a book about his experience at Elmira), Sanger "was a club-footed little gentleman, with an abnormal head and a snaky look in his eyes...He was simply a brute, as we found when we learned the whole truth about him from his own people."  The "whole truth" was allegations that necessary medicine was not getting to the sick patients that needed it.  There were rumors that  medicines were being sold.  For example, quinine was sold for 8 cents an ounce. As well, there was a lack of proper facilities to take care of the large number of sick prisoners.  Many of the sick were housed in tents.  Some of the worse cases were placed back into the barracks.  This might have been good for the patient, but they in turn would end up contaminating others in the barracks.  Dr. Sanger finally resigned in December of 1864 to avoid a court-martial for his criminal treatment of the sick.  He was replaced by Dr. Anthony Stocker and hospital conditions improved remarkably.  In the Spring, Commandant Tracy was also replaced, this time by Colonel Stephen Moore.

      With the war's end in April of 1865, the prisoners began to be paroled and sent home in large numbers.  The only ones left at the camp through the summer were the invalids...but they were gone by the end of September. 

      Elmira or "Hellmira" as the Rebel soldiers called it has been compared to Andersonville in its treatment of prisoners of war and the number of deaths it experienced.  Although it was open for a shorter period of time than Andersonville, the mortality percentage for Elmira Prison Camp was 25, while at Andersonville, with a total of 13,705 deaths, the percentage of mortality was 27.  Not much difference if you come right down to it.

      Woodlawn National Cemetery is a constant reminder to the Chemung County community that nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers lie buried there.  The present headstones were placed on the graves in 1907, replacing the wooden ones.  Shortly after the war, three of the Confederacy's beloved sons were removed and taken South for reburial.  Around 1925, The Daughters of the Confederacy placed a memorial in Woodlawn in remembrance of the men who had died in Elmira Prison Camp.  Nothing exists of the prison camp today.  There are markers however that tell a brief story of the history of the camp.  I have the cemetery listing for Woodlawn National Cemetery. If anyone would like copies of it, please feel free to e-mail me.

      The next prison camp I would like to discuss is Salisbury Prison Camp, in Salisbury, North Carolina.  It would be the only Civil War prison camp established in that state. 

      North Carolina seceded from the Union on May 20, 1861.  Shortly thereafter, the Confederate Government contacted the Governor of North Carolina and asked him if he thought the state could house prisoners of war.  The town of Salisbury was chosen for this purpose, as it had an old textile mill that had been vacant for over 20 years.  The first 120 prisoners were moved into the building on December 9th, 1861.  By the end of May, the number was up to about 1,400.  These early prisoners lived a fairly comfortable life, passing the time by making trinkets, playing baseball and even engaging in theatrical performances.   

     According to Sergeant John L. Ham of the 32nd and 31st Maine, the prison was described as follows:  "The large brick building had formerly been a cotton factory.  It was flanked on the northeast and north sides by six small brick boarding houses; these were about 30 by 60 feet, and one and a half story.  In this square thus formed was a fine natural grove of white-oak trees...The grove comprised about one acre in extent...Immediately east and about 30 feet distant was a large wooden building, used for a prison for political prisoners of the vicinity.  Between these buildings was a very deep well, used formerly to supply water for steam for the factory engine.  The water in this well was very nasty, and wholly unfit for use.  It was bricked up--that is, its sides were laid in brick.  The cook house was at the south end of the factory and adjoining the same.  The stockade ran along beside this building, and only about 30 or 50 feet distant.."

     Like Elmira, overcrowding wasn't an issue until the Union government outlawed the exchange of prisoners. The numbers at Salisbury gradually increased through 1863 and in October of 1864, 10,000 prisoners came to Salisbury, a prison built to hold only 2,500 inmates.  The harshest period of incarceration for these men was from October 1864 to the end of the war.  During that time, every need, especially food, was in short supply.  John G. Weaver was with the 2nd Ohio Cavalry and wrote the following:  "I remembered Wiggins happened to get a piece of tripe, which Lauderman said was not fit to eat, and declared he would not touch  piece of it for anything, but Wiggins and I had been saving up odd bits of onion peel, meal, salt and flour, declaring we would have a feast when we got a sufficient quantity together to make what Wiggins called a boullion.  And when he got the tripe he said he was going to prepare his famous French conglomeration, for which he was noted.  We borrowed a mess pan that would hold about two gallons, and we filled this with water, and after blowing the smokey green-pine fire until our eyes were almost smoked out, got it burning enough to place our precious pan on to boil.  We stirred in the meal and flour, and seasoned with salt, while swimming around, as we stirred, could be seen the solitary and diminutive piece of tripe, on which all eyes were centered.  Finally the boiling water caused small globules of fat to float around the edge of the pan, which Wiggins in ecstasy declared was just sufficient to give it flavor.  Well, we enjoyed that French boullion and divided up the tripe so that each one got a small piece." Another reference to the food is by  T.J. Libby of the 12th Maine: "Our rations were generally one pint of cob-meal, raw, and one pint of soup.  The soup was about three pounds of rice boiled in one-half barrel of water, without meat or salt.  The cob-meal we were obliged to eat raw more than half the time.  When we could obtain fire we burned the hulls out on an old piece of tin plate.  We received meat thirteen times in six months.  We only got the refuse pieces that the rebels would not eat, the amount given at one time being about one-quarter pound."

      Diarrhea was the most common disease and the most deadly because of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Comrade Libby wrote that he had weighed 187 pounds when he entered Salisbury and at parole, weighed only 102 pounds and could "just crawl around."  He suffered an attack of typhoid fever, recovered and then took sick with rheumatic fever.  According to Libby, he never fully recuperated from these illnesses, and could not get a pension because he could not "show any bullet holes."

      One prisoner visited the prison hospital in November of 1864 and said what he saw would "beggar description."  Most deplorable were those so sick they could not keep the lice out of their mouths, ears and eyes.  H.T. Talbott, regiment unknown, writes of the hospital as follows:  "This place was the most complete slough of despondency that ever existed on this side of the infernal regions.  The suffering and dying patients lay with their heads to the wall in a row around the room, and with no covering save their clothes.  A little straw and abundance of vermin served for a bed.  There was no fire for nearly two months, and when fire was finally obtained there was about sufficient to warm one-twentieth of the interior.  During the month of December [1864], there was a continual amputating of feet, toes, legs, etc., the victims in a few days going off in the dead wagon.  Some were crawling around with their flesh almost dropping from the bone.  Others were afflicted with the dry rot, and led a fearful existence until death relieved them.  Some were insane, crying, and cursing, and nearly all were dying.  It was one continual scene of human woe, heartrending agony, groans, curses, dismay and death."

      About 100, or 2 percent died through September 1864, but from October 1864 to February 1865, the death rate increased to a rate of 28 percent.  An estimated 4,000 or 26 percent died during the prison's entire existence.  The dead bodies were daily collected at the "dead house" and hauled in a one-horse wagon to trenches in a nearby "old cornfield."  Early on, the Rebels would place the dead in pine coffins and take them out via the horse cart.  But the dead became so numerous, that the prisoners began to suspect there was something wrong.  To satisfy themselves the men put marks on these coffins.  It soon became apprent to everybody in the prison that these same coffins were being used every day.  The rebels tried to make it appear that they were furnishing new coffins for all the dead, but the marks soon showed that the coffins did duty for all the Salisbury dead.  After a while, even this ritual was stopped and the dead would be piled onto the cart and taken to the "dead house."

      In the fall of 1864, all of the prison buildings were converted to hospital use.  This forced all of the well prisoners and new arrivals to dig holes in the yard for shelter. Some tents were provided, but the number was so few that it hardly made a dent.  Prisoners often bought dead bodies to get clothing.  LIke Andersonville, Salisbury had its own group of "Rangers," who had banded together to prey on other prisoners.  It has been alleged that they even committed murder in order to get what they wanted.  Some of the prisoners made complaints to Major Gee, Commandant of the prison, who promised that if they could arrest and prove any of the crimes against the offenders, that he would allow punishment to be doled out to them.  Supposedly, a vigilance committee was formed, and they captured, tried and condemned one of the "Rangers."  However, his execution was delayed until such time as the others could be captured and tried.  I have never heard of any actual executions  being conducted at Salisbury.

      An unsuccessful mass effort to escape took place on November 25, 1864.  The guards at Salisbury  normally consisted of two separate regiments...one comprised of old men, too old for active service and the other of young boys from 14-16 years of age.  On the morning of the 25th, the young boys were ordered to the front and were to leave by train that day.  Knowing that there was only a small number of old men guarding the prison, a group of prisoners broke loose and attacked the guards.  It seemed for a while that the prisoners were going to succeed in their attempt, but they had failed to realize that the train had not yet left with its passengers for the front, and the young guards were double-quicked back to the prison pen.  Shots were fired by the guards upon the scaffolding around the prison.  As well, artillery commenced to throw missiles in every direction.  The shooting lasted for approximately half an hour and it is surmised that 200 men were killed.  No one escaped from this attempt.

     Tunneling was the most popular means to escape.  The most famous tunnel escape took place in mid January 1865, when an estimated 100 escaped.  One prisoner said the easiest way to get "our of this cursed place" was to defect to the Confederacy.  About 2,100 are listed as having done so. 

      Besides Union soldiers as prisoners, Salisbury boasted some famous civilians as well.  A. D. Richardson and Junius H. Browne, correspondents of the New York Tribune had been captured at Vicksburg and were sent to Salisbury in early 1864.  Much to the embarrassment of the Confederacy, they made a spectacular escape on December 18, 1864, and wrote extensively about their imprisonment at Salisbury when they got back home.  A large number of prisoners were released on February 22, 1865.  A total of 5,154 left that day.  The string of soldiers walking to Greensboro to get a train was 2 1/2 miles, or so the records say.  After that exodus, a few more prisoners were placed in the pen until April, when Union General George Stoneman came through Salisbury and burned the prison to the ground.  The fire consumed any records that had existed of the Salisbury Prison Camp.  In 1865, the National Cemetery was established as a memorial to the Union soldiers who died in the prison.

     Official records indicate that the prison had 3,802 prisoners from the time it opened until June 23, 1864, and 10,321 came from October 5, 1864 to February 1, 1865, for a total of 14,123.  Records kept at the prison have been lost, but Confederate prisoners and other offenders probably brought the total up to 15,000.  The U.S. Government has surmised that 11,700 Union soldiers died at Salisbury and claim that that many men lie buried in the National Cemetery at Salisbury.  However,  evidence would indicate that nearly 9,000 prisoners were paroled, escaped, deserted, or left the prison during its existence.  If this is true, then the actual number of burials would be less than 4,000 soldiers.  Whatever the final count, it is still the largest number of unknown soldiers in any American cemetery.  In December of 1994, the North Carolina Division of the Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a bronze marker that shows exactly where the 18 trenches holding those Union soldiers are and where is was in relation to the actual prison.

      The information on Elmira was taken from various articles that have appeared over the years in Civil War Times Illustrated.  Another book published on Elmira was entitled Elmira Prison Camp by Clay Holmes.  Although a bit partial to the Union, it still contains some good historical information.  The bulk of the information on Salisbury Prison was taken from articles that I discovered in "The National Tribune."  This newspaper was published in Washington, D.C. as a paper for Civil War Veterans.   It was begun about 1877 and eventually evolved into the present-day "Stars and Stripes." 

 That concludes the stories on these two famous prisons during the Civil War. 

Return to the Archive

Return to the Main Page