The Intersection of Suffering and GraceJan 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
Elmira Prison Camp and John W. Jones Museum tell a civil story.
“I’ve always been a history nut,” explains Doug Oakes, board member of the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp and a historical re-enactor. “I have an uncle born and raised in South Carolina, and we did a lot of talking and exchanging ideas, so I got the Southern point of view. I got into re-enacting because some units have drills so you learn how to maneuver the way they [the soldiers] did. You learn the terrain, how the ground actually is on the battlefields. I got into it to learn.”
A chilly afternoon with snow in the air and wind blowing across the Chemung River is also a perfect time to learn, to experience the reproduction areas of the former Camp Rathbun/Camp Chemung. During the early Civil War years, it was used to train Union recruits; after the final group was shipped off in 1864, Barracks #3 became a military prison, desperately needed when the informal prisoner exchange system between the warring sides broke down in mid-1863.
In July, when the first prisoners arrived, it was reasonable to assume tent housing would be adequate for summer, though more barracks were hastily erected. The authorities estimated the facility could hold up to 4,000 men. Within a month of opening, there were 12,000.
Disease flourished amid the overcrowding, partly because, instead of availing themselves of cleaner water in the camp’s wells, many prisoners instead drew water from Foster Pond, contaminated by waste from infelicitously sited latrines. “They [prisoners and guards] knew better,” says Schuyler County historian Gary Emerson. Almost a quarter of the prisoners, weakened from cold, inadequate clothing, and ungenerous rations, died from dysentery, smallpox, and other illnesses. Their guards suffered from some of the same maladies.
The barracks, as exemplified by the replica at the site on the intersection of Hoffman Street and Winsor Avenue, was built to hold up to 100 men, though it sometimes held more. The structures were uninsulated, ventilated by doors at each end and a glass-free hatch above each bunk—the bunks were designed to hold two but sometimes served three. Doug spent a summer night in the barracks some years ago and reports the bunk, without a mattress, was hard and uncomfortable. It was, after all, a prison.
The heat source was the sort of industrial wood or coal stove manufactured for larger spaces like railroad stations, and the Army calibrated what they deemed an appropriate amount of fuel per day, down to the last stick of wood, says Doug.
A few prisoners secured themselves a better chance at survival—and better rations—by renouncing their allegiance to the Confederacy and swearing loyalty to the Constitution and the Union, Gary says. Some of them were released, some were sent west with the Union Army, others were given menial camp jobs and a tiny wage. The prisoners became an unwitting tourist attraction after two enterprising entrepreneurs built platforms overlooking the camp, allowing paying customers to climb up and gaze at the captives while enjoying tea and snacks from their overlook.
Not everyone thought the captured soldiers were receiving the treatment they deserved, Gary adds. “Some were sympathetic. There were religious groups donating comforts, like books and Christmas things.
“Some [Confederate soldiers] brought slaves with them who were captured alongside their owners. The prison even housed a woman, who’d disguised herself as a man in order to fight.” Perhaps one of the soldiers summed up their collective plight when he was interviewed and asked how he’d gotten there. “No choice in the matter,” was his terse reply.
Certainly there was callous cruelty here, yet it existed side by side with extraordinary compassion. That compassion was personified in John W. Jones, an abolitionist sometimes described as a self-emancipated former slave. John had made his way to Elmira at a young age, acquired an education and several day jobs, as well as a not-entirely-secret passion for helping others to freedom via the Underground Railroad—more than 800 people in a nine-year period. John, then sexton for the Baptist Church in Elmira, lived about half a block from the railroad line and had a friendly relationship with several conductors and baggage handlers.
“He was able to sneak his ‘baggage’ onto what they called the ‘4 a.m. freedom baggage car,’” explains Talima Aaron, on the board of directors for the John W. Jones Museum at 1350 Davis Street. “Elmira was a small town then, where people knew what everyone else was doing. He never faced the consequences of fugitive slave law, although there were a lot of unscrupulous bounty hunters, and penalties were so stiff.” Talima never refers to John W. Jones as a slave or ex-slave “because that was not a circumstance he chose.”
With the high mortality rate of the Elmira Prison Camp’s residents—almost a quarter of whom died in the year the prison was open—John took on another job, that of burying Confederate prisoners. One was the son of the slaveholders who owned the plantation where he was born. John “gave them dignity in death he could not get in life,” Talima says. “He saw the humanity in these young men fighting for their home. Of the 2,973 he buried, only six were unidentified, because of the respectful way he interred them.” Information about each was written down in John’s carefully inscribed ledgers, sealed in a glass jar in each coffin, and on the wooden marker (later replaced by stones) at each grave, precisely lined up, even in death, like soldiers.
It is due to John’s care, she says, that, after the war, all but two relatives of the Confederate dead decided to leave their loved ones where John or his helpers had interred them in Woodlawn Cemetery. His careful recordkeeping led to the designation of Woodlawn as a National Cemetery. John and his wife, Rachel, are buried there, too, as is fellow abolitionist Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, who interviewed John W. Jones and declared that John should write his life story himself.
That was one task John never got to. Instead, his story is retold at the John W. Jones Museum, open by appointment (it’s closed for the winter). Visit johnwjonesmuseum.org, learn more about the Elmira Prison Camp at elmiraprisoncamp.com, or visit the Chemung County Historical Society at 415 E. Water Street in Elmira, where one may also purchase Elmira: Civil War 1861-1865 by historian Terri Olszowy (Doug’s wife). As she says, “It pays to know where you’ve been—and it helps you know where you’re going.”