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Elmira Prison

Almost 25 percent of the 12,123 Confederate soldiers who entered the 40-acre prisoner of war camp at Elmira, N.Y., died. This death rate was more than double the average death rate in other Northern prison camps, and only 2 percent less than the death rate at the infamous Southern prison at Andersonville, Ga. The deaths at Elmira were caused by diseases brought on by terrible living conditions and starvation, conditions deliberately caused by the vindictive U.S. commissary-general of prisoners, Col. William Hoffman. The conditions were inexcusable; the North had more than enough food and materials for its armies, population, and prisoners.

A stockade was built around an unused Union army training camp to create Elmira Prison in June 1864. The prison contained 35 barracks and was intended to house as many as 5,000 prisoners. On July 6 the first 400 arrived, and by the end of the month there were more than 4,400 prisoners, with more on the way. By the end of August almost 10,000 men were confined there, many of them sleeping in the open in tattered clothes and without blankets.

On August 18, in retaliation for the conditions in Southern prison camps, Colonel Hoffman ordered that rations for the prisoners be reduced to bread and water. The overcrowded conditions ensured that any disease introduced to the malnourished population would spread rapidly. Without meat and vegetables, the prisoners quickly succumbed to scurvy, with 1,870 cases reported by September 11. The scurvy was followed by an epidemic of diarrhea, then pneumonia and smallpox. By the end of the year, 1,264 prisoners had died, and survivors had nicknamed the prison "Hellmira." The winter was bitterly cold, but when Southern families sent clothes for the prisoners, Hoffman would allow only items that were gray to be distributed. Clothes in other colors were burned while the sons and husbands for whom they were intended literally froze to death. By the end of the war, 2,963 Elmira prisoners were dead.

Fascinating Fact: Before resigning to avoid court- martial for his criminal treatment of sick prisoners, the chief surgeon at Elmira was overheard to boast that he had killed more Rebels than any Union soldier.

Elmira prison camp; courtesy Culver Pictures, Inc.
Written by Stephen T. Foster
Printed in USA
MCMXCIII Atlas Editions, USA
D3 602 03-13