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Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY (Emerging Civil War Series) Paperback – April 16, 2020
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Midwest Book Review
"This book presents a detailed history of “Hellmira,” with several appendices expanding on some of the events and themes touched upon in the main text."
The Journal of America's Military Past
“A good book, and the author should be congratulated.”
Civil War News
About the Author
Chris Mackowski, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the online resource Emerging Civil War. A writing professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, NY, Chris is also historian-in-residence at Stevenson Ridge, a historic property on the Spotsylvania battlefield in central Virginia. The series editor of the award-winning Emerging Civil War Series, he has authored or co-authored a dozen books on the Civil War, and his articles have appeared in major Civil War magazines.
- Publisher : Savas Beatie (April 16, 2020)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 192 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1611214874
- ISBN-13 : 978-1611214871
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.8 x 0.6 x 8.7 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #658,876 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Today that situation has changed with a local volunteer group, Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp, working vigilantly to restore a portion of the prison site and to educate the public about what the Union knew as Camp Chemung, after the river running alongside the camp, and the Confederate prisoners called "Hellmira". There has also been increased writing about the prison including this new book "Hellmira: The Union's Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp -- Elmira N.Y" written by Derek Maxfield, associate professor of history at Genessee Community College, Bavaria, New York. The book is part of the Emerging Civil War Series which aims to offer brief, popular introductions to important events and places in the American Civil War.
The Elmira prison operated from July, 1864 to July, 1865. It held about 12,000 Confederate prisoners during its operation with 2,950 dying in captivity. The mortality rate of 24% was the highest among Union prisoner of war camps and was in the range of the 29% mortality rate in the Confederate prison at Andersonville.
Maxfield's book offers a good discussion of Elmira together with an overview of the way in which POWs were treated through the course of the Civil War. Places such as Andersonville and Elmira arose when the cartel system used earlier in the war had broken down. POWs became pawns in the system as the leadership on both sides fought intensely to win the war.
Elmira was created to ease overcrowding at a large Federal prison in Maryland. It was located on a railroad with plentiful resources. Maxfield describes how the camp was set up at minimum expense and in a hurry. A pond in the middle of the camp was used for latrines and spread disease throughout the camp. The prisoners were ill-fed and ill clothed. Most of the prisoners lived in tents and were exposed to brutal cold in the New York winter. An attempt was made to construct barracks, but this effort was not completed until January.
Maxfield discusses the administration of Elmira, both on the ground and in relationship to superiors in Washington, D.C. He suggests, consistently with the work of some other scholars on Civil War prisons, that conditions in Elmira were in part due to an attempt by the Union to retaliate against the Confederacy for the conditions of the Andersonville prison. While raising this possibility, Maxfield points out that his goal is not to cast blame or provoke argument between one side or the other but rather to educate people about the brutalities of the Civil War and to see that the treatment of POW's in the conflict is not forgotten.
The book describes more than the conditions in the camp. Maxfield shows how tragedy struck early when on July 15, 1864, a train full of prisoners from Maryland crashed into an oncoming coal train near Shohola, Pennsylvania, resulting in many deaths and injuries of the prisoners and their Union guards. The book also describes the daily life of the prisoners at Elmira and the various activities some of the men found to avoid boredom. The book includes many images of the camp, the prisoners, and the administrators which help bring Elmira to life for the reader.
A series of appendices to the book offers additional discussion. They include a driving tour of the prison, a discussion of the former slave who was charged with burying the dead Confederates in the local cemetery, and a treatment of the Shohola train wreck. Additional appendices discuss Mark Twain in Elmira, offer a short comparison of Andersonville and Elmira, discuss attempts by some intrepid prisoners to escape, and, outline the ongoing efforts made by local preservationists to restore and teach about Elmira prison.
This book fulfills the goals of the Emerging Civil War Series to teach the interested reader about an important aspect of the Civil War. Readers will learn not to romanticize the conflict. They will see instead the harsh, hard nature of the Civil War and the wretched conditions endured by many of its POWs.
The history of prisoner of war (POW) treatment was abysmal world-wide until years after the War Between the States. Although efforts had begun near the end of the Napoleonic wars, true reform on the treatment of POWs was decades in the future. Nothing substantive had been done by 1861 so when both sides began taking each other’s soldiers as POWs, problems immediately began to emerge. The last major American experience of taking large numbers of prisoners in combat was 80 years prior to the War Between the States and the examples from that war were nothing to emulate.
As the war began both armies fell-back onto the age-old process of exchanging prisoners. The Dix-Hill Cartel concluded an agreement in the summer of 1862 for the exchange of prisoners. A series of different and complex permutations made allowances for the exchange of different ranks and it actually worked for a few months until the Emancipation Proclamation. The Confederates objected to the exchange of black POWs as many were still considered escaped, or freed, property. After this, the system started and stopped largely based on locations and commanders. The end result is that many POWs on both sides were stuck interminably in POW camps until they could be exchanged----or freed. GEN Grant stopped the exchanges in 1864 which was a death sentence to many POWs on both sides.
Neither side was prepared for the huge number of POWs and it caused massive problems that had never been imagined for both sides. Overall, prisoner deaths of Confederates in Northern POW camps ranked at 12% of those incarcerated while 15% of Northerners perished. The difference of 3% is certainly a nominal difference in the big picture, almost within a standard deviation from the mean. The biggest difference is that the North exercised a deliberate policy of retribution and revenge against the Confederate POWs. It was officially called “retaliation”. While the Southern POW camps suffered from the massive shortages’ endemic in the South, Northern prisons were well-able to provide the necessities for their POWs. They refused to as a deliberate policy.
During the less than one year Elmira was in operation from 1864-1865, more than 10,000 POWs were crammed into the former Union Army mustering camp. Beautiful summer weather soon turned foul as early winter arrived and the POWs, clad in only the uniforms in which they were captured began to suffer severely. The camp was built near the Chemung River which meant one side of the camp was marshy with poor drainage. Poor sanitation led to human waste collecting in low areas with poor drainage. In a move to economize, barracks were quickly erected with uncured and unfinished lumber. Totally uninsulated, the buildings were freezing cold in the winter. No blankets were issued and combined with a starvation diet, a huge number of POWs became sick.
Union Army surgeons assigned to Elmira POW camp were overwhelmed and complained through official channels of the terrible conditions. The camp commanders blocked efforts of the surgeons to fix the problems and Dr. Eugene F. Sanger was finally relieved in December after submitting numerous reports criticizing the lack of care of the POWs.
Maxfield does a very commendable job of chronicling the experiences of the POWs by incorporating the entries from the official Union records as well as from the letters and diaries written by the POWs. The remains of the former Union Army mustering camp and POW camp are virtually gone today. The Chemung River is still there and historical markers note the boundaries of the former camp, now over-run by urban sprawl. What does remain is the Woodlawn Cemetery, about two miles from the former POW camp. The cemetery holds the remains of the nearly 3,000 Confederates who died far-away from their homes.
The book has several appendices, A through G with interesting maps and stories about the POW camp. One of the appendices is about the escaped slave, John W. Jones. Jones’ efforts as the cemetery sexton insured the decent burial of the Confederates as well as the marking and recording of all graves. Without his efforts, most of the POWs would have been lost to memory. Another appendix discusses the burial of Samuel Clements ---- Mark Twain the Missourian who ended-up in Elmira, New York. The last appendix is written by the sister of a member of our Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table. Retired LTC Tom Olszowy’s sister, Terri, wrote an excellent account of the restoration efforts of the “Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp”. Efforts include fabricating or restoring buildings as historical representations of wartime structures.
Over 400,000 POWs were held during the war. 55,000 died in captivity on both sides, a horrible figure. Two thousand nine hundred and fifty dead of 10,000 POWs produced a death rate of 24% making Elmira aptly labeled as the “Andersonville of the North” (a death rate of 29%) and garnering the name “Hellmira”. What everyone learned from our shared American experiences with POWs during our War Between the States is that man’s inhumanity to man caused much needless suffering and left bitter memories for years after the war. A number of changes were instituted just over a half century later, the US military incorporated massive changed to how it kept its prisoners in WWI. Many of those lessons are incorporated into our POW policies today.
Derek Maxfield has done an excellent job telling the story of Elmira. Every POW camp was different and their circumstances led to different outcomes. The one common thread however was the official policy of “retaliation” which the U.S. has since renounced, now practicing humanitarian benevolence to prisoners of war. I highly recommend this book for those wishing to gain a perspective of what prisoners suffered through during the war and the policies that led to their treatment.