Visiting the Site of the Union Prison Camp and National Cemetery at Elmira New York: Photo Tour

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Pat Young

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Today I was moving my step-son up to college at SUNY Binghamton. I decided to drive 60 miles west to Elmira to see what remains of the Union prison camp there and the National Cemetery there. I was surprised that Michele, her son Adam, and even her ex all wanted to come along. I will be posting pictures over the next few days. I wanted to begin with the recognition of the severe toll that this and other prison camps took on the inmates. Almost 3,000 of the 12,000 men imprisoned there died. The camp was only open open for a little over a year.

Below is the monument to the Confederate prisoners who died there.

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I offered a prayer for the dead there, unfortunately explosive lightning strikes nearby led me to flee fairly soon, but I will post more on the cemetery, its history, and why all but seven of the Confederate dead have tombstones with their names and units on them. Leave some comments and questions and I will respond.
 
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Pat Young

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I visited the site of the Shohola disaster a decade ago, so I wanted to see the monument in Elmira to these victims of a train crash. The men had been buried next to the train tracks originally. Their bodies are now in a mass grave beside this monument.
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One side of the monument recalls the Union dead, the other side recalls the Confederates.
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Pat Young

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At the cemetery, there is a memorial to John Jones, the sexton of the cemetery who buried each of the Confederates interred here. As the marker says, Jones was an escaped slave. I will write more about him in the next post on Elmira's prison.

It is rare that the people who buried the dead the are remembered. Kudos to Elmira for remembering him in the cemetery and across the street at the Jones home.

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7thWisconsin

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The Confederate monument is interesting because the figure has only personal equipment, no weapons - because he's a prisoner. In a heavy rain, it looks like the figure cries also. There is a reconstruction of one of the barracks at the prison site, and a very informative kiosk as well. There are some artifacts at the Chemung County Historical Society down the street. True story: my uncle was the long-time janitor of the same church at which John Jones was sexton, so essentially they had the same job.
 

Pat Young

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More on John Jones, the Sexton from historian Michael Gray:

John W. Jones, held in bondage by the Elzy family in Leesburg, had escaped along the Underground Railroad in 1844. Jones had resettled in Elmira, gained an education at a local school, and advanced to the position of sexton at Woodlawn Cemetery by the time the prison opened in July 1864. At the end of that month, Commissary General Hoffman approved three hundred dollars for leasing a half acre of ground at the local cemetery to bury dead Confederates, and authorized employment of a person to bury them for forty dollars a month. Jones held his modest job at a fortuitous time, for he soon found that the morbid business of death boomed while the prison existed. To help the sexton transfer corpses, Hoffman allowed a wagon to be purchased and modified into a hearse.40 “The first day that I was called in my capacity of sexton to bury a prisoner who had died,” wrote Jones, “I thought nothing of it.… Directly there were more dead. One day I had seven to bury. After that they began to die very fast.”41 By 1865, Southern interments were becoming more expensive and expansive as the cemetery began running out of room. On January 1, 1865, Mayor Arnot leased out an additional half-acre of land at Woodlawn, which cost the government $600. Also, undoubtedly to the chagrin of Hoffman, Jones was not paid a monthly fee of $40 but was instead compensated at an individual rate set at $2.50 per burial.

In the meantime, a customized hearse driven by John Donohoe for $60 per month had been pulling up to the morgue for its daily collection. Inmates employed at the prison camp morgue, a sixteen-by-thirty-by-twelve-foot building, prepared their own for burial, constructing pine coffins as fast as they could while corpses piled up in the corners.43 Clothing and personal items of the deceased were to be left alone, and each cadaver was tagged for identification, which included name, company, regiment, and date of death. These records were transcribed onto the coffin lid, then the papers were bottled and put in the box before it was nailed shut. The straight-shaped coffins were loaded six at a time onto the hearse for removal to Woodlawn, a few miles north of the pen.44 This “admirable system” provoked one Confederate to state sarcastically that at Elmira “the care of the dead was better than that bestowed on the living.”

At Woodlawn, Sexton Jones directed the opening of trenches, most of which were positioned north to south. Caskets were placed in short increments, and a crew of ten to twelve prisoners on graveyard detail helped with the digging. The largest number that Jones buried in a single day was forty-three, which brought more than $100 to him, while his busiest month, March, brought him $1,237.50.46 This is not to suggest that the sexton did not earn his pay. He meticulously transferred the information on each coffin lid into a large ledger that detailed the position of every Confederate buried at Woodlawn. He made sure that the wooden headboards had the correct information written on them in white lead paint, and then placed them over the appropriate plot. Nine laborers were on the quartermaster’s payroll, each paid forty-five dollars per month to set headboards that local carpenter William F. Naefe had built.

Eventually, workers dug more than thirty-six trenches and laid to rest 2,973 Confederates at Woodlawn Cemetery.48 Incidentally, it would have cost Prison Commissary Hoffman only $480 if the Sexton had been paid monthly. Instead, Hoffman paid him a total of $7,432.50 for prisoner burials. The old slave had adapted quite well to the capitalistic North. Long after the end of hostilities, a personal friend of Jones remembered the significance of the Confederate burials at $2.50 apiece: “The aggregate of these fees was the basis of the comfortable fortune he amassed in the years after the war. He was rated as the wealthiest colored man in this part of the State.”


Gray, Michael. The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison . The Kent State University Press. Kindle Edition.
 

lupaglupa

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My great-great-grandfather was at "Hellmira" - lucky for him he was sick enough to be paroled before winter. My Mother and I visited there last year and were really impressed with the work the local group has done to set up information at the site. The camp site, cemetery, and the John Jones home are all well worth a visit. Thanks @Pat Young for sharing your photos and impressions.
 

Ole Miss

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Pat, it has been too long since you last posted my friend! Good to hear from you again and in such an interesting thread. The care and attention to detail about the poor men imprisoned speaks highly of your care and interest in preserving their memories. Well done as always.
Regards
David
 
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Thanks for sharing, didn't know if anything remained there. I am heading for Johnson's Island on Monday, to see what remains there...
 
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Thanks for sharing, didn't know if anything remained there. I am heading for Johnson's Island on Monday, to see what remains there...
 
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