Union War Crimes Against
Confederate Prisoners In NY
By Michael A. Hoffman II
Revisionist History, No. 25 -
Jim Daniels 3rd Greatgrandson of Eli S. Glover
Visiting grave in Elmira (Helmira) New York
- Mr. Lincoln's Death Camp
- The summer of 1864 also witnessed the
establishment of Elmira's "most distasteful moment of buccaneering
capitalism." In late July, W. and W. Mears constructed an observatory
across from the camp and citizens were given an opportunity to view the
prisoners for an admission fee of 10cents. A horse-drawn bus shuttled
sightseers from a downtown hotel to the" observation platform. The
observatory "was especially crowded on Sundays." The proprietors took in
as much as forty dollars per day. A local newspaper stated that by the
aid of "a powerful glass" sightseers can see the vermin which are said
to be plentiful upon the bodies of the prisoners."
- Refreshment stands sprang up around the
observatory "like those at a fair." Ginger cakes, lemonade, peanuts,
crackers, beer and whiskey were among the victuals and delicacies
offered. The Elmira Daily Gazette touted the observatory as among the
city's finest attractions, urging attendance "by all strangers and
citizens." The voyeuristic observatory was bitterly resented by the
Confederate prisoners, one of whom remarked, "I am surprised that (P.T.)
Barnum has not taken the prisoners off the hands of Abe."
- Federal Policy: Starvation of Prisoners
- By Aug. 26, 1864, 793 POWs were reported
suffering from scurvy, a form of malnutrition due to a lack of fruit and
vegetables in the diet. While not in itself fatal, scurvy contributes to
severe physical enervation which renders the body prone to opportunistic
disease and infections that are mortal. The prisoners suffered from
ulcerative colitis (an often fatal infection of the intestinal tract),
amoebic dysentery and renal infection; among other serious illnesses.
That summer the local newspapers reported bumper crops of apples, pears,
peaches, and a variety of fresh vegetables including corn. Death in the
month of August claimed 115 Elmira prisoners. On Sept. 1 the camp's
census was 9,480;
- The U.S. government purchased a half acre of
Elmira's Woodlawn Cemetery for the burial of Confederate prisoners of
war. A carpentry shop was established in the middle of the camp for the
express purpose of making pine coffins.
- The stockade's well water, thoroughly
contaminated by the diseased pond, was beginning to take a terrible
toll. The authorities in Washington D.C. repeatedly refused to order the
pond drained: "The failure of the commissary general to launch a work
project in the good weather of late summer is puzzling. It now appeared,
in the eyes of some, that a tactic of deliberate delay was beginning to
come into being."
- Seventy-five years later, Elmira prison camp
survivor James Huffman would recall that the "well water looked pure and
good but was deadly poison to our men."
- In September of 1864 Union officer Bennett F..
Munger informed Elmira's Commandant Tracy that starvation was stalking
the Confederate prisoners, that "during the past week there have been
112 deaths, reaching one day 29. There seems little doubt numbers have
died both in quarters and hospital from want of proper food."
- Elmira's death toll for September was 385. The
half-acre cemetery for the prisoners was now full. The Federal
government acquired an additional two acres, a macabre quadrupling of
the original burial grounds. In an Oct. 1, 1864 letter to his wife, a
ranking Union officer at Elmira wrote, "The rebs are dying quite fast,
from 8 to 30 per day."
- In an editorial in the Oct. 2, 1864 edition of
the New York Times the Federal government was advised "that rebel
prisoners should no longer live in luxury ..." The Elmira Daily
Advertiser cheerfully informed its readers that the Confederate
prisoners were contented, healthy and in good condition. The
circus...like observation deck was closed to the public. It was now used
by army sentries exclusively.
- On Oct. 3, Commandant Tracy issued Special Order
No. 336 cutting back on the supply of food accorded the prisoners.
Horigan writes: "Special Order No. 336 immediately became a factor in
the camp's excessive death rate...No possible 'good' came from this
order Tracy erred in blind allegiance...to a power structure in
Washington bent on revenge. Starvation, manifested in stages, would
become visibly evident inside the prison camp."
- The "blind allegiance" the author alludes to is a
reference to a series of murderous orders from Lincoln's high command
ordering a reduction in the malnourished Confederate prisoners' rations
throughout the POW camps of the North. The Commissary General, Col.
Hoffman, is on record as early as April 29, 1864 advocating half-rations
for Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island. Stanton presented a
similar proposal to Lincoln on May 5, 1864, which Lincoln apparently
approved, because on June I, 1864 the Union high command officially
ordered a 20% reduction in the rations of Confederate prisoners which
had been inadequate to begin with. The situation was further exacerbated
by the army's Circular No.4 of Aug. 10, 1864 forbidding the purchase of
food by prisoners from the camp "sutler" (authorized civilian grocer).
- There is no question that Hoffman intentionally
withheld the--at that time-huge sum of $1,845,125 worth of food,
clothing, shelter and medical supplies budgeted for Confederate
- Elmira prison camp survivor Anthony Keiley, a
former Southern newspaper editor, wrote in 1866, "In a nation whose
boast is that they do not feel the war...and supplies of all sorts
wonderfully abundant, it is simply infamous to starve the sick as they
did at Elmira." Unlike the situation at Andersonville, this was
starvation amidst plenty.
- Former Elmira prisoner James B. Stamp recollected
that "prisoners were reduced to absolute suffering. All the. rats that
could be captured were eaten..."G. T. Taylor of the 1st Alabama wrote,
"Elmira was nearer Hades than I thought any place could be made by human
cruelty.". Taylor's observation reflected the prisoners' sobriquet for
the camp, "Helmira."
- The New York Herald ran a story about the
treatment of Elmira prisoners, labeling as "pure fabrication claims of
starvation, abuse and neglect of the rebel prisoners..." Reports on
Elmira by Dorthea Dix, the famed New England mental health reformer and
the U.S. Sanitary Commission, whose members visited Elmira but were not
allowed into Barracks No.3, were all highly complimentary. The Sanitary
Commission, a civilian agency financed with private funds, supplied US
troops in the field with supplementary food, blankets, clothing and
medicine. The Commission issued a report echoing the sentiments of Col.
Hoffman that, "prisoners of war in our hands are treated with all
consideration and kindness that might be expected of a humane and
Christian people." Miss Dix meanwhile, "was highly gratified at the
manner in which the government provides for the prisoners of war" in
Elmira. During her brief stay at the camp, more than a dozen Confederate
prisoners of war died.
- Due in part to the presence of a Union spy posing
as an inmate (20 year old Melvin Conklin), only 17 Confederate prisoners
escaped during the Elmira camp's existence. One managed to gain his
freedom by posing as a corpse and allowing himself to be placed in a
loosely nailed coffin by co-conspirators on the prison burial detail.
When the coffin wagon approached Woodlawn Cemetery, the prisoner made
his move, forcing open the lid of the coffin and sprinting' into woods
nearby. The horrified black driver of the wagon, in a state of
disbelief, sat as motionless as a petrified piece of stone.
- James W. Crawford of the 6th Virginia was one of
the few to escape, having participated in a spectacular October getaway
by ten prisoners via a hand dug tunnel system. It took him 23 days to
make his way to Virginia. He told the Richmond Examiner: "I succeeded in
getting out of the clutches of the meanest people that have ever
lived...Our prisoners sicken and die twenty-five to thirty per day; but
that seems to please them more than anything else." The enraged Crawford
concluded by stating that the South "should fight forever before being
subdued by such a nation." In October death claimed 276 Confederates
inside Barracks No.3. As hundreds died, Elmirans enjoyed a rich harvest
from the surrounding farms, and the Yankee officers assigned to Elmira
hosted a gala dinner ball. Friends and invited guests of the 54th New
York shared laughter and fine food.
- Prisoners Poisoned by the Camp Doctor
- In addition to all of the perils the Southern
troops had to contend with in Elmira, it appears that the camp's chief
medical officer, Maj. Sanger, may have been ordering the poisoning of
Confederate hospital patients with arsenic.
- Former prisoner Walter D. Addison was an orderly
in the camp's ramshackle hospital. Addison testified in his memoirs that
Sanger ordered another medical officer, Dr. Van Ness, to administer,
"Fowler's solution of arsenic. He wrote (prescribed) forty-five (drops)
and the patients in a very short time breathed their last. No
investigation ensued...Dr. Van Ness continued his position."
- Author Michael Horigan observes, "There was,
according to Addison, a desire on the part of Union officers to kill
Confederate prisoners." By way of corroboration, Horigan unearthed a
confidential letter from Major Sanger to Brig. Gen. John L. Hodsdon
confessing to the murder of hundreds of helpless Confederate prisoners
in Elmira. Hodsdon concealed the letter's contents and they were not
divulged outside U.S. government circles during Sanger's lifetime.
Writing in mid-October,1864, Sanger told Hodsdon, "I now have charge of
10,000 rebels, a very worthy occupation for a patriot, particularly
adapted to elevate himself in his own estimation, but I think I have
done my duty having relieved 386 of them of all earthly sorrow... ,"
- Clothing & Blankets Withheld in Winter
- As the fierce New York winter approached the
prisoners were denied insulation of the prison's buildings. Heat,
blankets and warm clothing were all in scant supply. A Baltimore,
Maryland relief organization consisting of private citizens sent a
representative to Elmira to broach the possibility of providing a warm
clothing shipment to the prisoners. They were forbidden access to the
- Their leader, John Van Allen, urgently appealed
to the War department. He was told his group could proceed with the
clothing donation if they complied with a maze of time- consuming
regulations. The bureaucratic entanglements grew so complex that the
Baltimore group, perceiving that the impediments were deliberate and
never-ending, withdrew the offer. Van Allen described Secretary of War
Stanton's attitude toward the proposed humanitarian relief: "Stanton was
inexorable to all my entreaties."
- The death toll at Elmira for December was 269
Confederates. A Dec. 4 report by Capt. Munger stated that at least 1,000
Elmira prisoners were "entirely destitute of blankets." The "rebels"
would add freezing to death along with starvation, disease, contaminated
water and physician administered arsenic to the list of Elmira's deadly
- On Jan. 19, 1865, Brig. Gen. Henry Wessells
blocked winter clothing shipments to Elmira's prisoners. In late
January, Major George Blagden, assistant to the commissary general of
prisoners in Washington, "revealed that clothing requisitions ticketed
for Elmira were deliberately being withheld by the War department
through the months of December and January.." The commissary general's
order on winter clothing for Confederate prisoners was outlined in a
directive to the commandant of Camp Morton: "So long as a prisoner has
clothing upon him, however much torn, you must issue nothing to him..."