Elmira Union Civil War Prison

In the summer of 1864, the Federal Government converted Camp #3, also known as Camp Rathbun, into a prison camp for captured Confederate Soldiers.  The continued fighting and end of paroles increased the number of Confederate prisoners. This required establishing more prison camps in the North and South.

Camp Rathbun was one of four camps built in 1861 when Elmira was designated as a meeting point for the Union army.  Volunteer regiments raised in Western New York State were processed in Elmira and then sent to Washington.

Prison DrawingThe prison camp consisted of a 30-acre plot of ground surrounded by a twelve foot wall with a rampart near its top and on the outside of the wall.  Approximately every hundred feet there was a shelter to protect the guards from the weather. 

The camp opened on July 6, 1864, when 400 Confederate POWs marched from Erie Station to the prison camp.  The camp population eventually increased to 12,123 prisoners.

Confederate PrisonersThe Confederate soldiers soon renamed Elmira's prison camp "Hellmira." It was said to have been the worst prison camp in the North.

The camp soon became overcrowded. The prison population jumped from 4,500 in late July to 10,000 by fall. Inadequate housing for the prisoners and a shortage of medical supplies, and sometimes doctors, created ideal conditions for small pox and other epidemics.  The harsh winter in 1864-65 made matters worse. On St. Patrick's Day of 1865 the Chemung River flooded, filling their tents and barracks with anywhere between six inches to two feet of water.

Tents set up along the banks of the Chemung RiverDisease, overcrowding, and natural disaster took its toll. Of the 12,123 prisoners assigned to the camp 2,963 died. Though some reports indicate prisoners received adequate rations, it is generally believed they did not.

The sexton for Woodlawn Cemetery, John W. Jones, a former slave who arrived in Elmira via the Underground Railroad, buried each Confederate soldier that died in the Elmira Prison Camp.  Of the 2,963 prisoners who Jones buried, only seven are listed as unknown. The federal government declared the burial site a national cemetery on December 7, 1877.

A salute to the past at the dedication of the Memorial site in 1982When the war ended, the prisoners received railway passes and money to get home. The last Confederate prisoner left the Elmira Prison Camp on September 27, 1865.

The former prison camp site is now a residential area.

The site of the camp is indicated by a roadside sign and small stone marker.

[Source: Pages in the History of Elmira, Civil War Prison Camp: Hellmira.]

There is a monument in downtown Elmira to soldiers of the New York Volunteers.

Revised 01/25/2011