Pages in the History of Elmira


Civil War Prison Camp: Hellmira

The only photograph showing the whole prison camp.
The Civil War was in its third year when in the summer of 1864 the Federal Government converted Camp #3, also known as Camp Rathbun, into a prison camp for captured Confederate Soldiers. Heavy losses by the Confederate Army during this period necessitated the Drawing by a Confederate captor of the Prison Campestablishment of more prison camps in the North. Camp Rathbun was one of four camps built in 1861 when Elmira was designated as a rendezvous for the Union army. All volunteer regiments raised in Western New York State were processed in Elmira and then sent to the nation's capital.

The 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 guard shelter to protect them from the weather. The large main gate was located just east of where Foster Avenue now meets Water Street

On July 6, 1864, 400 Confederate prisoners of war marched from Erie Station to the prison camp, becoming the first of 12,123 prisoners held in Elmira.

Prisoners are marched in formation in front of the buildings of the Prison Camp The Confederate soldiers soon renamed Elmira's prison camp "Hellmira." It was said to have been the worst prison camp in the North.

Before long, the camp became overcrowded. The prison population jumped from 4,500 in late July to 10,000 by fall. Inadequate housing for the influx of prisoners and a shortage of medical supplies, and sometimes doctors, created ideal conditions for small pox and other epidemics. These diseases spread through the camp like wildfire. A harsh winter in 1864-65 made matters worse. On St. Patrick's Day of the same year 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 River Disease, overcrowding, and natural disaster took its toll. Of the 12,123 prisoners assigned to the camp, 2,963 died in all. 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 1982At war's end, prisoners received railway passes and money enough 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, but a monument on Winsor Avenue stands in memorial to Elmira's Confederate prisoners of war.
>Display a map to the prison camp site

Woodlawn National Cemetery can assist with locating Confederate and Union soldier gravesites. Contact them by writing to:

Woodlawn National Cemetery
1825 Davis Street
Elmira, NY 14901

Or call (607) 732-5411 or send email to brian.mccabe@va.gov
>Visit the National Cemetery Website