Union War Crimes Against
Confederate Prisoners In NY
By Michael A. Hoffman II
Revisionist History, No. 25 -

Extract www.hoffman-info.com
2/16/2004

 


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 prisoners.
 
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.
 
"Helmira"
 
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 camp.
 
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 threats.
 
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..."

This site last updated 01/16/2011                                      Col. Thomas Hardeman, Jr.  UDC Chapter 2170 Macon, Ga.

 

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