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Medical Care at Elmira Prison Camp

Editor’s Note: WSKG has asked faculty and graduate students in the History Department at Binghamton University to explore the history behind PBS’s new Civil War medical drama Mercy Street. In today’s blog post, graduate student Gary Emerson discusses the medical care at the Elmira Prison Camp.

Medical Care at Elmira Prison Camp

Although medical care improved over the course of the Civil War, prisoners often received inadequate and sometimes negligent medical care in prison camps.When prisoner exchanges broke down in the summer of 1863, both the Union and Confederate armies began placing large numbers of captured men into prison camps. Both sides were unprepared for this turn of events, and what followed proved disastrous.In the summer of 1864, the Union established a prison camp in Elmira, New York to house captured Confederates. The camp could house around five thousand men, but within a short time, nearly twice that number occupied the prison. Conditions in the camp and the poor medical care made Elmira one of the deadliest of all Civil War prisons and earned it the nickname “Helmira”. 


On July 6, 1864, the first Confederate prisoners arrived in Elmira at the Erie Railroad station and marched one mile to the camp. 399 men came in that first group. By the end of August, over 9,600 men crammed into the prison.The first contingent of prisoners arrived to find no doctor in the camp to provide for them, yet men suffered from dysentery and pneumonia. Sick prisoners lived in the barracks and tents with other healthy men, which only served to make more men sick.On August 6, Major Eugene Sanger, an army doctor, finally arrived at the camp.Dr. Sanger did not have a good reputation with the prisoners. One Confederate soldier said Sanger “was simply a brute.” However, he did try to improve conditions in the camp by filing requests with the camp commander, Colonel Benjamin Tracy, and with the Commissary General of prisoners, Colonel William Hoffman, only to find that the wheels of bureaucracy moved very slowly.A stagnant pond of water called Foster’s Pond posed an important problem in the camp. The latrines were located on the edge of the pond, and it became a cesspool of filth and human waste spreading illness and fouling the water in the camp wells. Colonel Hoffman took months to approve the digging of a canal to get water from the Chemung River flowing through Foster’s Pond.


Miscommunication and Death

Sanger and his aides did not communicate well.In one deadly instance, another doctor summoned Sanger to recommend treatment for three Confederates in failing health. Sanger prescribed “three or four drops of Fowler's solution of arsenic.” Unfortunately, the other doctor neglected to include the word “or” when he wrote up the prescription. The three men each received 45 drops of the solution, and they all died.The Confederate prisoners sickened and died in rising numbers. In addition to the foul water, the prisoners received a meager diet. In retaliation for the poor treatment Union soldiers received in Southern prison camps, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered a further reduction in rations. Reducing rations to unhealthy men only contributed to more illness.

Housing problems also contributed to the poor health of the camp. The camp lacked enough wooden barracks for all the prisoners, and the military turned to housing many of them in tents. As summer faded into fall and winter began to arrive, men continued to live in tents with only one blanket for warmth.Deaths from pneumonia, diarrhea, and dysentery continued to mount, and then a new deadly threat suddenly arrived in the camp at the end of October: smallpox


When a new batch of prisoners arrived from Alabama, one man was infected with smallpox. Soon other cases appeared.Every time the surgeons thought they contained the outbreak, more cases arose. Doctors and nurses should have screened and inoculate prisoners and quarantined victims.Unfortunately for the prisoners, just as the smallpox epidemic surfaced, Dr. Sanger and Colonel Tracy began feuding, and they did little to counter the outbreak. Doctor Sanger was relieved of his post in December; the new head surgeon, Major Anthony Stocker, arrived and took more aggressive steps against the smallpox epidemic.Stocker began inoculating Confederate prisoners. Many of the men contracted painful open sores on their arms from a bad batch of inoculating material. The prisoners suspected the doctors were trying to kill them, which only made other men fearful of treatment.

Stocker also quarantined cases of smallpox, but had no separate hospital to house the infected inmates. Therefore, the stricken men lived in tents in the freezing winter temperatures. If a man died, his body was placed outside the tent where it froze in the frigid weather.In February 1865, the camp completed a wooden structure to house smallpox patients.Other illnesses also thinned the ranks of the imprisoned Confederates. The camp saw its deadliest months in January, February, and March with 285, 426, and 491 deaths, respectively. The arrival of spring and the end of the war finally put a merciful end to the misery in Elmira. When the camp closed in July 1865, nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers lay buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, over 24% of the total number of men imprisoned at Elmira.


Echoes from the Past

In 1914, nearly fifty years after the camp closed, Elmira resident Almond Gould was excavating a basement for a house on the grounds of the old prison camp. His shovel struck something hard, something wooden. To his astonishment, he discovered a coffin. Inside lay a body covered with lime, indicating the man died of something contagious (such as smallpox). The coffin also contained a tin coffee pot and cup, a china plate, a glass medicine bottle, and a clay pipe.The unknown soldier was reburied in Woodlawn Cemetery to rest with the other victims of Helmira. Read our other blog posts about Mercy Street.Photo Credit: Chemung County Historical Society

Further Reading:Elmira: Death Camp of the North by Michael Horigan. NY: Stackpole Books, 2002.The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison by Michael Gray. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001.

Gary Emerson is a PhD. student in American History at Binghamton University. He grew up in Elmira, New York and taught history at Newfield Central School before retiring in 2013.