ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – A 12-foot-high replica stockade fence will be going up at the former site of Camp Rathbun on Windsor Avenue, more commonly known as “Hellmira.”
“It will be a 12 foot high wall, and it will have a parapet for the garden mounts and we’re thinking anywhere between a 40 to 50 foot section of it,” said Douglas Oakes, a board member of the ‘Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp,’ a volunteer group working to educate people about the history of the camp.
From 1864 to 1865, the original stockade surrounded about 40 acres, where a more than 12,000 confederate soldiers were held as prisoners. From training to recruiting, Elmira at the time was playing a key role in the North’s war effort.
The existing prisons overflowed and we ended up with the overflow,” said Terri Olszowy, a board member of ‘Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.’
Some of the prisoners were housed in 30 former barracks buildings, that could hold about 100 men each. The rest were housed in standard army issued tents. Nearly 3,000 soldiers did not survive a particularly harsh winter, and outbreak of disease.
“We have soldiers who are coming up from the deep South,” said Olszowy. “While they do have winters and cold weather down there. This was a bit extreme. It was extreme for the locals. When you think about it, chronic diarrhea and dysentery today are easily fixed with medications that were not available, the same thing with smallpox.”
“The problem is, is during the Civil War, nobody knew really how to handle large numbers of prisoners. The logistics of prison camps was horrendous, across the board, North and South. Don’t get me wrong conditions were very harsh here. People suffered here as prisoners of war. But that wasn’t necessarily an intentional attempt,” said Olszowy.
“As they passed away, there was a structure called the Dead House, where they built actual coffins and then the coffins were picked up by a contractor, and the contractors name was John W. Jones. His museum is just up the road across from the cemetery itself.
John W. Jones was a former slave who escaped from a plantation in Virginia. He settled in Elmira and became a key figure in the Underground Railroad. Jones also worked to identify the 2,973 Confederate soldiers who died in “Hellmira.” Because of his work, the soldiers are resting at Woodlawn National Cemetery.
“The body was cleaned up. It was laid in the into the box. They filled out a piece of paper with the guy’s name and unit information on it. Put it in a little glass bottle and stuck it under his arm. They held up the coffin, and then Jones would take it up to the camp.” said Olszowy.
“He is credited for maintaining the roster to the point where just about every grave marker up there has a name and a unit on it, which is unusual for a lot of mass burials. In the Civil War, a lot of times it was just an open trench and bodies got chucked in.”
The camp is also partnering with Elmira College for a symposium the weekend of August 4th, that will include lectures, tours of Civil War sites, and book signings.
“I constantly hear comments from people that have lived here their entire lives. They had no idea what history, what Civil War history went on here,” said Martin Chalk, president of the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp. Mr. Chalk is also a Chemung County Legislator, representing the City of Elmira.
“Everything that’s been done here has been done pretty much with private donations. So, we will be looking for additional help as we build the stockade and as we move forward, but we feel it’s very important building knowledge and building buildings,” said Chalk. “We want to continue to build. We want to build knowledge, and we want to build places that people can come and see.”
“We encourage folks to come down and learn about all the extra history that nobody knows about, kind of like Hidden History, if you will,” said Olszowy.
The hope is to break ground on the stockade fence this Fall and have it completed by the Spring of 2024. The goal is to also build a new museum and research center, but that plan is still in its early stages.
The camp is open saturdays from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information about the upcoming symposium with Elmira College on August 4-6, click here.