John W. Jones is a man remembered for many things. He escaped slavery at the age of 27. Learned to read and write after settling in Elmira at the same age. Jones also became one of the wealthiest men in the area during his lifetime.
But perhaps what he is remembered for the most is not what he did to become so wealthy, but rather how, when it came time to bury nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers who died while imprisoned at the Elmira Prison Camp during the Civil War.
“He was very careful. He kept accurate records,” says Art Smith, a trustee for the John W. Jones Museum.
“He would put a bottle in each tomb, in each casket, that would give the man’s name, his rank and the unit he was with, the company, and the state that he was from. And he was able to get identification for all the six or seven of them.”
Jones was a sexton for the First Baptist Church, and also Woodlawn Cemetery. He was paid $2.50 per burial, and this is what led to him being one of the wealthiest men in the area.
Jones could have easily buried each body and not kept records or take extra care, but he did. Even though the men he was burying died in the name of, among other things, upholding slavery.
“That’s why I say that he was an extraordinary gentleman,” says the President of the Friends of the Civil War Camp, Marty Chalk.
“I think many people would not have taken that care but he did and that’s why, I think to this day, he has such great respect and such great admiration. He truly did a great service to those soldiers who died here,” says Chalk.
“I think it speaks very highly of the individual and the type of man he was,” says Art Smith.
“He was a Christian and he practiced his religion and he worked very hard in taking care of those tombs. He was the only one to mark them.”
Jones’ precise record keeping not only helped make Woodlawn a National Cemetery in 1877, but the descendants of the Confederate dead buried at Woodlawn can still find their ancestors more than a century later.
“I can’t begin to tell you how important that was for the generations that have followed because we have numerous people coming here from North and South Carolina, and they’re here to see their great-grandfathers, or great-great-grandfathers and they’re able to find them and that is all thanks to John Jones,” says Marty Chalk.