History 2019

Day 10

May 25


There are no apparent real 'breakfast' options where we are now, so I tell Sissy and Andy -

"We'll just mosey along and maybe we'll run across a real deal diner or something along the way."


So we are off like a dirty shirt but I see no diners along our path. However, I do see a sign for Bob Evans, so I lead the gang off the highway and down into town. We get to do several fancy U-turn maneuvers similar to synchronized swimming as the entrance to the restaurant is not intuitively obvious and the four lane has a very pronounced concrete divider in the middle of it.

  But once again the hot chocolate is great ...  
  and the omelet is good and the breakfast challenge has been met with and dealt with.  
  And in the wake of the meeting there is nothing left but ashes.  
  There will be very little interstate on the way up to Elmira, and for that we are thankful. After I was run off the interstate by a careless driver resulting in my pickup truck being totaled, I like the interstates even less than before. To me, they are just necessary evils for getting from one place to another hopefully quickly.  
  Most of the day we will be in the Pennsylvania countryside with it's lovely streams ...  
  neat barns ...  
  old, classic church buildings ...  
  and stately old manses.  
  When we pass through this town - Wyalusing - I have to wonder just how you pronounce that. But the original name is even more confusing - M'chwihilusing.  
  It's a typical small town with quiet streets and little traffic this morning.  
  Along the way we see more interesting old buildings ...  
  lovely quaint houses ...  
  and some really neat paint jobs.  
  When we arrive in Elmira proper, we cannot locate the POW camp site according to where my GPS places it. We are right at the Chemung Valley History Museum, so I figure they should know where it is without us doing a bunch of searching.  

When I go inside, I see a square grand piano that is very close to the one that we have in our living room. The lady inside is very helpful and tells us -

"Oh yes, they just came by to pick up the keys."

But she cannot find the address of the place in her files. Fortunately I see a brochure over to the side about it and it has the address. She gives us quick directions to it now that she knows where it is and we are off to the next phase of our adventure.

  The Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp have worked long and hard to establish a museum where the original camp was located. It just so happens that this is the first day that they are open for this season.  

When we go inside, Doug is there in a period uniform. I say to him with a grin -

"Well, you're wearing the wrong uniform!"

He replies "I could go put on my Confederate one" and we both laugh. He and Miss Terri are so kind to take us on a walking tour of the area. The first stop is a memorial about the camp that was only created in recent years.

  Sissy and I pose for our ancestor picture in front of it.  
  This flag stone was only set up in 1992 at the entrance to the camp with one of the original flag poles from the camp.  
  The memorial tells the horrors of the place though it was only used as a POW camp for about a year. During those 12 months, 2,970 of the 12,100 prisoners died from a combination of malnutrition, continued exposure to harsh winter weather, and disease from the poor sanitary conditions on Foster's Pond combined with a lack of medical care.  
  These thirty acres were dubbed 'Hellmira' by those prisoners who were incarcerated here. The first officer put in charge knew the facility could only hold 5,000 or so men and only feed 1,500 at a time. He was told to prepare for 8,000 to 10,000 men that were coming. Also, there were no medical facilities in the compound to tend to those that were ill and wounded.  
  The Friends have been able to procure what they believe to be one of the original buildings from the camp that was located and used as a garage at one of the local houses. They have also constructed a replica of one of the barracks and watch towers that were used at the camp.  
  The original building was disassembled and the parts marked so it could be moved and reconstructed as close to it's original state as possible.  
  In the reassembly, some new timbers had to be added due to the decay of some of the original wood, but for the most part it is built out of the original hemlock planks and beams.  
  Inside is lots of information about the camp and a model of what it looked like many years ago.  
  They give us a tour of the replica barracks and point out that they had to add extra roofing supports that the original barracks did not have. With the winter snows that come, the buildings would collapse from the weight of the snow. And the original buildings use board and batten for the roof just like they used on the sides, which was absolutely worthless at keeping out the water.  

Each barracks, for those fortunate to be assigned to a barracks instead of a tent, had two pot belly stoves. Sissy and I comment how that's the kind of stove we had in the first little shack we lived in up in the hills of Tennessee. I add -

"It was an old coal stove and when a fire was going, it always looked just like somebody grinning at you."

  They have on display what the prisoners would have been usually wearing while they were here.  

And for the many that did not survive, they have a sample of the old pine box that would be buried in and hauled to a nearby cemetery. There is an very interesting story about the Confederate burials from the camp -

The bodies of the deceased were prepared for burial at the camp and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery approximately 1.5 miles north of the camp site. The coffins would then have a jar containing the name of the person and any information he was willing to share placed inside, and then be laid to rest side by side in a long burial trench. Wooden grave markers were erected in the pattern of soldiers lining up for inspection.

The man who was put in charge of overseeing the burials was John W. Jones, the local sexton and an ex-slave. Jones was respectable in his duties and kept such precise records that only 7 out of the nearly 3,000 men buried there are unknown. He carefully cataloged and stored any valuables that were in possession of the prisoners at the time of their death, and later shipped them to their families. After the war, several men were exhumed and transferred home, but most families chose not to have their loved ones moved due to the honorable way in which they were buried.

  We do notice a 'surprise' visitor lurking in a corner of the barracks. I'm sure if the prisoners saw this, it would have ended up on somebody's supper plate before it was over.  
  From the reconstructed guard tower, you can down toward Foster's Pond which became an open sewer due to the overcrowding and lack of sanitary facilities. Since those days, a flood wall has been built to help control the rise of the Chemung River - which actually flooded the prison camp during it's occupation.  
  They have also set up a sweet memorial garden with plants representing each state that had prisoners here.  
  Before all of this was done, the only evidences that anything had gone on here were three small stone markers (one since has been moved to the Historical Society Museum).  
  If you did not know where they were, you would be hard pressed to find them. Fortunately our hosts know exactly where they are and take us right to them.  
  There was also this small metal marker put up about the whole affair by the local historical society. One of the interesting facts was that local 'entrepreneurs' built tall towers and charged the locals a small fee to climb up and observe those nasty Confederates. They even sold refreshments to the observers while the men inside the prison bargained for rats and such to eat.  

The original farm house of the person who leased the land for the prison is still standing. And in one of it's rooms, the Friends are setting up a Civil War research library for all to use. It is sad that for many years this whole affair was quietly swept under the rug. In fact, right after the war this is the story -

Though the conditions were brutal, they were common in prisons of both the North and the South. Historians still debate on whether that was due to poor management and inadequate supplies, as a means of retaliation, or both. Nevertheless, newspapers in the North attempted to downplay the conditions of the camp. The New York Herald denied any mistreatment of prisoners in Elmira, calling the reports a "pure fabrication." To the Herald, all rations at Elmira were sufficient and though it admitted the unusually high incidence of illness in the camp, the newspaper said that the sickness was "beyond the control of the authorities... there is no lack of medical attendance or supplies." The propaganda was so powerful that the belief that the Elmira prison camp was a humane alternative to Andersonville still prevailed in some circles of thought years later.

In a meeting in 1892, John T. Davidson, a captain of the guard detail at the prison, blamed the high mortality rate on the changing weather, water, and manner of living. He also conceded that the horrors of prison-camp life were numerous and a condition that all men should hope to avoid. However, he said, "none of these things can apply, with a shadow of truth, to the prison camp at Elmira."

However, by the end of the war, it could not be disputed that Elmira had taken a considerable toll on the prisoners who came through its doors, with its mortality rate (24.5%) being nearly that of Andersonville (28.7%).

What is amazing is that anyone familiar with Civil War history knows about the Southern POW Camp Andersonville but very few have ever heard of Elmira. There is a national historical site to preserve Andersonville. In fact, the Confederate officer in charge, Captain Henry Wirz, was the first person to be tried and executed as war crimes criminal. But here was a camp with a very similar death rate as Andersonville, and it gets swept under the historical rug until now. I guess the moral of the story is, if you win the war, you get to write the history.

  Our hosts take us for a return walk that would have been right in the middle of the camp. Of course after the war, the buildings were removed and the land returned to farmland and now residential housing. But no doubt JKP would have been somewhere in this area as a prisoner in the camp.  
  There are many lovely homes located in the 'camp area', very stately and ornate compared to the shambles that the prisoners lived in many years ago on the same ground.  

Sissy and I decide to purchase a memorial stone in honor of our great, great grandfather who suffered here. To us, it is a great way to finish up what has been an amazing walk through history. We thank Doug and Terri for taking all their time to guide us around and share the camp's history and their personal efforts to create a living museum for an important part of our nation's history.

As we leave, I take a shot looking down the river where the camp was located.

  Soon we are out of New York and back into Pennsylvania.  
  We get to enjoy a few good backroads before we have to get on the slab.  

Since all three of us grew up in Lewisburg, Tennessee I have to get a shot of this sign of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. I remember I was passing through here years ago and sent my momma a postcard from Lewisburg to Lewisburg -

"Just passing through town and thought I would drop you a note."

  As we make our way to Carlisle, PA to our location for the evening, I notice lots of row houses along the way.  
  I also remember this interesting railroad bridge with it's many arches across the wide river.  
  I've stayed at this Super 8 before, but what brings me back ...  
  is the wonderful restaurant across the street - the Middlesex Diner.  
  They have a 'memorial' tree in the front area which I think is a really neat idea since tomorrow is Memorial Day.  
  I figure I'll go big and order a ribeye steak. It comes with a nice salad and a lovely cup of seafood chowder.  
  The steak is as good as I have gotten at any steakhouse. Sissy gets a prime rib and she says it is one of the best that she has ever had. Andy gets a fish dish and it is also excellent.  
  And as usual, I leave few fragments behind just like a plague of devouring locusts.  
  Today, we have finished the historical part of our trip. We all agree that the kind treatment of our hosts at Elmira was just icing on the cake to the whole experience. I had no idea what we would find at each location, but each location had its own unique flavor and history to observe. Knowing that the next two days are travel days, we all head back to our rooms. Tomorrow we plan on attending church before we head out so I figure I'd best get some sleep. When the lights go out, I follow in the same manner in short order.