Driving through Elmira, New York, last week, a comment from David Blight’s Race and Reunion sprang to mind. In the book, he quotes Clay MacCauley, a veteran from Rhode Island: “The infamous sites of Civil War prisons, [MacCauley] wrote, were forever ‘those places of terrible memory.’”
The most infamous Civil War prison in the north was, of course, in Elmira—known by those interred there as “Hellmira.”
But it was MacCauley’s connection between location and “memory” that stuck out for me—because there’s hardly anything at the site of Elmira’s old prison to help people remember it was there.
The Elmira prison operated from July 1864 through July 1865. During that time, just over 12,000 Confederates were incarcerated there. Some 2,900 of them died, a death rate of 24.3%.
Compare that to Andersonville, the most notorious of the South’s prison camps, where the death toll was 29%.
“Yet the striking contrast between Andersonville and Elmira should be apparent even to the most casual observer,” says historian Michael Horigan, author of Elmira: Death Camp of the North. “Elmira, a city with excellent railroad connections, was located in a region where food, medicine, clothing, building materials, and fuel were in abundant supply. None of this could be said of Andersonville. Hence, Elmira became a symbol of death for different reasons.”
A suburban neighborhood now occupies the site once occupied by rows of wooden bunk houses. If not for a New York State historical marker in the front yard of one of those homes, along a one-way section of Water Street, a visitor could drive right by without ever knowing he was passing the prison site. A few feet away, obscured by hostas and other landscaped perennials, a granite marker installed by the Grand Army of the Republic marks the southeast corner of the prison.
Several blocks north, hunkered down in a cave-like arch carved out of an evergreen hedge, another granite block marks the location of the prison’s northeast corner.
“The 30-acre compound had a 12-foot stockade fence, with catwalk and sentry boxes,” explains an interpretive sign that stands on ground owned by the City Water Authority one block to the west on Winsor Avenue. “There were 35 buildings, each about 100 feet long.” The site had formerly been a training camp, Camp Rathbun, for New York soldiers freshly mustered into Federal service.
The Water Authority property is easy to miss, tucked along the dike that keeps the Chemung River flowing on course and out of the neighborhood. On one part of the lawn, the interpretive sign sits in a concrete shell that rises, sphere-like, from the ground. Three flagpoles, mostly obscured by trees, tower over it.
But it’s the flagpole that stands a few dozen feet to the north, next to another memorial, that holds actual historical significance. It’s the same flagpole that once stood inside the main gate of the prison. The original location of the flagpole is now someone’s backyard (there’s an ivy-covered monument there, too, not accessible to the public), but the family donated the pole itself to the city, which erected it on the Water Authority property.
The monument next to it, dedicated in May 1992, recalls the memory of “the soldiers who trained at Camp Rathbun May 1861-1864 and the Confederate Prisoners of War incarcerated at Camp Chemung July 1864-July 1865.”
But who travels down unknown Winsor Avenue save those people who live there or who have business with the Water Authority? Who knows to look under the shrubs at 614 West Water Street?
This place of “terrible memory” seems largely forgotten.
Across town, at the National Cemetery, many of the Confederate dead still demand attention. But there, the land requires a different kind of remembering, a different kind of commemoration.
Next week, I’ll take you over there for a look.