Since receiving the cover art of my first book, HELLMIRA: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War, I have been waiting not-so-patiently for the right opportunity to announce my book to the world.
The time has arrived.
Hastily constructed, poorly planned, and overcrowded, prisoner of war camps North and South were dumping grounds for the refuse of war. An unfortunate necessity, both sides regarded the camps as temporary inconveniences—and distractions from the important task of winning the war. There was no need, they believed, to construct expensive shelters or provide better rations. They needed only to sustain life long enough for the war to be won. Victory would deliver prisoners from their conditions.
As a result, conditions in the prisoner of war camps amounted to a great humanitarian crisis, the extent of which could hardly be understood even after the blood stopped flowing on the battlefields.
Hellmira contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, the book suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure.
By way of shamelessly plugging my book, I thought I would share an episode from the story: the great flood of March 1865.
The winter of 1864-65 was brutal. The first snow appeared in October and snow covered the ground more or less continually until those fateful days of March. The prisoners from the deep South suffered the most, though all felt the effects of Mother Nature’s wrath.
Warned to prepare for the rise of the river in spring, post commander Col. Benjamin F. Tracy contemplated abandoning the lower camp and adjusting the walls of the compound. Nothing came of that, probably because Brig. General William Hoffman, Union Commissary-General of Prisoners, would not bear the expense. Mother Nature followed up a historic winter with a spring thaw of awesome proportions. The resultant flood inundated the entire camp and caused prisoners in their barracks to the upper berths, staring down at four feet of brown water in some places. Tracy no doubt considered a full on evacuation of the camp.
A rigorous evacuation of the smallpox hospital was undertaken to rescue the poor souls stranded on what had been a spit of land next to the river. Make-shift rafts were quickly assembled and floated down from the upper camp. Once loaded, they were pulled back up to the main camp with ropes, fellow prisoners supplying the manpower. “The work was so strenuous,” Gray wrote, “that relay teams changed every other trip and were rewarded with whiskey for their efforts.”
Reporting to Hoffman, Tracy outlined the disaster emphasizing that no prisoner had escaped, no building or property lost. About 2,700 feet of compound fence had been destroyed by the river and would need to be rebuilt, though this time with flood gates. The smallpox patients were housed in old dilapidated barracks that had been abandoned. While the situation had been bad, complete disaster had been averted.
Recovery after the flood was slow. Prisoners battled mud and muck – and the occasional dead fish or eel. The camp fence was mended within weeks. Spring arrived, finally, and the tress of the valley again wore green. Those that survived the winter, then the flood, probably wondered at the achievement and hoped that they would not still be residents when the snowflakes began to fall again. A prisoner from the Lone Star state expressed it this way: “If ever there was a hell on earth, Elmira prison was that hell, but it was not a hot one.”
Look for Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War to be available sometime in the Summer of 2019. Amazon is taking pre-sale orders now, so folks can reserve a copy in advance.
 Gray, The Business of Captivity, 62.
 OR, series II, vol. VIII: 419.
 Gray, The Business of Captivity, 142.