Hellmira: My First Book

Hellmira arrives

Although I grew up only 30 miles from Elmira, NY, the first time I heard the term “Hellmira” was when I was an undergraduate at SUNY Cortland.  I was shocked to learn that Elmira was home to a prisoner of war camp during the Civil War.  Fairly attuned to local history, I could not fathom why this is something I did not know earlier.  After a brief investigation, I discovered why: Elmira itself had erased its history, not wishing to be remembered for the camp and its alleged equivalency with the notorious Andersonville.

Today, historic markers, a monument on Winsor Avenue, a reconstructed original camp building, a replica barracks and even an observation tower now help us to reimagine what once stood on the banks of the Chemung River during the last days of the Civil War.  Reflecting on these reminders of the prisoner of war camp in a blog post on Emerging Civil War in May 2017, I was pleased to see Elmira finally embracing it’s past.

Hot on the heels of the post appearing on ECW, Chris Mackowski invited me to write a book for the ECW series on the POW camp in Elmira.  Then working on the manuscript for another project, I nonetheless jumped at the opportunity. Now, about three years later, the book is available—Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp – Elmira, NY.

Hellmira is my first book and represents the realization of a dream for me, as I am certain it is for most professional historians. So, it was with considerable emotion that I broke open the box that arrived at my house a few days ago containing copies of my work. Even though I had seen the cover art digitally and worked on the final galley, actually holding the book in my hands was a moment that I will never forget.

Casually flipping through the pages as I contemplated my achievement, I first turned to the image of my great-grandfather William B. Reese. A veteran of the 149th PA Infantry, Reese was wounded at Gettysburg and was later assigned to the Veterans Reserve Corps and stationed in Elmira. I wondered as I looked at his face what he would think of being featured in the book. I would like to think that he would be honored and proud of the work.

William B. Reese

Sadly, the book events that I had lined up have all been cancelled – as well as the book launch party that had been planned, so my enjoyment of the book’s arrival is a bit tempered. It is my hope that our national health crisis will pass quickly and these events will be rescheduled. Meanwhile, I will peddle my work virtually and await the day when I can sign copies in person.

Of course, I hope that readers will enjoy the result of my labor, but I am also excited by the work of my friends who contributed appendices to the book. My grad school companion Dr. Terrianne Schulte of D’Youville College wrote a piece on the Shohola Train Wreck, ECW contributors Kevin and Kristen Pawlak wrote about Barry Benson’s escape from the camp, Terri Olszowy from the Friends of Elmira Prison Camp submitted an essay on the efforts by that group to reconstruct physical reminders of the prison, and my GCC colleague Michael Gosselin wrote a great piece about Elmira and Mark Twain. These articles are great additions to the main story and help to flesh out some of interesting aspects not covered by the central text. I am grateful for their contributions.

13 Responses to Hellmira: My First Book

  1. Just drove past Elmira today on a trip with my daughter Rachel to Geneseo, and to see the grave of 65th NY 2nd Lt. William Byron, mortally wounded in the April 2, 1865 Breakthrough Assault on Petersburg, and buried at a small roadside cemetery near Rexville, NY. We stayed socially distanced from everyone. Congrats on your book!

    –Chris Barry

  2. I am so looking forward to reading your book! One of my ancestors were imprisoned at the camp and died there in 1864. I’ve been itching to learn more about it ever since I found that out. Thank you for your hard work and I wish you the best of luck in your book events once the world opens up again 🙂

  3. Derek, I myself grew up and still live in Newfield, NY which is about 25 miles from the former Civil War Elmira prison site. I’ve been told that two confederate escapees from the prison made their way through my town. I’ve been a Civil War buff for over half my life but only visited the Elmira prison site a couple years ago and have seen the cemetery three times. I have seen a couple civilians buried among the confederate graves at the cemetery, one being an A. S. Colton. I was wondering if you knew the story behind Mr. Colton and how a confederate citizen found himself at the prison and eventually dead and buried there.

  4. Congratulations on your first book; that must feel awesome! I am from Michigan but winter in Florida and had the opportunity to see you portray my favorite general, U. S. Grant at the Palm Coast CWRT. I visited Elmira a few years ago–but I’ll probably have to go again after I read your book!

  5. I also had an ancestor at Elmira, and just ordered my copy last week. Looking forward to it.

    Joel Manuel
    Baton Rouge

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