Friday, August 15, 2014

Elmira prison exhibit shows the struggle to survive, desire to make a fast buck

Items made by prisoners at Elmira (Chemung County Historical Society)

“There were people trying to help. There were people trying to cash in.”

Rachel Dworkin, archivist with the Chemung County Historical Society, succinctly summed up the two sides of human nature as they played out at the famed Civil War prison camp in Elmira, N.Y.

The society’s Chemung Valley History Museum on Thursday night opened “So Far From Home: Life in Elmira's Confederate Prison Camp.” The exhibit, the fourth in a series on the Civil War, is open until July 2015, the 150th anniversary of the camp closure.

Once a Union recruiting center, the camp was transformed into a prison facility that opened in July 1864 and eventually housed 12,123 Confederates. Nearly 3,000 died, a staggering 24% death rate.

Ball and chain and other items (CCHS)

The exhibit, which features panels and descriptions of prisoner and guard life and the camp’s connection to the city, includes a small structure that represents two competing, commercial observation towers that sat just outside the stockade walls.

Owners charged 10 to 15 cents for the curious to gawk at the prisoners below. Visitors also could buy photographs and snacks.

James Huffman, a soldier from Virginia, blamed the Northern press for sending "a constant stream of people winding their way to the top of these observatories to get a glimpse of the Rebs, as they supposed us to be some kind of curious, monkey-shaped animals,” writes Michael Gray in his book about the prison, “The Business of Captivity.”

Life was extremely difficult, as the exhibit points out. Prisoners weathered hunger, illness, melancholy and exposure to the elements. Not enough of the men had stoves during the harsh winter.

All that remains today of Elmira Prison is a well-kept cemetery along the banks of the Chemung River, according to the National Park Service.

Dworkin told The Picket that officials hope visitors “come away with a better sense with what life was like for both sides during the conflict here.”

Coat belonging to Union guard
Townspeople were both fearful and fascinated with the camp, and many took part in charitable efforts to ease the suffering. The towers, however, were typical of a “circus element” until they were closed.

The prisoners generally fared better when they had skills, such as carpentry, that benefited the operation of the camp. They tended to get better rations and shelter. “The unpleasantness varied widely,” said Dworkin.

Prisoners maintained a strange economy providing services to comrades, Dworkin said. 

“There were people who taught people French in exchange for rats.”

Others made furniture and jewelry to be sold outside the camp. The exhibit features a chair made by a prisoner.

The historical society’s previous exhibits focused on soldier life, the home front and artifacts owned by local residents. Officials are working on creating digital versions of those programs.

Civilian artifacts include telegraph machine from train station (left)

Wartime photograph of prison camp (Library of Congress)

No comments:

Post a Comment