Monday, September 15, 2014

Only surviving Elmira prison camp building to be reassembled, serve as museum

A view of the Federal prison camp in Elmira, N.Y. (Library of Congress)

Two loads of lumber brought into Elmira, New York, last Friday on flatbed trailers will start taking shape soon as volunteers and roofers reconstruct what's believed to be the sole surviving building of the Civil War prison camp there.

Minus a few cracks and a little rot, the lumber – thought to be pine -- is in pretty good shape for having been out in the elements and in storage for 150 years. Even a couple of windows are intact.

Years of study and conjecture have failed to bring a firm conclusion on how the building was used.

“There are rumors, theories,” said Marty Chalk, president of the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

Possibilities include a commissary, a pharmacy or a “death house” that contained the bodies of Confederate prisoners before burial. Or it may have been a granary.

“In the interior, some of the wood is a little pitted,” said Chalk. “It is believed the pitted area came from loading and unloading grain. That’s just a theory.”

One thing for certain is the friends group, working with government officials and the Chemung County Historical Society, plans to use the building as a visitor/learning center and museum.

The building has been on a long journey before its return to the prison site, near a pumping station operated by the Elmira Water Board.

Once a Union recruiting center, the camp, sometimes called “Helmira,” 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.

Chalk said the building was moved after the war to nearby Hoffman Street, where the owner used it as an outbuilding for storage. It eventually was taken down and moved to a couple locations before ending up in a barn about five miles outside the city.

The Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp has a budget of about $9,000 for the project, but has benefited largely from volunteer work and donations. It is trying to raise more money.

The site will include a foundation for the old building and a fence. The nonprofit group has found a source for square nails and will bring in a roofing company for that part of the work. Chalk said he expects the building will need to be augmented about 20 percent by new lumber.

Officials hope to reassemble the building by early spring 2015, with the learning center ready for visitors by mid-2015. “Our plan is to have a climate-controlled environment,” said Chalk.

The center is expected to include artifacts, rifles, interpretive panels, an 1863 artillery piece and original or copied prisoner letters, including some in possession of a North Carolina man.

Chalk said visitors to Elmira currently stop by Woodlawn National Cemetery and the Chemung County Historical Society to learn about what occurred at the Union prison.

An original flag pole and a marker greet those who walk part of the prison site.

“There really isn’t much there. We have numerous people from the South who come to that site, asking questions. They take all the pictures they can,” he told the Picket. “Unfortunately, there is not much to see right now.”

The friends group hopes the city and county get a little tourism boost from the welcome center, which will be a tangible link to the past. “Elmira probably should be more of a Civil War town than it is,” Chalk said.

He said Southerners who visit want to see graves of loved ones and where they were imprisoned. “If I had a relative who died at Andersonville, I’d want to know as much as I could.”

Re-enactors who have been on site treat the grounds along the Chemung River as hallowed.

“I got a phone call from a woman in South Carolina,” said Chalk. “Her comment was interesting. She said, ‘Don’t you dare glorify what happened in the Elmira Civil War prison camp.’ I told her our purpose is not to celebrate anything. It is to educate.” 


  1. Thanks for all the time and effort that goes into a project like this. Those with confederate ties to Elmira's past should appreciate what you're doing and why. Neither side anticipated the number of prisoners that the war produced that would need adequate facilities for housing etc.