Elmira was the gateway to the Civil War for the Upstate of New York. They were the funnel for troop movements, because they were the railroad link with Dixie.
They were the point of departure for thirty-four regiments, but most of them were raised elsewhere, and were brought there for outlifting and brief training. They were the only Military Benezvous for Western New York. Elmira was proved to be a rendezvoius of deaths for three thousand Confederates.
The most violent attack came ten years after the war. The attack was brought from Benjamin H. Hill of Georgia. He was speaking on the floor of congress. Elmira was said to be ten times worse than Andersonville or any other prison in the South. It was also said that the prisoners were starved, robbed and were made to drink foul water from a frog pond. hundreds were starved to death and the sick were uncared for. The dead were dumped into the ground unconfined.
During the first three years of the war, Elmira as the Military depot had four assembly points. The prison camp consisted of thirty-five wooden buildings that were each one hundred feet long, and sixteen feet wide, and high enough for two rows of bunk-beds. They were parallel with Water Street and was on the higher grounds between Fosters Pond and Water Street.
The government ordered a twelve foot fence to be built. The frame was to be built on the outside, with a walk, for sentinels, on the outside about three feet below the top. That was giving them a good view of everyone that passed. The barrack could quarter four thousand prisoners and there was ground room for tents for another one thousand. The mess room could accommodate twelve thousand to fifteen thousand. The kitchen could cook for up to five hundred people daily.
The first order for movement of prisoners to Elmira was dated on June 30 and addressed to the commander of Point Lookout, which is on Chesapeake Bay. He was ordered to forward two thousand enlisted prisoner to Elmira. They were to be divided into parties of four hundred, which were guarded by one hundred men.
On July 6 of 1864, the first load of prisoners arrived. The train they came in pulled into the depot at 6:00a.m. It unloaded four hundred prisoners. There were two classes of prisoners. They were old and young-middle age. It had a very small representation. They were all sorts of nondescript uniforms, that was beside their regular dark, dirty gray. Some of them only wore drawers and shirts. In the double column they were marced south to Water Street and then west on that dirt road to the camp. A.J. Madra, which was of Jackson's First Corps of Sharpshooters, was the first prisoners to enter the enclosure.
The area lacked facilities, which was for the care of the sick, and the sanitary drainage was inadequate.
On July 11 the second batch of the Confederates came in. They arrived at 5:00a.m. The Advertiser said that some were ragged and dirty, which was as usual, some were barefoot, and the rest were indifferently shod. Another batch came on July 12. That made one thousand one hundred and fifty one prisoners in the camp.
On July 15 a trainload of prisoners, that was bound for Elmira, was wrecked. It was wrecked at Shohola, Pennsylvania. It had a heavy loss of life.
By the end of July the camp had held four thousand, four hundred, and twenty five prisoners. The night guards had forty one large kerosene lamps with large reflectors, which were hung along the stockade.
No citizens were allowed to enter the grounds and the only view outsiders had of the prisoners, at first, was while they were being transferred fro the depot.
Late in July two interpreters named W. and M. Means erected an observation platform across Water Street from the camp. They took newspaper advertisements to promote their three-story platform. The admission was ten cents. This was about four hundred west of Hoffman Street. A second observatory was built at Hoffman and Water. Between the two towers, all along the street, sprouted wooden booths where lemon pop, ginger cakes, beer and hard liquor were dispensed. The second tower and shacks didn't last. The commander ordered them down. The first tower remained through the war.
One photo, from 1865, shows troop barracks along the west side of Hoffman Street, between Water and Gray. Today there are from small homes on Gray Street, which is just east of now-covered Hoffman Creek. They were originally officer homes, which were moved from Water Street after the war.
Religion worships were arranged for the prisoners soon after the camp opened. The first sermon preached in camp July 24 by the Fev. Thomas K. Beecher. He seen the war upclose while serving as a chaplain. Five pastors alternated in conducting services at the camp, and the Fev. Martin Kavanaugh administered to the catholic prisoners.
By the end of August there were nine thousand, six hundred, and nineteen prisoners on hand. The thirty five buildings were full. Hall of the Rebs were in tents. n late September the prisoner were suffering from the cold. Some were lacking stoves and blankets. Shed barracks were erected in November and December. The camp purchased one hundred and fifty coal stoves from the E. H. Cook and Company Hardware at lake and Water.
As the population grew in the fall of "64, more concern was expressed about the stagnation of Foster's Pond.
Sgt. Benson was one of the men who took part in the famous October tunnel escape from the prison camp. He went south by the way of Carning, Fall Brook. Canton, Williamsport, Sunbury, Harrisburg, York, Baltimore, and Richmond.
The October 7 tunnel escape culminated several weeks of stealthy borrowing by many of the Confederates. Some of the prisoners started to dig after spending a couple of weeks in the camp. The group told their frustrations later. The morning after they started to dig their tunnel, digging down the floor of a tent, they realized that the dirt that they piled outside of the tent was a different color than the dirt that was already there.