By Tom Gladwell

The experience of prison war in Northern or Southern prison camps was, at best, degrading and debilitating. Even in the best run human prison camps, prisoners were subject to treatment which chipped away at the physical and mental well-being of even the strongest men. Military records of both the North and South are filled with tales of men who were treated like herds of cattle, fed with sparse or poorly- prepared rations and housed in unhealthy quarters. The prisoners who were confined in the prison camp at Elmira, New York, however, underwent an additional and unique in dignity.

During the latter days of July 1864, most of the 4500 prisoners' attention was drawn to the construction of a large wooden structure on the outside of the fence directly across from the person camp. With the growing curiosity, the men speculated on the purpose of the tower. Day by day, the prisoners watched as the structure, which consisted of two large platforms, one above the other, neared completion. Finally, curiosity and concern was satisfied when the structure was completed and a sign placed at the entrance "an observation from to which to view the prisoners admission 15 cents, refreshments served below." Since townspeople were strictly forbidden to enter the prison, the tower afforded them of perfect opportunity to see the prisoners. Many of the prisoners reacted with amusement to the zoo-like situation. A sergeant in the third Alabama wrote that some prisoners frequently assembled near the observatory and engaged in numerous ridiculous feats of acrobatics and ground tumbling "ostensibly for the amusement of the spectators, but really in derision of being regarded as curiosity." Other prisoners were not as light hearted, however, and reacted with chagrin to the situation. One of the prisoners stated sarcastically, "I am surprised that Barnum has not taken the prisoners off the hands of Abe, carried then off in caravans through the country, turning an honest Penny by the show." And if one observation tower wasn't enough, another one soon appeared. The original tower was so profitable that a rival tower, taller by 20 feet, soon sprang up with a lower admission price of ten cents. On August 30, 1864, a regular advertisement appeared in the Elmira Daily Advertiser extolling the new observatory, three stories high, constructed by W. and W. Mears "at great expense." It was observed that, in a very short time, both towers were doing a rushing business. Although one might assume that prison officials frowned on such outlandish commercialization of the camp, in fact, the opposite was true. A Confederate prisoner, A. M. Keiley, later wrote, "The event (building the observatory) justified the wisdom of the venture, for one of the proprietors, who was part of the management of our pen, that the concern paid for itself in two weeks."The customers usually demanded refreshments as well, and before long, both booths and stands lined the streets and the spectators were able to munch ginger cakes and assorted breads while viewing the prisoners. For the thirsty observers, stands sold spruce beer or lemon pop. Indeed, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Rows of wooden stands were built at night and were doing business the very next day. During the summer afternoons, crowds gathered to gape at the prisoners and patronize the merchants. A prisoner wryly observed, "the shinplasters rolled in and the lemon pop and ginger cakes rolled out of the observatory patriotism is spelled paytriotism up here."For their climbing efforts (and admission fees) spectators were treated to a variety of sights. From the top of the observatory, customers could see the entire compound. The buildings of the camp consisted of thirty-five 2 story barracks, measuring 100 by 20 feet. Behind the rows of barracks was a group of buildings converted into a dispensary, an adjutant's office, and guard rooms. To the rear, extending to the northern bank of Foster's Pond (a soon to be contaminated pond in the mist of the camp) were the cookhouses and mess halls. To some observers, the interior of the camp looked like "an immense beehive." Men were seen walking about while others gathered in small groups. Some men were building small fires and were baking corn meal cakes; others were seated in the shade whittling or fashioning a handicraft. Small knots of prisoners could be seen playing cards, checkers, chess, or dominoes. Still others preferred to talk in small groups and, on occasion, some would gesticulate in an animated fashion to make a point in discussion. A favorite pastime of the prisoners was craft making. Trinkets were made of bone, horn, gutta-percha, horsehair and wood. The trinkets took the form of most every conceivable thing buttons, combs, fans, rings, watch chains, and toothpicks. The work was generally well done and the prisoners did a lively business with the camp sutler. On several occasions, camp guards sold the goods to townspeople and returned the money to the prisoners. Not all of the sights were pleasant, however. Twice a day, men were marched to the mess hall for meals. Since mess hall facilities were too small to accommodate all of the men at once, there was much confusion and scrambling for position in line. At this time, lines of pathetic, bone-thin men with long, unkempt hair were seen clutching canteens, tin cans and coffee post while anxiously awaiting the days meager meal. Occasionally, weaker prisoners fell in the scramble and hungry men were obliged to let them lie on the ground rather than miss their meal. Thought the prisoners may have appeared as a motley menagerie to the well feed observers they did enjoy a laugh on the people on one occasion. Although no prisoners could have visitors, Federal officers sometimes brought female visitors into the camp to view the captives. In one instance a young lady raised her skirts as she walked through a ward and proclaimed in revulsion, "Oh, those nasty, dirty, ignorant, beastly Rebels!" As she passed one lice-infested prisoner, he casually flicked a couple of "graybacks" on her. For hours thereafter, the men gleefully imagined the subsequent gyrations of the unsuspecting woman in the company of her dignified escorts. The only thing that marks the camp today is a marker. More than 2,000 men died at Elmira in the short time it was in operation and are buried in Wood Lawn National cemetery. It was the worst of all northern POW camps. And was renamed by the Southern boys kept there as " Hellmira."


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