Elmira, a City on a Prison-Camp Contract

By Gray, Michael P. | Civil War History, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Elmira, a City on a Prison-Camp Contract


Gray, Michael P., Civil War History


AS A SLAVE on the Elzy Plantation in Leesburg, Virginia, John W. Jones often thought about seeking a better life for himself up North. Worried that his master would soon die and he would be sold into an even worse situation, Jones acted on his dreams and escaped one late evening in June 1844. He headed for Maryland and into Pennsylvania, hiding in barns and the cover of darkness. Wandering through the countryside of upper Pennsylvania, the fugitive crossed over to southern New York state, into the Chemung Valley. There, he settled in Elmira, a progressive town known for its antislavery sentiment. In Elmira, Jones held various jobs while gaining an education at a local school, before finally achieving a position as an assistant sexton. As civil war approached, the fortunes of John Jones, as well as other Elmirans, would continue to grow.(1)

In 1860 Elmira was a community of approximately 8,700. The Civil War greatly augmented its growth, not only in population, but also in its economic development. Elmira's industries expanded to embrace the city's function as a main military rendezvous point in New York, consisting of four training bases. Tanneries sold leather goods to the military, and woolen mills fabricated blue uniforms. Hardware stores supplied utensils, cups, and plates, while food contractors made sure they were put to use.(2) "Some of the farmers of the vicinity," wrote an observer, "were made comfortably well-to-do by the sale of their produce to the camps."(3) Land and housing leases were negotiated for training grounds, quarters, hospitals, and any other spaces required to fit the soldiers. Selling horses to the Cavalry Bureau became an important function of the post and a lucrative trade for area dealers; corral stables were built to accommodate twelve hundred animals. Lumber mills provided manufactured wood for the various facilities and workers were hired to undertake their construction.(4)

Wartime growth changed Elmira's country town atmosphere, which was made official on April 7, 1864, when it was incorporated into a city with four wards. But the new city's first few months proved to be a pivotal time; activity within its limits began to diminish. Two training camps shut down by early 1864, and a third was nearly vacated. Although 20,796 soldiers were gathered, trained, and dispatched from the Elmira Rendezvous throughout the war, about half that number were processed during the war's first year. When the soldiers were gone, so was much of the business required for their care.(5) "Barracks No. 1 are quite deserted again" exemplified the "here and gone" attitude stressed by newspapers as men left for the front.(6) No one anticipated the financial benefits of establishing a military prison in Elmira, nor that it would strengthen the economy.

Elmira underwent a major transformation near the middle of 1864; many men rendezvousing in Elmira would not be wearing Union blue, but Confederate gray. Within months, inmates and prison keepers nearly doubled Elmira's population of some thirteen thousand citizens. After both the prison and guard camps were established in Elmira's first ward, where 1,440 citizens had been living, its population grew almost exponentially.(7)

The old training camp on the Chemung River, designated as Barracks No. 3, was remodeled into a stockade city, an appendage of the community where services were demanded in full. In July, when the Southerners began to arrive, readers of local papers were not surprised to find

   Our mechanics and laboring men are all employed. Not an idle one do we know
   who is willing to work--During no period have more new buildings been
   planned and put in the process of construction. The presence of a military
   rendezvous has also necessitated a large and additional amount of building
   around the Barracks which have not reached completion, not to speak of the
   new improvements being perfected as fast as required. … 

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