Camp Rathbun

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Camp Rathbun (1861-1865) - A U.S. Civil War New York Volunteer training camp established in 1861 near Elmira, Chemung County, New York. Became a prisoner of war camp in 1864 and held Confederate prisoners until the war ended in 1865. Also known as Elmira Military Prison and Camp Chemung. Nicknamed "Hellmira" because of its 25% death rate. Abandoned in 1865.

Plan of Military Prison at Elmira NY Drawn by David J. Coffman who was a Prisoner at the Camp.

History

Established in 1861 as one of four Union training camps in Elmira, New York. (Arnott Barracks, Camp Rathbun, Camp Robinson, and Post Barracks).

Note: There is some confusion and differences between sources about which of the four camps became the Elmira Military Prison. The location is clear but what it was originally called is where the differences appear. The most likely name is presented here as Camp Rathbun and that is what is presented on a marker at the site. The four options and their locations are presented below:
Elmira Civil War Camps/Barracks
Barracks # Name Location Size Notes
Bks #1 Arnot Barracks North of Elmira between Lake St. and Oak St., south of East Washington Ave.
Bks #2 Camp Robinson Two miles southwest of town at Southport 400-by-360 yards
Bks #3 Camp Rathburn Western side of town 500-by-300 yards
Bks #4 Post Barracks West of town 400-by-200 yards

Camp Rathbun had 20, 100-man barracks buildings, an officer's quarters, two guardhouses, and two mess halls. Nearby Foster's Pond was used for bathing and washing.

Camp Robinson and Post Barracks were deactivated, and more facilities were built at the remaining two camps allowing Camp Rathburn to hold up to 5,000 troops in barracks and 1,000 more in tents.

Camp Rathbun POW Camp

On 19 May 1864 the Commissary-General of Prisoners, William Hoffman (Cullum 558), sent word to Lt Colonel Seth Eastman, (Cullum 562), at the Elmira Headquarters to use the empty barracks at Elmira as a depot for prisoners of war. He was also informed Eastman that the prison might be needed within ten days and that it might have to welcome 8,000 or 10,000 prisoners. Major Henry V. Colt of the 104th New York Volunteers was selected as the first commandant of the prison camp. Major Colt was the brother of the famous pistol maker Samuel Colt.

The transformation of Camp Rathbun from a training camp to a prison camp was completed by the end of June 1864, and Colonel Hoffman ordered some 2,000 Confederate POWs to be transferred from Camp Hoffman at Point Lookout, Maryland. The prisoners were divided into groups of 400 and transported by ship to Jersey City, New Jersey. At Jersey City, the groups of prisoners were loaded aboard a train for the 17-20 hour trip to Elmira. The first group arrived at Elmira on 6 Jul 1864 and were met by Major Colt. Some 8,000 men would eventually be transferred from Camp Hoffman at Point Lookout in Maryland to Camp Rathbun at Elmira New York.

Less than two weeks later on 15 Jul 1864, a train carrying 833 Confederate POWs and 128 Union guards en route to Camp Rathburn collided with a coal train killing 49 POWs and 17 guards and leaving many injured.

The camp was seriously overcrowded, and inspections showed that it was also unsanitary. Housing was a major problem as winter approached in 1864, half the prisoners were in tents, and those who were in barracks found them with the roofs unable to withstand the elements. Corrective measures were put in place, but by Christmas, there were still 900 prisoners without proper shelter. The 1864-65 winter was deadly with below zero temperatures and heavy snowfalls. The toll of dead from the elements, poor diet and disease rose throughout the winter and into the spring. By the time the camp closed, 2,933 were dead in the camp, including 24 civilians and 7 unknown Confederates. A final total of 2,950 included 17 Confederate deaths in Elmira's Union hospital who died after the war. The percentage of prisoner deaths at Camp Rathbun was approximately 25%, one of the highest percentages of all the prison camps. In addition to the deaths, 17 prisoners escaped.

At the end of the war, each prisoner was required to take a loyalty oath and was to be given a train ticket(pass) home. The Camp officially closed 10 Jul 1865 but the last prisoner reportedly left the camp on 27 Sep 1865.


Prison Camp Commanders List (edit list)
Assumed Relieved Rank Name Cullum Notes
1864 1864-12 Major Colt, Henry V. N/A
1864-12 1865-09 Lt Colonel Moore, Stephen N/A
Dates are formatted in yyyy-mm-dd to sort correctly.
The Cullum Number is the graduation order from the United States Military Academy by year and class rank and links to a page for the officer on the website version of the Cullum Register. Listings without a Cullum Number indicate that the person was not a graduate of the United States Military Academy.

Current Status

On 11 Sep 2015, Work began on reconstructing the only remaining building of the camp. On 6 Jul 2016, exactly 152 years after the prison received its first prisoners, work began on reconstructing the campsite itself.

Much of the area of the camp is now a housing development. Foster's Pond remains and the area between the pond and the river belongs to the city water works. Within the housing area that covers the main area where the camp was built, a memorial and several plaques have been installed HMDB - Elmira Prison Camp 1864 - 1865.


Location: Elmira, Chemung County, New York.

Maps & Images

Lat: 42.08238 Long: -76.82160


GPS Locations:

See Also:

Sources:

  • Roberts, Robert B., Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States, Macmillan, New York, 1988, 10th printing, ISBN 0-02-926880-X, page 574.
  • Speer, Lonnie R., Portals to Hell:Military Prisons of the Civil War, Stackpole Books, 1997, Mechanicsburg, PA, ISBN 0-8117-0334-7, 410 pages, page 241-248, 325.

Links:

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