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ELMIRA vs. ANDERSONVILLE:
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF TWO CIVIL WAR PRISONS

Student’s name, Ricki Shine*

B.A. in History

In recent years there has been a trend in historical studies to revise the attitudes toward the prisoner of war camps during the Civil War. In particular, there has been a tendency to mitigate the responsibility of the South for the atrocious conditions of Andersonville Prison by 1) reasoning that they were doing the best they could with the resources that they had, 2) by placing the blame in large part on the North because they refused prisoner exchanges, and 3) by pointing out that the North also had prisons which had atrocious conditions. In particular, Elmira prison in upstate New York is the focus of these claims.

The question then becomes whether the conditions at the Elmira prison sufficiently compare with conditions at Andersonville in enough key areas to justify the revision of historical analysis on Andersonville.

Research was conducted by using primary source documents including official records of the Union and Confederate Armies and letters and dairies of internees of the respective camps.

Andersonville was severely overcrowded and the prisoners had no barracks or tents for sleeping. Furthermore the camp commander allowed a mob of prisoners, to attack, rob and kill, with impunity, their fellow prisoners. Union prisoners were often shot for no good reason. The food was not, as has been claimed, the same as that of the ordinary confederate soldier and there is no credible evidence that any efforts were made to relieve the conditions of the prisoners.

The problems seen in Elmira were caused by a variety of reasons, some of which were first uncovered during this research. Severe overcrowding did exist, in part because of an either overlooked or ignored letter written about the camps capacity to hold prisoners. But the overcrowding in Elmira did not match the conditions in Andersonville. The prisoners had barracks at Elmira, and there was a fully staffed field hospital, though it was ill equipped to deal with the smallpox epidemic that hit the camp and killed many prisoners. As opposed to Andersonville, only one prisoner was shot in Elmira, and the prisoners were not only fed adequately, but had their own contraband vegetable stand.

The conclusion is that there is ample evidence that while much more could have been done to alleviate the suffering at Andersonville, those in charge in Elmira did all they could to ameliorate the conditions of its prisoners. Therefore, Andersonville cannot be compared to Elmira to justify the South’s appalling treatment of its prisoners of war. The claims made by those who wish to revise the status of the Confederate prisons simply do not hold up to scrutiny.