Union Prisoner of War camp rivaled Andersonville in cruelty
by Robert A. Waters
At exactly 10:32 a.m., on November 10, 1865, the thud of a rope ended the life of Dr. Henry Wirz. The much-hated commander of Andersonville prison became the first person in America to die for alleged war crimes.
Had the Confederacy won the war, however, retribution may have taken place for atrocities that occurred in Elmira Prison Camp, in New York. U.S. commissary-general of prisoners Col. William Hoffman and Major Eugene F. Sanger, chief surgeon, certainly would have been candidates for the short end of a long rope.
Constructed in June, 1864, the 40-acre prisoner of war camp soon held 10,000 Rebel soldiers, even though it had been built for only half that number. The original barracks quickly filled up, but new prisoners continued to arrive. These men were forced to sleep in the open or in tents.
Unlike the Confederacy, the North had more than enough supplies for all its citizens, including prisoners of war. The nearly 25% death rate in Elmira was due to vengeful acts rather than a lack of necessities.
Historian Michael Horigan, author of Elmira: Death Camp of the North, writes that the “contrast between Andersonville and Elmira should be apparent even to the most casual observer. Elmira, a city with excellent railroad connections, was located in a region where food, medicine, clothing, building materials, and fuel were in abundant supply. None of this could be said of Andersonville. Hence, Elmira became a symbol of death for different reasons.”
Almost as soon as the prison opened, Col. Hoffman ordered that Rebel prisoners in Elmira be given only bread and water because of alleged brutal conditions in Southern prison camps. Since Union General Ulysses S. Grant had ordered no more prisoner exchanges, this meant that the ever-swelling numbers of Rebel prisoners could only be thinned out by death. The severely overcrowded conditions and lack of meat and vegetables brought inevitable malnourishment, scurvy, starvation, and death. An outbreak of smallpox took more lives.
A Union staff member described the conditions at the camp: "This pond [Foster's Pond] received the contents of the sinks and garbage of the camp until it became so offensive that vaults were dug on the banks of the pond for sinks and the whole left a festering mass of corruption, impregnating the entire atmosphere of the camp with its pestilential odors, night and day... The pond remains green with putrescence, filling the air with its messengers of disease and death, the vaults give out their sickly odors, and the hospitals are crowded with victims for the grave."
Meat sent to supply prisoners was routinely judged to be “spoiled,” then sold to merchants in town. It was said that Hoffman and his cohorts made $24,000 on the scheme while Rebel prisoners died in droves.
Most prisoners were clad only in rags. In spite of this, Hoffman would not allow captives to receive the clothing sent to them by relatives back home. Instead, the garments that could have kept prisoners warm were burnt. The brutal winter of 1864 brought even more ways to die--many of those who hadn’t succumbed to disease froze to death.
Entrepreneurial Elmira citizens erected an observation tower just outside the compound and charged spectators ten cents each to view the daily activities of the POWs.
The physician in charge at Elmira was Major Eugene F. Sanger. One Southern prisoner described him as "a club-footed little gentleman, with an abnormal head and snaky look in his eyes." Another, Anthony Keiley said, "Sanger was simply a brute." Unable to get along with anyone in his own family (he wrote most family members out of his will), he encountered the same problems at Elmira.
His tenure was filled with conflict and rumors of cruelty toward prisoners. While Sanger did report the presence of scurvy in the camp and asked for more nutritional food for prisoners, his continued clashes with administrators made a bad situation worse.
In one of the most bizarre episodes of the war, Sanger was accused of using arsenic to poison hundreds of Rebel prisoners. A letter he wrote to Brigadier General John L. Hodson seemed to confirm this allegation: “I now have charge of 10,000 Rebels a very worthy occupation for a patriot, particularly adapted to elevate himself in his own estimation, but I think I have done my duty have relieved 386 of them of all earthy sorrow in one month.”
Was this an admission of murder? Sanger is said to have bragged about killing more Rebels than any soldier in the United States army.
The final tally of death in Elmira was nearly 25%, only two percentage points less than the notorious Andersonville. Of 12,123 Confederate prisoners, 2,963 died.
Had the Confederacy won the war, it’s likely Hoffman and Sanger would have paid for their crimes. But while Wirz died on the gallows, these murderers lived long lives...