Morgan-Manning House hosts program on Civil War POW camp

By on February 10, 2020
Derek Maxfield’s book tells the story of a notorious Civil War POW camp in Elmira.

Derek Maxfield’s book tells the story of a notorious Civil War POW camp in Elmira.

On Thursday, February 20, at 7 p.m., the Morgan-Manning House, 151 Main Street, Brockport, will host Derek Maxfield, an Associate Professor of History at Genesee Community College, who will present on his new book Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War. Long called by some the “Andersonville of the North,” the prisoner of war camp in Elmira, New York, is remembered as the most notorious of all Union-run POW camps. It existed for only a year – from the summer of 1864 to July 1865 – but in that time, and for long after, it became darkly emblematic of man’s inhumanity to man. Confederate prisoners called it “Hellmira.”

Hastily constructed, poorly planned, and overcrowded, prisoner of war camps North and South were dumping grounds for the refuse of war. An unfortunate necessity, both sides regarded the camps as temporary inconveniences – and distractions from the important task of winning the war. There was no need, they believed, to construct expensive shelters or provide better rations. They needed only to sustain life long enough for the war to be won. Victory would deliver prisoners from their conditions. As a result, conditions in the prisoner of war camps amounted to a great humanitarian crisis, the extent of which could hardly be understood even after the blood stopped flowing on the battlefields. In the years after the war, as Reconstruction became increasingly bitter, the North pointed to Camp Sumter – better known as the Andersonville POW camp in Americus, Georgia – as evidence of the cruelty and barbarity of the Confederacy. The South, in turn, cited the camp in Elmira as a place where Union authorities withheld adequate food and shelter and purposefully caused thousands to suffer in the bitter cold. This finger-pointing by both sides would go on for over a century.  And as it did, the legend of Hellmira grew.

Maxfield, who grew up near Elmira, will also discuss how the City of Elmira has remembered – or chosen not to remember – the camp on the banks of the Chemung since the war ended.  An interesting exercise in civic memory, Elmira spent many years trying to forget the camp not wishing to be remembered as the Andersonville of the North. Only recently has this trend been reversed.

The program is free and open to the public. Donations are welcome. Refreshments will be served following the program.

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