Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Booknotes: Hellmira

New Arrival:
Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY by Derek Maxfield (Savas Beatie, 2020).

After an incredibly prolific period when it seemed like no month passed without the publication of at least one Emerging Civil War title, I believe this is the first series installment to appear in around a year (the next most recent being the New Market entry). In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY, Derek Maxfield examines the improvised POW camp (only in operation during the final year of the war) that more than earned its nickname of "Hellmira."

From the description: "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." Before that final victory arrived, very nearly a quarter of the 12,000 Confederate prisoners housed at Elmira during its year of operation died.

As most readers are aware of already, Elmira is sometimes regarded as the North's Andersonville. "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."

Not interested in engaging in that kind of back and forth, Maxfield instead "contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure."

As expected, the book possesses an abundance of photographs and other illustrations. The popular appendix section, a series mainstay, includes a driving tour of Elmira; a profile of John W. Jones (a former slave who was sexton of nearby Woodlawn Cemetery, where the Elmira dead were interred); an account of the Shohola Train Wreck of 1864 that killed 48 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards; the story of prisoner Berry Benson's escape from Elmira; a look at Mark Twain's past and present associations with the city of Elmira (he's buried at Woodlawn Cemetery) and Elmira College (which has a Center for Mark Twain Studies); an overview of Andersonville; and finally, in common with most series titles, a preservation essay.


  1. Could have sworn I left a comment.

  2. You left it on yesterday's post, not this one.

  3. LOL. I sure did.

    Hi Drew--thanks for this. The audio version is just coming out also. And yes, it has been a year. We have a plethora of ECW titles backed up. If anyone of your readers knows how to use Adobe Photoshop and can grayscale images and would like to do it in exchange for some books, we would be more than happy to have them join the team. :)


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