In 1844, John W. Jones escaped a plantation in Virginia and walked to New York, dodging slave catchers, with four other men. He settled in Elmira, traded work for an education, and became a sexton caring for his church's cemetery. Jones worked with the Underground Railroad, helping around 800 enslaved people escape to Canada. During the waning days of the Civil War, Elmira sprouted a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers.
Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.
The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.
Thousands of Confederate prisoners died at the camp, and the duty to bury them was handed to the town's sexton: John W. Jones. Read about Jones' journey from slavery to life as a wealthy landowner with voting rights at Mental Floss.
(Image credit: Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY)