Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp-Elmira, NY (Emerging Civil War Series). By Derek Maxfield. Appendices, Footnotes, Suggested Reading and About The Author, 192pp., 2020. Savas Beatie LLC. www.savasbeatie.com. $14.95. Softcover.
Reviewed by David Marshall
Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp-Elmira, N.Y., is a compelling study that fills gaps in Civil War prison camp historiography that has become very popular in recent years. In this thoughtful account and compelling analysis of the challenges those in charge of the prisoner of war camps, Derek Maxfield does a nice job in explaining the difficulties camp administrators faced in several Northern and all Southern POW camps, and how they succeeded or failed to overcome them. “Hellmira” is a solid introduction to prisoner of war camp history; it is an outstanding addition to the Emerging Civil War Series.
“Hellmira” actually covers several Civil War prison camps, but the volume’s focus deals with the prison camp at Elmira. The book expands its breadth by incorporating topics either ignored or lightly touched on in other Civil War histories.
Maxfield tells the story of the “Andersonville of the North” from the summer of 1864 to July 1865, doing a solid job of elucidating why it was important and also symbolic of the horrendous treatment of captured Confederate soldiers during the conflict.
Like many historians, Maxfield places blame, and a little credit, on the Elmira Prison Camp commanders, surgeons, staff officers, and other important Union authorities such as Edwin Stanton.
After setting the scene and spending time analyzing controversial decisions made by individuals such as Lt. Col. Seth Eastman, Benjamin Tracy, Lt. Col. Stephen Moore, Maj. Henry Colt, and Dr. Eugene Sangers, the bulk of the text describes issues that worsened throughout the camps existence. Maxfield blends Union and Confederate accounts with a solid depth and balance.
The main text of the book is approachable. Although the author only briefly discusses some topics such as the creation of long-term POW camps during the conflict, withholding food due prisoners, the lack of shelters provided, limited clothing especially during the cold winters, the failed exchange of prisoners, the evolution of Camp Elmira, and the inhumane treatment of the prisoners, Maxfield presents the prisoners’ human experience. Maxfield has included a wealth of first-hand accounts and anecdotes by officers and common soldiers who experienced the challenges of war and prison camp. He uses quotes from participants judiciously. The anecdotes spur the reader’s interest and whet the appetites of prison camp enthusiasts. Maxfield makes an important point in his fascinating epilogue chapter on “The Melancholy Debate” that the humanitarian tragedies produced by the POW camps stained the meaning of the U.S. flag.
This outstanding title published by Savas Beatie, includes a very useful driving tour that includes ten important stops with their GPS coordinates as well as directions and an explanation of each tour stop. A tour guide and introductory book on any subject must be clear and precise in its directions, which this guide does well. The detail provided at each stop is well-written and not overwhelming. For casual visitors this guide should be a welcome companion during a visit to the Elmira Prison Camp.
An important addition contained in this balanced work is the seven appendices including “How Elmira Gave the World Mark Twain” as well as suggested reading, maps, and an abundance of helpful images. The text is well written, clear, informative, and easy to read. The result is both an excellent guide book and a history lesson at an attractive price.
Overall, Hellmira is a long-needed addition to the story of this prison camp, and it will make a fine addition to the reading list of any serious student looking at POW camps, including those already well-read or those just beginning their journey. Serious Civil War buffs will find the narrative has much to offer; novices should enjoy the introductory story and battlefield trampers will love the well-planned tour route.
David Marshall is a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for the past thirty-four years. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Common Soldier.