Religion in Elmira Civil War Camp
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Much has been written about the horrible conditions, deaths, and conspiracy theories of a death camp but very little has been written about religion and saving souls in the notorious Elmira “Hellmira” Prison Camp.
2,970 Confederate soldiers died, 24.5%, out of a total prison population of 12,121. Of the 2,970 prisoners who died in Elmira, 25 were of the Hebrew faith. These men are buried in the Confederate Section of the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Elmira had the highest death rate of any Union Army prison camp.
Religion developed quickly in the Elmira prison camp. The Elmira newspaper “Advertiser” on July 21, 1864 said “The rebel prisoners have organized prayer meetings and other religious services, and made application for religious reading, Bibles, tracts, etc. Permission was granted by Lt. Col Seth Eastman, camp commanding officer.”
The Y.M.C.A. took charge and provided and distributed materials. They also made arrangements for preaching services at five o’clock. The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher preached the first service. Regular services were conducted every Sunday with local Protestant pastors taking their turn: Thomas K. Beecher, A.C. George, S. M. Bainbridge, T.O. Lincoln, and Mr. Gierlow. The Y.M.C.A. distributed 4,175 testaments, 21,735 religious newspapers, and 1,000 daily papers to the prisoners. Large contributions of religious books and papers were received weekly from the U.S. Christian Commission, and Y.M.C.A.
Many of the prisoners professed religion, 547 Baptists, 542 Methodists, 110 Presbyterians, and 242 Roman Catholics. There were two religious leaders of the town of Elmira who became very popular with the prisoners. Father Martin Kavanaugh, the rector of St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church was a frequent visitor on week days. He would celebrate Mass with the Catholic prisoners. The day before Mass he would come to the prison camp to hear the confessions of prisoners. His sermons were devoted wholly to an explanation of the gospel and intended solely to promoting spiritual consolation. He visited the sick and dying and bestowed the last rites.
Among the Protestant clergy who ministered to the prisoners none seemed to be so popular as Rev. Beecher. The Rev. Thomas K. Beecher was a staunch abolitionists. He was born 1824 in Litchfield, Connecticut to Lyman Beecher and Harriet Porter Beecher. Thomas was the half-brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the famous anti-slavery book “Uncle Tom”s Cabin”. Harriet was the daughter of Lyman Beecher’s first wife Roxanna Ward who died when Harriet was five.
In 1854 Rev. Beecher moved to Elmira to preach at the Independent Congregation Church. He became very prominent and popular in Elmira. He was most popular with the Elmira prisoners due to the fact that his sermons were never about politics or the war. Rev. Beecher preached in the Elmira church for 50 years. After the war a writer, Samuel Clement “Mark Twain” moved to Elmira where he married Olivia Langdon of Elmira in February 1870. Samuel and Olivia were married by Rev. Beecher. Thomas Beecher and Samuel became very good friends and remained so during the rest of their lives. Samuel
Clement wrote most of his books while living in Elmira where he died and is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira. Rev. Thomas K. Beecher died in Elmira on March 14, 1900. He too is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. Due to Thomas being extremely popular in Elmira and after his death, a bronze statue of him was erected by the citizens of Elmira in 1901. This statue is located in the park in front of the church which he served.
It must be noted that there was most likely a lot of rumors and talk happening in Elmira about the Rev. Beecher, his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Lt. Col Seth Eastman and his wife Mary Henderson Eastman. Mary was born to a wealthy planter family in Virginia. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe like her brother Thomas was an abolitionist and she published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Also in 1852 and twelve years before moving to Elmira with her husband Lt. Col Seth Eastman, Mary Eastman wrote a pro-slavery book to counter Harriet’s book. The name of Mary’s book is “Aunt Phillis’s Cabin”. It is doubtful the Eastman’s attended Rev. Thomas Beecher’s church in 1864 and 1865 while Seth Eastman was commanding the Elmira Prison.
Reference: “The Elmira Prison Camp; A History of the Military Prison at Elmira, New York” by Clayton Wood Homes, 1912
Tom Fagart, Concord, NC
Friends of Elmira Civil War Prison Camp