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  • Tom Fagart

When Variola Came To Hellmira

The Battle of Mobile Bay, Alabama was fought between August 5, 1864 and August 23, 1864. Four new ironclad ships modeled after the USS Monitor were in the fleet of Admiral David Farragut. It was widely believed that these iron warships were unsinkable, however, the USS Tecumseh sank the morning of August 5 th when it struck one of the Confederate torpedoes “mines” in the channel to the Mobile Bay.

One Confederate soldier who witnessed the sinking of the Tecumseh wrote, “She careens, her bottom appears! Down, Down, Down she goes to the bottom of the channel, carrying 150 of her crew, confined within her ribs, to a watery grave.”Against all odds, Admiral Farragut orders his flagship, the Hartford, and his fleet to press forward, “DAMN THE TORPEDOES, FULL SPEED AHEAD”, through the underwater mine field and into Mobile Bay.

All but one of his 18 ships passed safely through the channel into Mobile Bay.

This scene is the beginning of another Civil War story which sees its’ end in the Elmira Prison Camp. When Fort Morgan fell like Fort Fisher, that was not the end of Fort Morgan for its’ story also continued in Elmira, New York.

There were two forts guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay, Fort Gaines on the channel West bank and Fort Morgan on the East. Both forts became under siege. First Fort Gains fell and then Fort Morgan. When Fort Morgan fell on August 23 rd , 17 Confederates had been killed and 581 of her Confederate artillerymen were taken prisoner and shipped off to New Orleans. 218 of these Alabama artillerymen remained in New Orleans approximately four weeks before being placed on steamers bound for New York Harbor with their final destination being the newly opened Union Army prison, Barracks No. 3, “Elmira Prison Camp” in Elmira, New York. October 8, 1864 was the first shipment of 203 Fort Morgan, Fort Gaines, and other Confederate prisoners from New Orleans arrived in Elmira. Few of these prisoner were from Fort Morgan.

Fifteen other prisoners had been left behind in New York Harbor due to sickness and were sent to military hospitals in New York. Three more shipments of Fort Morgan prisoners would follow to Elmira. On November 5 th , a shipment of 211 arrived in Elmira. These prisoners were originally held in New Orleans, moved to Ship Island, near Gulfport, Mississippi then shipped to Elmira. These were mostly prisoners from Fort Gains with a few from Fort Morgan. On December 4 th , 264 Fort Morgan prisoners were transferred to Elmira from Fort Columbus located in New York Harbor. The final shipment of Fort Morgan prisoners came to Elmira on February 21, 1865 when 20 Fort Morgan prisoners were transferred from Fort Columbus.

A terrible scourge of Variola (Smallpox) was brought to the Elmira Prison Camp by prisoners from Fort Morgan according to early historical writings about Elmira. Was Variola brought to Elmira by prisoners from Fort Morgan as early writings say? Could it have been brought by prisoners from Fort Gaines or other prisoners who had been captured in other areas of Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana? There is one common denominator in the Fort Morgan theory, all of these prisoners came from being held captives in New Orleans. At first there was no prison hospital in Elmira in which to locate these men suffering from Variola. Later a part of the prison camp grounds was set aside as a hospital for Variola cases. This hospital was little more than tents set up on an area next to the Chemung River.

This area of the camp became known as “Smallpox island”. Variola was not the largest killer of Elmira prisoners. Chronic Diarrhea according to prison camp death records was by far the largest killer. Chronic Diarrhea was brought on by the unsanitary condition of Foster’s Pond and the digging of shallow wells for water near the camp sinks (latrines). The second largest killer of Elmira prisoners was pneumonia brought on by living in tents, lack of proper clothing, and a one blanket per prisoner rule. There was one most unusual death recorded as being caused by “secondary syphilis from vaccination”. Variola accounted for 350 deaths or 11.7% of the 2,970 prison camp deaths.

On October 8, 1864 a shipment of 201 prisoners from New Orleans containing Fort Morgan prisoners arrived in Elmira. In this group of prisoners was Pvt. James Adams, 1 st Alabama Artillery who was captured at Fort Morgan. On December 19 th he died of Variola. He is buried in grave #1734 in Woodlawn National Cemetery. Pvt. Adams was one of the earliest prisoners to arrive in Elmira who died of Variola.

Three more shipments of Fort Morgan prisoners would arrive in Elmira. On Novmeber 5, 1864 another prisoner shipment left New Orleans by the way of Ship Island, Mississippi. This shipment contained 211 Fort Morgan prisoners. December 4, 1864 another 264 prisoners containing Fort Morgan men were transferred to Elmira from Fort Columbus in New York Harbor. The last shipment of 20 Fort Morgan prisoners arrived Elmira on February 21, 1865. They were transferred from Fort Columbus New York Harbor and they too were originally in New Orleans. The earliest deaths from Variola recorded in Elmira were on December 12, 1864. There were two deaths from Variola on this date. These two prisoners arrived in Elmira on November 17, 1864 with a prisoner shipment of 274 that originated in New Orleans. These prisoners were transported from New Orleans to Ship Island, Mississippi, thence to Fort Columbus in New York Harbor, thence to Elmira. These two men who died on December 12 th are Pvt. Alcide Carmonche, Co K, 2 nd Louisiana Cavalry and buried in grave #1143. The second prisoner to die of Variola on December 12 th is Pvt. Oscar Davidson, Co G, 34 th Texas Cavalry and buried in grave #1145 Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira.

The last Variola death in the Elmira Prison came on July 4, 1865. Sgt. B.J. Taylor, Co A “Northampton Artillery”, 3 rd North Carolina Light Artillery “Moore’s Battalion”. Sgt. Taylor had been captured on June 10, 1864 near Spotsylvania, VA. He arrived in Elmira on July 28, 1964 and died on July 4, 1865 six days before Elmira closed. According to original prison camp records he was buried in plot #2970. After the wooden markers were replaced in 1907 the graves were given different numbers and now he lies buried in plot #2835.

References: Alabama Historical Commission, The History of Fort Morgan The Elmira Prison Camp, A History of the Military Prison at Elmira, New York, July 6, 1864 – July 10, 1865, by Clay W. Holmes, Published 1912 Death Camp of the North by Michael Horigan, Published 2002 Fort Fisher to Elmira, The Fatal Journey of 518 Confederate Soldiers, by Richard H. Triebe, Published 2010 Elmira Prisoner of War Camp, The North’s Answer to Andersonville, by Richard H. Triebe, Published 2017 National Archives, United States Records of Prisoners of War, 1861 – 1865, NY, Elmira, Military Prison, Prisoner Register, 1862 – 1865, v. 218 – 220 and Death Register, prisoners, 1864 – 1865, v. 222 – 224.

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