Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York, is located in a section of the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery. The U.S. government declared the section a national cemetery in 1877. The town of Elmira hosted a U.S. Army training and troop marshalling center at the beginning of the Civil War and later in the war, the military turned it into a Confederate prisoner of war camp. Overcrowding, inadequate shelter, and disease resulted in the deaths of nearly 3,000 prisoners, who were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Today, monuments stand on the cemetery’s grounds honoring the Confederate dead and victims from an 1864 railroad accident.
With Elmira’s location along the Chemung River and the Chemung Canal, shipping and transportation drove Elmira’s development in the early and mid-1800s. Increased commercial activity brought with it a growing population. When the local burial sites became full, Elmira citizens voted to create a new cemetery site and followed the popular movement of planning rural cemeteries. The town leaders chose a scenic fifty-acre property, upon which curving paths and swaths of lawns were laid out to enhance the natural beauty of the site. The town of Elmira formally dedicated the new cemetery, named Woodlawn, in October 1858.
During the Civil War, the military established Camp Rathbun near Elmira, because the town’s transportation links made it an ideal location for the training and marshalling of Union troops. During the summer of 1864, the U.S. government converted the camp into a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, surrounding the 30-acre site with a 12-foot stockade wall. The first 400 prisoners arrived in July 1864. By the fall of that year, more than 10,000 were held in the prison.
As the prison camp’s population grew larger, the conditions for prisoners worsened. Disease, inadequate housing, a harsh winter, and flooding in the spring of 1865 exacerbated the overcrowding and gave the prison’s nickname “Hellmira.” Of the 12,123 prisoners held at the camp, 2,963 died.
To accommodate the burial of the prisoners and 128 Union prison guards who died while stationed at the camp, the U.S. government leased a half-acre plot in Woodlawn. The sexton of Woodlawn Cemetery, John W. Jones, buried each of the Confederate prisoners, keeping meticulous notes and records as to the name and location of each soldier. The government lot in the town’s cemetery was officially designated as a national cemetery in June 1874. In 1906, when the U.S. Congress approved the use of new government markers for Confederate graves, Jones’ records ensured that almost of all of the gravesites received the appropriate personal marker.
The site grew from its original size to 2.5 acres by 1870. In 1877, the U.S. government erected an entrance gate and a stone wall around the perimeter of the national cemetery and planted deciduous trees along the inside of the wall. The stone wall was removed in 1936, and replaced with an iron fence in 1942. Today, the cemetery contains 10.5 acres within its rectangular plan.
Until 1949, the U.S. government contracted with the town of Elmira to maintain the national cemetery. Later, the U.S. Army maintained the property, necessitating the construction of a superintendent’s lodge, which was later used as an administration building. The L-shaped, one-story brick building is simply designed with little ornamentation.
On the national cemetery’s grounds are two notable monuments. The U.S. government erected the Shohola Monument in 1911 to commemorate the lives lost during a tragic railroad accident. In July 1864, near Shohola, Pennsylvania, a coal train struck an 18-car passenger train carrying 853 Confederate prisoners and their guards. The monument pays tribute to the 47 Confederate prisoners and 17 Union guards who died in the accident. In 1937, the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated a memorial to the Confederate soldiers who died while held at the Elmira prison camp. The ten-foot-tall granite monument with a bronze bas-relief figure of a Confederate soldier is located near the Confederate burial section. A commemorative marker, also located in the Confederate section, honors the work of John W. Jones, the cemetery sexton charged with the burials of Confederate prisoners.