Common Ground

Submitted to:


Here is a riddle. Solve it if you can — without the use of Internet.

“Where will you find a cemetery inside another cemetery?”

[Oh, that’s just a wee bit too tough, huh? Okay, let’s try this one instead]:

What does a Civil War training  facility  for Union  troops, a Prisoner-of-War camp for Confederate detainees and “Mark Twain,” the writer, have in common?

[*] The answer to both questions is Woodlawn Cemetery [*]

Historic Davis Street gate

Woodlawn National Cemetery is 10.5 acres, has 8693 occupants (as of 2005) and is contained in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Before it became a cemetery, Woodlawn National was a Civil War training facility for Union troops.

In 1861, it was called Camp Rathbun and located near the town of Elmira, Chemung County, New York. It was established to train soldiers before sending them off to fight in the war; and at full capacity, it easily accommodated 2,000 soldiers.

The location was considered prime real estate, because it was close to the crossing of the Erie and Northern Central railway lines, but as the Civil War progressed, most of the camp’s property (30 acres) was not used.

Lieutenant-Colonel Seth EASTMAN was in charge of Camp Rathbun and the hastily-run conversion to turn it into a prisoner-of-war camp.  By the summer of 1864, 20 new barracks were built and the old #3 Barracks was repaired.  

His report to his superior, Colonel HOFFMAN, stated that Rathbun could support 6,000 troops, but the reply he received instructed him to expect between 8000 and 10 000 detainees within ten days!

Earlier, Eastman had submitted calculations stating only half that number could be housed properly:

  • Barracks are well kept but only accommodate 4000 (with the possibility of another 1,000 in tents)
  • Kitchens capable of feeding 5000 a day
  • Mess Room seating capacity is 1500 at once; and
  • NO hospital facilities on site

But Eastman was still told to expect prisoners, and their arrival would be memorable indeed.

It was July 15th, 1864.  A steamer arrived in Jersey City, NJ from Point Lookout, Maryland with 833 Confederate prisoners-of-war, captured at the Battle of Cold Harbour (in Virginia).

Once in Jersey City, the prisoners were transferred to an 18-car train that would travel along the Erie Railway Line to Elmira, NY.  They were escorted by 128 Union guards.

Delayed until 6am to look for some missing prisoners, the train left for Port Jervis, NY but arrived over four hours late. The next stretch of track was between Sparrowbush, NY and Shohola, PA. It snaked through hardwood forests with many blind curves forcing the train to travel between 20 and 25 mph. It made Shohola by 2:50pm

Further up the route at Lackawaxen, PA, a dispatcher permits a westbound coal train bound for Port Jervis to pass through; as it had been more than four hours since he had heard anything about the prison train. 

The coal train no sooner passes his junction, when the dispatcher receives word that the prison train bound for Elmira has just passed Shohola and was on its way to Lackawaxen!

One and one-half miles from Shohola, the railway line passes through “King & Fuller’s Cut,” a series of blind bends with as little as fifty feet of forward visibility. 

Neither train saw the other until it was too late!

The trains collided head-on with the force of an earthquake. Their combined speeds were only 30mph, but that created enough momentum for the wood stored in the engines’ tenders to impale both sets of engineers and firemen.

The remainder of the fatalities occurred in the first three prison cars, as the box cars were “telescoped” into each other, like wooden Russian Matryoshka dolls of deceasing sizes nesting inside the other. 

The box car immediately behind the prison train engine carried 37 passengers – 36 were killed instantly. Of the remaining prisoner from that first box car, he was thrown from the wreckage and lived!

Shohola Monument
Shohola Monument

Passengers in the latter cars received injuries, and the surviving guards were busy again searching for five prisoners who took advantage of the incident and escaped! They were never found.

Guards’ descriptions of the carnage were detailed, as if they were describing a battle scene from the War.

The people of Shohola, and nearby Barryville, NY, treated the wounded, with total disregard of their uniform colours.  Doctors arrived in two relief trains from Port Jervis and worked through the night, calculating the official death toll to be: 44 prisoners, 17 guards and the four railway staff – and the dead were quickly buried by the side of the railway in unmarked graves.  “An inquiry found the dispatcher, who fled the scene, to be negligent.1

During its fifteen months in operation, Elmira Prison opened its doors to 12,100 Confederate inmates, and almost 25% of the occupants died from the combination of malnutrition, continued exposure to harsh winter weather, and disease from poor sanitary conditions.  The Confederates referred to the prison as “Hellmira” as they considered it a death camp.

Confederate Monument
Confederate Monument

But, five days after the prison opened, Surgeon Charles T. ALEXANDER inspected the place, by request of Eastman’s commanding officer, Colonel William Hoffman, who was also the Commissary General.

The surgeon’s findings supported Eastman’s reports as well as sanitary issues (i.e. clean drinking water) and medical care (a make-shift hospital was made from a tent and run by a civilian instead of a doctor); but, Colonel Hoffman did not heed the warnings and many inmates died.

The dead were then prepared and buried at Woodlawn Cemetery by the sexton, a former slave named John W. JONES.

The last prisoner left the camp on September 25th, 1865. Elmira Prison was then closed, demolished and converted to farm lands.

In 1877 Woodlawn Cemetery was designated a national cemetery.

In 1911 the Shohola Monument was erected. Upon one side are the names of the Union soldiers and the Confederate soldiers upon the opposite side.  Along with the monument was the re-interment of the unmarked railway burials made 47 years earlier.

In 1937, the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to the Confederate prisoners who died while incarcerated at Elmira Prison.


Samuel L. Clemens, better known to millions as “Mark Twain,” is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.  His wife, the former Olivia Langdon, had died earlier in 1904, was cremated and also buried in there.

SamuelC_GraveWhen Samuel Clemens was born, Halley’s Comet had made an appearance and the great writer had later predicted that he would also “go out with it.”

When Mr. Clemens died at the age of 74, it was April 21st, 1910 – the day after the return of Halley’s Comet! 

But, did you know “mark twain” is a riverboat pilot’s term?

It means “Mark two fathoms.”

Information gleaned from the following:

[1] Elmira Prison

[2] Shohola Train Wreck

[3] Woodlawn National Cemetery


[5] Mark Twain 



1 Comment

  1. What a spectacular story. I’ve heard of “Hellmira,” along with the deadly conditions in prison camps during the Civil War, on both the Union and Confederate sides. But I never knew about this head-on collision between two trains! No wonder the dispatcher fled the scene. What horror and carnage. Some prisoners-to-be may have escaped a more lingering death in the prison camp, but that’s not a fair way to look at it. This must have been one of the worst railroad accidents in history.

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