WRITTEN BY: Tom Fagart (edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter)
On July 12, 1864, 833 Confederate soldiers, many who had been captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor, were loaded onto the steamer Crescent, which was tied up along the dock of the Point Lookout Prison, Maryland. The destination for these men was the newly opened Federal prison in Elmira, New York. The “Crescent” was bound for New York Harbor and the port of Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City is across the Hudson River from New York City.
Once the Crescent docked in Jersey City in the very early morning hours of July 15th, the Confederate soldiers boarded an Erie Railroad train pulled by engine #171, a 4-4-0 wood burner, for a 273-mile trip to Elmira, New York. This prison train was made up of an engine, tender, and 18 rail cars consisting of three box cars and 15 passenger cars. The last two passenger cars were reserved for the 125 Union Army guards and officers. The remaining 16 cars were for the 833 Confederate prisoners. Each rail car averaged 52 prisoners. The Union Army guards were men of the 11th and 20th Veterans Reserve Corps. In order to guard the prisoners properly, some of the guards were stationed between the rail cars.
On the afternoon of July 15th, running about four hours behind schedule, the prison train with 833 Confederate prisoners and 125 Union Army guards traveled along the Erie Railroad line, which ran very close to the Delaware River that separates Pennsylvania from New York. This section of track was also very close to the town of Shohola, Pennsylvania. There was a dangerous section of rail line known as “King Fuller’s Cut,” which had a blind curve, and this is where the prison train met head on with the Pennsylvania Coal Company train with 50 coal cars. The collision resulted in almost total destruction to the prison train cars, which were built from wood. Fifty-one Confederate prisoners were immediately killed, most of them men of the 51st North Carolina Infantry Regiment. Most of the Confederate deaths occurred in the three box cars that were behind the engine tender. Seventeen of the Union Army guards who were standing between the rail cars were also killed. Hundreds more men, both Confederate and Union, were injured. As expected, chaos erupted. Several prisoners escaped in the confusion until the Union Army guards took control of the situation.
The Union Army guards ordered the Confederate soldiers to dig a mass grave beside the railroad track for the Confederate and Union dead. The Confederate prisoners built makeshift coffins from the rail car timber wreckage. As many as two and three of the Confederate dead were placed in a coffin. Each Union Army guard who was killed was placed in an individual coffin. These graves remained near the Erie Railway tracks until June 11, 1911, when the remains were reinterred in the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira, New York. A report, written on Sept. 6, 1911 by Capt. Charles Fenton for the Chief Quartermaster, states, “Sir: In compliance with the orders of the Division Commander I proceeded to Port Jervis, N. Y. on Sunday, June 4th, arriving at 10:30 p.m. I met Mr. C. I. Terwilliger with whom the Chief Quartermaster has made a contract for removing the remains of some 72 Confederate prisoners and Federal guards who were killed in a railroad accident on the Erie railway at a point about one and one-half miles west of Shohola station, while en route to Elmira prison. A permit was obtained from the local authorities for removing the dead, and the work was taken up on the morning of Monday June 5th and continued until completed the afternoon of June 8th. The place of burial was found to be at a point near the Delaware river and not far from the accident. It was pointed out to us by an old soldier who was present at the time of the burial 47 years ago. All the remains (60) were carefully disinterred and packing boxes and afterward and for large cases, and weighed each as follows: Case No. 1 – 310 lbs.; No. 2 – 335 lbs.; No. 3 – 375 lbs.; No. 4 – 325 lbs. These boxes were shipped by express on the afternoon of June 8th to Elmira, N. Y., and were turned over by me to the Superintendent of the Woodlawn National Cemetery Saturday morning, June 9th. I proceeded to the cemetery and saw the remains reinterred in the place that had been made for them. Very respectfully, Charles W Benton, Captain 2nd Calvary, A. D. C.” (Clay W. Holmes, The Elmira Prison Camp, p. 136-7).
The Erie prison train wreck became known as “The Great Shohola Prison Train Wreck.” Today there is a memorial—the Shohola Monument—in the Woodlawn National Cemetery in remembrance of the victims of the prison train wreck. The monument has the names of the Confederate prisoners who died listed on the side facing south, and on the other side are the names of the Union Army guards who died.
As soon as the people who lived in nearby Shohola, Pennsylvania and the small community of Barryville, New York, which is across the Delaware River, heard of the train wreck, they came to offer aid and comfort to all the injured. Two of the injured Confederate soldiers, both of whom were from North Carolina, were taken across river to Barryville. They were Pvt. Michael Johnson from Alamance County, serving in Company I of the 8th N.C. Infantry, and Anson County’s Pvt. John D. Johnson of Company D, 31st N.C. Infantry. Both men died soon after the wreck and are now buried at the Barryville Congregational Church Cemetery, Barryville, Sullivan County, New York. Each year on July 15th, the anniversary of the train wreck, members of the Col. Augustus van Horne Ellis Camp #124 of the Sons of Union Veterans place Confederate flags on these graves.
Due to the train wreck, the Confederate prisoners were late arriving in Elmira, New York. They arrived at about 9:30 PM on Saturday July 16th. A large crowd of local citizens were present for their arrival and did what they could to offer aid and comfort to the injured. Those who could walk were removed first from the train, placed in several lines, and were marched off with the uninjured to the prison camp. There were 85 severely injured men who were place on wagons and then taken to the prison camp. Seven or eight of the severely injured Confederates required amputation. Prison camp records show that the prisoners were checked in on Sunday the 17th. Since the prisoners arrived late on Saturday night, they were not recorded and accounted for until the next morning.
The government later conducted an inquiry and hearing as to the cause of the wreck. It was determined that the prison train was running too late and too far behind the scheduled train, the West 23, that had signaled its approach as an “extra.” This leading train had white flags on the engine, signaling that another train was following behind it. Regrettably, the prison train had been delayed and was four hours late. All the blame for the wreck was placed on a telegraph operator, Douglas “Duff” Kent, who worked at the Lackawaxen station south of Shohola. Kent saw the West 23 pass by that morning with its flags warning of a special “extra” following and was responsible for holding all eastbound traffic at Lackawaxen until the “extra” had gone through. However, at approximately 2:30 P.M. a coal train bound for Jersey City, N.J., stopped at Lackawaxen Junction to see if the track was clear to Shohola. Kent gave the all-clear for the coal train to proceed, sealing the fate of the two trains. When he learned of the wreck he disappeared.
North Carolina soldiers suffered the highest number of casualties and deaths in the train wreck. Twenty-six North Carolina soldiers were killed outright. The 51st North Carolina Regiment suffered the highest number of casualties; eleven of its soldiers died. Ten of those men were in Company I and from Cumberland and Sampson Counties, and the other man was in Company G. One additional man of Company I died within nine days as the result of a leg amputation. Four more Company I men also died very soon afterward from their injuries. In total, sixteen Company I men of the 51st N.C. Infantry Regiment were killed in the train wreck or died very soon after. In addition, five men of the 31st NC were killed during the wreck, and one man of the 31st died afterward and is buried in Barryville, New York. Two men of the 8th N.C. were killed outright, and one man of the 8th died and is buried in Barryville, New York. Seventeen Union Army Guards were killed.
My great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Franklin Cauble, was from Albemarle, Stanly County, North Carolina. Enlisting on Feb. 28, 1863, he served in Company C of the 42nd Infantry (North Carolina). Pvt. Cauble was taken prisoner on June 3, 1864 at Cold Harbor, Virginia, and was one of the Confederate prisoners who survived this wreck. He died of dysentery at Elmira prison a couple months later, on Oct. 28th. Pvt. Franklin Cauble is buried at Woodlawn National Cemetery, Elmira, New York.
NEWSPAPER ACCOUNTS OF THE WRECK
The Philadelphia Daily Age reported on July 16, 1864: “Lackawaxen, Pa., July 15 – A train with about eight hundred and fifty rebel prisoners, on their way to the camp at Elmira, collided with a Pennsylvania Coal Company’s train near Shohola this afternoon, killing and wounding a large number, reported at over one hundred. The train with prisoners should have left Jersey City this morning at 4:30, but was delayed and thrown out of time one hour by the Captain of the Guard, who returned to the vessel on which they came from City Point, to hunt up three prisoners who had escaped from him. The coal train on its way from Hawley Branch to Port Jarvis [Port Jervis], neglected to ascertain if the other train was behind time and went on, striking the latter at a crooked part of the road where the engineers could not see far ahead to avoid a casualty.”
The New York Tribune reported on July 16, 1864: “The citizens of Shohola and Barryville (a village just across the Delaware River) were untiring in their efforts to alleviate the suffering of the wounded. Men, women, and children vied with each other in acts of kindness… The most industrious endeavors were at once put in requisition to relieve the mangle beings in the wreck. But it was slow work, and their sufferings were intense. As fast as possible the wounded were carried to Shohola, and the dead placed beside the road. On the bank near the engines lay some twenty-five Rebel dead—many mangled past recognition. Another squad, of as many more, lay further down the road; and still further, wrapped in blankets lay fourteen of the guard—their duty done forever. Viewed by moonlight, and with lantern, it was a ghastly and horrible sight, although kindly hands had done much by coverings of leaves…to relieve the horror of the scene, and the ghastliness of the dead.”
The New York Daily Tribune reported on July 18, 1864 that a mass grave was dug along the railroad track measuring 76 ft. long, 8 ft. wide, 6 ft. deep. It also reported that a Michael Johnson of Company F, 8th N.C. was in serious condition with internal injuries.
ADDITIONAL NOTES: The Elmira Prison Camp, located in Elmira, New York, operated for 370 days, from July 6, 1864 to July 11, 1865. The prison camp was built on approximately 20 acres of land along the Chemung River. It was originally built to house 5,000 men “with crowding.” It was soon expanded to a little less than 30 acres and housed 12,121 Confederate prisoners in barracks and tents.
Elmira Prison Camp had the highest death rate of any prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Two thousand-nine-hundred-seventy-three men, or 24.5% of the prisoners, died from malnutrition, dysentery, pneumonia, smallpox, and/or the effects of frostbite. There was an average of eight deaths per day. A cemetery was established about 1.5 miles from the camp. On Dec. 7, 1877, the U.S. Government purchased two acres of ground, a part of which was already filled with bodies, for $1,500, and established Woodlawn National Cemetery.
In 1911 the Shohola Monument [above, click on photo to enlarge], honoring both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died, was erected after their remains were relocated from alongside the Erie Railroad track where the Great Shohola Prison Train Wreck occurred. In 1937,S the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the only Confederate monument in the Woodlawn National Cemetery.
Tom Fagart, Concord, N.C. Board Member of Friends of Elmira Civil War Prison Camp, Elmira, NY Member of Friends of Fort Fisher, Kure Beach, NC March 2016