Confederate Graves at Elmira
Of eighty hundred prisoners here
for less than two-thirds of a year
more than a third would never leave.
They died of plain starvation, grief,
of cholera, typhus, black frostbite.
To eat they caught a bird or rat
worth pennies or a worn out blanket.
The local folks would pay a bit
to watch the Johnnys from a tower.
Their medicine was sold and never
reached the reeking tents of suffering.
The flats along the wide Chemung
would flood and freeze and then, melting,
would freeze again. Each day more had
to be carried to the coffin shed
and carted to the field around
the hill. When April came the ground
thawed out to putrefaction.
Those who survived for celebration
of peace were loaded on the cars
and hauled back to the scenes of war’s
calamity, the weaker dead
before they reached their charred homesteads.
It was a black custodian here
who dedicated twenty years
to finding out the name for each
Confederate grave and then had etched
the proper words on fields of stones,
to honor those lost far from home,
because it was the decent thing
he answered the neighbors’ questioning.