How shall I introduce you to our next subject? Shall I tell you that it is the story of almost half a million Americans? Shall I relate that it will grieve you to the bones to hear and also inspire your sense of courage? Shall I say that this story challenges every American to understand the price of their freedom?
Oh, reader, were I a better story teller, I may be able to do this place the justice it deserves. Instead, I will share with you what I learned in the hopes that it may speak to that part of you that just celebrated Memorial Day and is in the background waiting to celebrate Independence Day in July. I am speaking to that piece of you that wants to celebrate America in all its glory knowing that its liberties have meant a sacrifice for so many. This is the story that piece should cling to, ever gaining strength, perspective, gratefulness and courage.
The place is Andersonville, Georgia and the story is that of the almost 500,000 Americans who have lived as a Prisoner of War.
Prior to the Civil War, Andersonville was a small village of about 20 families. There was a railway station and a post office, and not much else other than thick Georgia forest.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, no one expected it to last long. Neither side had made real plans for the necessity of housing those who would become Prisoners of War. Early on, the issue was simply dealt with by having captives promise not to return to the fight and they were released. In 1862, the Dix Hill Cartel made a formal establishment for prisoner exchange, but in 1863, President Lincoln suspended the exchange for multiple reasons. Once the exchange was abandoned, the lodging of captives quickly became a much larger issue and Prisoner of War camps sprung up in the North and South contending with the ever increasing flow of captives.
In the South, Andersonville was chosen to be the home of Fort Sumter (a Prisoner of War camp) due to its location deep in the South (away from the early battle lines), its situation on the railway line, its abundance of wood for materials, and the running of the Sweetwater Creek to provide water to the camp. The prison stockade was erected spanning two hillsides and the creek valley between them. The stockade was built from the local pine logs, and a fence designated as the deadline was erected within 20 feet of the stockade to create a zone in which no prisoner was allowed to pass, keeping the prisoners away from the stockade walls. Before Fort Sumter was completely built, its first captives began to arrive by train from Richmond in February 1864. Approximately 400 new captives arrived daily over the next few months.
Originally constructed to hold 10,000 men, by June of 1864, it housed 26,000. The prison’s 16.5 acres was soon enlarged to 26.5 acres, but even with the addition, the prisoners would suffer due to overcrowding. At its most crowded, Andersonville Prison held 32,000 men at once.
From the onset, Andersonville prisoners were faced with difficulties that grew as time passed. No barracks or housing was available within the prison, and captives had to create makeshift tents for themselves. The creek that ran through the prison was already tainted by the guard barracks upstream and became a foul water source with the overcrowding and illness. “Sinks” were set up at the lower end of the creek for the prisoners to wash and use as latrines, their waste to be carried out by the water.
On top of these many sufferings, a group of captives formed a gang of brute force to rob, murder and further increase the sufferings of their fellow prisoners. The Raiders, as they were called, became such a problem that an outcry raised against them. The Confederate authorities, including General Winder and Captain Wirz, listened to the prisoners’ complaints and allowed them to enforce laws within the camp and even sit as judge and jurors at trial. The Raiders were rounded up (some places I read there were 75, some 150), sat trial and were punished according to their offenses before returning to camp. Six of the Raiders were also found guilty of crimes punishable by hanging. In July of 1864, the Confederates allowed a gallows to be built and the six executions took place within the prison. The prisoners requested that the six Raiders be buried separate from the other dead, and that too was granted. Thus, a small bit of justice prevailed in the chaos of Andersonville.
Conditions continued to decline in Andersonville, despite the routing of the Raiders. Rations decreased, the water became more and more unfit to drink, disease ran rampant and still more prisoners arrived. Medical supplies were inadequate at the camp’s hospital. As the war wore on, Southern railways were disrupted and what food and medical supplies were available became more difficult to transport. As the Confederate Army suffered from poorer and poorer supplies, so did the Prisoners of War.
Time and time again, Confederate letters were sent both to the Confederate and Union leadership about the terrible conditions in Andersonville; and time and time again the letters were unanswered. The leadership at the prison sent many requests for better provisions, materials etc. The Confederates also pleaded with the Union forces to resume an exchange, but to no avail.
A total of 45,000 captives were imprisoned in Andersonville, of them 13,000 died. Disease, starvation and exposure took the majority of those lives.
In August 1864, a delegation of Union soldiers from Andersonville Prison met with President Lincoln to give first-hand accounts of the situation and plead for an exchange to be reinstated, but that would not happen. Lincoln left the decision to Grant, and Grant firmly believed that a large scale prisoner exchange would be detrimental to the Union Army. Grant stated, “It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners North would insure Sherman’s defeat and would compromise our safety here.”
Confederate soldiers could be counted on to immediately join ranks again and participate in the next fight. Union troops that were prisoners could not, as most of them had served their time. Grant felt that a prisoner exchange by that time would only prolong the war and cause even more casualties and suffering.
Also in August, there was a big storm in Andersonville that flooded the creek and actually broke some of the blockade walls in its gushing fullness. After the storm, a new spring bubbled out of the side of the hill offering fresh, clean water. The spring, however, bubbled forth within the dead zone. At first, the captives used bowls attached to long sticks to reach the water, but the guards then allowed them to trench the water in to the camp. They named it “Providence Spring”, because so many of them had been asking God for fresh water.
In September 1864, General Sherman’s forces occupied Atlanta, and precautions were taken at Andersonville in the event of an attack. Many of the prisoners were moved to other camps.
Andersonville served as a prison in a lesser capacity until the end of the Civil War.
On April 9, 1865, Lee signed the official surrender at Appomatox.
As survivors returned to the North, their stories fed an enraged public and a general outcry was raised for some justice. General Winder, who was the commander of all military prisons in Alabama and Georgia, died of a heart attack during this time. Next in line was Captain Wirz who was in charge of the daily operations within the prison. He was not in command of the overall post and had no authority with requests or in relation to the hospital. But, as the outcry grew, someone had to pay the price and that person was Capt. Wirz. Accounts of his actions are so varied that it is no wonder that some see him as a scapegoat, while others see him as the evil behind Andersonville. He wrote copious letters requesting improvements, supplies and provisions; but he was also known for severe punishments to keep order within the prison. Capt. Wirz was brought to Washington, D.C. and faced a trial in which he was found guilty. On November 10, 1865, Captain Wirz was hanged.
While Andersonville has been passed down through history as the most notorious Civil War prison due to having the highest death rate, there were many other prisons on both sides where prisoners suffered depredations unto death.
Today, Andersonville Prison is a National Historic Site. Some parts of the prison have been reconstructed to show visitors what the actual prison looked like. It is also the home of the National Prisoner of War Museum, which tells the story of not only Andersonville’s prisoners, but of all of the American Prisoners of War since our founding in 1776. It is a powerful museum, and I believe all who enter leave with a much better appreciation for our Armed Forces.
The grounds also hold a National Cemetery. The cemetery contains the graves of the 13,000 who died at Andersonville. A Union captive, Dorence Atwater, who worked in the hospital kept a copy of the gravesites which he smuggled out at his release. He later returned with Clara Barton to add names to 95% of the graves.
Now that you have read this article, I want to disclose that I am by no means a history expert. I am just an average American looking to understand my past, so I can appreciate my present and learn for my future. I tried to give a balanced look at Andersonville, but I also recognize that that is impossible in our unbalanced world. I don’t believe one man can be blamed for the atrocities of Andersonville or any of the other prisons for that matter. I sympathize with Wirz, just as I sympathize with Grant and Lincoln. Matters are complex; leadership is hard; and true leaders usually take a beating, whether they are right or wrong. I hope you enjoyed learning what I shared with you today, and more importantly, I hope you make a visit to Andersonville National Historic Site for yourself.
Here is a look at our visit…
- We stayed at the Andersonville RV Park for $17.50 a night. It is 30 amp service. It is located in Andersonville Civil War Village, a great accompaniment to the Historic Site – be sure to stop in the Drummer Boy Civil War Museum. They are very helpful guides for your stay.
- Andersonville National Historic Site is FREE.
- There is a reenactment in the Civil War Village each year in the Fall – that would be awesome!
- This area gives you a sense of authentic Georgia off the beaten path. It is Georgia peach country (Fort Valley is home of the Georgia Peach Festival). Nearby Montezuma has antebellum homes and the other surrounding towns are interesting to visit too. Also, the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, GA is only about 20 miles from Andersonville.