History and the American Civil War have always fascinated me. I remember, as a kid in high
school, spending most of one year putting a Civil War report together. We were celebrating
the 100th anniversary of the Civil War so I collected information from everywhere. I would
get up before daylight to watch special programming on the educational channel for my report
(there was not that many educational channels or TV channels for that matter back then).
There was information everywhere; the newspapers were full of tidbits; the telephone company
even got involved and sent out articles in the monthly phone bill.
So when a good friend of mine recommended a visit to Andersonville, what could I say? It took me a while to get there but the visit to the City of Andersonville and the prison site was well worth the wait.
The Andersonville National Historic Site, located near Andersonville, Georgia, preserves the former Camp Sumter (also known as Andersonville Prison), a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. Most of the site lies in southwestern Macon County, adjacent to the east side of the town of Andersonville. As well as the former prison, the site also contains the Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
The site is an iconic reminder of the horrors of Civil War prisons. Major Henry Wirz, commander of the installation, was tried and convicted by a military tribunal on charges of conspiracy and murder. He was executed. The prison was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with inadequate water supply, reduction in food rations, and unsanitary conditions. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 died. The chief causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery. Friends provided care, food, and moral support for others in their social network, which helped prisoners survive.
The prison, which opened in February 1864, originally covered about 16.5 acres of land enclosed by a 15-foot high stockade. In June 1864 it was enlarged to 26.5 acres. The stockade was in the shape of a rectangle 1,620 feet by 779 feet. There were two entrances on the west side of the stockade, simply known as "north entrance" and "south entrance".
One prisoner described his entry into the prison camp as follows: "As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect; -stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. "Can this be hell?" "God protect us!" and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then."
At Andersonville, a light fence known as "the dead line" was erected approximately 19 feet inside the stockade wall. It demarcated a no-man's land that kept prisoners away from the stockade wall, which was made of rough-hewn logs about 16 feet high. Anyone crossing or even touching this "dead line" was shot without warning by sentries in the pigeon roosts.
At this time in the war, Andersonville Prison was frequently undersupplied with food to not only the prisoners, but the Confederate personnel within the fort as well. However, it is clear that the prisoners received much less than the guards, who were not emaciated like the prisoners were and did not die from scurvy), probably the main cause of mortality (along with diarrhea caused by living in filth and drinking water from a creek filled at all times with fecal material from thousands of sick and dying men). Even when sufficient quantities were available, the supplies were of poor quality and poorly prepared.
Although the prison was surrounded by forest, very little wood was allowed to the prisoners. This and the lack of utensils made it almost impossible for the prisoners to cook the main food they received, poorly milled corn flour. During the summer of 1864 Union prisoners suffered greatly from hunger, exposure and disease. Within seven months, about a third of them died from what was diagnosed as dysentery and scurvy and were buried in mass graves, the standard practice by Confederate prison authorities at Andersonville. In 1864 the Confederate Surgeon General asked Joseph Jones, an expert on infectious disease, to investigate the high mortality rate at the camp. He concluded that it was due to "scorbutic dysentery" (bloody diarrhea caused by vitamin C deficiency). Drisdelle claims that hookworm disease, a condition not recognized or known during the Civil War, was the major cause of much of the mortality. However, the signs and symptoms reported by the prisoners are identical with those of scurvy and rampant diarrhea, not of hookworm infestation.
The water supply from Stockade Creek became polluted when too many Union prisoners were housed by the Confederate authorities within the prison walls. Part of the creek was used as a sink, and the men were forced to wash themselves in the creek.
The guards, disease, starvation and exposure were not all that prisoners had to deal with. A group of prisoners, calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, attacked their fellow inmates to steal food, jewelry, money and clothing. They were armed mostly with clubs and killed to get what they wanted. Another group rose up, organized by Peter "Big Pete" Aubrey, to stop the larceny, calling themselves "Regulators". They caught nearly all of the Raiders, who were then tried by the Regulators' judge, Peter McCullough, and jury, selected from a group of new prisoners. This jury, upon finding the Raiders guilty, set punishment that included running the gauntlet, being sent to the stocks, ball and chain and, in six cases, hanging.
The conditions were so poor that in July 1864 Captain Wirz paroled five Union soldiers to deliver a petition signed by the majority of Andersonville's prisoners asking that the Union reinstate prisoner exchanges. The request in the petition was denied, and the Union soldiers, who had sworn to do so, returned to report this to their comrades.
In the latter part of the summer of 1864 the Confederacy offered to conditionally release prisoners if the Union would send ships (Andersonville is inland, with access possible only via rail and road) to retrieve them. In the autumn of 1864, after the capture of Atlanta, all the prisoners who were well enough to be moved were sent to Millen, Georgia, and Florence, South Carolina. At Millen, better arrangements prevailed, and after General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march to the sea, the prisoners were returned to Andersonville, where conditions were somewhat improved.
A young Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater, had been chosen to record the names and numbers of the dead at Andersonville for the use of the Confederacy and the federal government after the war ended. He believed the federal government would never see the list, and was right in this assumption, as it turned out. He sat next to Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the prison pen, and secretly kept his own list among other papers. When Atwater was released, he put the list in his bag and took it through the lines without being caught. It was published by the New York Tribune when Horace Greeley, the owner, learned that the federal government had refused and given Atwater much grief. It was Atwater's opinion that Andersonville was indeed trying to make soldiers unfit to fight.
Andersonville's decrepit conditions were chronicled in the diary of P.O.W. Newell Burch. Burch, of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, was captured on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and imprisoned at Belle Isle and then Andersonville. He is credited with being the longest held Union prisoner of war during the Civil War, a total of 661 days in Confederate hands. His diary is in the collection of the Dunn County Historical Society in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and a mimeographed copy is in the Wisconsin Historical Society archives.
Andersonville Prison was captured in May 1865.
In 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Georgia, bought the site of Andersonville Prison through membership and subscriptions. In 1910 the site was donated to the federal government by the Woman's Relief Corps an auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.
Andersonville National Historic Site is the only park in the National Park System to serve as a memorial to all American prisoners of war. Congress stated in the authorizing legislation that this park's purpose is "to provide an understanding of the overall prisoner of war story of the Civil War, to interpret the role of prisoner of war camps in history, to commemorate the sacrifice of Americans who lost their lives in such camps, and to preserve the monuments located within the site."
Open every day of the year from 8am until 5pm
On New Years Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day access is provided through the Cemetery Entrance Gate
Visitors Center (also the National Prisoner of War Museum)
Open every day of the year from 9am until 4:30pm except closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day
Andersonville National Historic Site
496 Cemetery Road
Andersonville, GA 31711