After spending some time doing additional research, I find that the story of Andersonville will take two more posts, not one. Today (Wednesday) we will tour the Andersonville Civil War prison site, and on Thursday we will visit the National Cemetery at Andersonville.
Sgt. David Kennedy, 9th Ohio Calvary and a prisoner at Andersonville, wrote in his diary, “Would that I was an artist and had the material to paint this camp and all its horrors, or the tongue of some eloquent Statesman and had the privilege of expressing my mind to our honorable rulers in Washington. I should glory to describe this hell on Earth where it takes seven of its occupants to make a shadow.”
The image Sgt. Kennedy drew with his words is only too easy to imagine after spending Sunday afternoon touring the Andersonville National Historic Site. The prison lies directly behind the POW Museum courtyard. It can be reached on foot, or by driving your vehicle past the museum and parking in any of several designated areas around the 26.5 acres of land that mark the prison grounds.
Writing this story makes me wish I could beg forgiveness from all the descendents of the men who suffered and died within this horrid place. But even as I write that, from the bottom of my heart I wish I could declare that Andersonville was the only prisoner of war camp that existed during the Civil War, because then many thousands of lives would have been spared. But prison camps existed in the South and in the North – nearly 150 in all.
The truly sad part of this story is that the misery endured by prisoners – North and South – was not deliberate. There was ignorance on both sides as to adequate nutrition and proper sanitation. James Robinson, a history professor at Virginia Tech, wrote, “Intent and malice were never intended.” Robinson said that Americans had never had to face what to do with more than 100 captives at a time, and there were now hundreds of thousands imprisoned. The Union’s Fort Delaware became known as the “Fort Delaware Death Pen”. Elmira Prison in New York had a 25% mortality rate. All 150 prisoner of war camps were miserable places, some almost as miserable as Andersonville – but not quite. Andersonville will forever hold the title of “most notorious” and “worst” – it claimed the lives of 29% of its inmates.
Andersonville was built in early 1864. A large number of Federal prisoners were being kept in and around Richmond, VA, and Confederate officials decided to move them to a more secure location that had a more abundant food supply. The prison was only in existence for 14 months, and during that time over 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there. Built to hold 10,000 men, the largest number held within the stockade walls at one time was 32,000. During that 14 months, some 13,000 men died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure.
Initially, the prison pen covered about 16 1/2 acres, enclosed by a 15-foot-high stockade. It was enlarged to 26 1/2 acres in June of 1864. From the brochure Andersonville: The stockade was in the shape of a parallelogram 1,620 feet long and 779 feet wide. Sentry boxes, or “pigeon-roosts” as the prisoners called them, stood at 30-yard intervals along the top of the stockade. About 19 feet inside the wall was the “deadline,” which the prisoners were forbidden to cross upon threat of death. A stream through the prison yard – Stockade Branch – supplied water to most of the prison. Handicapped by a deteriorating economy, inadequate transportation, and the need to concentrate all available resources on its army, the Confederate government was unable to provide adequate housing, food, clothing, and medical care to their Federal captives. Horrific conditions, along with a breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, resulted in much suffering and a high mortality rate.
When Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union forces occupied Atlanta on Sept. 2, 1864, Confederates moved most of the prisoners to other camps in South Carolina and coastal Georgia. From then until May 1865, Andersonville was operated on a smaller basis. When the war ended, Capt. Henry Wirz, the stockade commander, was arrested and charged with conspiring with high Confederate officials to “impair and injure the health and destroy the lives . . . of Federal prisoners” and “murder, in violation of the laws of war.” Such a conspiracy never existed, but anger and indignation throughout the North over the conditions at Andersonville demanded appeasement. Tried and found guilty by a military tribunal, Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 10, 1865 – the only Civil War soldier to be tried for war crimes. Andersonville prison ceased to exist in May 1865.
The grass on this acreage is brown now, but soon it will turn the beautiful green of a Georgia spring. Bulbs will spring from the ground, and flowers will begin blooming. In a few weeks, it will be more difficult to imagine that on this land thousands and thousands of young men died horrible deaths due to starvation and disease. Over 56,000 soldiers died in prison camps in the North and South during the Civil War, and their deaths have mostly gone unnoticed in the chronicles of the war. But at Andersonville, their deaths have not been forgotten.
Tomorrow, we will tour the Andersonville National Cemetery – where the wars have finally ended, and the soldiers know only peace.
NOTE: Additional information for this post provided by an article written by Yancey Hall in the July 1, 2003 issue of National Geographic News.
“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” . . . Abraham Lincoln