Posted by: bree1972 | March 9, 2010

“To Make a Shadow” 03/10/2010

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 AndersonvilleThe 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. 

Map of the prison site, showing Stockade Branch running through the middle of the camp. The Confederate soldiers used the water upstream of the camp, polluting it. The prisoners had a latrine area at the south end of the stream, further polluting the water. This ignorance of proper sanitation was a huge contributor to the rapid spread of diseases through the camp.


Stockade Branch as it is today. The area from the forefront of this photo to the white posts in the middle of the picture was all part of the prison grounds. The outer white posts mark where the stockade wall stood. The inner white posts mark the deadline. Prisoners caught between the stockade wall and the deadline could be shot.

During the summer of 1864, almost five months after the prison opened, the prisoners were desperate for clean drinking water. During a heavy rainstorm, a spring suddenly gushed from the ground between the deadline and the stockade wall. The event became legendary, and some prisoners claimed to have seen a bolt of lightning strike the spot where the water began to flow. Even though the spring was outside the deadline, the guards allowed prisoners, a few at a time, to retrieve the water in buckets. Whether an act of nature or divine providence, the effect of the stream was an answer to thousands of prayers. The memorial in this photo sits on the ground where the spring formed, and water still flows from it today.


The rebuilt north corner of the stockade. It is hard to portray in these photographs the area that was encompassed by the prison walls. 26 1/2 acres of land seems huge, but holding, at one point, 32,000 men, there would have barely been room for each soldier to sit in his own space.


Ted - standing at the reconstructed north gate.

Another line of parallel posts marking the outer stockade walls and the inner deadline.

Memorials have been erected within the area of the prison by states who lost soldiers at Andersonville.

Michigan's monument to its fallen soldiers. I will reference this monument again when I write a story from Mackinac Island on Memorial Day.

The Ohio monument

A monument honoring the war dead at Andersonville from Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Again, the boundary markers.



Father Peter Whelan, an Irish-born Catholic priest from Savannah, arrived at Andersonville on June 16, 1864 to minister to the sick and dying. While other priests visited for brief periods, Whelan remained for nearly three months during the hottest season and the time of highest mortality. At the end of his stay, Whelan borrowed money to purchase 10,000 lbs. of wheat flour. Baked into bread and distributed at the prison hospital, this food became known as "Whelan's bread". It lasted several months and probably saved many lives. Pvt. Henry M. Davidson wrote, "By coming here, he exposed himself to great danger of infection. His services were sought by all, for in his kind and sympathizing looks, his meek but earnest appearance, the despairing prisoners realized that all humanity had not forsaken them."

The prisoners were constantly digging for water, and dozens of these makeshift wells have been rediscovered and marked.

A reconstructed area of stockade fence, with tents the prisoners used for shelter.

An actual Civil War photograph of the camp.

A very real view of the deadline area.

A "shebang", the name given the shelters the prisoners built for themselves. They used sticks and pieces of clothing to improvise leaky tents and lean-to's. Many had no shelter at all, and protection from rain, dew, and the broiling Georgia sun became a matter of life and death.

This shebang shelters a marked well.

A sentry box or "pigeon roost" was mounted every 100 feet along the top of the stockade. The guards there had orders to shoot any prisoner who crossed the deadline. Otherwise, they had little control over conditions inside. The guards, mostly old men and boys, because the seasoned troops had been sent to stop Sherman's drive to Atlanta, became prisoners of tedium and anxiety, always fearful of a prison uprising or an attack by Union cavalry. The guards suffered from the same health problems as the prisoners and died in high numbers.

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



  1. As sad as this is, I’m so glad you wrote about this Brenda. I have always been fascinated with the Civil War, but these are the kind of things that nobody really talked about. I find this all so very interesting.

  2. Isn’t it amazing what we are capable of doing to our fellow countrymen. Even if we don’t intend evil, evil is the result. A most moving tribute which brings alive a dark part of our history.

  3. Thank you for sharing your visit with us in words and pictures!

  4. Truly amazing! Definitely worthy of a visit if I ever get to Georgia.

    Thank you so much!

  5. Brenda,

    Thank you for visiting and writing about the Andersonville Prison. The very thought of such horrible conditions as existed in Civil War prisons is enough to bring tears to the eyes. I have no desire to visit any of those places. I don’t think I could handle it. You and Ted must be brave people.

    In 1947, when I was not quite 9 years old, my family moved from Michigan to Austin, Texas. Most of our neighbors were just as nice as they could be, but there were a few who were still fighting the Civil War and had such hard feelings toward us Yankees – even my 7 year old brother and me. After about 5 years, we moved back to Michigan, but after I married, my wife, our three year old son and I moved back to Austin in 1964. We never encountered anyone who was anything but nice to us. How times change. I’m so glad we are one nation again.

    • Amen to that, Lowell!

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