When Jay and I decided to go to SEFF I knew that I was finally going to have the chance to visit Andersonville. Many years ago I’d read the novel by MacKinlay Kantor that was based in the prison of war camp and decided that I wanted to visit it some day. The novel does a very good job of making you feel like you are there in the middle of the prison camp, experiencing all of the same horrors that the men faced when they were there. You hear about the inhumane treatment of the detainees in Guantanamo, but they are living in a luxury spa as compared to most prison of war camps.
There were quite a few prisoner of war camps during the Civil War, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. Andersonville has become quite notorious, but in the North we had Elmira prison in New York. Many people don’t even realize that it existed. A good example was when I attended college about an hour away from Elmira. I asked my roommate, who grew up in the area, if there was anything left of the prison camp. She insisted that there had never been a prison camp there, and she didn’t believe me until I showed her the proof in my Civil War books. From what I can remember the only thing that remains in Elmira is a little cemetery and a flag pole. That’s it. Not even the residents realize that it’s there or what it meant. Good or bad it was part of our history and should be remembered.
I’m going to assume that you, dear reader, are not at all familiar with Andersonville nor its history. As I tell you the story I will insert pictures of what it looked like back then and what it looks like now, along with my own personal reflections of my visit. This is going to be a depressing and somber ride through history so please be prepared. I will do my best to soften the edges without taking away from the truth.
In 1863 Lincoln and Grant decided that they would stop the prisoner exchange because this would hurt the Confederates more than it would hurt the Union. One thing that the Union had was plenty of men, unlike the Confederacy. Confederate prisoners would no sooner cross back over the Mason-Dixon before they were back in the ranks of the army doing their best to kill them a Yankee. It would also put a greater strain on the Confederates’ resources due to having to feed, shelter, and care for a growing population of Union prisoners. The Confederacy now had a problem on their hands. The prisoner population was growing in their Virginia prison camps to the extent that they were worried about the proximity to the Union lines, plus there wasn’t much food in the region for the citizens and the army, let alone Union prisoners. Something had to be done.
It was decided that they would build another prison camp, but this time in a more remote spot where it wouldn’t be so easy for the Union army to interfere.
In southern Georgia a spot was found, cleared, and a stockade began to go up that would hold 10,000 prisoners. At least, that was the original plan. The stockade originally encompassed 16.5 acres, including a stream that ran through it. There was a railroad line that ran by Andersonville so prisoners could be quickly escorted from the depot to the stockade. Also, with the location being so remote and the chance of a Union raid being less likely the Confederates could use fewer men to guard the encampment. Construction began and in February 1864 the prisoners began to arrive despite the fact that the prison wasn’t completed and they had yet to receive adequate supplies for the number of men that it was meant to house.
Keep in mind that this prison was located in Georgia where it gets hot, humid, and even hotter. Not to mention the giant insects that wonder the country side looking for their next prey. The occupants of Andersonville would be northern boys who grew up in colder climates and weren’t used to the summer heat of the south. When the prisoners arrived at the stockade they didn’t have any shelter. None. The first guys were able to fashion shelters out of debris left over from the construction of the stockade. As that dwindled, though, the rest of the men had to come up with other means, including the use of blankets, tarps, and even digging holes in the ground to give them a little more relief from the relentless sun.
They made use of what they had, which wasn’t very much. If they were available, they could buy poles from the guards to use with their blankets or tarps. The men would often buddy up so that they could make a slightly larger shelter by putting together two blankets. Doing the math, if the stockade had held the number of prisoners it was originally built to hold, each guy would get roughly a 9’x8′ area for himself. That doesn’t sound too bad considering they were in an open stockade and were able to roam about. Except, there were a few factors that you have to figure into the equation. First off, there was the creek running through the stockade that took away a bit of the available land on which you could build a shelter. This creek was used for drinking water, and at the other end was where the latrines were located. It was a bit marshy around the creek as well. Secondly, it didn’t take long for the population to increase even more. By May 1864 there were 12,000 men living in this stockade. That brings the square footage per prisoner down to approximately a 9’x7′ area.
In the picture to the right the more open land is outside of the stockade. The bottom half is the interior of the stockade. In June 1864 they expanded the stockade to 26 acres, but the population also increased to 22,000 prisoners. If we keep doing the math, this brings the square footage per prisoner down to around 7’x7′. By August 1864 there were more than 32,000 prisoners in Andersonville. Just the number of people alone is almost incomprehensible to me, but then when you stand there and see the actual size of the property where they were located it’s just absolutely shocking. You would think that 26 acres would be a huge piece of property.
You probably can’t get a very good idea from this picture, but when you’re standing there it doesn’t seem as large. It’s quite hilly, so that has something to do with it, but to stand there and imagine 32,000 men in that area just baffles me. That concrete pillar in the foreground is were a guard’s tower was located in the corner. The outer white posts represent the stockade wall, and the inner white posts represents the ‘deadline’. So, not only did the men have a giant piece of land that was marshy and wet where they couldn’t build shelters, but all around the inside wall of the stockade was 19 feet of space that they weren’t allowed to occupy. If you crossed it the guards were ordered to shoot you dead. Thus, the deadline.
Currently there is one corner of the stockade standing and the parks service has done their best to replicate some of the shelters that were used. Even with this I still had a hard time comprehending what it would look like to have 32,000 men in that area. What did it sound like? Did it look similar to an ant hill that is swarmed and crawling with ants? What did it smell like with all of those unwashed bodies? Not to mention the fact that disease, starvation and malnutrition were decimating the men. At one point about 100 men a day were dieing. There were buried in unmarked graves, which later Clara Barton and some other volunteers went down there to help identify the dead.
It’s hard to tell, but I believe that this is a picture of the prisoners within the stockade. At first I thought it was a shot of the woods that surround the area, but as I looked closer I could see faces, arms, and torsos. Unbelievable. As the summer wore on resources started to get harder to come by, even for the Confederate army. Sherman’s army was marching through Georgia, limiting the resources that were making their way to the Confederates. After Sherman captured Atlanta in the fall of 1864 it was decided to ship the prisoners who could move to a prison in South Carolina. This way if Sherman managed to liberate the prison he wouldn’t have healthy men to put back into the army (not that you could really call the ones who had left ‘healthy’). Once that danger was past, though, about 5,000 prisoners were returned to Andersonville. These prisoners found that conditions had somewhat improved, which really isn’t saying a lot. Andersonville held, in total, around 45,000 prisoners when it was only meant to hold 10,000. Of these 45,000 men it is estimated that 13,000 died.
When the prisoners were finally freed many were unable to leave due to health issues. This is a man who survived Andersonville despite the fact that he’s essentially a skin-covered skeleton. It amazes me that somebody could survive looking like that. What must they have endured? What thoughts ran through their heads? Which treatment is more inhumane, to be starved or to be tortured and beaten? I suppose that none is ideal, but are both horrible in their own right. Maybe we can look a little more favorably upon the Confederates because the starvation issue wasn’t completely their fault. When you have a limited number of resources you have to prioritize who gets what, and anybody is going to put the needs of their military above the needs of their prisoners. It sounds horrible, but that’s how it goes. Should the Confederates be held blameless for their treatment of the Union prisoners? No, I don’t think so. However, do you weigh the circumstances and compare that to what happened in the north? The Union had vast resources and really weren’t hurting for anything except lack of victories on the battlefield. Yet, they allowed conditions to be horrible in Elmira so that they were considered to be the Andersonville of the north. There was no excuse to deny the Confederate prisoners their basic needs and make them suffer even if they were on the ‘wrong side’. As General Sherman said, “War is hell, boys.” Yes, it is, and everything that goes with it.
Knowing the history as I do, it was very hard to reconcile this peaceful place that I visited with what I knew actually happened there. Looking at this gorgeous scenery you would never guess at the horror that those trees witnessed. How can something so ugly and horrible be placed in such a beautiful spot? It really is hard to picture. The markers represent the spots where escape tunnels were found within the stockade walls. There were very few, if any, successful escapes from Andersonville. I think that there might have only been one where the prisoners were not found and dragged back. You would think that there would be more markers. The men should have been trying to escape at every possible moment, but they didn’t.
It was a great visit, though it left me sad and depressed. I couldn’t even bring myself to visit the cemetery because it would have been too much. We really do need to see the ugly side of war so that we learn from it. It’s part of our history and should be taught along with the victories of war. War isn’t nice and tidy with skirmishes and clean uniforms planning the next campaign. It’s dirt, blood, gore, horrible scenes, and unimaginable horrors. Perhaps our politicians should have to experience it first hand before they send our military into battle, just to make sure that whatever the cause that it’s justified by the expense of life. Please thank a member of our military for their service to our country. The men in Andersonville fought so long ago so that we could live as we do today. Just as the military today fights to keep us free and to help bring freedom to others who are living in oppression around the world. Please thank them for their sacrifice.