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October 31, 2004


"Theirs was not the glory of death on the firing line. Penned in by the Dead Line, wasted by disease, far from home and loved ones, they were mercifully mustered out, leaving as a heritage to the nation the memory of a devotion as limitless as eternity itself."

Address by Governor A.T. Bliss, at the dedication of the Michigan Monument, Andersonville, May 30, 1904.

Andersonville sucked. In 1864 the war was not going well for the Confederacy. Grant and Sherman were starting the long grind that would end the war a year later, and the pressure on Confederate resources was high. To relieve some of the pressure on the Army of Northern Virginia, both in terms of security and food supplies, the Confederate government moved the Union prisoners of war from the Richmond area to other camps in the south, establishing a new one, that would be the largest of them, at Camp Sumter, near Andersonville, Georgia. The intent was also to get Union prisoners nearer to food supplies as well, though in the event... that didn't happen.

The site chosen was to eventually encompass 26.5 acres (in the photo, you'll see two lines of white posts that mark the deadline and stockade - photo taken from the 'star fort' at the souther end, which was Camp Sumter Headquarters). Essentially a rectangle, it was anchored at the ends on hilltops, with a valley and stream in center. The intent was for the prisoners to get their drinking and cooking water at the inlet side, bathe in the middle, and latrines at the outlet. A good enough plan on paper, a horror in implementation.

The stream was sluggish, due to little drop in it's course. When the log stockade was erected, pilings were driven into the streambed as well, essentially damming the stream, causing backflow to create a marsh - a mosquito breeding ground. Not to mention the backflow served to contaminate the water upstream, laying the groundwork for rampant dysentery.

Add to this the fact that the confederates never built (nor allowed the prisoners to) permanent structures in the camp to house the prisoners. They had to make whatever shelter they could, with whatever they had. (Lest you think the replica structures in the photo represent neglect on the part of park staff - look again. The pine boughs are fresh. This is what the Union POW's had for shelter) New prisoners coming in might have decent clothing and equipment, like the black oilcloth cape in the last picture - older prisoners were without - using either old clothing, or pine boughs if they were on outside work details and able to bring 'em in. This is what the prisoners had - fall, winter, spring, summer. This led to real problems among the prisoners, in an environment where the Confederate forces chose to exercise little control.

What control they did exercise was in terms of the Dead Line. A fence, 19 feet from the wall, that touching or crossing into the area beyond was automatic permission for the Confederate guards in the 'pigeon roosts' to shoot to kill.

A not insignificant number of Union prisoners deliberately crossed that line for the express purpose of getting shot.

The Confederates built earthworks around the enclosure - to both protect against the increasing risk of Union cavalry raids as Sherman neared Atlanta, and to guard against revolt in the enclosure. Half the guns pointed out, loaded with roundshot and shell, half pointed in - loaded with canister, the better to cut huge swaths through the prisoners. As most of the prisoners were combat veterans, they knew what those guns could do.

45,000 prisoners were held in Andersonville during its 14-month existence, with a peak population of 32,000 - held in an area intended to hold 10,000. 13,000 prisoners died of disease, exposure, malnutrition and poor sanitation. The Confederate authorities were unable to provide adequate anything, except burial space. 29% of the population died.

The conditions were so awful that an organized group of prisoners started preying on the others. Called the Raiders, their depredations grew so bad that the remaining prisoners petitioned the camp commandant to allow them to organize a counter-group, called the Regulators. The Regulators were able to capture the Raiders, and demanded from the camp commandant the right to try the offenders. This was granted, and a jury of 23 Sergeants (that's a hard jury!) sentenced the ringleaders to death by hanging, and the remaining Raiders to 'run the gauntlet.' The camp commander pleaded with the Union prisoners to not carry out the executions, however they demanded to, and accordingly the six raiders were hung inside the enclosure. This was a decision the camp commandant would come to regret later, as he was charged with murder for allowing it to happen, as, under military law at the time, the Sergeants had no standing to hold a trial. So bitter was the feeling in the encampment, the prisoners refused to allow the Raiders to be buried with the other dead - and separate they remain today.

The commander of the inner camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was arrested and tried for "conspiring with high Confederate officials to impair and injure thehealt and destroy the lives...of Federal prisoners" and "murder, in violation of the laws of war." The conspiracy never existed, but in the anger and indignation over the conditions of Andersonville, a military tribunal found Wirz guilty, and he was hanged on November 10, 1865. This was, in all probablilty, a miscarriage of justice.

Clara Barton came to the prison in July of 1865 to help in identifying the dead so their families could be properly notified. In this activity she was helped enormously by Dorance Atwater, of the 2nd New York Cavalry, who kept the books on the prisoners, living and dead, and kept a copy of his books, fearing the Confederate authorities would destroy the official copies. Thanks to their combined efforts, only 460 of the graves are unknowns. If you've visited other Civil War cemeterys, you know there is no small achievement there.

The Andersonville Cemetery is now a National Cemetery, and contains the graves of veterans of all eras who have died since the Civil War. You can easily find the prison graves, however. With a death rate approaching 100 a day, the gravediggers dug trenches and interred the bodies shoulder to shoulder - and the headstones from that era are shoulder-to-shoulder.

Andersonville also shows the downside of being a prisoner from a winning Army... many times your own side's military success weighs heavily against you. To be fair, Northern POW camps weren't always a lot better, having mortality rates comparable to most southern camps, in the mid-teens.

I'll close this part out with a quote from Sgt David Kennedy, of the 9th Ohio Cavalry:

"Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tongue of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expressing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington. I should gloery to decribe this hell on Earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a Shadow."

For those with an interest, here are the State monuments at Andersonville, in no particular order. Some of these images are pretty large, best to right click and 'save as' or open in another window.

Rhode Island.
New Jersey.
New York.
Omnibus Memorial for states otherwise not represented: Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont and West Virginia.

Finally (!) this:

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Carl Sandburg.

My whole Andersonville Album is available here.

John | Permalink | Comments (5) | Observations on things Military
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