Exploring The Parks: Andersonville National Historic Site--A Sad History

ANDE commemorative wallreenactor with shebang

Commemorative wall in back of the visitor center. A reenactor in front of a makeshift shelter. Photographs by Danny Bernstein.

Sometimes I have difficulty separating a national park unit from the history that makes the area worth preserving. Such is the case with Andersonville National Historic Site.

The Andersonville Prison, site of the largest Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, was a sad, depressing, and horrible place. Set in central Georgia, among working cotton fields, the park unit reminds us of the man's inhumanity to man. The national historic site is so evocative of the horror that occurred here and so well interpreted that it has been called the South's Holocaust Museum.

At the beginning of the Civil War, captured men on both sides were released on the condition that they wouldn't return to battle. Though it seemed to be the easiest way to deal with prisoners of war, this system didn't last long. In 1863, there was a breakdown of prisoner exchange system, partly because the South treated African-American prisoners of war differently than white POWs. Some Blacks were either shot or pressed into slavery.

In the South, Union prisoners were first housed in old warehouses, but soon camps needed to be built. In 1864, the Andersonville prison, officially known as Camp Sumter, was erected mostly by African-American slaves. The first prisoners were brought here in February 1864, and the prison only existed for 14 months. A few captured women were put under house arrest in the community but not placed in the stockade. They spent their time nursing soldiers.

The prison stockade in Andersonville was described as "hell on earth." Four-hundred men came here each day. About 45,000 men passed through and almost 13,000 died here during the prison's short existence.

With its walls, the prison didn't provide any protection from the weather. Men had to buy wooden poles and use blankets and pieces of canvas to make tents. Three men, spooned, slept inside the makeshift shelter. Georgia is the South, but winters are cold. If a man came to Andersonville in the summer, he had no protection but the clothes on his back. Little food was available. The water was contaminated, causing dysentery and diarrhea.

The wooden stockade surrounding the first 16.5 acres was well-designed. The next 10 acres added on six months later show the signs of hasty construction, with gaps in the walls. Guards stood watch in wooden towers set every 90 feet. Even so, prison discipline broke down. In the stockade, men known as Raiders terrorized other prisoners. The six ringleaders were hung.

Since seasoned troops had been sent to fight on the front lines for the Confederate Army, old men and young boys took over as watch guards, but they weren't much better off than the POWs. Food and facilities were awful for them as well. Captain Henry Wirz was in charge of the prison. Confronted by prisoners about the conditions, he said that "I am doing the best I can." He didn't have control over supplies or guards. Still at the end of the war, the North was angry and wanted retribution. Wirz was tried by a military tribunal and executed in Washington, D.C., in November 1865.

Captain Wirz, convicted of murder and conspiracy and hung, was not forgotten. Though he "wasn't from around here," having been born in Switzerland, the Southerners honor him. The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected an obelisk to him in 1909 in the community of Andersonville opposite to the entrance of the national park unit.

If you think that this piece of history would inspire good fiction, you're right. MacKinlay Kantor won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for his novel, Andersonville. At least two movies were made on the subject: Andersonville, a 1996 miniseries about the conditions of the Andersonville stockade and Andersonville Trial, a 1970 courtroom drama about the trial of Captain Wirz.

Visitor Center

The visitor center building is large and modern. It encompasses exhibits about Andersonville and the National Prisoner of War Museum. Two films are shown.

A 28-minute film, shown on the hour, describes the nightmare of trying to survive Andersonville Prison. Young, thin actors speak of the dreadful conditions, their dialogue based on prisoners' memoirs. The reenactors used in the background shots of the prison are paunchy old men.

The Civil War was the first major U.S. conflict where photography was available. A.J. Riddle, a photographer working for the Confederate Government, was able to make several plates showing the overcrowded conditions of the camp. Photographs of naked, emaciated men, taken after the war, are heartbreaking.

The center hallway of the building concentrates on Andersonville. Most of the exhibits on the walls and side rooms are of National Prisoner of War Museum. You really need to read the fine print to understand which war is being described. In the commemorative courtyard, a wall sculpture and plaques honor various POW groups.

Who is a POW? The display puts Andersonville in context from ancient times until the present. Nathan Hale, a soldier for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was a spy and therefore not protected as a POW; the British hung him. Were African Americans fighting for the Union side, POWs or runaway slaves?

Visitors walk through the galleries as if they were POWs. Rifles stick out of the wall and point at the passersby. Videos show POWs recalling their experiences. Metal sculptures outlining bodies stand together and hand-written letters decorate the walls. A 27-minute film on Prisoners of War is shown on the half-hour.

Stockade Prison Site

You can explore the prison site with a one-hour audio driving tour of the National Cemetery and the Prison Site. Ask to borrow a CD or cassette at the museum front desk. I preferred to walk across the Prison Site.

My husband at the deadline

Two parallel lines of white posts surround the whole stockade area. The outer posts outline the stockade itself. The inner posts show the deadline, a no-man's land that prisoners were forbidden to cross upon threat of death. Let's think about these consequences when we miss a deadline at work or school.

The top of the stockade area now displays huge monuments from several northern states including Massachusetts, Michigan, and a large obelisk from Ohio. A smaller stone memorial commemorates the 1,284 union soldiers from Tennessee, a divided state, who were imprisoned here.

As you look around at the top of the hill, you see few signs of modern civilization, except for cars in the parking lot--this is rural Georgia. "Shebangs" -- prison shelters -- have been set up in one corner of the stockade site, including a barber shelter.

Further down the hill, a pavilion, erected by the Women's Relief Corp of the Grand Army of the Republic around 1901, protects Providence Spring. During the men's confinement, clean water was even more precious than food. Stockade Branch, a small creek, was the only water source in the stockade and it was muddy much of the time. During a rainstorm, a spring gushed out of the ground. The men attributed this water miracle to divine providence, hence the name. The spring still flows.

Star Fort sits at the bottom of the prison site. The earthworks, which were built to protect the prison against Union attacks, contain four cannons pointing outward. But the Confederates also had to guard against prison rebellions so five cannons pointed inward.

Cemetery

By the time I reached the Cemetery I may have been numb, but I didn't find Andersonville National Cemetery as depressing as the stockade prison site.

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Statue at the Cemetery entrance

At the entrance to the cemetery, a huge statue shows three men, one lame, another with a broken arm and a third generally afflicted. The engraving says

"Turn you to the stronghold Ye prisoners of hope" Zechariah 9:12 from the Old Testament.

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, worked on finding out who was buried in the cemetery. She didn't have much to go on until a former prisoner, Dorence Atwater, contacted her. Atwater, who had worked in the prison hospital, had kept meticulous records of the dead. Together, with other helpers, Barton and Atwater identified and marked the graves in the cemetery. Rows and row of headstones have only a name, number and the state. Over 13,800 bodies are buried here from the Civil War.

Andersonville is only one of two open National Park cemeteries, that is, where veterans and their spouses can still be buried; the other is Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in western Tennessee. The modern section has crosses and other approved religious symbols. Some graves are as fresh as last month.

After the Civil War, the site bounced around through several owners and then was bought by the Woman's Relief Corps, the national auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veteran's organization. After making improvements, the women's group donated the site to the people of the United States. The site was administered by the War Department, then the Army, before it became a National Historic Site in 1971.

Visiting The Site

Allow almost a full day to appreciate the park. Bring your lunch and enjoy it in the picnic area. Americus, about 10 miles south of Andersonville, is the closest town to find lodging, both chain motels and interesting bed and breakfasts.

Twice a year, the museum opens at night. The park illuminates the prison site by candle lanterns, allowing access to the reconstructed northeast corner of the prison site. Living history volunteers portray the winter of 1864-65. The next night museum is January 25, 2014.

Don't forget to drive across the road into the community of Andersonville to see Captain Wirz's memorial.

Comments

Thank you for a very interesting read, Danny.