Andersonville National Historic Site

Location: Andersonville, Georgia

Webpage: National Park

General Description: At the beginning of the Civil War, captured soldiers were often paroled after a promise to return home.  However, soldiers on both sides often did not follow through with this promise, especially when the command structure was still intact.  Therefore, prisoners were held until they could be exchanged under a formal exchange system in 1862.  This system fell apart in 1863 when the Confederates refused to exchange the colored soldiers they captured.  Therefore, prisons had to be built to intern the captured soldiers on both sides.  Initially the main Confederate prison was in Richmond, which General Lee believed was too close to the front and prisoners would be a liability if Richmond was taken.  Therefore, in the fall of 1863 the Confederates located a new site for a prison far from the front.  Along with hastily constructed prisons in Florence, South Carolina and Millen, Georgia, a prison called Camp Sumter was constructed near Andersonville, Georgia, a small Georgia community of around 60 citizens.  The site had a stream for fresh water, plenty of building material, ie trees, and close proximity to the railroad.  A wooden stockade of 16.5 acres was constructed using slave labor on both sides of Stockade Branch.  Initially designed for 6,000 prisoners the stockade had only two entrances along the west side towards the railroad known as the North and South Gates.  The North Gate was used to bring the prisoners into the camp and the South Gate was for the delivery of food and removal of the dead.  Surrounding the fort they constructed a large earthwork known as Star Fort in the Southwest corner and redoubts at each corner with cannon aimed into the prison loaded with canister and grape shot.  Inside the prison, the Confederate commander of the prison, Captain Henry Wirz, had constructed a low rickety wooden fence.  The 19 feet between this fence and the stockade was known as the “deadline” with orders to shoot any prisoner immediately.  Before the stockade was fully completed, prisoners started to arrive from Richmond on February 1864 and the numbers quickly swelled to over 11,000 and the prisoners kept coming.  By this point in the war the Confederates were very low in supplies, both food and medicines, with very little available for the prisoners.  In August, 1864 the prison was quickly expanded to the north to 26.5 acres which was still horribly overcrowded with over 32,000 prisoners.  Death from starvation and sickness was enormous with over 13,800 over the 14 month period leading up to the end of the Civil War when the surviving prisoners were released.  Food was so limited that when Father Peter Whelan arrived in June, 1864, to provide for the prisoners, he borrowed $16,000 in Confederate money to purchase 10,000 pounds of wheat flour and baked it into bread for distribution in the prison.  His contribution of this “Whelan’s Bread” earned him the nickname of “Angel of Andersonville.”  The National Park Service has reconstructed the palisade and gate at the North gate and part of the Northeast corner of the prison.  There is also a memorial covering the Providence Spring that began to flow just inside the palisade following a thunderstorm in August, 1863 providing much needed water to the prisoners.  There are statues erected by Union states in the north end of the prison.  There were so many deaths in the prison, some days over 300 a day in August, that they were buried in shallow trenches lined up side to side.  Each body was identified with a numbered wooden stake and a list of the dead was compiled by Dorence Atwater, a 19 year old prisoner from New York.  Not trusting the Confederates to accurately admit the number of deaths he kept his own secret copy of the list.  After the war he returned with Clara Baron to erect simple headstones at each numbered marker with their name and regiment.  The cemetery is still an active National Military Cemetery with burials continuing today.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center was constructed to look like the guard towers and walls of a prison and houses the National Prisoner of War Museum.  They show two movies in the Visitor Center, one on the history of Andersonville Prison and the other on the history of Prisoner of War.  The National Prisoner of War Museum has a number of exhibits giving the changes in the treatment of POWs and many short presentations of the experiences of POWs in all of the major wars from the Civil War through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VisitorCenter

2) We took advantage of the CD that can be checked out at the Visitor Center.  This CD provided background and information about each of the stops around the prison compound and cemetery.  The first stop dealt with the monuments that have been erected by the Union states with prisoners at Andersonville.  Scattered throughout the northern end which was the furthest from the stream are a number of small concrete markers where they have found evidence of either wells or escape tunnels dug by the prisoners using plates, spoons, and parts of their canteens.  Very few of the prisoners were able to escape by these tunnels, nearly all being recaptured.  Only about 300 prisoners were able to escape, mostly from work crews.

MonumentsWellMarker

3) The double gates known as the “North Gate” has been reconstructed along with a couple of guard towers on the outside of the wall.  There are also posts put in to mark the line of the 15 foot tall wooden palisade and the short fence that defined the deadline inside the compound.

NorthGate

4) The South Gate was used to bring in what food there was and to remove the dead bodies.  It is marked by two stone pillars.  The entire prison is marked out with posts for the outer 15 foot tall palisade and a short simple wall that defined the deadline.

Deadline

5) The Star Fort in the Southwest corner just outside the compound served two purposes.  First, it defended the prison from any Union attack and more importantly discouraged the prisoners from making any coordinated escape.  From this position the Confederates could fire canister and/or grape shot anywhere into the northern part of the prison.  Redoubts located at the northeast corner could easily covered the southern slope of the prison.  Another redoubt to the west had cannon trained on the North and South Gates.

StarFort

6) The only water supply was know as Stockade Branch and originally ran through the center of the prison.  However, with the expansion of the prison to the north it became at the south end.  The stockade itself was constructed across the small stream cutting off much of the water flow and what little did enter the prison was already polluted by the Confederate latrines and bakeries on the upstream side to the west.  The prison latrines were located on the eastern end of the stream before it left the prison.  During the summer the stream was little more than a muddy polluted swamp and contributed greatly to the sickness and death in the prison.  In August a thunderstorm turned the stream into a raging torrent and a story tells the tale that a lightning strike just within the compound opened up a stream, named Providence Spring.  The prisoners were allowed to gather water from the spring although it was within the deadline on the west side.

ProvidenceSpring

7) The sanitary facilities amounted to open latrines around the west end of Stockade Branch where it exited the prison.  Since the water flow was nearly nonexistent and was used by all the prisoners, these facilities were the cause of much of the illness in the prison.

TheSinks

8) The northeast corner of the prison had also been reconstructed along with examples of what the living conditions were like with the prisoners using whatever materials they could get ahold of, whether it was a scrap of blanket, tent, or clothing and a few sticks.  By comparing the reconstructions of the North Gate and the northeast corner you can easily see the hasty construction of the northern expansion of the prison.  The original prison was made of squared logs place close enough together you could see between them, whereas, the expansion used round logs with relatively large gaps between them.

LivingConditions

9) The cemetery is a today a beautiful and sacred place.  You can easily pick out the sections of the cemetery that were used to bury those that died at Andersonville.  These gravestones are small and packed close together since they were buried next to each in shallow trenches.  In the later sections the graves are further apart since burials used boxes or caskets for the burials.  There are numerous memorials erected by the Union states with soldiers that died at Andersonville commemorating their sacrifices.

Cemetery Gravestones

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