The worst place to be during the Civil War was Andersonville, Ga. — a Confederate prisoner of war camp that was 26-and-a-half acres of hell-on-Earth for both the captured Union soldiers and the Confederates who guarded them.
It was originally called Camp Sumter and existed for 14 months.
All of it was abject misery.
Thirteen thousand prisoners never made it home.
“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us,” wrote Union Sgt. Maj. Robert H. Kellogg, imprisoned there in 1864.
“Before us were forms that had once been active and erect; — stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.”
With still nearly a year and a half to go before the end of the war, Andersonville housed some 45,000 Union prisoners. There wasn’t enough food to feed them, and even the Confederates guarding them were on slim rations.
Food was small portions of moldy cornbread and weevil-infested spoiled pork. The prisoners had to cook it themselves — using “sprigs of pitch pine, which left a heavy black residue all over their skin,” according to one report.
Barracks were planned for the prisoners but were never built, so the prisoners made crude shelters for themselves called “shebangs” out of scrap wood and tattered old blankets, but they offered very little shelter against the hot summers and freezing winters.
One hundred-forty men died every day from malnutrition, starvation, typhoid fever, diarrhea, dysentery, scurvy, gangrene and mistreatment from guards and fellow prisoners.
Anyone wandering into a no-go “dead line” zone separating the prisoners from the 15-foot high perimeter wall of wooden posts was shot without warning by guards in watchtowers called “pigeon roosts.”
The North may be partly responsible for the horrors at Andersonville by blockading any supplies from getting through, and ignoring Confederate pleas for the North to send food and supplies to help care for the Yankee troops imprisoned there.
Unquestionably, the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions brought the diseases; the food was insufficient and dreadful, the lack of vitamin C caused scurvy — like aboard ships at sea in olden times — medical help was virtually non-existent, and the primitive shebangs couldn’t protect against the weather.
But perhaps the worst of it was not having clean water available.
A small stream running through camp provided the only water, but it was also being used for bathing, toilet and laundry by thousands of men — making the stream a disease trap, and the compound a polluted swamp.
In the summer of 1864, thousands died of thirst.
Then one day a miracle happened:
A fresh water spring suddenly appeared between the swamp and the top of a hill, bringing enormous relief. The prisoners considered it a gift from heaven and called it “Providence Spring.”
Prisoner John Ransom wrote about it in his diary:
“A nice spring of cold water has broken out in camp, enough to furnish nearly all here with drinking water — God has not forgotten us.”
John McElroy, another prisoner, wrote in his journal, “It poured out its grateful flood of pure, sweet water in apparently exhaustless quantity. To the many who looked in wonder upon it; it seemed as truly a heaven-wrought miracle as when Moses’ enchanted rod smote the parched earth in Sinai’s desert waste …”
The spring is still there today.
Now more than 150 years later, historians are still trying to understand who was really at fault at Andersonville and why it happened. Could the camp commander have stopped all the suffering and death?
Or was it that wars bring out the evil in mankind — as it does the heroic and noble?
The stockade commandant was Capt. Henry Wirz, an immigrant from Switzerland who lived in Louisiana and became a physician. He constantly pleaded for food and supplies, but to no avail. The South was losing the war and everyone including civilians was suffering from the shortages — so little was sent.
Also, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched earth march across Georgia from Atlanta to the sea and then into the Carolinas compounded the problem.
When the Confederate pleas to the North for food and supplies to help care for Union troops held captive were ignored, the North had to share blame for the horrors of Andersonville.
Both sides discussed prisoner swaps, but it didn’t work out.
Capt. Wirz paroled five Union soldiers to take a petition to the North to organize a prisoner exchange, signed by most of the prisoners. The request fell on deaf ears and the petitioners returned to Andersonville, as they promised to do.
One stumbling block was the South’s refusal to include blacks in the deal. With talks suspended, prison camp populations burgeoned on both sides.
Some Andersonville prisoners however were shipped off to camps elsewhere in Georgia and to South Carolina, but after Sherman completed his burning and plundering of Atlanta, the prisoners were brought back.
Coupled with the Confederacy’s inability to run Andersonville properly, were Union captives setting up a terror gang called “Andersonville Raiders” within their own ranks.
Armed with clubs, homemade weapons and knives, they attacked their own comrades-in-arms — murdering many — to steal their food, jewelry, clothing and money.
Then another group of North prisoners started a counter group to stop them called “The Regulators,” led by Peter “Big Pete” Aubrey. They caught about 200 Raiders, and then set up a jury selected from new prisoners.
The judge was Pvt. Peter McCullough of the 8th Missouri Infantry. They tried the gang members and found them guilty.
Six were hanged — while Confederate guards watched Yankee soldiers hang Yankee soldiers.
Others received lesser punishment such as a flogging, being beaten while running the gauntlet, thumbscrews, locked in the stocks, having their heads shaved, or being shackled with ball and chain.
The raiding stopped.
Just weeks after the Civil War ended in 1865, Capt. Wirz was arrested and charged with war crimes — “conspiracy to injure the health and lives of Union soldiers and murder” — and was swiftly brought before a military tribunal.
Two months and 160 witnesses later, he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death.
Not everyone agreed with the verdict and believed that he didn’t get a fair trial:
“Though Wirz did demonstrate indifference towards Andersonville’s prisoners, he was, in part, a scapegoat and some evidence against him was fabricated entirely,” one report said.
Wirz told the officer in charge, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”
But poet Walt Whitman said, “There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven … this is not among them.”
Wirz sent a letter to President Andrew Johnson asking for clemency but it went unanswered.
The night before the hanging, Wirz’s attorney, Louis Schade, received word that if Wirz would implicate Jefferson Davis in the Andersonville atrocities, the sentence would be commuted.
Wirz’s answer was, “Mr. Schade, you know that I have always told you that I do not know anything about Jefferson Davis. He had no connection with me as to what was done at Andersonville. If I knew anything of him I would not become a traitor against him, or anybody else, even to save my life.”
Twenty-three days after the verdict, he was hanged at the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., and was one of only two Confederate soldiers charged with war crimes.
There were 200 spectators at the hanging, guarded by 120 soldiers.
It didn’t go smoothly.
When the trapdoor was sprung, his neck didn’t break from the fall and the crowd watched him writhe and slowly strangle to death.
Since the execution, Wirz has been vilified as “The Demon of Andersonville,” but even some former Andersonville prisoners said he couldn’t have done more about the misery at the prison because the Confederate government refused to support him with food, water and medical supplies — just like the North also ignored Confederate pleas for help to ease conditions for the imprisoned Yankee troops.
There was plenty of blame to go around.
Civil War historians will no doubt long debate whether or not all the horrors that happened at Andersonville were war crimes.
“Places like Andersonville remind us that humans have a remarkable capacity for cruelty, indifference and immunity to the suffering of others.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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At Andersonville, there was no shelter from the heat of summer and cold of winter for the prisoners. They had to make their own with scraps of wood and tattered old blankets. The ground was muddy, laced with cornbread crumbs and human waste, and hordes of vermin everywhere.
“Can see the dead wagon loaded up with twenty or thirty bodies at a time, two lengths, just like four foot wood is loaded on to a wagon at the north, and away they go to the grave yard on a trot. Perhaps one or two will fall off and get run over. No attention paid to that; they are picked up on the road back after more. Was ever before in this world anything so terrible happening? Many entirely naked.”
— John L. Ransom, John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary
“Providence Spring is visible on a slope below some of the reconstructed walls of the prison at the Andersonville National Historical Site. How many prisoners were actually saved by Providence Spring is open to question, since a modern sign outside the shelter warns: “Water Unfit for Human Consumption: PLEASE DO NOT DRINK.”
— Roadside America
“After the war, those men who survived returned home. In July and August of 1865, a group of laborers and soldiers came back to the site to identify and mark the graves of Union soldiers. Rather than move the bodies, the intention of those working was to turn the prison into a cemetery. One of the former prisoners, Dorence Atwater, came back to assist in the work. Atwater had kept a list of the dead while he was a prisoner there.”
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