I was not sure what to expect as we turned onto the drive that led to Andersonville. This was the part of our trip that I had been looking forward to the most. We are all drawn to the fields where our Civil War ancestors fought, but this is a little different for me. My wife’s great, great, great grandfather, Levi Andrew Bowen spent seven months here as a prisoner. Although my wife’s relative by blood, it feels like he is mine as well.
Enlisting in 1861, Levi joined the 7th Pennsylvania Reserves. He would experience his first action at Beaver Dam Creek during the Seven Days’ Battles. Several days later, he was wounded and captured at Glendale. Fortunately, his first time in captivity was not long. He was exchanged in the first week of July. Returning to Union control, Levi went to Washington where he spent the next several months recovering in a hospital. He returned to his regiment just in time to fight atop Prospect Hill at Fredericksburg. On May 5, 1864 he was captured during the Battle of the Wilderness.
After walking through the Visitor Center and National Prisoner of War Museum, Chris, Steph and I head outside the prison camp. As horrific as the place was, it is now incredibly serene. The open plain of the camp dramatically drops to a ravine and then up again to its far edge. On every side is a fortification to guard against enemy incursions. Certainly these are not for the prisoners, if they escaped, where could they go? Today, as it was during its operation, there is nothing around Andersonville but miles and miles of Georgia pines.
But this is much different than a battlefield. In combat, soldiers are able to defend themselves. Here, unarmed they are at the mercy of the elements, the guards and in some instances their fellow prisoners.
Our first stop is a portion of the reconstructed stockade wall with a watchtower. Based on archeological evidence, the walls have been built in the same location as the originals. Just around the corner are “she bangs”—makeshift shelters fashioned from branches, blankets and ponchos. Here I get a sense of what the living conditions were like for Levi and the Union soldiers confined here.
Continuing on, we reach a corner of the camp and turn toward the row of monuments. Among the states to place monuments to their soldiers who were imprisoned here are Wisconsin and Rhode Island, to name a few. Still, there is not one for Pennsylvania and by extension, Levi. Dotted along the ground in this area are markers indicating the locations of wells dug by the soldiers. Did Levi attempt to quench his thirst from one of these locations during the summer days?
Walking the entire perimeter of the camp, we continue down a slope toward a reconstructed gate. One can only begin to imagine the sense of isolation and hopelessness as Levi and his comrades walked through the gates. Individual regiments tended to camp together inside the stockade.
Moving uphill, we reach yet another corner of the prison. Discernable in the distance are the “she bangs”. From here, one can get a sense of the camp dimension. It is not a large compound. With so many thousands of men confined here, individual movement was severely restricted. Surrounded by filth and disease, the effects of the Glendale wound must have added to Levi’s suffering. But somehow, he survived.
In December 1864, Levi was exchanged and sent to Charleston. Put aboard a ship, he traveled to Washington. He would spend the rest of the war in a hospital. Incredibly Levi would return home and live well into the twentieth century. He passed away in York County Pennsylvania on September 2, 1924.
Returning to the Visitor Center, we take a few minutes to look through the bookstore before heading out to the National Cemetery. It is Memorial Day and the cemetery is very crowded. As such, we have to park outside the gate. The small American flags next to the graves immediately catch the eye as we enter. We slowly make our way through, here and there stopping to take pictures. Moving past a magnolia tree in bloom I approach a traffic circle in the middle of the cemetery. Looking up to my immediate right front is another memorial. Upon closer inspection, I find it was erected by the state of Pennsylvania to its soldiers who were imprisoned at Andersonville. Now, my visit is complete.