In Search of the dreaded Andersonville

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Interior of Andersonville POW Camp (courtesy of Library of Congress)

I have seen the ugly photos of the crowded pen. And like many others, I have recoiled in horror at the sight of the skeletal men released from the Andersonville POW Camp, but now it was time for me to see the place for myself. I would have to go in search of Camp Sumter.

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One among the many unfortunate Union prisoners held at Andersonville (courtesy of Library of Congress)

My path to Americus began in an unlikely place – Elmira, New York. After spending the last few years writing about the Union POW camp that sat on the Chemung River in the Southern Tier of New York and reading the numerous accounts of those who alleged that the Elmira camp was the “Andersonville of the North,” I determined that I would have to go to Georgia.

Situated in south-central Georgia about 125 miles south of Atlanta, Camp Sumter – the formal name given to the Andersonville pen – would become the most infamous of all Civil War prisoner of war camps with a death rate approaching thirty percent. It was also the largest.  At its height, the Georgia pen held almost 30,000.

Although the original plan called for the construction of barracks on sixteen acres, that quickly was abandoned and a double stockade was put up and no shelters were created or provided. Prisoners were dumped in helter-skelter and there was no arrangement or organization. Once in, prisoners had to improvise. The whole facility was hastily constructed and was, in fact, incomplete when the first prisoners arrived in February 1864.

Today the site of the POW camp is preserved and is operated by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site. Encompassing over five-hundred acres, the site includes a visitor center and the National Prisoner of War Museum, as well as the land on which the POW camp sat. Established by act of Congress in 1970, the site is remarkable for it’s history as a memorial. The land was first purchased by the Grand Army of the Republic in May 1890.  In 1910 the site was given to the United States and was administered by the Department of the Army for over half a century.

I began my visit at the visitor center and museum. Dedicated to the story of prisoners of all wars, it was a fascinating exhibit, though I was surprised there was not more attention to Civil War POW’s. I was disappointed that there was only one or two pictures from the Elmira camp. Still, it is something everyone should see.

I was anxious to get out to the site of the camp itself. I have always felt that reading about something is inadequate to understanding; you must stand on the ground. This has been especially important to my understanding of Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and Fredericksburg.

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Marker indicating the location of the stockade

Surrounded by a simple driving loop, the site of the stockade is situated on about forty acres of sloping ground. The high ground features some shade and nice trees – though while the camp held POWs there were few.

A steep decline leads to marshy ground. This area was where a sluggish stream ran through the center of the camp. Deadly to drink from at the time, it is now home to venomous serpents – as indicated by a sign warning unwary visitors.

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Replica palisade and guard towers

Near the center of the compound, a replica palisade, guard tower and gate to give the visitor a feel for the height and character of the fence. Nearby is what appears to be a temple – tasteful, yet oddly out of place. This is Providence Spring. According to camp legend, this was the site of a miracle. In the summer of 1864, when the inmates were undoubtedly suffering in the stifling heat, a storm caused a spring to suddenly burst from the earth – cold, clear and pure. Survivors of Andersonville would remember this as divine intervention. Today a granite and marble building marks the place. Ironically, a nearby sign warns that the water from the spring is “unfit for human consumption.”

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Memorial to Providence Spring

At the far end of the loop another line of palisade stands with a handful of she-bangs to give the visitor a feel for the jury-rigged shelters put up by prisoners to shelter them from the brutal sun.  The run-down feel of this display is particularly effective.

All told, visiting the site of the compound was worthwhile and helpful in visualizing the lay of the land. I was surprised by the steepness of the slopes – particularly on the nearside of the stockade (closest to the visitor center). On the day of my visit, it was ninety-five degrees (in May). Standing on that ground, I was powerfully struck by the fiercest of the Georgia sun. It occurred to me that here Union prisoners battled an unrelenting heat, while in Elmira is was literally the polar opposite – an unmerciful cold.

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Andersonville National Cemetery

No visit to Andersonville would be complete without a visit to the National Cemetery there. There is no more startling reminder of the deadliness of Andersonville. Of the nearly 40,000 men housed in the Georgia pen, 12,919 died – that is a lot of marble. In preparation for Memorial Day, the cemetery was all tricked out in red, white and blue.  It was a stirring sight and a perfect end to a stirring visit.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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