BACKTRACKING

 

Andersonville

 

by Terry Hogan

 

Some time back, I wrote an article for this column concerning the notorious Andersonville prisoner of war camp that the Confederacy ran in 1864-1865 near Andersonville, Georgia. Andersonville is located in southwestern Georgia. The site was chosen as it was an area in the South that was not in immediate threat of attack by Union troops.   Over 13,000 Union troops died while imprisoned there in despicable conditions.  But as there usually is in all significant events, there is more than one view of the events.  This became clear when my wife and I recently visited the Andersonville prison site.

 

The Andersonville civil war prison long ago rotted away.  It was made of local pine trees cut down by slaves and shaped into rough lumber of 20 foot lengths.  Five feet of the timber was below ground and the remaining 15 feet became one vertical log in the stockade fence. There are many facts that nobody seems to dispute.  Many more prisoners were placed in Andersonville than it was designed to handle. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners in a 16.5 acre site. By August 1864, it held over 32,000 Union enlisted prisoners.  The death rate was greater than 100 per day. Over the 14 months of operation, 13,000 Union prisoners died at Andersonville.  Sgt. David Kennedy of the 9th Ohio Cavalry wrote in his diary on July 9, 1864:  "Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my main to our hon. Rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow." (spelling as in original).

 

The small stream that ran through the stockade was too small, flowed too slowly, and rapidly became unfit for drinking, although it was the sole source of drinking water.

 

It is also generally agreed that medical supplies, food, clothing, shelter, and medical treatment was inadequate at Andersonville.  Union soldiers wasted away.  When finally released near the end of the war, the available photos showed emaciated soldiers that rival the starvation seen in Jewish concentration camps at the end of WWII.  Few would dispute this.

 

However, there clearly are two views about why the conditions existed at Andersonville. The Union generally took the position that the Andersonville conditions were the results of deliberate inhumane treatment of the POWs.  The Union also believed that the Confederate commander, Captain Wirz, was a sadist and deliberately withheld required materials from the imprisoned northern soldiers.

 

The local Southern view, not surprisingly differs in regard to the cause of the inhuman conditions, and to the culpability of Captain Wirz. The South correctly notes that it was General Grant who stopped the POW exchange program between the two armies. Grant concluded that the South had limited troop reserves (compared to the North), and returning troops to the South would only prolong the war and the killing on both sides. As such, the South, which was also very limited in food, medical supplies and clothing, was suddenly faced with prisoners whom it was ill-equipped to provide for. The South did not have the money, tents, medical supplies, doctors, food, or clothing sufficient for its own soldiers, and the POW needs were considered less important.

 

In regard to Wirz, the North captured him and placed him on trial in Washington, D.C. as a war criminal.  He was promptly convicted and hung. It has been argued that the sensationalism of Andersonville, as treated by the Northern press, had to be appeased by the conviction and hanging of Wirz.

 

The small town of Andersonville, located very near the National Park Service's Andersonville prison site, treat Wirz as a responsible and honorable man who did the best he could with what was made available to him.  A stone monument sits in the center of the town.  It honors General Wirz and is inscribed with a brief summary of why he was a man wrongfully condemned to death by the North at the end of the Civil War:

 

In Memory of Captain Henry Wirz, CSA, Born Zurich Switzerland 1822, Sentenced to Death and Executed at Washington, D.C. Nov. 10, 1865. To rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice. This shaft is erected by the Georgia Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy.

 

Perhaps the North's view is correct.  Perhaps the South's view is correct. Perhaps reality is somewhere in between.  Truth, as it has been said, is often the first casualty of war.  But one can not escape the tragic loss of life at Andersonville when looking across 13,000 white military markers of those Union soldiers who died at Andersonville.

 

Nearly all the dead Union troops are identified on the markers.  This was due to the secret record keeping of Dorence Atwater, a Union prisoner.   He was detailed to keep a record of the dead for the Confederacy.  But he also made a personal copy which he made available to the Union once he was released from Andersonville.  At the end of the war, Atwater, Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross), Captain J. More and 42 letterers, painters, and clerks were sent to Andersonville on July 25th.  Using the Atwater records, a marker was placed with each soldier's name, state, and a reference number. Only 460 graves have been marked "Unknown Union Soldier".

 

Monuments have been added from Northern states, including Illinois, honoring the Illinois dead buried in the row after row of Civil War Andersonville prisoners who never made it home.

 

 National Prisoner of War Museum

At the risk of including a tangent, I have to note the presence of the National Prisoner of War Museum.  It is the perfect museum and the perfect location.  It honors all of America's prisoners of war.  The collection of letters, photos, and video clips is very moving.  The sculpture wall, located outside the museum building is more effective than my photo can show. I don't know what else to say about it. 

 

References

Anon. Undated.  Andersonville, Official Map and Guide. National Park Service.

Anon. Undated. The Andersonville Death Rolls. http://www.angelfire.com/ga2/ Andersonvilleprison/ATWATER.html.

Futch, Ovid. 1968. History of Andersonville Prison. University of Florida Press. 146p.

Marsh, Michael. 2000. Andersonville, the Story Behind the Scenery. National Park Service.