Monday, February 27, 2017
Andersonville Prison, Georgia
On February 27, 1864, the first of the captured Union Forces inmates began arriving at Andersonville prison, which was still under construction in southern Georgia. Andersonville became synonymous with death as nearly a quarter of its inmates died in captivity. Henry Wirz, who ran Andersonville, was executed after the war for the brutality and mistreatment committed under his command.
The prison, officially called Camp Sumter, became necessary after the prisoner exchange system between North and South collapsed in 1863 over disagreements about the handling of black soldiers. The prison camp was rectangular in shape and had a 15 foot tall stockade around the grounds. The stockade which was hastily constructed using slave labor was located in the Georgia woods near a railroad but safely away from the front lines. Enclosed in sixteen acres of land, the prison was supposed to include wooden barracks but the inflated price of lumber delayed construction. However, the Yankee soldiers imprisoned there lived under open skies protected only by makeshift shanties called “shebangs,” which were constructed from scraps of wood and blankets. A stream initially provided fresh water, but within a few months human waste had contaminated the creek.
Nineteen feet inside the wall of Andersonville Prison there was a fence built, often referred to as 'the dead line', which meant that any prisoner who touched the dead line was shot by guards.
Andersonville was built to hold 10,000 men, but within six months more than three times that number were incarcerated there. The creek banks eroded to create a swamp, which occupied a significant portion of the compound. Rations were inadequate, and at times half of the population was reported ill. Some guards brutalized the inmates and there was violence between factions of prisoners.
The Andersonville Raiders were a group of prisoners that would often raid other prisoners and steal their belongings, including clothes, food, and any other items they felt were valuable. A second group called the Regulators rose up against the Andersonville Raiders and punished them for their crimes, even hanging some of them.
Andersonville was the worst among many terrible Civil War prisons, both Union and Confederate. Wirz paid the price for the inhumanity of Andersonville because he was executed in the aftermath of the Civil War.
While the trial of Henry Wirz was by far the most famous of the military tribunals at the end of the Civil War, it was not the only one. In fact, there were nearly 1,000 military tribunals in which Confederates, both regulars and guerrillas, were charged with various violations of the laws of war mostly related to the treatment of prisoners of war. Some of these trials even led to acquittals.
For example, the camp commander at Salisbury Prison, Major John Gee, was arrested in the fall of 1865 and charged with similar crimes as Wirz. Unlike Wirz, Gee was unanimously acquitted in the spring of 1866. After the war, General Grant actually prevented the tribunal of another of Salisbury's commanders, Bradley T. Johnson, who faced charges of negligence at the prison and for burning Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1864.
Even among those convicted, Wirz did not stand alone for the atrocities of Andersonville. James Duncan, who worked in the quartermaster's office at Andersonville, was arrested and convicted of manslaughter by a military tribunal for his role in intentionally withholding rations from prisoners. He was sentenced to hard labor at Fort Pulaski but he escaped a year later.
The prison records kept count of the number of escapees. Of the 351 that escaped, most were recaptured. Approximately 32 of the escapees returned to the Union side while others returned to normal civilian life.
The Andersonville National Cemetery is the resting place for the Union prisoners who died at the prison as well as more recent war veterans. There are 921 graves marked 'unknown' at the cemetery because the names of these Union soldiers are not known.
Pictures of The Andersonville Prison
Pictures of Andersonville Memorials