Sunday, February 23, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The Prisoner of War

On February 27, 1864, the first Union prisoners were moved into what has become perhaps the best known POW camp of our Civil War.  Today, it is known as the Andersonville National Historic Site, and it is located in southwest Georgia.  It is free, and is well worth a visit.

Today, the Andersonville site commemorates the suffering of all POWs, from all wars.

The treatment of POWs in our American Civil War had an interesting history, and these terrible camps were set up by both sides.  In the next couple of weeks, I hope to blog more about this, including a camp in what is now downtown Columbia, South Carolina, Camp Asylum, which archeologists are racing to excavate a small portion of before development destroys it for good.

This, with some edits, is from a Veterans Day post in November of 2010.

In Andersonville, Georgia, there is a special museum devoted to the POWs of all wars.  Best of all, it is free of charge.  We spent an afternoon there back in March, 2010.  Although I was attracted to Andersonville as part of my interest in the Civil War, the museum featured information from a number of wars.  I especially was drawn to the exhibits talking about POWs from World War II.

Many people, when they think of "Andersonville", think of the infamous Union prisoner of war camp, more properly known as Ft. Sumter.  (even today, the county is called Sumter County.) But there is a lot more to the Andersonville National Historic Site.  First, there is the National Cemetery.  The original graves are those of the dead of Andersonville, those who never had a chance to become veterans.  Some names are known, many are not.  This is a portion of that cemetery, which now holds about 20,000. graves of the dead of several wars:


Then, there is the "reconstruction" of Ft. Sumter.  Imagine 33,000 men held captive on 26.5 acres, by people who, four years before, had been their fellow countrymen. Now they were at war.  Walking this land, you can almost feel the ghosts.  The "tents" (obviously not originals) in this picture were called shebangs, and the soldiers who owned them were rich, in the society of prisoners-at least they had some shelter from the elements.  During the 14 months of its existence, some 30% of the men confined there perished.  The very first casualty was a soldier from New York State.

In fact, I know someone who is descended from a Union soldier, a chaplain, who was imprisoned at Andersonville. (His ancestor survived).

These walls are not original, but are based both on photographs and archeological excavations done in the late 1980's.  The original walls were hurriedly built by slave labor.



The stream that watered the prisoners is still there today, along with markers for various "wells" that were dug by the prisoners.  Seeing those markers gives you chills.  The official water supply had, in short order, been contaminated by human waste. These markers are what survives of desperation.

The camp had never been intended to hold 33,000 men and the Confederacy, barely able to feed its own soldiers, couldn't spare much for food or shelter.

Thanks to archeological digs, historians were able to reconstruct the "deadline", a line inside the walls-if a prisoner went over this line they were shot dead.  For many, doing this intentionally was the way they left the prison.

We could step in. We could step out.  We walked around with bottled water.

We may have walked with ghosts.

The commander of the prison, Henry Wirz, was tried and executed after the war was over.

Walking those grounds was like walking a Civil War battlefield, but in a way even more special.

The final picture is of one of the monuments on the grounds.


One observation was made by the owner of the bed and breakfast in Americus, GA where we stayed.  There were many Civil War prisoner of war sites both in the South and in the North. Both sides were guilty of atrocities towards their prisoners.  But Andersonville may exist as a memorial park because...well, after all, the North won.  And isn't it true, this owner asked me, that victors write the history?

The POW Museum does have a very large map showing the sites of these various camps.  One, which is well known to historians in our "Southern Tier" area of upstate NY, was the Elmira Prison. Sadly (so perhaps that B&B owner was correct) it is true there is no national park there.  There is a monument, but the prison site today is a residential area and a park-and it is said that few people living there know the history of their neighborhood.

Is there destroyed history where you live?

7 comments:

  1. I absolutely love your blog. What a pleasure to learn something new, especially when it comes to our history. Thank you for your informative blog. I look forward to reading more.

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  2. How shocking that 30% of prisoners died in the first camp. We should reflect on man's inhumanity to man so we never repeat this behavior.

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  3. What a great historical piece; it was very moving Alana!

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  4. It is amazing that on 30% perished. Well worth a visit. Especially since my fiance is very interested in WWII and there is so much history that they are presenting.

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