Thursday, November 11, 2010

Andersonville and Veterans Day

Veterans Day.  Most of us know the symbolism linked to the end of  most hostilities in World War I:  the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year 1918. Originally called Armistice Day, various countries now use it to remember both World Wars and call it Remembrance Day.  Here in the United States, it is Veterans Day.  On this day we remember all veterans who served honorably in wartime or in peacetime.

There is a special group of veterans - those who were prisoners of war.

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.  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 Cemetary.  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.  33,000. men held captive on 26.5 acres.  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.

These walls are not original, but are based both on photographs and archeological excavations done in the late 1980's.

The stream that watered the prisoners is still there today, along with markers for various "wells" that were dug by the prisoners.

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. paraphrase an old "M.A.S.H."...we were able to step in.  We were able to step out.


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 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 it is said that few people living there know the history of their neighborhood.

Remember your local veteran.

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