Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On the Road--Down South: Andersonville Prison (June 17, 2013)

Yesterday, June 17, I headed directly for Andersonville, GA, the site of Camp Sumter during the Civil War, better known as Andersonville Prison. It's a place I've always wanted to see because an ancestor, according to family tradition, was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and eventually ended up at Andersonville, where he died.  A docent at the site said that many who are said to have died there actually died en route to prisons further south as Union forces, outliers of Sherman's forces as they headed for the sea, approached from Atlanta. Surely the place itself has no memory, but it is somber nevertheless. Camp Sumter today is just a large field, but parts of the stockade around the perimeter of the confinement area have been reconstructed, based on excavated posthole evidence, and earthworks outside the palisade, though eroded, remain, along with the earthworks of a small star-shaped fort at the south end of the camp. The stockade was built by slaves from timber that was cleared on the site. Each trunk was cut to 22 feet. The poles were placed side by side in a ditch five feet deep that was then filled in, forming a solid wall of wood above ground. The perimeter was about 3/4 of a mile long including a late expansion, the whole enclosing about 16 acres. There were only two gates. The photo above shows the top of the stockade in the distance from the perspective of someone standing outside a V-shaped earthwork at a corner of the confinement area. Cannons were positioned in these earthworks, some pointing outward to guard against Union raiders, some pointed inward toward the prison, loaded with scattershot.

What is striking is that the "prison" was nothing more than this expanse of bare ground enclosed by the stockade. The prisoners were left to find their own shelter and even their own water. They dug wells in the field, which slopes gently toward a creek. The ground is studded with concrete markers about ten inches in diameter, each topped with a round metal plate etched with a number and the words "Historic Well." The Confederates thought it an excellent place for a prison because of the access to water. The idea was to put latrines and the like at the low end of the enclosure so that the water would wash sewage away from the living and cooking areas, but the stockade blocked the flow of ground water, creating a boggy marsh that quickly festered with waste. Most who died at the prison died of dysentery spread by the contaminated water. At peak, about 100 men died every day.

Because the site is mostly an empty field, those who came back after the war were moved to create monuments to those who died (about 13,000 of the 45,000-50,000 prisoners that were interred at Camp Sumter perished there).  There are large stone monuments erected by the various northern states that lost men at Andersonville. Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Rhode Island were among those I saw. Large monuments stud the cemetery, about a quarter of a mile from the prison site. After the war ended, Clara Barton and a former prisoner, Dorance Atwater, who had made a duplicate list of the burials and smuggled it out of the camp, came back to identify graves before the identities of the men were lost. Burials were initially marked with wooden markers, but these were replaced with the headstones now on the site. Barton and Atwater did a good job. It's remarkable that only about 400 of the thousands of burials are marked "unknown soldier."

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