Learning Lincoln On-line
FROM-- SET SEVEN, CIVIL WAR STUDIES
Topic One-hundred-thirteen: Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy
ARTICLE: THE ANDERSONVILLE CONFEDERATE PRISONER CAMP
The Andersonville National Historic Site, located near Andersonville, Georgia, preserves the former Camp Sumter (also known as Andersonville Prison), a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the American Civil War. Most of the site lies in southwestern Macon County, adjacent to the east side of the town of Andersonville. As well as the former prison, the site also contains the Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum.
The site is an iconic reminder of the horrors of Civil War prisons. It was commanded by Captain Henry Wirz, who was tried and executed after the war for murder. It was overcrowded to four times its capacity, with inadequate water supply, reduction in food rations, and unsanitary conditions. Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 men died. The chief causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery. Friends provided care, food, and moral support for others in their social network, which helped prisoners survive.
The prison, which opened in February 1864, originally covered about 16.5 acres (6.7 ha) of land enclosed by a 15-foot (4.6 m) high stockade. In June 1864 it was enlarged to 26.5 acres (107,000 m2). The stockade was in the shape of a rectangle 1,620 feet (490 m) by 779 feet (237 m). There were two entrances on the west side of the stockade, known as "north entrance" and "south entrance".
Descriptions of Andersonville
Robert H. Kellogg, sergeant major in the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, described his entry as a prisoner into the prison camp, May 2, 1864:
"As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. "Can this be hell?" "God protect us!" and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then."
Further descriptions of the camp can be found in the diary of Ransom Chadwick, a member of the 85th New York Infantry Regiment. Chadwick and his regimental mates were taken to the Andersonville Prison, arriving on April 30, 1864.
Father Peter Whelan arrived on 16 June 1864 to muster the resources of the church and help provide relief to the prisoners.
The Dead Line
At Andersonville, a light fence known as "the dead line" was erected approximately 19 feet (5.8 m) inside the stockade wall. It demarcated a no-man's land that kept prisoners away from the stockade wall, which was made of rough-hewn logs about 16 feet (4.9 m) high and stakes driven into the ground. Anyone crossing or even touching this "dead line" was shot without warning by sentries in the pigeon roosts. Dead lines were also used at other prisons during the Civil War.
(1864) At this time in the war, Andersonville Prison was frequently undersupplied with food. The Confederate Army and civilians also struggled to get enough food. The shortage was suffered by prisoners and the Confederate personnel alike within the fort. But the prisoners received less than the guards, as the latter did not suffer such emaciation, nor scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency). The latter was probably the main cause of mortality (along with diarrhea, caused by living in the filth from poor sanitation and the necessity to take drinking water from a creek filled at all times with fecal material from thousands of sick and dying men). Even when sufficient quantities of supplies were available, they were of poor quality and poorly prepared.
Although the prison was surrounded by forest, very little wood was allowed to the prisoners for warmth or cooking. This and the lack of utensils made it almost impossible for the prisoners to cook the main food they received, poorly milled corn flour. During the summer of 1864, Union prisoners suffered greatly from hunger, exposure and disease. Within seven months, about a third died from what was diagnosed as dysentery and scurvy; they were buried in mass graves, the standard practice by Confederate prison authorities at Andersonville. In 1864 the Confederate Surgeon General asked Joseph Jones, an expert on infectious disease, to investigate the high mortality rate at the camp. He concluded that it was due to "scorbutic dysentery" (bloody diarrhea caused by vitamin C deficiency). In 2010 the historian Drisdelle claimed that hookworm disease, a condition not recognized or known during the Civil War, was the major cause of much of the mortality. The water supply from Stockade Creek became polluted when too many Union prisoners were housed by the Confederate authorities within the prison walls. Part of the creek was used as a sink, and the men were forced to wash themselves in the creek.
The guards, disease, starvation and exposure were not all that prisoners had to deal with. A group of prisoners, calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, attacked their fellow inmates to steal food, jewelry, money and clothing. They were armed mostly with clubs and killed to get what they wanted. Another group rose up, organized by Peter "Big Pete" Aubrey, to stop the larceny, calling themselves "Regulators". They caught nearly all of the Raiders, who were tried by the Regulators' judge, Peter McCullough, and jury, selected from a group of new prisoners. This jury, upon finding the Raiders guilty, set punishment that included running the gauntlet, being sent to the stocks, ball and chain and, in six cases, hanging.
The conditions were so poor that in July 1864 Captain Wirz paroled five Union soldiers to deliver a petition signed by the majority of Andersonville's prisoners asking that the Union reinstate prisoner exchanges in order to relieve the overcrowding and allow prisoners to leave these terrible conditions. The request in the petition was denied. The Union soldiers, who had sworn to do so, returned to report this to their comrades.
Confederacy's offer to release prisoners
In the latter part of the summer of 1864, the Confederacy offered to conditionally release prisoners if the Union would send ships (Andersonville is inland, with access possible only via rail and road) to retrieve them. In the autumn of 1864, after the capture of Atlanta, all the prisoners who were well enough to be moved were sent to Millen, Georgia, and Florence, South Carolina. At Millen, better arrangements prevailed. After General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march to the sea, the prisoners were returned to Andersonville, where conditions were somewhat improved.
During the war, 45,000 prisoners were received at Andersonville prison; of these nearly 13,000 or one third died. The nature of the deaths and the reasons for them are a continuing source of controversy among historians. Some contend that they were a result of deliberate Confederate war crimes toward Union prisoners, while others state that they were the result of disease promoted by severe overcrowding, the shortage of food in the Confederate States, the incompetence of the prison officials, and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, caused by the Confederacy's refusal to include African-Americans in the exchanges, thus overfilling the stockade. During the war, disease was the primary cause of deaths in both armies, suggesting that infectious disease was a chronic problem, due to poor sanitation in regular as well as prison camps.
7,160 Apr 1, 1864
A young Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater, was chosen to record the names and numbers of the dead at Andersonville for the use of the Confederacy and the federal government after the war ended. He believed the federal government would never see the list, and was right in this assumption, as it turned out. He sat next to Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the prison pen, and secretly kept his own list among other papers. When Atwater was released, he put the list in his bag and took it through the lines without being caught. It was published by the New York Tribune when Horace Greeley, the owner, learned that the federal government had refused and given Atwater much grief. It was Atwater's opinion that the commanding officer of Andersonville was trying to ensure that Union prisoners would be rendered unfit to fight if they survived.
P.O.W. Newell Burch recorded Andersonville's decrepit conditions in his diary. A member of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, Burch was captured on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg; he was first imprisoned at Belle Isle in Richmond, Virginia, and then Andersonville. He is credited with being the longest-held Union prisoner of war during the Civil War, surviving a total of 661 days in Confederate hands. His original diary is in the collection of the Dunn County Historical Society in Menomonie, Wisconsin; a mimeographed copy is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Andersonville Prison was liberated in May 1865. After the war, Henry Wirz, commandant of the inner stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried by a military tribunal on charges of conspiracy and murder. The trial was presided over by Union General Lew Wallace and featured chief Judge Advocate General (JAG) prosecutor Norton Parker Chipman.
A number of former prisoners testified on conditions at Andersonville, many accusing Wirz of specific acts of cruelty, for some of which Wirz was not even present in the camp. The court also considered official correspondence from captured Confederate records. Perhaps the most damaging was a letter to the Confederate surgeon general by Dr. James Jones, who in 1864 was sent by Richmond to investigate conditions at Camp Sumter. Jones had been appalled by what he found, having vomited twice and contracted influenza from the single hour he'd toured the camp and his graphically detailed report to his superiors all but closed the case for the prosecution. Wirz presented evidence that he'd pleaded to Confederate authorities to try to get more food and tried to improve the conditions for the prisoners inside.
Wirz was found guilty and was sentenced to death, and on November 10, 1865, he was hanged. Wirz was the only Confederate official to be tried and convicted of war crimes resulting from the Civil War. The revelation of the prisoners' sufferings was one of the factors that shaped public opinion in the North regarding the South after the close of the Civil War.