Paying Respects at Andersonville

Of all the Civil War prisons, Andersonville was the worst.

Recently Dear Husband and I took a trip that we are calling “Autumn Back East 2021”. Our goal was to visit friends and family, and I wanted to show DH what autumn leaves really look like in a region that isn’t primarily covered in evergreen trees, and introduce him to our nation’s capital.

We flew to Atlanta, picked up a rental car, then drove to Alabama, North Florida, Georgia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina, and then drove to Washington DC by way of Virginia. Then we flew back home.

It was an amazing trip which lasted 15 days, and since I’m now only blogging every other day, if I gave you a day to day account like I have on trips past, it would take a month, and you’d be heartily sick of the subject before we even left peach country. So I’ve decided to focus on highlights, which I’ll do my best to keep in order. You can find the first post in the series here, and a link to the next post in the series, when it comes available, below.

After a rather abrupt and, in my opinion, overly-religious welcome to Georgia at the state line, we headed into cotton and peanut country. We had a rapid COVID test scheduled for later in the day, prior to visiting my sister, so we decided not to stop at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, although it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for years.

But Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia is the only part of our National Park system that serves as a memorial to all American prisoners of war. Since we were going to be in the general vicinity, we thought it was fitting to stop in and pay our respects. I’d been there before, but this was Dear Husband’s first Civil War site.

There are three parts to this site. The National Prisoner of War Museum, the Prison Site itself, and the Andersonville National Cemetery. We only had time to see the first two, but I highly recommend them.

The museum has displays that describe not only Andersonville, but also the conditions that Americans have endured as war prisoners throughout history. So many wars. So much inhumanity. So many sacrifices. Prison camps, by definition, are horrific places.

Andersonville, during its 14-month operation, can only be described as hell on earth. During that time, 13,000 Union soldiers died and were buried in trenches in what is now the National Cemetery. Many died of disease or starvation. Some died by crossing the “Dead Line” which was a flimsy fence that was 19 feet inside the stockade walls. If you crossed it, you were shot by a guard. Others died while trying to escape, many of those due to tunnel cave ins.

Neither the North nor the South were prepared for the number of prisoners they would need to house during this war. Because of this, prison conditions on both sides were overcrowded, and there was a deficit of food, shelter, clothing and medical supplies. According to the National Park brochure, you were more likely to die as a prisoner of war in this conflict than as a soldier in combat. Fifteen percent of all Union POWs and twelve percent of all Confederate POWs died. There were 150 Civil War prisons scattered across the country, but Andersonville had the worst reputation of them all.

Originally, Andersonville was a 16 ½ acre prison pen that was supposed to hold 10,000 Union prisoners. It had a swampy creek running through its center. That creek was supposed to supply the men with drinking water, and at the other end, where it flowed out of the pen, it was used as a latrine, called “The Sinks”. The waste was supposed to flow out of the compound, leaving the water upstream fresh, but the stream quickly proved inadequate to the task, the waste backed up, and the water source became a disease-laden muddy trench.

Both North and South were expecting to rely on prisoner exchange to reduce the number of incarcerated men, but when the South absolutely refused to give up Black Union soldiers, the negotiations broke down. Andersonville quickly swelled to 32,000 men struggling to survive. No shelter was provided. Prisoners had to make do with makeshift lean-to’s of sticks and scraps of clothing, which were called shebangs. Lice, fleas and vermin were everywhere. It was said that you could smell the stench of Andersonville 10 miles away. Georgians were not pleased. But that didn’t stop some of them from coming to gawk at the fetid sea of misery, chaos and death from the sentry towers.

African Americans, of course, had it even worse than the Whites. If they hadn’t already been killed by their Confederate captors before reaching prison, or returned to slavery, or sold into slavery for the first time, then they were dumped in with the rest of the prisoners. But they didn’t even receive the substandard, grizzly medical treatment that the Whites got. They were also forced to work hard labor. They were more likely to be put into the stocks and/or whipped than the White prisoners were. Of the 100 African Americans at Andersonville, 33 percent died, rather than the 15 percent death rate of the Whites.

Even making it to the end of the war did not ensure that you’d survive Andersonville. Hundreds died trying to make it back home. Others died later of the diseases they got from the vermin and putrid water of Andersonville. These men are scattered everywhere, but their loss is just as heartbreaking as the loss of those who lie buried in trenches in the cemetery just north of the prison. It’s one of this nation’s worst tragedies.

An Andersonville Survivor

So what do you see when you visit Andersonville today? Mostly, you see a beautiful rolling field of expertly maintained grass. It actually looks rather peaceful, if you don’t know the history. It would make a great place for a picnic, or a golf course, except that that would be disrespectful.

The National Park Service does a great job of making the site come alive, though. There’s a narrative that you can listen to as you drive around to the various points of interest. There are also a lot of informational signs. You can see the many monuments that many Northern states erected in memory of their fallen soldiers. You can visit the two parts of the stockade walls that have been reconstructed. You can see remnants of the star fort just to the Southwest, complete with rusty cannons. There are poles marking where the rest of the walls used to be, and shorter poles indicating the dead line which you could not cross.

The most substantial edifice is the building that surrounds Providence Spring, which was a spring that miraculously appeared just north of the creek, 6 months after the prison opened in 1864. That spring provided what little clean water the prisoners were able to obtain. Water still runs there, even though the creek has long since dried up. Throughout the fields, you can see short concrete posts that mark where the prisoners desperately tried to dig wells to get even more water.

So you stand on this now beautiful site, taking in the green rolling hillside, listening to the birds chirp, but you can imagine a time when it was mud and filth and desperation and disease. The ground practically vibrates with trauma. You can all but hear the moaning and the crying and the praying and the dying. You feel the ghosts of a war that never should have happened. And you are reminded of how atrocious people can be to one another.

Many people I know in the South try really hard to romanticize the Civil War. They try to say it was about states rights, but even the documents left behind by their own politicians and generals come right out and admit this was a war about slavery, pure and simple. They wanted the free labor for their farmland, and they didn’t care about the abominable suffering and horrifying injustice this caused. They decided that their stance, on the wrong side of history, was the right one, and they took up arms to defend it.

The Insurrectionists of January 6th of this year were equally wrong-headed, and are equally confused that their violent actions are considered crimes. If you don’t like the majority stance in a democracy, you don’t get to just up and steal a chunk of the country. That’s treasonous. And you certainly don’t get to storm our nation’s capitol and vandalize it and try to lynch people who disagree with you.

On that January 6th day, I’m sure all the ghosts of Andersonville rose up in horror and protest. I’m sure they wished they could make those insurrectionist idiots see the errors of their ways. And I’m sure the ghosts of their captors were cheering those same idiots on.

Will we ever learn?

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