This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
The prison site of Andersonville, also known as Camp Sumter, is today just an empty field in picturesque Southwest Georgia. The only physical remains of the original site are the earthworks that surrounded the camp to protect Camp Sumter from a cavalry raid or an attack by Sherman’s Army. It is hard to fathom that nearly 45,000 men lived in this field at one time or another over a fourteen-month timeframe and of those nearly 13,000 perished. The 30% fatality rate for those who came through the gates make it the single deadliest site of the Civil War. The men’s cries for water, food and their pleas for someone to come and put an end to their horrific suffering are just echoes now. Yet their story lives on and the battle for memory at Andersonville still rages.
Large numbers of people pass through the prison site and museum at Andersonville, and all have reactions to the site one way or another. Some of the more interesting reactions come from white southerners. They are either disgusted with Captain Wirz – the Confederate commanding officer of the camp – and hold him accountable for the prisoners’ suffering, ashamed that their beloved South could induce such horrors and suffering. However, some residents are dismissive, make excuses and try to justify the actions of Captain Wirz. They put the blame of the camp’s existence itself to General Grant and the Northern officials for their refusal to reinstitute the exchange program, which is true. These Southerners commonly come up to the information desk angered by the museum and cite Northern Civil War Prison Camps such as Elmira and Point Lookout as a point of comparison. Their argument is “The South by 1864 did not have the resources to feed these men, the North had the assets and they let the Southern Soldiers starve in their camps. They should have reinstated the prisoner exchanges or this would not have happened.” They almost always storm out of the building. Why does this museum and National Park Service facility bring out such emotions in many visitors? Simply put, Andersonville for many Americans is synonymous with suffering and death in the Civil War. Thus, many of the monuments erected by the Union states, unlike those at most Civil War sites and battlefields, do not convey a sense of victory, but of sacrifice and somber reflection.
The New Jersey monument is quite possibly one of the most overlooked memorials due in part to the nearby Maine site which looks almost exactly the same. However, the New Jersey inscription is what makes it unique. Its message makes reference to the famed “Go tell the Spartans” inscription at Thermopylae, perhaps to imply the New Jersey soldiers were the Spartans and Andersonville was their Thermopylae, an interesting and bold comparison. Also inscribed on the monument is the phrase “Death Before Dishonor.” This phrase was placed on many monuments in reference to the hundreds of galvanized Union soldiers who so desperately wanted out of the hellhole of Andersonville that they agreed to fight for the Confederacy. The New Jersey men who perished at Andersonville, the monument implies, chose death before dishonoring themselves by betraying their country.
The monument itself imposes a memory of defiance, sacrifice and somber reflection. The soldier on top of the monument is looking forward defiantly, ever vigilant, guarding the grounds where his comrades are buried. However, he is at parade rest. This pose does not convey a sense of victory or triumph, but a somber sense of duty that these soldiers truly did give the last full measure of devotion.
The rival collectivity, as Kirk Savage calls it, created their own shrine near the grounds. Right across the street in the town of Andersonville is located he controversial Captain Wirz monument, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909 to honor the camp’s commander. It is a testament of extreme debate and has even been vandalized over the years. When the monument was erected it brought a bitter response from Union veteran’s groups and northern papers. However, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and many other southern groups believed that Captain Wirz was a martyr, wrongfully accused of war crimes and unjustly executed. As for the monument itself, it is similar to the Ohio memorial at the prison site and the George Washington monument. It is a humble marker; perhaps the United Daughters of the Confederacy realized that an actual statue of Captain Wirz facing the prison would invoke even more controversy. It would remind many former Union prisoners and their families of the seemingly omniscient and omnipresent man himself, suggesting that even from the grave he still denies the soldiers their freedom. Instead, the monument is a humble obelisk with inscriptions on all sides.
The meaning and impact of the current New Jersey monument is fluid. As long as there is continued debate over Andersonville, there can be different interpretations of all the monuments at the park. Perhaps the prison site in the future will be altered to include a marker in regards to Wirz; thereby absolving him of his deeds at Andersonville or the Wirz monument in town will be torn down in favor of a new monument. Perhaps the park might become a memorial for all who died in Civil War prison locations both in the North and South. Then visitors from all throughout America can believe that the men interned at Andersonville died with honor.
Blanco, Walter. Herodotus: The Histories. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2013.
Cisco, Walter Brian. Wade Hampton Confederate Warrior, Conservative Statesman. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004.
Futch, Ovid L. History of Andersonville Prison. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968.
National Park Service. “The Wirz Monument,” Accessed June 16, 2015, http://www.nps.gov/ande/learn/historyculture/wirz-mon.htm
Savage, Kirk. “The Politics of Memory: Black Emancipation and the Civil War Monument,” in John R. Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, 1994): 127-149