The Civil War Institute will be celebrating the National Park Service Centennial this spring with its brand new “Find Your Park Friday” series. Inspired by the NPS #FindYourPark campaign, the series will challenge our fellows to share their experiences exploring America’s national historical, cultural, and natural resources through trips and internships with the NPS. In our third post, Elizabeth Smith reflects on her time as an intern at Andersonville National Historic Site and the personal element of history.
As a first-year student back in 2013 I was given the opportunity to work as a Pohanka Intern at Andersonville National Historic Site. During the American Civil War, Andersonville—or Camp Sumter, as it was officially called—was perhaps the most infamous prison camp, and today it remains the best known. Though it was only open for fourteen months between 1864 and 1865, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there, 12,920 of whom would be buried just a quarter of a mile away from the stockade that took their lives.
While working as a Pohanka intern I lived on-site in a small studio apartment a few hundred yards back from the old stockade and a quarter of a mile away from the cemetery. Today, the cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 20,000 veterans and their spouses. There is something unique and, to be quite honest, creepy when you are the only living person on the entire site. To walk the perimeter of the stockade as the sun goes down, knowing that only you are standing in the exact spot where 45,000 men suffered, and to be able to soak in the atmosphere is an incredibly moving experience.
One night in particular sticks out in my mind. It was about seven o’clock; the park had been closed for two hours, and I was sitting under the cover of the front porch watching the rain through the trees. It was thundering in the distance, but the rain began to let up, and I decided to walk out to the cemetery. So, in the light mist, I walked the quarter mile to the cemetery and spent the next hour and a half roaming row upon row of gravestones, both new and old. As the sun began to set, I snapped pictures and let my mind wander to the men who had fought and died in a prison camp so far from their homed. As I stood at the very back of Row H and looked over the largest section of Civil War dead, I was rendered completely speechless and stood there as the sun set, crying over the atrocities that happened one hundred and fifty years in the past.
That moment remains with me to this day. Though nearly three years have passed since I left Andersonville, I have never forgotten it. My summer living beside the National Cemetery affected me in ways that I did not expect. It solidified my resolve to continue in the field of history and one day work for the National Park Service. By living and working at Andersonville, my eyes were opened to a side of Civil War history that I had never considered: the prisoner of war story. This is now one of the very first things I consider when studying a battle.
The personal history that I dealt with every single day was by far what affected me the most. Not a day went by without someone coming in who had an ancestor who was imprisoned or who had a family member buried in the cemetery. Hearing those stories, helping people research their family connection, leading people to their loved one’s final resting place every single day was an experience that words could never accurately capture. It was a moving experience that formed who I am today and who I hope to be in the future. And for that reason, I never had to search for my park. My park will always be Andersonville National Historic Site.