This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
Unlike many other historic sites, Andersonville does not fit neatly into any one box. It is not a battlefield, although we still interpret the experience of soldiers and the ideas they fought for. It is not a historic home or building; the only original parts of the site left are earthworks. Andersonville is a Civil War site but tells a story common to every war. Andersonville National Cemetery contains the remains of American soldiers from every American war except for 1812. Unlike any other National Cemetery entrusted to the National Park Service (except for Andrew Johnson National Historic Site) Andersonville is an active cemetery. Andersonville does not have just one story to tell but rather many different narratives throughout different time periods. It quickly becomes difficult to cover this wide range of topics in a relatively short public program.
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.
On Friday, April 8, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation in which he designated April 9 as National Former Prisoner of War Recognition Day. “We salute the selfless service members throughout our history who gave their own liberty to ensure ours,” the president declared, “and we renew our commitment to remaining a Nation worthy of their extraordinary sacrifices.”
For the American Civil War, the prisoner of war story is often summed up in one word: Andersonville. The mythos surrounding this infamous prison site has, for many, become the determining factor to understanding the Civil War prisoner-of-war story, but the story is far more complex than one place. At the beginning of the war, a prisoner exchange system had to be set up in order to exchange prisoners. This happened on July 22, 1862 in what would become known as the Dix-Hill Cartel, and set up the system of equal exchange. Any soldiers not exchanged would be issued parole, meaning the soldier would remain in a parole camp and not take up arms until properly exchanged. Continue reading “Pay Them Gratitude and Respect: Remembering the Civil War’s Prisoners of War”
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.
When alternative band Quiet Hounds released Megaphona in 2012, they presented an album peppered with an impressive range of styles, from folksy ballads to pseudo-manic hipster club tunes. The album’s most unexpected choice, though, came in the form of its closing song, “Beacon Sun.” In it, the band’s lead singer carries a mournful melody. A hypnotizing rhythm runs through the track, underscored by the tattoo of a lethargic tambourine. Indeed, the track is more akin to a jazzed-up hymn than anything else, an impression that is not surprising to listeners once they heave themselves out of the indie haze long enough to catch the song’s lyrics.
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
At Andersonville National Historic Site, not a day goes by without someone telling me that their great-great-great grandfather or other family member was either a prisoner or guard at Andersonville. Likewise, not a day goes by without someone telling the story of their father, brother, uncle, or cousin who is buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery who participated in every war imaginable: Civil, Vietnam, Korea, World War I, World War II, and so on. Rosenzweig and Thelen said it best in their essay when they said that “it was the familial and intimate past that mattered most.” At Andersonville it is certainly true that the “presence of the past” is alive and well.
As the Pohanka summer intern at the Andersonville National Historic Site I had the immense honor of taking part in Memorial Day at the Andersonville National Cemetery. Let me just tell you, there’s just something about 20,000 U.S. flags rustling in the breeze. The cemetery was ablaze with red, white, and blue this past weekend, both on flags and on visitors’ clothing, as our way of paying homage to our fallen troops. The cemetery was at its most jubilant and colorful as hundreds of citizens celebrated this holiday at the stone rostrum among green grass and blue skies. On Memorial Day weekend, the national cemetery becomes Andersonville’s crown jewel, but in addition to the cemetery, the five hundred acres that make-up the park also includes the ground upon which Camp Sumter Military Prison operated during the Civil War. Continue reading “Memorial Day at Andersonville”