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 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.
Elmira’s history is very similar to that of Camp Chase. Before it was a prison camp, Elmira had been a military depot for training. The Elmira Depot in Elmira, New York, was a great place for a military training camp because of the railroad junctions running in and out of the town. These railroads would be necessary for transporting prisoners to Elmira later in the war. Like Camp Chase, Elmira became an overflow prison camp after the cartel failed in 1863. Many of the prisoners came from Point Lookout along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Elmira was made up of barracks with the Chemung River running behind the prison. There was a pool of water in the middle of the camp three to six feet deep and forty feet wide. At one point there were approximately 10,000 prisoners at Elmira. There was only one successful escape made by ten prisoners, including Berry Benson, on October 6, 1864. There are fewer memoirs and diaries from Elmira than from Southern prisons, but many Confederate ex-prisoners published their experiences in the Confederate Veteran and other newspapers and journals.
Rations at Elmira were similar to those at Camp Chase. There was a regular routine with two meals a day; “so many days we had pork, so many days we had beef, so many days bean soup for dinner, so many days vegetable soup.” Sometimes there was even extra soup in the kitchen and the officers would tell the men to fall in line for extras. They also received bread in the morning and at dinner. While these rations were initially good, they soon decreased in quality. Bread was replaced with crackers in the winter, and King said the crackers caused diarrhea. While the rations were not ideal, compared with prisons in the South, the men at Elmira were well-off and had two meals cooked for them each day.
Even compared to Libby Prison and Andersonville, one can recognize that conditions in Northern prisons like Camp Chase and Elmira Prison Camp were not ideal. Indeed, disease, death, and starvation were abundant in both Camp Chase and Elmira. However, they contrast greatly to the even more appalling conditions later in Libby and Andersonville.
While Camp Chase, with an average of 8,000 Confederate prisoners, was not the largest prison camp in the North during the war, it represents the typical conditions in Northern prisons. Initially a training camp for Union soldiers, Camp Chase was built four miles outside Columbus, Ohio, and by 1861 it was already holding many Confederate “political prisoners.” It was meant to be a temporary prison, as the North was unprepared for the amount of prisoners that flooded their makeshift prisons. With the end of the cartel, Camp Chase was forced to become a permanent prison. The prison was divided into three prisons, though they all shared one wall separated by partitions. Prison 1 was the smallest, prison 2 was larger, but prison 3 was larger than 1 and 2 combined, measuring, as Private James Anderson described, about four acres. The prison consisted of barracks with bunks three tiers high and one stove each. Three memoirs of Confederate prisoners in Camp Chase give historians a good understanding of the general conditions and life they experienced while captive.
“When our country called for me we came from forge and store and mill.
From workshop, farm and factory the broken ranks to fill;
We left our quite happy home, and ones we loved so well;
To vanquish all the Union foes, or fall where others fell;
Now in a prison dear we languish and it is our constant cry;
Oh! Ye who yet can save us, will you leave us here to die?”
Libby Prison in Richmond became known for its horrible conditions; however, no prison during the war can compare to the cruelty at Andersonville Prison. It was built in February 1864, fourteen months before the end of the war, and in that short time devastating atrocities occurred which made Andersonville the most infamous of the Civil War prisons.
Camp Sumter, more commonly referred to as Andersonville, was a stockade prison near Andersonville, Georgia. Hemmerlein describes the fence as twenty feet high “made of trunks of pine trees set vertically into the ground” which surrounded the stockade. It was originally seventeen acres, enough for 10,000 prisoners; however, in June 1864 the Confederates were forced to expand it another ten acres. This was still not enough space for the 45,000 prisoners that were captive here throughout the war. The largest number of prisoners at Andersonville at one time was 33,000 in August of 1864. Nineteen feet from the fence was the “deadline” which became famous for the deaths of many prisoners who went near or touched the line. There was no shade or vegetation, and only a small stream ran through the middle of camp; it soon became contaminated with the soldiers’ waste. The only shelter prisoners had were tents that they erected if they had the means. While diaries from Libby Prison give historians a good understanding of the conditions of that prison, they cannot compare to the death and atrocities at Andersonville.
Numerous books have been written on the contested topic of Civil War prisons and prisoners of war. Scholars struggle with who to blame for the outrageous and horrible conditions of the prisons. Some speculate that the Southerners were crueller to their captives while others say the opposite. As well, scholars question whether the conditions of the Southern prisons were better or worse than the prisons in the North.
Once released, prisoners from both sides began to publish hundreds of memoirs describing their experiences. Some prisoners used these memoirs to vilify their captors. Therefore, historians must be careful when reading into the biases of these various memoirs. Some prisons have become better known than others, and therefore certain assumptions about the average prisons during the war have arisen. While Andersonville may be the most infamous of the Civil War prisons, it perhaps does not depict the average prison conditions during the war. There are many other prisons both North and South that could give the historian a better understanding of the lives of Civil War prisoners. This is the first segment in a series of Civil War prison posts and seeks to portray Confederate camp Libby Prison as various prisoners in their memoirs described it.
by Andrew Bothwell, ’13 ???Evening Twilight??? 1 I love to steal a while away From every cumbering care, And spend the hours of setting day In humble, grateful prayer. 2 I love in solitude to shed The penitential tear; And all his promises to plead Wh…
1 I love to steal a while away
From every cumbering care,
And spend the hours of setting day
In humble, grateful prayer.
2 I love in solitude to shed
The penitential tear;
And all his promises to plead
Where none but God can hear. […]
5 Thus, when life’s toilsome day is o’er,
May its departing ray
Be calm as this impressive hour
And lead to endless day.
Corporal Charles A. Rubright of the 160th Pennsylvania Volunteers found little solitude during the beginning days of July 1863. He arrived at Gettysburg on July 2nd after days of arduous marching, the final leg ending early that morning. The commander of a detachment of “Pioneers,” he was soon ordered to the front and left of his brigade on Cemetery Ridge to clear intrusive trees, fences, brush, etc.