Go Tell The Yankees: The New Jersey Monument and the Battle for Memory at Andersonville

By Blake Altenberg ‘17

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.

A view of the soldier perched atop Andersonville’s New Jersey Monument. Photo credit Blake Altenberg.
A view of the soldier perched atop Andersonville’s New Jersey Monument. Photo credit Blake Altenberg.

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