By Gene Harmon
Sumter County, Georgia is probably not a place many would recognize if heard in conversation. Located in the southwestern part of the state, it includes the towns of Americus and Plains. Macon lies to the northeast and Columbus to the northwest. It is an extremely rural area and mostly agricultural. However, if you mention a small town in the northeast corner of the county, something will click in the minds of most people. They have heard of the place but many will sadly not remember why.
In late February 1864, five-hundred federal prisoners arrived by railcar on the Southwestern Railroad and were marched about 1600 feet to a stockade covering 16.5 acres. Within six months, it had been enlarged to over 26 acres and was crowded with 32,000 prisoners. By the end of the war, almost 13,000 graves filled the cemetery nearby. It was called Camp Sumter but would forever be known as the infamous Andersonville.
Prison camps existed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. They inhabited warehouses, training camps, existing prisons and newly built stockades. To alleviate the burgeoning problem of where to keep these prisoners and due to the fact the public demanded it, an exchange system was agreed upon in July 1862. It was a complicated system often resulting in arguments as the exchanges were carried out in the field. The exchange rate was equal rank for equal rank, but disagreements were common in cases where they varied.
According to the scale, officers were worth more than one man. For example, one general was worth 60 privates. A common problem with this arrangement was many soldiers, especially in the lower regimental or company grades, might not have had their current rank sewn on their coats. Field commissions occurred on a regular basis due to performance or battle attrition. It was not uncommon for a colonel of a regiment to suddenly find himself leading a brigade after his superior became a casualty in battle.
Conditions in all of the prisons were less than sanitary, but after April 1863 things quickly turned for the worse. Union General Ulysses Grant recognized the exchange system benefited the south. Every paroled soldier returned to the ranks of his regiment easing somewhat the Confederacy’s lack of manpower. If this continued, Grant feared the war would drag on indefinitely. On April 17, he ordered the practice to cease. It was just a matter of time before overcrowding in the prisons became a serious problem.
The number of federal prisoners in Richmond quickly approached an unmanageable level. They drained local supplies and required large garrisons of guards who could better serve against the enemy elsewhere. Confederate General Robert E. Lee also feared the prisoners could cause a sizable problem if fighting neared the city. It was a burden that needed to be relieved..
Captain Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in 1823 in Switzerland and came to America in 1849. He married Mrs. Wolfe, a widow with two children, in Kentucky in 1854. A daughter, Cora, was born in 1855 to the couple before they moved to Louisiana. When the country erupted into war, Henry enlisted in the 4th Louisiana Infantry and was a sergeant at the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. It is disputed whether his crippling shoulder wound was received during this battle or by accident in another location.
After Seven Pines, he was promoted to captain and assigned to work for Brigadier General John Winder, the superintendent of military prisons. Wirz commanded Libby Prison in Richmond and the prison at Tuscaloosa, Alabama prior to President Jefferson Davis sending him to Europe as an emissary for the Confederate government. After returning in January of 1864, he was given command of Camp Sumter three months later..
Built by slave labor, construction began that same January for a prison to house 10,000 inmates. Trees were felled and cut to 22’ in length. Axes were used to hew each side of the posts to fit snugly against each other eliminating any view beyond the stockade. When placed in the five-foot deep ditches, the walls would stand 17’ high.
Just within the walls was a barrier nineteen feet wide around the entire prison. This “deadline” was marked by posts topped with single rails about waist high. Guards had orders to shoot without question any prisoner crossing into this buffer zone. For each prisoner shot in this manner, a thirty-day furlough was granted to the guard. Though thought of as cruel and inhumane by the northern public, it was a common feature in any prison including those in the North.
The initial prison guards were veterans from the 55th Georgia and 26th Alabama Infantry Regiments. Three regiments of Georgia Reserves began arriving in May allowing the veterans to rejoin their commands in the Army of Tennessee. These reserves were recently created unseasoned home guard consisting mostly of old men and young boys. Sentries were always present in the guard towers spaced every forty yards along the stockade wall. Forty were stationed at each gate during the day and eighty at night. Guards were also posted fifty yards from the wall around the perimeter of the prison.
A small creek, dubbed Stockade Branch, ran through the center of the prison. In addition to collecting rainwater in whatever was available, this was the prisoners’ only water source. It quickly became contaminated for several reasons. Runoff from both sides of the prison ended up in the creek. The bakery and cookhouse were located upstream further polluting the water. This became the area of the camp where men went to relieve themselves and primitive latrines were constructed along one side of the branch. As time progressed and conditions worsened, those too sick to move defecated where they lay. With every rainfall, the filth washed downhill into the branch. This area became known as the Sinks. To this day, the ground is extremely soggy after a good rain and the grass which grows in the area is a much more vibrant green than the rest of the prison grounds.
The high mortality rate was the result of many factors. Exposure to extreme variables of the elements led to death and weakened immune systems opening the door for other diseases. Dysentery and scurvy ran prevalent as well as small pox and other contagious diseases. Others finally succumbed to wounds suffered in battle. There was a hospital located on the east side of the prison, but the prisoners did all they could to keep from being taken there. They considered it a definitive death warrant and would rather take their chances inside the stockade.
When a man died, his name and unit were written on a tag hung on his toe. He would either be laid in the street to be picked up by a prison detail or carried outside the stockade by his comrades. The body would be stripped of all clothing to be used by those still living to either clothe themselves or add to their shebangs. The naked bodies were then stacked like cord wood at the Dead House outside the South Gate. They would be carted off to the graveyard in wagons twenty at a time. At the cemetery, they were buried almost shoulder-to-shoulder only three feet deep in trenches six feet wide.
If death from disease, the elements, or previous wounds was not enough to worry about, another threat loomed in the form of prisoners preying on their own. Gangs arose that would steal from any soldier unlucky enough to fall within their grasp, especially those too helpless to fight back. They would attempt to lure new prisoners, referred to as “fresh fish”, into an area where they were beaten and robbed. Often, these attacks resulted in death for the victims. The largest and most notorious of these gangs was known as the Raiders. Numbering around 500, their boldness throughout the prison made daily life even more deplorable.
Near the end of June, a group of soldiers finally had enough and decided to fight back. These “Regulators”, with the assistance of Captain Wirz, rounded up the Raiders and removed them for trial. It was agreed the trial would be conducted by the prisoners. To ensure the fairest outcome possible, the jury was selected from the newest arrivals. Under orders from General Winder, the proceedings and sentences would be recorded and passed to Captain Wirz for review. If everything was found to be in order, the results would be respected by the Confederate authorities and the sentences carried out.
The following is taken from the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II, Volume VII, page 426:
June 30, 1864
A gang of evil-disposed persons among the prisoners of war at this post banded themselves together for the purpose of assaulting, murdering, and robbing their fellow prisoners and having already committed all these deeds, it becomes necessary to adopt measures to protect the lives and property of the prisoners against the attacks of these men, and in order that this may be accomplished, the well-disposed prisoners may and are authorized to establish a court among themselves for the trial and punishment of all such offenders.
II. On such trials, the charges will be distinctly made with specifications setting forth time and place, a copy of which will be furnished the accused.
III. The whole proceedings will be promptly kept in writing, all the testimony fairly written out as neatly in the words of the witnesses as possible.
IV. The proceedings, findings, and sentence in each case will be sent to the commanding officer for a record, and if found in order and proper, the sentence will be ordered for execution.
By order of Brig.-Gen. John H. Winder
W. S. Winder
Of those found guilty, some had to wear a ball and chain while others were set in the stocks, hung by their thumbs, or forced to run a gauntlet of club wielding peers. Six of the leaders were found guilty of murder and sentenced to die by hanging; Private William Collins from Company K of the 88th Pennsylvania Infantry, Private Charles Curtis of the 5th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, Private Patrick Delaney of the 83rd Pennsylvania, Andrew Muir of the US Navy from the USS Water Witch, Private John Sarsfield of the 144th New York Infantry, and Private John Sullivan of the 76th New York Infantry.
At 5pm on July 11, these ringleaders were hung on gallows built in the southern end of the stockade. Collins was a big man and his rope initially broke rendering him temporarily unconscious. Upon awakening and discovering he was not dead, he pleaded to the executioners for his life. He tried to convince them the breaking rope was a sign from God that he should be spared, but to no avail. He was strung back up and soon hung with the others. To respect the wishes of the rest of the prisoners, these six men were buried separate from anyone else in the cemetery.
In the summer of 1864, the Confederates at Andersonville grew concerned about the advance of the federal army commanded by General William T. Sherman now fighting around Atlanta. Slaves again were used to build additional defenses around the prison. These fears seemed founded when Gen. Stoneman’s cavalry headed south to destroy the railroad at Lovejoy Station. Once this was accomplished, he had orders to continue on to liberate the prisoners at Camp Oglethorpe and Andersonville. Stoneman ignored the first provision, bypassing Lovejoy Station and heading directly for Macon. Confederate General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry overwhelmed and captured the federals near Clinton, Georgia. The foray south had only succeeded in adding several hundred more to the population of Camp Sumter.
Captain Wirz recognized the water supply in the prison was less than adequate and supplied tools to the prisoners for the purpose of digging wells. Several of these are marked on the prison grounds. Upon discovering some were actually using the tools to dig tunnels, Wirz ordered the implements removed and all the wells to be filled.
With the prisoners in desperate need of a clean water supply, it seemed as if relief would happen by divine intervention only. On the night of August 9, 1864, it came in the form of a heavy rain that deluged the prison. It turned Stockade Branch into a river flushing out the swampy area of the Sinks and knocking down a section of the stockade wall. Weary and sick, the prisoners had no energy to take advantage of the gap. Artillery was turned toward the opening and guards stood in ranks until the rain subsided enough to repair the damage.
During the storm, a lightning strike inside the deadline just south of the North Gate opened a spring of fresh-flowing water. One of the prisoners used a branch washed in by the storm to create a trough routing the clear water inside the prison. It was aptly named Providence Spring and still flows today.
As the number of prisoners grew, so did the attempts to escape. Some tried digging tunnels with whatever they could use and others took flight while outside the stockade walls on detail. One prisoner even faked his own death so his friends could carry him out to lay with the dead outside the South Gate. When night fell, he just got up and ran away. After this ruse was discovered, prison doctors began inspecting all bodies brought out for burial.
Only 329 escape attempts were successful. The Confederate guards used dogs and cavalry to track down prisoners on the run. Most were recaptured within a day, but those who succeeded faced a long, unfriendly trek across the south. Except for a few war weary Southerners, they had a long way to go before finding any friendly faces.
After the fall of Atlanta in September, Gen. George H. Thomas, the “Rock of Chickamauga”, requested Sherman to allow him to take his troops to Andersonville. Sherman told him he would confer with Gen. Grant and get back with him. No further word was received and Thomas was ordered north to face Gen. John Bell Hood in the 1864 Campaign for Tennessee ending in the fateful battles of Franklin and Nashville.
During this same month, barracks to house around 1000 prisoners were completed with more under construction. The term barracks is misleading for they were constructed no better than primitive shacks. Due to the specter of Sherman’s army to the north and to ease overcrowding, prisoners began to be moved in small groups to Camp Lawton and Florence. By mid-September, more than five thousand had been redistributed to other prisons in the South. The overflow from the hospital now occupied the barracks. By the end of the month, the only prisoners left were either too sick to walk or used to keep things functioning. By October, it had become nothing more than a prison hospital.
After the fall of Savannah, Georgia in December, a large influx of prisoners arrived from Salisbury, North Carolina. Gen. Winder urged that the prisons at Columbia and Florence be evacuated to Andersonville as well. On February 6, 1865, he died of heart failure on a trip to Salisbury Prison.
Christmas came to the prisoners in characteristic Georgia fashion. A native myself, it still surprises me how frigid this state can get during the winter. The winter of ’64-’65 is on record as the coldest in twenty-five years in southwest Georgia with temperatures plummeting to eighteen degrees below zero one particular night. The cold rains fell and the prison population began to grow again. Some of the men huddled together for warmth leaving their group only to collect food rations.
Over the next couple of months, several thousand joined those already within the stockade. These arrivals brought news of the war saying Sherman was now cutting through South Carolina, Selma had fallen, and Grant had Lee’s back against a wall. Hope began to reappear after being squashed and buried for over a year. The end of the war seemed in sight and the confined men were looking forward to going home. Cheering and singing once again echoed off the wooden walls.
Some of these men would still not see home for death continued to walk among them. Over a hundred died during March and April. In the last month of the war, most of the prisoners were sent to Vicksburg to be exchanged. On April 9, Gen. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. Gen. Johnston surrendered to Gen. Sherman on April 26 at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Though smaller surrenders were yet to take place, in essence the war was over.
Federal troops finally arrived at Andersonville in May. I can only imagine the range of emotions enveloping both the liberators and the liberated. Only a small handful of emaciated, sick, living skeletons remained. Pictures were taken and published in Northern newspapers fueling the fires that led to the demise of the prison’s commander. This was how the public pictured every soldier who had been interred at Camp Sumter.
When word began spreading in 1865 of the horrible conditions men had suffered at Andersonville, Captain Wirz became the obvious target and was referred to as a monster. He was captured and put through a three-month trial. On October 24, 1865, he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and murder itself. On November 6, he was sentenced to die. Four days later at 10:30am, he was hung in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison in Washington.
Conditions at Andersonville were much like those at other prisons on both sides of the conflict. Prisoners were exposed to the elements with little or no shelter other than shebangs, lean-tos or dugouts. Some were handy enough to make bricks from the dirt and clay to build shelters with. Food was usually rancid and medical care was worse than poor if available at all. The Confederate guards received the same fare as the prisoners and their mortality rates were extremely high as well numbering over 200. They also suffered from the same diseases as the men inside the stockade. Two guards were even reported to have been hung for trying to escape with a group of prisoners.
Of the 13,000 buried in southwest Georgia, only a small number are unknown. It speaks volumes for the meticulous attention to detail needed to record that number of casualties by name, unit, and location in the cemetery. This documentation was all the work of Dorence Atwater from the 2nd New York Cavalry, a prisoner assigned as a clerk in the hospital. He took it upon himself to keep detailed records of all those who died while interred there. His work insured the graves would be correctly identified. In Maryland, it was a different story. The majority of those who died at Point Lookout remain unknown and are buried in a large mass grave.
Libby Prison in Richmond has already been mentioned. Other names which should be recognized in the list of Civil War prisons are Camp Chase in Ohio, Camp Douglas in Illinois, Camp Morton in Indiana, Johnson’s Island in Ohio, Cahaba Prison in Alabama, Rock Island Prison on an island in the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa, Camp Oglethorpe near Macon, Elmira Prison in New York, Fort Delaware on an island in the Delaware River, Camp Florence in South Carolina, Castle Pinckney in Charleston Harbor, Belle Isle Prison in the James River near Richmond, and Camp Lawton near Millen, Georgia.
Clara Barton came to Andersonville in late July 1865 with almost four-dozen others. Their mission was to mark the graves in the cemetery with painted markers replacing those hastily scribbled and placed during the life of the prison. The list Dorence Atwater painstakingly compiled was indispensable to this effort. The American flag was raised over the cemetery for the first time during its dedication on August 17, 1865.
Andersonville National Historic Site now lies just inside Macon County. It includes the cemetery, prison site, and a prisoner of war museum. Within the grounds of the cemetery, it is very humbling to walk among the rows of weathered stones standing in ranks in every direction. These stones mark the lives of men snuffed out in their prime during four years of our nation’s history which claimed over half a million American lives. In addition to almost 13,000 graves of federal soldiers, the cemetery is now the resting place of veterans and their families who have passed in the years since the Civil War. This cemetery is one of fourteen National Cemeteries maintained by the National Park Service. The only other active one is located at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, Tennessee.
The prison itself can be toured by driving along a road circling the site or by walking the grounds. The northeast corner of the stockade has been reconstructed complete with two guard towers, deadline, and shebangs. Along the entire perimeter, the outer wall and deadline are clearly marked by white posts as is the site of the gallows where the Raiders were executed. The North Gate has been reconstructed and Providence Spring is located nearby just down the slope. Its water flows out of a granite spring house built in 1907 by Union veterans and former prisoners. Stockade Branch still flows through the Sinks feeding the swampy area in this low part of the prison. At the north end of the site, several monuments have been erected and the locations of escape tunnels and wells are clearly marked. Around the outside of the stockade can be seen several earthworks and redoubts. Artillery was placed in these not so much to deter enemy attack but to quell any uprisings from the prisoners.
The National Prisoner of War Museum located in the park visitor center is another humbling experience. After two years of construction, it was commemorated on April 9, 1998, the 56th anniversary of the fall of Bataan during World War II. The Bataan Death March became one of the symbols of the suffering of modern era POWs and a prelude to the experiences of many in Vietnam. On this day of dedication, thousands of former POWs and their families were present.
Contained within the museum are artifacts and stories from the Revolutionary War through modern times including Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. You can hear POWs in their own words describe their ordeals, read their letters, and see pictures. Look into the confines of a cell within the notorious Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. Get a glimpse of the crawl space involved in digging an escape tunnel. There is so much information contained in this museum, it cannot be viewed with a quick walk-thru.
For fifteen months, despair, loneliness, disease and the elements had eaten away at their minds, bodies, and souls. They had left homes and families to fight for the preservation of a young government built on democracy. Facing death on the battlefield became a reality for them all, but what they faced at Camp Sumter was something different altogether. Except for those who stepped across the deadline or met their fate at the hand of another prisoner, those who died here did so slowly and painfully.
Over 40,000 federal soldiers had passed through the gates of this stockade by war’s end. Nearly 13,000 went no further. They rest in the cemetery nearby and the tragic end of their lives will still touch those willing to listen. It can be felt walking across the prison emanating from the ground and reverberating in the air. This site is indeed hallowed ground. Remember their suffering and let the memory of their lives never fade. Honor them with a visit, let this place touch your soul, and you will never forget it.
On the second weekend of every March, a living history program is presented on the historic site by the National Park Service. It features daytime scenarios from living historians. For more information, contact the park at ( 229 ) 924-0343 or visit their website.
Sources used for reference are:
Civil War Series: The Prison Camp at Andersonville published by Eastern National, copyright 1995.
Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War edited by Patricia L. Faust, published by HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series II, Volume VII, page 426