Camp Sumter

This is not a good place. This is Andersonville.

Between February, 1864 and the end of the Civil War Camp Sumter confined Union prisoners of war. Forty-five thousand came here, but only thirty-two thousand left. Thirteen-thousand died of malnutrition, exposure and rampant disease – a 29% death rate.

During the fourteen months Camp Sumter held prisoners, it was known as “Andersonville.”

Originally planned to hold 10,000 prisoners, at one point it held 32,000 on a 26 acre site. That is six feet by six feet for each prisoner, probably less, as several acres were occupied by a swamp and human waste.

Conditions were horrid. It was considered by all there to be “hell on earth.” Many of the prisoners were transported by train from prison facilities in Richmond, a distance more than 600 miles taking several days. According to the “Andersonville Diary” by John Ransom, the box cars were packed so tight that they had to stand the entire journey. They were then marched the 500 yards from the Andersonville train siding to the stockade. The description is eerily similar to the photos of holocaust victims arriving at Auschwitz or Dachau.

It would be convenient to say that the Confederates were uncaring, even inhuman, but that would be an unfair over-simplification. Union prisons were little better. War was more important than prisoner health.

One of the big differences between north and south prisons is how the prisoners were housed. The Union built barracks and converted warehouses; the Confederated used open stockades and tents. The Union barracks were freezing in the winter; the Confederate stockades were intensely hot with no protection from the elements.

Food was minimal in Andersonville and prisoners were emaciated. However, guards were no better off. Everyone was starving.

The commandant of the camp was Henry Wirz, an Austrian born captain. He was hanged for war crimes after the war, but the truth is far more complicated. Look for Captain Wirz’ story later.

There were more than 100 prisons during the Civil War. There were 350,000 to 400,000 prisoners taken by both sides. Of these 56,014 died — 25,796 Confederate and 30,218 Union.

Andersonville National Cemetery

Twelve-thousand nine hundred and twenty Union soldiers who died in Andersonville prison are buried here. Unlike other National Cemeteries with six-foot by ten-foot grave sites, these are spaced six-inches apart, as the bodies were buried shoulder-to-shoulder in trench graves, with a numbered post marking the location. One prisoner, nineteen-year-old Dorence Atwater was detailed to record the names and grave locations of the deceased. He copied the list and took it with him when he was released. When the War Department had no interest in his list, he joined with Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross) and the Quartermaster Corps to identify the graves and make the information available to the families. Later stone markers with soldier’s names replaced the numbered stakes. Today it is a sea of white markers gleaming in the sun.

The National Prisoner of War Memorial

The National Prisoner of War Memorial is the focus of the visitor center with a building design and displays that can evoke the feelings of confinement. For former POW’s I can imagine it could be distressing.

Andersonville Village

Today Andersonville is a village of less than 300 people that has done a great job of recognizing and displaying its history. The main street of Andersonville is much as it was when the Post Office was commissioned in 1855. The oldest building is the Dykes house built in 1847. Ben Dykes was a founder of the town and owned the land on which the prison was built.

On East Church Street, the “main street” you will find the Depot, Post Office, Easterlin Cafe (great meat loaf!), and the Drummer Boy Museum. Behind the Drummer Boy is the Pioneer Farm with a dozen period buildings.

The Drummer Boy museum is deceiving. This tiny little building houses some truly fascinating displays and remarkable artifacts from many Civil War sites, along with its curator, Cynthia Storm Caller. Cynthia has a wealth of Civil War history stored in her head and the documents surrounding her little front desk office Space. We spent several hours talking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *