September 2005

By Kevin Frye
As presented to an American Civil War chat on AOL

Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, was one of the largest of many established prison camps during the American Civil War. It was built early in 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners kept in and around Richmond, Virginia, to a place of greater security and a more abundant food supply. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union Solders were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements.

This site was authorized by Congress in October 1973 as a unit of the National park Service. For many years prior to this time, both the cemetery and prison site were administered by the Department of the Army. Between 1890 and 1910, the prison site was cared for by the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization, and its auxiliary, the Woman's Relief Corps, as a memorial to the Andersonville prisoners. Of the approximately 45000 Union soldiers who were imprisoned at Andersonville, nearly 13,000 of them died during confinement. But why so many?

At the onset of the Civil War, neither side was prepared for a prolonged conflict. Both sides earnestly believed the war would be a short one. Therefore, no one really even considered the holding of the thousands of enemy soldiers who would eventually be taken prisoner.

As the war dragged on, the necessity of caring for these prisoners became more apparent and critical. At first, both sides used a parole system - in many instances right on the battlefield. The prisoners would state on their honor that they would go home and fight no more until officially exchanged. This system was soon found to be impractical, forcing both sides to hold their prisoners. A formal prisoner exchange system was devised in July of 1862. The system was governed by the Dix-Hill Cartel which specified the worth of each soldier by rank. However, the Cartel had many difficulties and soon broke down.

In addition, the Union discovered that it was to their advantage not to exchange prisoners. As a result, large prisons like Andersonville were established. The earliest camps for Union prisoners were in the around Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. By 1863 the prisoner population in Richmond had grown to the point that it caused a serious drain on the city's dwindling food supply.

Richmond was under constant treat of attack and General Robert E. Lee pointed out that the Northern captives could prove to be a liability in the even of such an attack. The Confederate government began looking for alternative prison sites late in 1863.  Eventually, Camp Sumter was built near the small southwest Georgia community of Andersonville which had a population of approximately twenty.

This site was finally chosen because of its proximity to the railroad, the presence of a creek to be used as the water supply, the mild climate, and abundance of natural building material and the reported availability of food in the surrounding area.  In addition, southwestern Georgia at that time was far from the theater of war.

In January 1864, impressed Negro slaves from the nearby plantations began clearing the land. For the next six weeks, the clatter of axes, the crash of trees and the thud of shovels echoed as the sandy soil was stripped of its lofty pines. They cut the logs into twenty feet lengths then hewed them by hand so that they would fit closely together.

The timbers were then placed upright in a five feet deep trench. One prisoner's diary mentions that the wall timbers were so close together that he could not see the guard's fires through the walls at night. The first group of prisoners arrived on February 24, 1864 when only three walls had been completed. The fourth side between the gates had to be guarded with artillery until it was finished. The stockade, enclosing sixteen and a half acres, was originally planned to hold 6,000 prisoners but was built to accommodate 10,000. However, the prison's population had soared to 25,000 by June.

An expansion to ten acres was added to the northern end of the stockade and was opened July 1, 1864, bringing total acreage inside the prison walls to 26 ˝ . Although 26 ˝ acres seems like a large area, keep in mind that there were 33,000 men confined here during its peak population in August of 1864.

This was about the population of present-day Sumter County. At this population number, had Andersonville been a declared city, the stockade would have been the 5th largest populated city in the Confederacy.

In addition, there were about 4 acres of uninhabitable, boggy land along the stream. This understandably led to a rather crowded situation. As you circle the stockade, the outer concrete posts and stone markers will show you the outline of the enlarged stockade. The inner concrete posts mark the location of a small wooden railing.

The crude fence, known as the deadline, was established by prison authorities in late March, 1864 to make escape more difficult. The guards had orders to shoot any prisoner who ventured across the deadline. Spaced every 80-100 feet were 52 guard towers or "pigeon roosts" as they were commonly called by the prisoners.

Although we do not know the exact number killed at the deadline, we do know that most of the time it was strictly enforced. Two gates, both located on the west wall, provided access to the stockade. Each had two sets of doors and formed a small enclosure.

One set of doors opened to the stockade with the other opening to the outside. One set was always closed and they were strongly guarded at all times. New prisoners entered through the North Gate, located on the hillside north of stockade branch, where they got their first introduction to Andersonville Prison. Before entering, they were divided into detachments of 270 men, which were further divided into squads of 90 men and mess groups of 30 men for the purpose of receiving food rations.

John McElroy of the 16th Illinois Calvary wrote about his first sight of Andersonville:  "Five hundred weary men moved slowly through double lines of guards. Five hundred men moved silently toward the gates that were to shut out life and hope for most of them forever.

A quarter of a mile from the railroad we came into a massive palisade made of great squared logs standing upright in the ground. The fires blazed up and showed us a section of these two massive wooden gates with heavy iron hinges and bolts. They swung open as we stood there and we passed through into the space beyond. We were in Andersonville."

The stream that crosses the prison site is Stockade Branch, the principal water source for the prisoners and one of the deciding factors in locating the prison here. From this small stream the prisoners obtained water for drinking, bathing, and laundry. In addition, the toilets, or sinks in Civil War terminology, were built along this brook on the downstream side of the camp. Stockade Branch may have been sufficient water supply for the 6 to 10 thousand men for which the prison was originally designed. However with the overcrowding, this stream was quickly overburdened. Wastes from the bake house and the guard camps upstream polluted Stockade Branch before it even entered the prison. In their search for a better water supply some prisoners located small brackish springs along the hillside or dug wells. Those who located water often sold it to their fellow prisoners.

John Ransom, a prisoner here, wrote in his diary on May 18th:  "Some of the wells dug by the Yankees furnished passable water, am improvement anyway on swamp water. Well water, in great demand, is sold readily for such trinkets as the men have to dispose of."  During the hot dry summer of 1864, the prisoners' need for water became so great that they began to pray to God for help.

In August, a heavy rainstorm transformed Stockade Branch into a raging torrent that washed away part of the stockade wall. It also gave the camp a greatly needed cleansing. According to legend, during the storm, lightning struck the ground. Upon investigation a spring was discovered flowing were the lightning had struck. Since many prisoners felt this was the answer to their prayers, it was named Providence Springs. John Ransom simply wrote on August 13, "a nice spring of cold water has broken out in camp. Nearly enough to furnish all here with drinking water. God has not forgotten us.

A memorial building over Providence Springs was erected in 1901. The spring still flows today.

Located in the area to the left of the bridge is the site of the bake house. It was originally planned to issue the prisoners cooked food. However, as a result of the scarcity of lumber, bricks, and cooking utensils, the bake house was not completed when the first trainload of prisoners arrived. By the time it was finished, the prison population had soared, rendering it inadequate. Often rations were uncooked. Many times the food was spoiled or infested with bugs. The meagerness of the daily food rations and its lack of variety caused severe dietary deficiencies.

The South Gate

Prisoners who died within the enclosure were laid just inside this gate. Later the bodies were carried to the dead house. The dead house was a crudely built shelter of pine boughs. Here the bodies were kept until they were transferred by wagon to the cemetery. It was very common for friends of the deceased to stay with the body at the South Gate. This gave them an opportunity to carry their friend to the dead house, and perhaps along the way, they could pick up a few small pieces of firewood, a valuable addition to the scarce supply. At least one man attempted to escape by having his friends carry him out as if he were dead.

Charles Mosher from the 85th New York Infantry wrote about this in his diary on June 16th:  "There has been several cases where a Yank has played dead, and his chums would tie a rag around his head to keep his jaw in place, tie his big toes together, pin a slip of paper to his clothing, with his name, company and regiment on it; and then in a very solemn manner, carry the poor fellow out to the dead house. But the Yank had his weather eye open, and watching his opportunity when the guards are out of sight, steps quietly out of his dead surroundings and makes a break for the Union lines."

Fearing that General Sherman's army would attack and free the Federal prisoners, Camp Sumter's commander, General John Winder, ordered Star Fort and other earthworks to be constructed in late July and August. These fortifications were hastily constructed by the prison guards and slaves. In addition to the earthworks, a second stockade wall was constructed and a third one started. This third wall was called the "covered way" and although it was never completed, it did connect the earthworks on the northern and eastern sides of the prison. In case of an attack, this wall would enable the Confederate guards to move from one earthwork to another without being under direct fire.

Although General Sherman's army continued on its march to the sea, one of his cavalry officers, General George Stoneman, did attempt to liberate the prisoners here. This attempt was thwarted when he and about five hundred of his men were captured on July 31, 1864 at Hillsbourgh, Georgia, approximately sixty miles north of the prison.

Five of the guns in the fort were trained upon the stockade enclosure at all times. These could effectively cover the prison area north of Stockade Branch. In addition, a small redoubt just west of the North Gate had three guns covering the area south of Stockade Branch. It was well known by the prisoners that the cannon could sweep the enclosure with grape shot and canister upon a moment's notice. Fortunately, this drastic measure was never required. There was a single shot fired over the stockade to show that it could be done

The large field opposite Star Fort was the location of the shed hospital. The hospital was comprised of 22 sheds, each 100 feet long and 22 feet wide, to accommodate 50 patients. It was definitely an improvement over the two previous hospitals, where the patients were housed in tents, yet this was still far from adequate. Nonetheless the patients fared much better than the prisoners within the stockade enclosure. Disease became more prevalent as the prison population grew. It quickly became obvious that the lack of proper medical facilities and shortage of medical supplies was critical. The doctors relied upon their won ingenuity and improvised home remedies to replace the drugs which they could not obtain.

Solon Hyde, a prisoner paroled from the stockade to work as a nurse, wrote after the war:  "The stock of drugs was meager. There was only limited quantity of quinine, opium, and other mercurial preparations, mostly consisting of herbs and roots such as sumac berries, white oak bark, prickly ash, prickly alder, willow bark, dogwood bark, snake root and juniper berries along with golden seal. These all came from and were packed by the Confederate medical dispatchery in Macon, Georgia."

On the south end of the stockade, there is a lone white post low on the slope of the hill. This post marks the site where six "Raiders" were hanged. The lack of order and the overcrowded conditions within the prison enabled groups of thieves to become established. Since there was no organized police force these gangs, called Raiders, became very powerful. The area along the south end of the prison stockade was where gangs of raiders were camped.

Realizing something had to be done to control the lawless gangs, prisoners grouped together, forming the Regulators, an unofficial police force. With the cooperation of Captain Henry Wirz, the Regulators finally gained the advantage, capturing many of the Raiders. The six ringleaders were singled out and tried by a jury of 24 Union sergeants. These were new arrivals who had no experience with conditions inside the stockade. A prisoner acted as counsel for the defense, Captain Wirz provided books of law to insure the fairness of the trial, and proceedings of the trial were recorded. Found guilty, the six were hanged on July 11, 1864. After the execution, the Regulators continued to maintain some degree of order.

Movement of the hospital tents from the interior of the stockade freed up much needed space and provided slightly better conditions for the patients. The sinks were a major contribution to the pollution of the prisoner's primary source of water because they were built over the stream. Polluted water added to the spread of diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid.

Because the Confederate authorities did not provide any building materials, the individual was left to fend for himself using whatever was available. As a result, a hodgepodge of shelters, as simple or elaborate as the builder's imagination and resources, existed. Blankets, tent halves, and bits of clothing were fashioned into crude lean-tos. These shebangs, as the prisoners called them, offered only meager shelter.

Amos Stearns, described a friend's shebang in his diary:  "Champney's shebang consisted of two army blankets fastened together with wooden pins and put up like an A-tent, which with a poncho for the end, made a comfortable shelter compared with what the majority of the prisoners had."

To supplement their meager rations many men set up shops to peddle whatever wares they could make or procure, or whatever services they could perform. Understandably, these small businessmen dealt mainly in the necessities of life. Not all of the prisoners had the resources to start a business. However, most prisoners did find something to occupy the idle hours of captivity. Although any activity which offered relief from the daily reminder of being a prisoner of war was popular, the thought of escape seemed to be a particularly favorite pastime.

For many, the only hope of escape seemed to be through tunneling.  Robert Kellogg, a prisoner from Connecticut, recalled in his memoirs: "The work of completing a tunnel had been silently going on , and we hoped to be successful in keeping it from the peering eyes of the rebels, but in some way they discovered it, for the reb quartermaster came in with me and the necessary implements, and filled up the place, thus blasting one more hope."

Escape was difficult because of the remoteness of Andersonville from the Union lines and the efficiency of the dogs used to track down runaways. During the existence of the prison, only 329 prisoners are known to have made successful escapes. Many of these did so by running away from work details or by violating their paroles during employment outside the stockade.

Camp Sumter existed for 14 month. With the release of the prisoners at the war's end, the stockade wall slowly rotted away.

However, the story of Andersonville continued. Andersonville had become a very well known name in the North. It was one of the largest Confederate military prisons and it had a very high death rate.  Emotions came to a peak as the released prisoners made their way home and told their stories. The Northern public was outraged.

Since General John H. Winder, post commander, had died just prior to the war's end, the bulk of the responsibility for Andersonville fell upon Captain Henry Wirz.  Wirz, commandant of the inner stockade, was tried by a military tribunal in Washington D.C.  The Swiss immigrant was found guilty of conspiring to injure the heath and destroy the lives of Federal prisoners, and murder in violation of the laws of war.  He was hanged on November 10, 1865. Despite numerous claims, mostly by embittered former inmates, there appears to have been no conspiracy.  Captain Wirz contended that he was following orders of his superiors, and that he was unable to get the food and supplies necessary for the care of such a large number of prisoners.  The prosecutor at Wirz's trial, strived to understand how one man could allow such atrocities to occur, a question that, even today, bares heavily upon the minds of many people, and the conscience of the nation.

Andersonville had often been compared to many of the other Civil War prison camps. But is it fair to compare one to another?  All prison camps were horrible places, and at any given time experienced similar conditions.

At Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois, 10 percent of its Confederate prisoners died during one cold winter month; and Elmira Prison in New York state, with a death rate of 25 percent, very nearly equaled that of Andersonville.

Each is part of one of our nation's most tragic experiences. Civil War prisoner John Ransom wrote in his diary in June 1864:
"I have read in my earlier years about prisoners in the Revolutionary War and other wars.  It sounded noble and heroic to be a prisoner of war, and accounts of their adventures were quite romantic.  But the romance has been knocked out of the Prisoner of war business, higher than a kite.  It is a fraud."

Andersonville National Historic Site commemorates all prisoners of war throughout our nation's history. The state monuments, the wells and tunnels dug by the prisoners themselves, and the National Cemetery all stand as monuments to these prisoners.  The purpose of monuments is - not only to commemorate the past- but to teach lessons to the present.

At times, the number of guards at Andersonville was 1,000 or more, mostly from the Georgia Reserves. Most of them were young boys, old men or wounded veterans who were not well enough for combat.  There was much sickness among the guards with 226 dying before the closing of the prison.  117 were buried behind the present maintenance building. To our knowledge the others were taken home for burial since many of them came from a radius of 5 or 10 miles from the prison.

In 1878 when the wall was built around the cemetery, these bodies were left outside the cemetery.
The ladies of Americus, Georgia were raising money for a monument for their city, but in place of buying a monument they had the bodies dis-interred and buried in Americus at Oak Grove Cemetery or a family plot. Of these buried in this honored place where the Stars and Bars fly over these gravesites, there are 43 marked as " Unknown" graves.

Although other prison sites were no vacation land, here are a few notes that tell us the extreme conditions here at Andersonville.  During the 4 years of war, there were an estimated 30,000 Union prisoners who died as captured prisoners. 12920 died here in just 14 months.  That makes the overall percentage of ALL Union POW deaths at about 42% here at Andersonville. The following are numbers held at other POW sites, Union and Confederate.

Andersonville… Estimated 45000 held, 12920 dead. 226 Confederate guards
Elmira New York  12123 held,  2963 dead. 24% death rate
Camp Douglas Illinois held 30,000, 3759 dead
Florence South Carolina 18,000 held, 2802 dead
Johnsons Island Ohio 12,000 Officers, 206 dead
Millen Georgia ( Camp Lawton ) 784 dead
Libby Virginia 25,000 held, 6276 dead of which 5459 are buried as unknown
Point Lookout Maryland held 20,110 with 3389 dead . 17% death rate
Camp Morton held 12082 with 12082 dead 14.6 % death rate
Camp Oglethorpe ( Macon Ga ) 1600 Officers with 1 dead
Rock Island 12409 held, 1960 dead and 171 Guards dead
Fort Delaware held 33565 with 2436 dead (depending on sources)

The list was provided to the United States War Department.

Andersonville National Cemetery began as a result of the conditions which caused the deaths of thousands of Union prisoners of war held captive at Camp Sumter.  The first death to occur was that of Adam Swarner on February 27, 1864. Private Swarner, a member of the 2nd New York Cavalry, had been in Confederate prisons in Richmond, Virginia since his capture in September 1863.  Swarner was among the first prisoners to be transferred to the new prison in Georgia, and arrived ill and dying. He was here 2 days.  Jacob Swarner, Adams younger brother was captured and brought here after Adams death. Jacob died July 26 1864, 5 months after his brother.

By the time the war ended in the spring of 1865, nearly 13,000 men had been laid to rest in these acres.  They were buried in trench graves, shoulder to shoulder.  Their graves were marked with a small wooden board with the number of the grave carved on it.  That number corresponded to the "dead roll" kept by the Confederate surgeons, the task being actually assigned to a paroled prisoner.  Dorence Atwater, a comrade of Adam Swarner's in the 2nd New York Cavalry, kept the dead roll for most of the time he was at Andersonville.  He feared that the Confederate government would not be honest about the number of Union deaths, and made a secret copy of the list which he kept hidden until his release early in 1865.

In July 1865, Miss Clara Barton, known as "the Angel of the Battlefield" for her work as a nurse of the Union Army, arrived at Andersonville with an expedition from the Quartermaster Department under the command of Captain James Moore. Captain Moore's expedition included 40 laborers who would paint, letter and erect wooden markers for each grave. The process of marking the graves was completed by mid-August. 

Today Andersonville National Cemetery remains operational.  Veterans of the United States Armed Forces may be buried here along with their spouse and minor dependents.  Basic requirements are that the veteran must have been on active duty for more than 180 days and if discharged,
the discharge must have been under conditions other than dishonorable.  The 27 acre cemetery contains the remains of men and women who have served this country in all branches of the United States military.  Andersonville has been an active National Cemetery since the Civil war with dead buried here who served in the Span-Am , WWl, WWll, Korea, Vietnam, Desert storm, and not the war in Iraq.

As a sad note this past Monday the 15th, SPC Victor Anderson from Ellaville Georgia was laid to rest here at Andersonville.  He is one of the several Georgia reservist who were killed in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq on July 30 2005.  He is the first combat casualty to be buried here at Andersonville since the Vietnam war.

The following were written by Kevin's daughter, Ashley, who is 17 and an aspiring journalist.  She has her own weekly article in our county newspaper and has been doing this for some time.  Her plans are college next year includes Journalism.  

by  S. A. Frye


A slow sunrise lights the wet earth in crisp, clear rays of orange and yellow. A bird sings in a melancholy voice, and the whole of nature seems to hold its breath like a waiting child.
As far as the eye can see, there are gravestones. But they are decorated; little flags stand boldly before them, showing like red, white, and blue jewels. The morning is Memorial Day.

Last Friday afternoon, volunteers and boy scout troops came to Andersonville National Cemetery to place American flags on the graves of the veterans - Civil War and Present Day - to honor them for Memorial Day.

I myself placed flags for America's heroes. But what about the rest of our nation?
Why, the vast majority were taking advantage of car and clothing sales, and planning cookouts with family and friends. Have we forgotten our veterans so quickly?

The sun rises, and thousands of flags are flown for our brave soldiers; will you let your flag fly?


The other day, a friend and I rode by a cemetery and decided to have a look around. I noticed that the newer graves have been very well taken care of; flowers were set everywhere, family plots were neat and clean, broken stones had been mended; in short, these recent dead were still being honored.

But when does this honor withdraw? The older graves lay in ruin, some with broken headstones, or no headstones at all; some overgrown, some cracked open. These graves gave a sense of loneliness and sadness. These dead seem to have been forgotten.

When a family buries a loved one, the last thing they want to see happen is that person be forgotten by Time, and though this is inevitable, we should do everything in our power to give recognition to the dead, even if we do not know their name or there story.