March 18, 2022, Newnan, GA- The scene this morning, over Lake Redwine was beautiful, if a bit ominous.
My brother, Dave, and I headed out early towards Andersonville, the site of the largest Confederate prisoner-of-war camp (1864-65) and of the modern National Prisoner-of-War Museum. We drove down, past the central Georgia cities of Columbus and Macon, through the smaller communities of Buena Vista and Ellaville, getting gas at the former. Once we got to the village of Andersonville, a kind lady gave us directions to the park itself.
We found ourselves blessed with cloudy, but not rainy, skies for most of the time we were in the outdoor Prison Site. Andersonville was established when smaller prisoner-of-war camps in Virginia and Alabama became overcrowded. Union soldiers, suspected spies and captured free Blacks were housed here, under increasingly fraught conditions. The facility was originally intended to house a maximum of 10,000 prisoners; at war’s end, 32,000 were incarcerated there. It was minimally-funded, and at various times during the Civil War’s late phase, prisoners were either housed in tents or were told to fashion their own accommodations, from whatever materials they could find.
Monuments exist, in honour of captured soldiers from several states. Here is the memorial to Wisconsin’s captives.
The North Gate of the tightly-built stockade, in which newly-arrived prisoners were oriented to the prison camp, has been restored.
The facility’s main water source was Stockade Branch, a low-flowing, fetid creek. Dysentery and vermin were rife, and 13,000 people died at the camp, in only 14 months. Food supplies were meager. One miraculous event relieved the misery, somewhat. In August, 1864, a sudden downpour, accompanied by a lightning strike, resulted in a spring being opened. Grateful prisoners dubbed this water source Providence Spring.
The camp’s commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was a Swiss immigrant who had settled in Virginia and was sympathetic to the Confederate cause. He was alternately regarded as a fair-minded man, in over his head and an uncompromising brute. Wirz was singled out, after the war, tried for war crimes and executed by a tribunal.
Andersonville has a sizable National Military Cemetery, still in use for contemporary veterans’ burials. A freed prisoner, Dorence Atwater, worked with Clara Barton after the war, to identify those buried at the cemetery, from prison records, which Atwater himself copied and smuggled out of the facility, upon his release at war’s end.
The Prisoner-of-War Museum honours all American Prisoners-of-War, from the Revoutionary War through the Afghanistan Conflict. Exhibitions also contain information about Confederate soldiers held at Elmira, New York-a facility which was no better than Andersonville; Axis soldiers held at camps in the United States, during World War II and British prisoners of war held both during the War for Independence and the War of 1812. A display on Native Americans from the various “Indian Wars”, is included in the museum, as well.
There are spoken presentations by the late John McCain and Admiral James Stockdale, mirroring the overall message: “War is hell!”.
May the departed prisoners rest in peace, and may we soon learn the meaning of universal brotherhood.