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Andersonville - It's Not Just a Great Place to Spend The Holidays! It's Also a Prison Camp!

The museum shows visitors what a POW cell might have looked like in Asia
Men and women have survived daily torture, painful hunger, extreme heat or freezing cold, lack of medicine, lack of shelter, and lack of clothes at the hands of an enemy since warfare began. They are called POWs, or Prisoners of War. Some were pilots, captured when their plane crashed in enemy territory. Others were soldiers, taken after surrendering in battle or while in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their experiences are as varied as the places they were imprisoned in, but they share a common crime: being a citizen of an enemy government. And once they are imprisoned, they give the enemy power to bargain with their lives.

simply a citizen of an enemy government

An imprisonment could have lasted…
…7 1/2 years in the jungles of North Vietnam.
…6 months in an Iraqi prison camp.
…3 years behind enemy lines in Korea. In Germany. In the Philippines. In Japan. In America.

Wait a minute. Prisoners of War, in... America?

I never heard about that in school! But as I learned in Andersonville, Georgia, a number of soldiers met this fate in the Civil War. When you think about it, it makes sense. The bloodiest war ever to play out on United States soil was bound to create POW situations for each side. What is hard to comprehend is that the horrifying conditions you would associate with POW camps on foreign soil existed right here. Mass starvation, disease and torture were once rampant around today's quiet and peaceful towns of Rock Island, IL, Americus, GA, and Elmira, NY.

The story intrigued us, so Neda and I journeyed to the National Prisoner of War Museum to find out more.

We found the museum on a small rural piece of southwestern Georgia, amidst roadside cotton fields and colorful farms. The site was chosen for its tragic history; it was once home to Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville: the Confederacy's most notorious prison camp for Union soldiers.

different states honor their dead with massive monuments at Andersonville
The numbers are staggering. Andersonville was only open for fourteen months, but during that time, it confined over 45,000 Union prisoners. Of those, 13,000 died in the camp, which averages out to roughly forty deaths every single day. That's a lot of life to lose at one prison. That's a lot of life to lose anywhere.

The enormous death rate was due to a few things, with overcrowding topping the list. Neither the United States nor the Confederate States had believed that the war would rage on for so long. They had not prepared enough prisons for the amount of prisoners that were actually taken after hundreds of battles had been fought. So in both the north and the south, POW camps doubled, or tripled their capacity, and didn't have the resources to take proper care of their inmates.

With all of those people smooshed into one outdoor holding pen, the situation was pretty bleak. And of course, overcrowding leads to the easy spread of disease. A main source of sickness at the prison was the river that the inmates drank from. Sweetwater Creek was not only where they drank, but also where they washed, and where their bathroom waste seeped into. This disgusting situation, worsened by overcrowding, allowed diseases to run rampant throughout the prison, and there simply wasn't adequate medicine to take care of them.

Makeshift tents were all the prisoners called home
Next, take into account that the prisoners weren't given any shelter. They could buy wooden poles from the guards for $1.50 each, and then would gather any blankets or material they could find to make tiny, rickety tents. Otherwise, they were exposed to Georgia's scorching summer sun, pelting rain, or winter freeze all day, everyday. Private J. Lauffer wrote a poem that described his grim experience at Andersonville:

With a host of guards surrounding us
    Each with a loaded gun,
We were stationed in an open plain,
    Exposed to rain and sun.
No tent or tree to shelter us
    We lay upon the sand.
Thus side-by-side great numbers died
    In Dixie's sunny land.

An emaciated prisoner at Andersonville
Finally, food was so scarce that strong, healthy men were reduced to 100-pound skeletons. Put it all together, and you get prisoners who look eerily like the victims of Hitler's WW II concentration camps. One local southern woman climbed a guard tower once to take a look at the situation inside. She was horrified by what she saw, and her heart ached for the "poor wretches" imprisoned there. She was "afraid God [would] suffer some terrible retribution to fall upon us for letting such things happen. If the Yankees should ever come to southwest Georgia and go to Andersonville and see the graves there, God have mercy on the land."

Descriptions like that made me wonder how this prison could have operated for over a year without the United States doing anything to intervene. Well, I discovered that up until the middle of the Civil War, prisoners were exchanged between the armies shortly after they were captured. The head honchos from each side would get together and swap soldiers of the same rank, until all prisoners were returned to their respective, rightful armies. This came to a grinding halt when Union General Grant decided that the prisoner exchange was too beneficial to the Confederacy. Since the Union had a larger population to pull soldiers from, they automatically had more military manpower than the south. That meant that a missing soldier was not as important to the north as it was to the south. So Grant decided to stop helping to rearm his enemy, and was willing to lose a few union troops in the process.

The Red Cross remembers Clara Barton's angelic work at Andersonville
Unfortunately, a few, in Andersonville's case, meant 45,000, and imprisonment meant death for almost a third of those unlucky soldiers. What happened to those 13,000 that didn't make it? Although initially they received proper burials in individual coffins, soon, with 150 prisoners dying a day, the numbers of dead were too huge for the prison to take care of them. Instead, Union dead were simply thrown into a common trench, shoulder to shoulder, and covered with earth. 19-year-old prisoner Dorrence Atwater was in charge of the death registry, which meant keeping a list of soldiers' names alongside the number of their wooden burial marker. Dorrence realized that this information might be very important to waiting or grieving relatives who would want to know if and where their son, husband, brother or uncle was buried. He made a copy of this list, and took it out of Andersonville with him when released.

Atwater tried to get the list published by the government without any luck until he met the famous Civil War nurse Clara Barton. Clara had been an enormous comfort to soldiers and their families on battlefields and the homefront throughout the war. She now continued her work for the survivors and families of Andersonville. She convinced the government to let her take a team of workers to Andersonville to properly identify the union dead. One by one, Barton and the others carefully painted each of the 14,000 soldiers' names, along with their company, regiment, original grave number, and date of death on a wooden marker. Only 460 soldiers were left unidentified after their work was completed, and Andersonville was declared a National Cemetery, a special site dedicated only for the graves of American servicemen. 16 years later, Clara would create the American Red Cross, to organize a now-famous system of aid and comfort for victims of any tragedy.

What would you do for your freedom?
While Clara and Dorrence were celebrated as angels of Andersonville, there was also one man condemned as its devil. On November 10, 1865, a Confederate commander was hung for his crimes of war. He was the man in charge of the Andersonville prison, and was the only person, on either side of the conflict, to be found guilty of war crimes from the Civil War. Although the trial and verdict continue to be a source of controversy, he claimed that he was "only following orders." Whether anyone accepts that as a valid excuse for the inhumane conditions his prisoners faced seems doubtful, and the crowd cheered as his neck snapped from the gallows in DC.

A few of the thousands of Union dead buried in the Andersonville National Cemetery
It's amazing how patriotic you feel when confronted with stories of American Prisoners of War. Walking through the POW museum at Andersonville is an incredibly moving experience as you come face-to-face with heart-wrenching stories of POW experiences from each conflict the US has been involved in. From the letters prisoners sent home to the personal items found in POW camps, you observe the details of capture, imprisonment, and pain. These men and women suffered not only the physical pain of torture and starvation, but also the emotional pain of being so far from their loved ones for so long. And for what? To selflessly do their part to protect our country. Whether or not you support the reasons for a particular war, or war itself, the bravery and strength these men and women showed in captivity deserves our respect.


So how many of you northerners have ever tasted sweet tea?

When you walk outside and are overcome by a seemingly endless sea of graves, you realize one other very important detail: the POW experience can happen anywhere.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Taking freedom back
Nick - Sojourner's Truth marches on
Daphne -- A couple of aliens and a not-so-grand wizard
Teddy -Reading, writing, and making freedom real
Stephanie - African American Home on the Range
Kevin - Welcome to New York. Now get in line for delousing