Thursday, December 26, 2013

A look inside the stockade

The street into the town of Andersonville is directly across the road from Andersonville National Historic Site's exit. It's confusing to visitors because there are signs out on the highway that direct people to the Andersonville museum and visitor center, but it's the one in town, not the Historic Site, and they're left scratching their heads as to where the prison site and national cemetery are. 

The town is very small, with a tiny cafe or two, a post office that's open four hours a day, and a monument to Captain Henry Wirz, the prison commander during the war.
Henry Wirz photo.jpg
Thank you, Wikipedia.


Depending on what side you're on, he's either the Martyr of the South or the Butcher of Andersonville. After 150 years he's still a divisive character and the only person hanged for war crimes despite 1000 trials, which ended only when President Andrew Johnson called a halt to them in the interest of healing the country.

You have to understand that Andersonville is in the South. Not south; South, and here they still see him as a scapegoat, as he probably was in a way, and hold a memorial to him every year. For the rest of the year, residents and visitors remember him in a more mundane way.

I walked over to Andersonville a couple of weeks ago and visited the Drummer Boy Museum, a tiny place that has an astonishingly good diorama of the Andersonville stockade that made the $5 admission price worth every penny.

Here's an overview of the stockade, showing the creek running through what was more or less the middle of the original 16.5 acres. The creek was intended as the clean water source for the entire camp but proved overwhelmingly inadequate as the prison population surged. The prison opened in February 1864 and was seen as a solution to overcrowding, food and materials shortages, and an encroaching Union threat to Richmond, where most prisoners were held. Hundreds of prisoners arrived daily; by mid-summer 1864 the population had swelled to 33,000 men and the prison was increased to 26.5 acres.
Andersonville, officially known as Camp Sumter (not to be confused with Fort Sumter), was chosen for the site because it had lots of trees with which to build the 15-foot stockade walls, what was thought to be an adequate supply of clean water, was near a rail line, and was in the middle of nowhere. Prisoners were brought in to the train depot at Andersonville and walked about 1/4 mile to the stockade.

Not to scale, but a good representation according to what I've read.

The water supply was doomed from the start. The Confederate guards' camp and the bakehouse were upriver from the stockade and the water was fouled before it ever reached the prisoners. The prisoners used the same source of water for drinking, cooking, and washing. As the prisoner exchange system broke down and the prison population soared, the water became unspeakably filthy. 

The sinks, or latrines, were located at the extreme down river end of the supply, and I don't need to describe what happened to the water as the water flow became totally inadequate to flush away waste. More prisoners arrived, more became ill, rain washed filth into the stream, which all led to more men becoming, literally, deathly ill. What the diorama doesn't show is the disgusting condition of the water.

Prisoners erected whatever kind of shelter they could. They were often stripped of their belongings when they arrived at the prison, either by guards or other, tougher, prisoners, who called new arrivals "fresh fish." This diorama shows, I believe, much more organization to the camp and better health of the men compared to what I've read. The ultimate size of the prison was 26.5 acres but consider this: the stream and adjoining boggy land took away about 4 acres; the deadline, a board fence located anywhere from six to twelve feet inside the stockade walls, cost them another two acres. Imagine 33,000 men, at the peak of Andersonville's population, living on 20 acres. By the summer of 1864, Andersonville was the fifth largest city in the Confederacy.

Many had nothing left with which to build shelters and resorted to digging holes in the ground to act as some kind of protection. Many prisoners' diaries noted that it was common to see men with missing articles of clothing, or no clothing at all. Malnutrition lead to one of the three leading causes of death: dysentery, diarrhea, and scurvy. The death rate increased until August 1864, when the population was at its peak, and numbered an average of 100 a day.
Guards also contributed to prisoner deaths. As the battles wore on, trained soldiers were needed to fight, not guard the stockade. Boys as young as 10 or 11 and old men not fit to fight were brought in to climb into the pigeon roosts. Undisciplined, and mocked by prisoners, many became trigger-happy and shot without provocation. The deadline was a warning line and prisoners knew if they breached it they would be shot, but prisoners' diaries noted how many men died for being close to the deadline or for stumbling into it in their sickness.

It was reported that a prisoner was given permission from a guard to cross the line to retrieve something, only to be shot dead by another guard.
A gang of thugs called the Raiders took control of the prison, beating and robbing others for food, shelter, or whatever they wanted. There were so many of them and they were so vicious that their victims didn't dare to fight back, but finally some prisoners went to Captain Wirz and said they had to be stopped. The worst of the bunch, six of them, were judged by fellow prisoners to be guilty, and were hanged.

They, too, are buried in the cemetery, but separately, and are not counted among the nearly 13,000 who died here in the sixteen months Andersonville was open.

Quote of the day:

[The prisoners] still keep killing each other thay hung six yesterday thay fight all most every night in the stockade. (Joseph Williams, Confederate guard at Andersonville.)