Andersonville: Death in Cherry Blossom Country

Birdseye of the Andersonville P.O.W. camp
A bird's eye view of the Andersonville P.O.W. camp as recalled by prisoner John Ransom.

In 1864, just outside the affluent antebellum city of Macon, Georgia rose the Confederate P.O.W. prison called Andersonville. Named for it's proximity to Anderson Station, a nearby railroad depot used by the Confederate army, it was constructed with the intention of holding 10,000 men. During the final years of the Civil War the camp housed nearly 45,000 Union soldiers and civilians packed into 26.5 open air acres.

Of that number, 12,913 Union prisoners would die at Andersonville. A Union prisoner had a 1 in 3 chance of being killed as the direct result of infectious diseases like typhoid fever or dysentery, or of gangrene due to untreated injuries, or due to exposure to the elements in the outdoor prison, or starving to death, or being clubbed to death by fellow prisoners.

Dorence Atwater, a soldier in the 2nd New York Cavalry, while acting as a clerical trustee at the camp, kept a secret record of the thousands of deaths at the camp. His record, smuggled out in 1865 during a prisoner exchange with the Union, contained the names, regiments and homes of the soldiers buried in the camp's mass graves. Atwater and other survivors' stories were later used as evidence to document the concentration camp conditions of Andersonville.

"As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect were now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin."
- Robert Kellogg, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons, 1865.

The overwhelming amount of 50,000 soldiers' waste all gathered in one confined place caused waves of illnesses. When the sewage trenches would overflow during storms or due to sheer over-crowding, the run-off would poison wells and over run barracks and tents.

Survivor Robert Kellogg goes on to describe the rancid conditions of the camp by saying: "In the center of the whole was a swamp...this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then."

As the Confederacy lost ground in the Civil war, Union prisoners felt the desperate rage of their overseers. Systematic starvation of Union prisoners, partially due to dwindling Confederate supplies was a matter of daily life in Andersonville. While Confederate troop rations were loaded on the nearby train depot thousands of men starved to death in the rancid camp.

"Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed: 'Can this be hell?' or 'God protect us!'...all of us thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place."
- Robert Kellogg, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons, 1865.

August 16th 1864 by A. J. Riddle
August 16th 1864: Ration Wagon. Photo by Confederate war photographer A. J. Riddle.

One of the daily threats that Union soldiers faced came not from the guards, disease or meager rations but from within their own ranks. A group of men, abandoning all bonds of brotherhood that soldiers and prisoners share, were known as the Raiders. The Raiders would routinely rob and kill their fellow prisoners, especially the sick or injured, for blankets, money or small scraps of food. Six of the Andersonville Raiders were captured by a band of prisoners who called themselves the Regulators.

The Raiders were tried and condemned to death by a court set up by the camp's commandant, Henry Wirz. The men were hung in middle of the camp and their bodies buried separately so that their remains would not befoul those of their fellow prisoners on whom they'd preyed upon.

November 10th 1865 Wirz hanged in Washington D.C.
November 10th 1865 Wirz was hanged at 10:32 a.m. at the Old Capitol Prison in front of the US Capitol Building.

After the war, Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville, was court-martialed on charges of conspiracy and murder.

Dorence Atwater's list, after being smuggled out of the camp then stolen, confiscated or lost a number of times, was used as evidence in Henry Wirz's trial. On November 10th 1865, Wirz was hanged at the Old Capitol Prison in front of the US Capitol Building - the present day site of the Supreme Court.

Wirz was the only Confederate official to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes resulting from the American Civil War.

Wikipedia, Andersonville National Memorial
Civil War Indiana, Andersonville Dead 1864-1865
Census Diggins, Andersonville
Civil War Home, Andersonville Prison
Sinclair University, #5223 Bernard McKnight
Life and Death in Rebel Prisons Robert H. Kellogg, Hartford, CT.: L. Stebbins, 1865

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