ANDERSONVILLE — At about this time 150 years ago, what had been a peaceful forest area here became a 16-acre patch of hell.
The first Union soldiers arrived at Andersonville prison on Feb. 24, 1864. By the end of May, the rapidly constructed stockade built for 10,000 was holding 20,000. The population was more than the city of Atlanta.
By August, it held 32,000, and 3,000 died that month alone. In the 14 months it was in operation, nearly 13,000 of the 45,000 men held there died and were buried shoulder-to-shoulder in trench graves.
It was the deadliest single site of the Civil War. A soldier at Gettysburg stood a significantly better chance of walking away from that battle alive than one who entered the gates at Andersonville, officially called Camp Sumter.
Now called the Andersonville National Historic Site, it would become the original Memorial Day destination in Georgia. In the years after the Civil War, most Georgians recognized Confederate Memorial Day in April. The Memorial Day held at the end of May was considered a Yankee observance.
But the Andersonville site became a mecca as thousands of former slaves would go there for Memorial Day to show the reverence they had for the soldiers who died there.
Survivors of the prison would also return each year for Memorial Day services.
The cemetery is an active national cemetery open to all military veterans and their spouses. Funerals are held almost daily, and 20,000 people are buried there.
On each Saturday before Memorial Day, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts from across Georgia, as well as other volunteers, come there and place American flags on every grave.
A group based in Warner Robins sends a charter bus of members each year to assist the Scouts and make lunch. Lisa Fruge-Cirilli, past president of the Dixie Crow Chapter of the Old Crows Association, said the group has been participating for about 15 years.
“It’s very sobering and very humbling,” she said. “It’s remarkable to watch the Scouts and how they take such care and time putting each flag on each grave.”
In the years immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865, the Andersonville prison site became farmland. In 1890, Union veterans bought the site, and it was eventually donated to the federal government.
In the early 1900s, Northern states began erecting huge monuments on the prison site and in the cemetery in honor of citizens who died at Andersonville.
One of the first monuments was a house for what inmates called Providence Spring. In late August 1864, a spring erupted from the ground during a rainstorm, providing pure clean water to the badly parched men. The spring still flows to this day.
An inscription in the house reads, “The prisoner’s cry of thirst rang up to heaven, God heard, and with his thunder cleft the Earth and poured his sweetest waters gushing here.”
One version of the story states that a bolt of lightning struck the ground and opened up the spring, but that appears to have been an embellishment that arose years later, said Eric Leonard, the park’s chief of interpretation and education.
Union prisoner John Ransom wrote in his diary: “A nice spring of cold water has broken out in camp, enough to furnish nearly all here with drinking water. God has not forgotten us.”
Problems began quickly
Andersonville prison was created to relieve overcrowding at other prisons and get the inmates farther from advancing Union forces. The location was specifically chosen because it was remote and near a rail line. Prisoners were quickly relocated there from camps in Richmond, Virginia.
Hundreds of slaves from the area were conscripted to build the prison. Trees were chopped down, hand hewn and joined together to create a 15-foot high fence.
A small creek ran through the center of the original 16.5-acre pen, which had about 10 acres added later in the summer. The creek was supposed to serve as both a latrine and drinking water for the prisoners.
The idea was that they would get drinking water from where the stream entered the stockade, then use it as a latrine where it exited. It was supposed to flush away the waste.
But that very quickly fell apart. The stream wasn’t big enough to flush the waste to begin with, and there were far too many men using it. The area around the stream became a foul, festering swamp crawling with maggots and rats.
With poor conditions, bad water, poor diet and makeshift shelter, the horror of Andersonville rapidly unfolded as the summer began. Leading causes of death were diarrhea, dysentery and scurvy.
Many of the ailing men stopped going to the stream to relieve themselves, so the entire camp became fouled with excrement.
“The smell of the place, if the wind was right, could be smelled as far as two miles away,” Leonard said.
Confederate guards focused on preventing escape. With no security inside the prison, anarchy ruled. Gangs of Union soldiers openly robbed others until a group rose against them. Six gang members were eventually tried by their fellow prisoners and hanged inside prison.
Controversy still abounds
In fall 1864, with Union forces closing in, all but the sickest prisoners were removed from Andersonville. Many were later returned, but by then conditions had improved.
Exactly who was to blame for the tragedy at Andersonville remains controversial.
“That’s a conversation that occurs here daily,” Leonard said.
The prison’s commander, Capt. Henry Wirz, was tried and hanged after the war because of his treatment of the prisoners. Contrary to popular belief, he was not the only Confederate executed after the war.
Not everyone saw Wirz as a villain, however. A monument in his honor was erected in the town of Andersonville and still stands there today. After the war, Wirz’s defenders said he did the best he could with the resources that he had.
Leonard said Wirz most certainly did commit war crimes, including withholding food and medical care, but he was not the only person to blame for what happened there.
Leonard noted that the governor of Georgia refused a request to provide tents to the prisoners, even though the state had tents available.
Andersonville’s official history states that Gen. John Winder, who was over all Confederate prisons in Georgia and Alabama, was at least equally to blame as Wirz for what happened at Andersonville. Winder died of a heart attack before the war ended, so he was never tried.
Leonard said it’s a true story that a group of locals took pity on the inmates and headed to the prison with a wagon load of vegetables, only to be angrily turned away by Winder, who accused them of trying to aid the enemy.
Andersonville’s website also blames the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, which created prison overcrowding on both sides, on the South’s refusal to exchange Union soldiers who were black.
Overall, 215,000 Confederates were held as prisoners of war, and 26,000 died, a rate of 12 percent. A total of 195,000 Union troops were held captive, and 30,000 died, or 15 percent.
In 1998, the National Prisoner of War Museum opened next to the prison site.