Andersonville was an infamous prison camp during the Civil War. The site also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum, which displays artifacts and exhibits about prisoners of war in all American conflicts.
Andersonville National Historic Site
Route 1, Box 800
Andersonville, GA 31711
ph.: (912) 924-0343
Web site: www.nps.gov/ande/
In the last year of the Civil War, the Confederacy built a prison in Sumter County, Georgia. Between February, 1864, and April, 1865, a total of thirty thousand Union prisoners were confined in a twenty-six-acre stockade. The consequent overcrowding, inadequate supplies, and poor sanitary conditions resulted in widespread disease and a high mortality rate. More than twelve thousand federal prisoners perished over a thirteen-month period. The commandant of Andersonville, Major Henry Wirz, was taken into custody shortly after the conclusion of the war and tried before a military commission. The court found Wirz guilty of violating the laws and customs of war and sentenced him to death.
Authorities established Fort Sumter, better known as Andersonville, because overcrowding continually plagued the prison system in Richmond, Virginia. The commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, wanted the prison moved to another area because the 11,650 inmates caused a drain on the city’s food supply. The already inadequate transportation system, according to Lee, should be devoted to the needs of the citizens and not federal prisoners. In November, 1863, Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon ordered Brigadier General John H. Winder, the provost marshal for Confederate prisons east of the Mississippi, to locate a new site. Captain Richard Bayley Winder, the general’s second cousin, selected an area near Americus, Georgia, as a possible location for a camp.
Union prisoners also proved to be a liability in case of an enemy attack. Lee believed the guard forces at Richmond were stretched beyond their limits, as the need for replacements at the front lines kept increasing every month. The threat to security seemed imminent as two Union columns, under the respective commands of General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren, marched to Richmond from February 28 to March 4, 1864, for the purpose of freeing the prisoners at Libby Prison. The advance stopped, however, when Dahlgren died in an ambush, and the columns never united. The urgent need for a new prison was apparent after the failed raid, and Confederate officials pushed forward with construction.
Andersonville seemed the perfect spot for a prison because the location was far away from fighting lines and advancing federal armies. It was sixty miles from Macon and approximately one hundred miles from the Florida border. The first batch of five hundred prisoners arrived on February 25, 1864, while the stockade was still under construction. Building the stockade took another month because, although Captain Winder’s superiors said he could get help with labor and supplies from farmers in the surrounding countryside, the rural population objected to the construction of a camp holding Yankees. Winder then received permission from Richmond authorities to obtain building supplies. The delay prevented work on the stockade until January, 1864. In order to thwart escape attempts, Winder placed artillery in an unfinished area of the stockade until its completion in late March.
The stockade of the prison, formed by pine logs twenty feet in height and shaped to a thickness of eight to twelve inches, enclosed sixteen acres of land (later enlarged to twenty-six). Platform walkways enabled guards to stand watch in waist-high boxes located at strategic points around the stockade.
Controlling inmates in this situation was impossible because the guards, armed with single-shot muskets, could not stop potential escapees. Instead, prison officials relied on a crude wooden fence fifteen feet within the stockade to mark the limit where prisoners could venture. The design of the “deadline” reduced escapes by keeping the prisoners away from the stockade wall. If prisoners approached the “deadline,” guards warned them to leave the area; but if the inmates refused or failed to obey the order, they were shot by the sentries. Escaping from Andersonville was never a viable option for prisoners in any case, because it was so far from Union lines. Only 329 men successfully escaped from Andersonville. Even if the attempt was successful, the odds of being recaptured were great because guards used specially trained dogs to find fleeing inmates.
Overcrowded conditions caused mortality rates to skyrocket within the stockade as the prison population grew dramatically over a six-month period. When Andersonville began operations in March, the prison contained 7,500 enlisted Union soldiers. By August, 1864, the prison confined 31,678 men on 26 acres of land, or 35.7 square feet per man.
Congestion also adversely affected sanitation within the stockade. A small creek five feet in width flowed through the camp, and it eventually became a breeding ground for infectious diseases. A cookhouse built on the outer perimeter of the stockade in May, 1864, polluted the stream.
Originally the cookhouse satisfied the needs of ten thousand prisoners, but with the escalation in population, the facilities soon became inadequate. Refuse from the baking facility contaminated the only existing water supply in the camp. Furthermore, the absence of proper latrines along the banks led men to defecate in the stream, and the creek became an open cesspool, infested with vermin. At one point construction began on two dams across the stream to improve sanitary conditions within the compound. The upper dam would be utilized for drinking and cooking purposes while the lower would permit prisoners to bathe. The project stalled in May because the proper tools to finish construction never arrived at the prison. Both Winder and Wirz repeatedly reported difficulties in procuring such basic items as baking pans, padlocks, and shovels. Logistical problems increased after the winter of 1864 because the Union army successfully destroyed or cut off Southern supply lines.
Besides the basic problem of overcrowding, an improper diet contributed to the declining conditions within the stockade. The poor quality of rations caused health problems that exacerbated the occurrences of sickness. Doctors estimated that between the months of March and August diarrhea and dysentery caused 4,529 deaths. In May and June, hospital officials admitted 16,551 ill prisoners, of whom 1,909 (12 percent) died. The hospital consisted of twenty-nine small tents pitched one hundred yards outside the stockade. Bunks, beds, or blankets for sick inmates were never available, so men lay directly on the ground. Medical supplies, stored in Macon, were inefficiently routed to Atlanta for examination. Provisions required an inspector to check all medical requisitions before shipping them to their final destination.
The worst time for deaths occurred between June and October. The weather was extremely hot and humid during those months. The southern regions of the United States experienced very high humidity levels, and Northern enlisted men could not adjust to the changes in temperature. Furthermore, the mosquitoes were especially dangerous during the summer because the pests transmitted such contagious diseases as malaria and yellow fever.
Heat exhaustion raised mortality rates because the prisoners lacked adequate shade. Captain Winder planned to construct barracks for the prisoners, but the scarcity of lumber stopped the project. Although the area around Andersonville was woodlands, Winder decided that planks would cost less to use than logs. However, lumber could not be purchased for less than one hundred dollars for every one thousand linear feet, and the captain was limited to paying Georgia schedule prices of fifty dollars. With such prices, Winder could not procure lumber to build any type of shelter. After the first few months, men within the compound erected ramshackle tents from remnant cloth pieces on a first come, first served basis. There was never any internal organization for housing, and the haphazard living conditions contributed to more deaths.
When prisoners died, fellow inmates gathered the corpses on stretchers and carried them to the deadhouse located in the southwest corner of the stockade. The deadhouse was an unassuming structure that consisted of a wood frame covered by an old tent cloth. Sometimes the dead were so numerous that the disposal of bodies had to wait until the next day. The mass graves, which held over a hundred bodies, were a series of trenches dug eight feet wide and three feet deep, with planks reinforcing the sides. Once the corpses were placed in the trenches, loose dirt and branches were laid over the bodies to complete the burial process.
Northerners began placing the blame for increased overcrowding and the consequent high death toll at Andersonville on the termination of prisoner exchanges. During the first years of the war, the opposing governments operated exchanges on a man-for-man basis. However, the exchange system had already collapsed by 1863 when General Ulysses S. Grant took control of the Union forces. Grant contended that halting exchanges reduced the number of troops in the South. The general wanted total victory, and stopping the exchanges lessened available manpower for the Confederacy to continue fighting.
The number of deaths eventually dropped during the early months of 1865. The alleviation of the crowded conditions at Andersonville began when Union armies advanced into the lower Southern states. By September 2, 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces occupied the city of Atlanta. Southern officials decided it was no longer safe to hold prisoners at Andersonville and ordered them removed to camps in Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. The prison continued to operate on a smaller scale until April 17, 1865, when a Union column under the command of General James H. Wilson captured Columbus. Within three weeks the liberation of Andersonville took place, and Wilson officially ordered the arrest of Wirz.
Henry Wirz awaited trial in Old Capitol Prison after being transferred to Washington, D.C. As commandant of Andersonville during its last months of existence, Wirz has had his name forever connected to crimes against humanity committed during the Civil War. He was hanged on November 10, 1865.
The National Prisoner of War Museum opened at Andersonville in 1998. It is dedicated to prisoners of war from the American Revolution through the Gulf War. The 495-acre park is open year round, and walking trails and driving or ranger-led tours are available. Reservations for group or educational tours are welcome, but officials like one month’s advance notice. Moreover, archaeological digs conducted between 1987 and 1990 revealed the location of the stockade walls and gates, and park authorities began a partial reconstruction of them.
Blakely, Arch Frederic. General John H. Winder, C.S.A. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1990. Winder was the general in charge of the Confederate prison camp system and was Wirz’s superior officer. Futch, Ovid. History of Andersonville Prison. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1968. Scholarly treatment of conditions at Andersonville; argues “gross mismanagement” by southern officials caused supply shortages that affected the efficient administration of the prison. Hesseltine, William Best. Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1930. Best-known work by historian regarding military prisons located in the North and South. Laska, Lewis L., and James M. Smith.“ Hell and the Devil’: Andersonville and the Trial of Henry Wirz, C.S.A.” Military Law Review 68 (Spring, 1975): 77-132. The authors reiterate the argument of Wirz as scapegoat for all crimes against humanity committed during the war. Marvel, William. Andersonville: The Last Depot. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994. An excellent supplement to Futch’s book on the prison. Marvel extensively uses published primary and secondary sources plus a variety of manuscript collections. Rutman, Darrett B. “The War Crimes and Trial of Henry Wirz.” Civil War History 6 (June, 1960): 117-133. Rutman concludes that Wirz was convicted of war crimes due to “post-war hysteria” and that the former commandant was a convenient scapegoat.