Andersonville National Historic Site, POWs and the Civil War

When a work trip to Fort Benning, Georgia, popped up, I did what I always do: I checked the surrounding area for National Parks, identified a few options, internally debated them for far too many hours before making a decision and then, finally, I made a plan. A few days later I flew to Atlanta, hopped in my rental car and drove straight to Andersonville National Historic Site.

Andersonville preserves the site of what used to Camp Sumter, also called Andersonville Prison, a Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camp located near Andersonville, Georgia. The prison ran for the last year of the American Civil War, from February 1864 to April 1865. Approximately 45,000 Union troops were imprisoned there and of those, almost 13,000 died.

Camp Sumter was built on 26.5 acres to help with overcrowding in Confederate prisons further north, including the ones built here in Richmond. It was meant to hold no more than 10,000 prisoners, but overcrowding swelled the prison population at Camp Sumter to more than 32,000.

It was, by all accounts, terrible. The prisoners were wounded and starving, the water contaminated, shelter was nearly nonexistent and disease was rampant.

Dead prisoners were buried in trenches, shoulder to shoulder, in a cemetery just outside the prison walls. The trenches were three feet deep and ranged in length from 100 to 200 feet.

According to the National Park Service, the first burial took place just three days after the first prisoners arrived.

Just a few months after the war, the cemetery site was designated as Andersonville National Cemetery on July 26, 1865. Within three years, the cemetery included the graves of some 13,714 Union Soldiers, including 921 marked as unknown. Most had died at Andersonville, but the remains of others had come from military hospitals, battlefields and other prisons in the region.

Today, Andersonville National Cemetery is one of a handful of national cemeteries to be administered by the National Park Service. It’s been in continuous use since its founding, with an average of 150 burials per year.

Andersonville National Historic Site also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum. American Ex-Prisoners of War partnered with the National Park Service to create the museum and it was dedicated on April 9, 1998, the 56th anniversary of the fall of Bataan during World War II. It serves as a memorial for all American prisoners of war, not just those imprisoned at Camp Sumter.

The museum is incredibly powerful and the exhibits highlight a variety of themes, including what a POW is, living conditions, escape, the families left waiting at home and, finally, freedom. I generally skim displays when I visit museums, flitting from thing to thing as my attention is caught, but I couldn’t do that here; every piece, every display just seemed to be too important, too personal to skip.

During my visit, I first explored the museum before asking the volunteers there how to explore the rest of the site. They sent me here, to the park’s multimedia page where there are narrated driving tours of both the prison site and the cemetery.

“You’ll learn so much,” the volunteer told me. “It’s really just amazing.”

And she was right. Both audio tours served as excellent guides to their respective parts of the park. I learned about the rules of the prison, about the deadline that kept prisoners away from the stockade walls, the reason the site was chosen and about the “Raiders,” a criminal gang of prisoners that included six men hung for their crimes inside the prison, all buried apart from the rest of the prison dead.

The cemetery was where I spent my final moments at Andersonville. I kept thinking about what I learned before, about the trench burials of these men, how they were buried shoulder to shoulder. It was impossible to forget as I walked past headstones less than a hands-width apart.

Andersonville National Historic Site is home to three distinct features: the prison site, Andersonville National Cemetery and the National Prisoner of War Museum, which also serves as the park's visitor center. Admission to the park is free. The park grounds are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. To explore all three parts of the park, allow at least two hours. 
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