Jon Rice

A View from the Pen at Andersonville Prison *

     In the latter part of 1863, as the United States Civil War progressed, Union forces began penetrating deeper into the Confederate States. Confederates were taking prisoners in greater quantities than ever before. It soon became impractical to continue using the detention facilities being utilized at the time. The facilities (mainly old forts, warehouses, and jails) simply did not have the capacity to house the volume of prisoners being held and those which were northernmost were in jeopardy of being overrun. The Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, had itself been threatened in 1862. The need to develop a facility deeper south in the Confederacy was immediate.

     Two Confederate Captains, W. Sidney Winder and Boyce Charwick, although the camp's quartermaster, Captain Richard B. Winder, had already recognized a problem with getting supplies, were sent in November of 1863 to scout the prison potential of a Georgia site in Sumter County near the town of Andersonville. The site was deemed to be an ideal location for the facility. It was in south-central Georgia, at the time far from the reach of the Union forces; the Georgia Southwestern Railway served the area; potable water was plentifully available from the stream, Sweetwater Creek, running directly through the site; it was situated in the heart of a pine forest plentiful in timber for building the stockade and support facilities (barracks, hospital) as well as for fires for warmth and cooking; the town itself was populated by only about twenty people so little political resistance to the facility developed; and there was a sufficient number of slaves in the area whose owners could be pressed to place them at the disposal of the military to build the facility.

     The construction of the prison, officially named Camp Sumter, began in December of 1863. Six-hundred prisoners from Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia arrived on February 24, 1864. One wall of the stockade was still not completed when these prisoners arrived. Confederate artillery pieces were trained on the opening to deter escape attempts until the work was finished. On completion the walls formed a rectangle of rough hewn pine standing 15-20 feet in height and built on a sixteen and one-half acre tract intended to house no more than ten thousand prisoners. The prisoners were originally only to be held until they could be exchanged for Confederate prisoners held by the Union as an agreement then existed for such exchanges.

     Conditions at the prison initially were good.  There were far fewer prisoners in the early stages of its fourteen month existence than later and, although the camp's quartermaster, Captain Richard B. Winder, had already recognized a problem with getting supplies, they were adequate. Deaths of prisoners were not common during the initial months. This was the situation at Andersonville when Captain Henry Wirz arrived to assume command of the prison in April of 1864. He was assigned under the command of Brigadier General John H. Winder. However, the large influx of prisoners being taken began to rapidly impact Andersonville. Thousands of prisoners began being shipped to the facility. At the same time things were beginning to go poorly for the Confederacy and obtaining provisions was becoming more difficult.

     By June of 1864 the Union had ceased exchanging prisoners with the Confederacy, as the Union had greater manpower resources and believed the exchanges were better serving the Confederacy by reinforcing their army. The population swelled to over 26,000 prisoners in Andersonville, rations began running short and there were inadequate barracks facilities to house the prisoners. The prison was expanded to cover twenty-six and one-half acres in an attempt to somewhat relieve the overcrowding, but this was still inadequate. To his credit Captain Wirz appealed to General Winder and wrote the Confederacy's War Department asking for additional supplies to sustain the prisoners but received no assistance. Attempts were futile as Winder's opinion was that all Union soldiers should die, in fact, he bragged (as conditions worsened and death tolls rose) that more Union soldiers were dying in Andersonville than the rest of the army was killing in the battlefield. Efforts were further frustrated by the conditions in the South at the time. The Confederacy was impoverished, and barely capable of providing for its own forces, much less the prisoners being held. The Confederate position was only to become worse as the summer of 1864 progressed. This was the summer of Union General Sherman's march to the sea during which he executed the Union's scorched earth policy as he cut through Georgia and other parts of the Confederacy. Everything considered contraband, including food and medical supplies, was destroyed as were railways and other means of transportation as Sherman pressed through the South.

     During this same time period, the Confederates were also greatly concerned about escapes. The regular army guards were reassigned to battle units and Wirz was left with the local militia which was poorly trained. The "deadline," a rail of pine logs which ran twenty-five feet inside and parallel to the walls, was created to aid in escape prevention. The standing order at Andersonville was that prisoners crossing the deadline were to be shot by the guards. There were also earthen forts outside the walls with artillery pieces trained on the prison to quell uprisings as well as quash any escape attempts, and, for those Union prisoners fortunate enough to get past these obstacles, dogs were used to track escapees. Escaped prisoners often were maimed by the dogs when recaptured and some died as a result.

     The overcrowding at Andersonville led to further problems by June of 1864. The daily ration for the prisoners and guards was scant, being merely one and one-fourth pound of corn meal and one pound of beef or one-third pound of bacon occasionally supplemented with beans, peas, rice or molasses. The lack of vegetables led to numerous cases of scurvy from which many died. Additional rations were offered by area residents but General Winder denied allowing such assistance at Andersonville. The guard and hospital facilities outside the prison were upstream and the stream was used for disposal of trash, body and animal wastes, and for bathing. The stream was also used for the same purposes within the prison. The prisoners were forced to drink from this polluted stream as it was the main water source. The only other sources of water were a few wells, inadequate for many to use, closely guarded by gangs of Union prisoners and rain when it came. The flow of the stream was insufficient to carry the high volume of wastes from within the prison and prisoners began developing dysentery and diarrhea from drinking it as well as gangrene from having it get into wounds. The conditions were so poor that in July, 1864 Captain Wirz paroled five Union soldiers to deliver a petition signed by the majority of Andersonville's prisoners asking that the Union reinstate prisoner exchanges. The request in the petition was denied and the Union soldiers, who had sworn to do so, returned to report this to their comrades.

     The prison population continued to grow to over 33,000 in August of 1864. The population of Andersonville was then the fifth largest of all the cities in the Confederacy. Hundreds of soldiers were dying each day. The "deadhouse" outside the prison was filled beyond capacity and bodies were being stacked outside prior to burial.

     Prisoners were relying on shelter from a few crude huts, pieces of tents and holes they had dug in the ground. There was no clothing given to prisoners, so most wore only ragged remnants of their uniforms or in some cases nothing at all. Gangs of Union soldiers formed and began stealing from (and in some cases attacking in order to steal from) other soldiers what little they had in the way of clothing, shelter or provisions. Several Union soldiers brought the attacks to the attention of the Confederates and were allowed to try Union gang members. Some were hung for crimes against their fellow Union soldiers.

     In the latter part of the summer of 1864 the Confederacy offered to unconditionally release prisoners if the Union would send ships to retrieve them. The situation at Andersonville continued until late in 1864 when the Confederacy started transferring prisoners from Andersonville due to the conditions there. The death rate at Andersonville began to decline slightly as the population was reduced. But deaths were still occurring in dramatically high numbers. Union ships did not arrive until December of that year.

     The Confederate forces of General Johnson (General Winder had died in late 1864) surrendered in April of 1865 and the prison camp in Andersonville was included in that surrender. The total number of dead was nearly 13,000 during the fourteen months that Andersonville prison had been operating. There had been slightly over 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during that fourteen month period. Although death rates were high in other civil war prisons as well, none approached that of Andersonville. The condition of the prisoners at Andersonville on its liberation led Walt Whitman to write, "the dead there are not to be pitied as much as some of the living that have come from there--if they can be called living." Clara Barton assisted with the processing and identification of bodies at Andersonville at the end of the war and realized the need for an organization to assist in cases of dire need. She founded the American Red Cross as a result sixteen years later.

     The prison at Andersonville has recently been partially restored as a tribute to those who died there and to all who have died in the service of the United States.

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Text by Jon Rice, images obtained by Troy Drew from the National Archives.

*  Photo edited to enhance picture quality.

These materials were prepared as part of a class assignment for The Seminar in Famous Trials course at the University of Missouri-K.C. School of Law. The use of any sound or images in the trials sites is in furtherance of the educational mission of the Seminar.