The very name Andersonville brings to mind the man-made hell that this Confederate prison camp became to Union prisoners who were incarcerated there. Officially known as Camp Sumter, the prison camp became known by the name of the nearest town, Andersonville, Georgia.
The Confederate felt that Andersonville was a more secure location for prisoners who were currently being kept in camps around Virginia. They also thought that provisions would be more readily available.Today, it is a national historic site to commemorate the nearly 13,000 who died there in its short 14-month existence.
Camp Sumter was opened by Confederate authorities on February 1864 to accommodate the thousands of Union soldiers that were being captured across the South. The Confederates also transferred the prisoners from Libbey Prison. The camp originally covered 16.5 acres but in June 1864 it was expanded to 26.5 acres to accommodate the influx of prisoners. The compound was 1,620 feet by 779 feet. with two entrances on the west side of the stockade, known as “north entrance” and “south entrance”.
The Confederate authorities constructed a stockade wall made of rough-hewn logs about 16 feet high. About 19 feet inside the stockade, a light wall was built creating a dead zone or no-man’s land which was designed to keep prisoners away from the stockade wall. Anyone crossing or even touching this line was shot without further command of any kind by sentries located in guard towers. Most Civil War camps for both sides had the same arrangements.
A prisoner described his entry into the prison camp:
“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;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that He alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place. In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of 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.”
Conditions within the camp were exacerbated because of insufficient food which not only was poor in quality but poorly prepared. In addition, the water supply from Stockade Creek became polluted when too many Union prisoners were housed by the Confederate authorities within the prison walls. Part of the creek was used as a sink and the men were forced to wash themselves in the creek.
Within seven months, about a third of the prisoners died from what was diagnosed as dysentery and scurvy and were buried in mass graves, the standard practice by Confederate prison authorities at Andersonville and in the North by Union forces which experienced much the same death rate of Confederate prisoners.
Within the camp, rival gangs sprang up. A group of prisoners, calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, attacked their fellow inmates to steal food, jewelry, money and clothing. They were armed mostly with clubs and killed to get what they wanted. Another group rose up to stop the larceny, calling themselves “Regulators”. They caught nearly all of the Raiders, who were then tried by a judge (Peter “Big Pete” McCullough) and jury selected from a group of new prisoners. This jury, upon finding the Raiders guilty, set punishment that included running the gauntlet, being sent to the stocks, ball and chain and, in six cases, hanging.
In April 1864, Captain Henry Wirz was assigned as camp commandant at Andersonville. Wirz would greet new arrivals to the camp brandishing a pistol, cursing at them in his heavily accented English, and threatening to shoot them personally if they attempted to escape or broke the camp rules. That, coupled with the harsh discipline he imposed on the prisoners, which included ball-and-chaining them for even minor infractions, made him hated by those confined there.
By July, he was so desperate to alleviate conditions in the camp that he paroled five Union prisoners to travel to Washington. There, they presented a petition signed by almost all of the prisoners asking that prisoner-of-war exchanges be resumed. The Union authorities turned them down and the men returned to Andersonville, having given their oath to do so.
In the autumn of 1864, after the capture of Atlanta, all the prisoners who were well enough to be moved were sent to Millen, Georgia, and Florence, South Carolina. At Millen, better arrangements prevailed, and after General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march to the sea, the prisoners were returned to Andersonville, where conditions were somewhat improved.
Over the course of its existence, 45,000 prisoners were received at Andersonville prison, and of these 12,913 died.Many reasons have been given for the high mortality rate, including severe overcrowding, poor food, the incompetence of the prison officials and the refusal of the Confederate authorities to parole black soldiers, thus overfilling the stockade.
Andersonville was liberated in May 1865. Captain Henry Wirz was arrested by Union authorities and charged with conspiracy and murder. The trial was presided over by Union General Lew Wallace. Many of the former prisoners testified about the conditions at Andersonville. Included in their testimony were details of specific acts of cruelty, most of which could not be substantiated, for some of which Wirz was not even present in the camp.
Wirz was found guilty Wirz was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death. On November 10, 1865, he was hanged. Wirz was the only Confederate official to be tried and convicted of war crimes resulting from the Civil War