Andersonville and the Plight of Civil War POWs

National Prisoner of War Museum

arriving at Andersonville National Historic Site


During the Civil War there was a place more deadly than the battlefield.  Soldiers that had been captured by the adversary were confined in prison camps.  The Union and the Confederacy both had more captives than they had space to hold them, making the prison camps extremely overcrowded and breeding grounds for disease.  Many men entered as healthy prisoners, but would never be exchanged or released at the hands of a deadly illness.  In addition to disease, some Confederate prisoners suffered from exposure and starvation.  Notoriously known, Andersonville Prison was the most harsh of them all.  Hosted in Sumter County, Georgia, “Camp Sumter” is what Andersonville Prison was officially known as.  Andersonville Prison was operated by the Confederates and the POWs (prisoners of war) were people from the Union Army.  The land space for the prison covered over 26 acres of land and held tens of thousands of Federal prisoners here. Around forty-five thousand soldiers were imprisoned between February 1864 and March 1865; and twelve thousand of them reached a fatal end at Camp Sumter.
pine log wall and elevated guard post
According to the introductory video played at the site, Andersonville began as a stockade built about 18 months before the end of the U.S. Civil War to hold Union Army prisoners captured by Confederate soldiers. The vast acres of bare land were enclosed by pine logs aligned in double palisades.  Shelter was not provided; men had to acquire logs and sheet like material to make themselves tents.  Water was acquired from flowing streams initially, but when the streams became too polluted, and the men were drawing near death of thirst, they dug holes in the ground and created wells.  There was no particular organization of within the place, no one had set spots or areas, they were just trapped inside of an open space; prisoners just could not go beyond the “dead line”.  Guards were stationed elevated along the pine log wall every so many feet with orders to shoot any man that crosses the dead line. 
Men had to make shelter for themselves.
Quite a number of Andersonville’s prisoners were soldiers from Minnesota, and though many of them did not make it out, a lot of their stories did.  The Minnesota Historical Society has a collection of some of these soldiers’ accounts – some survivor stories, as well as men who did not make it out but their loved ones remembered them from letters and diaries. 

In a diary, David Kennedy wrote about his experiences as a prisoner in the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.  Kennedy was a prisoner from May through September in 1864.  The diary records camp living conditions, treatment by captors, the deteriorating health of the union prisoners, and the many deaths that occurred. 

James M. Woodbury also wrote in a diary about his capture by Confederate forces and subsequent incarceration.  Woodbury was a soldier from Mower County, Minnesota.  In addition to his diary, he wrote letters to his wife Amanda and his wife writes letters back to him.  Woodbury’s diary that begins in May 1864 describes his capture by Confederate forces at the Battle of Brice’s Crossroads and his imprisonment at Andersonville Prison.  After Woodbury died, entries are still written in his diary.  The second writer told how Woodbury had been removed to the prison hospital and his subsequent death.  The second writer also wrote about the deaths of other men from their regiment at Camp Sumter.
Andersonville National Cemetery 
Andersonville National Historic Site now serves as a memorial to all prisoners of war.  There is an exhibit where the audience is able to walk thru as if they are a soldier in enemy territory who finds themselves cornered with guns pointing at them from every direction.  There are video clips playing of interviews with prisoners of war who made it out alive.  It is all very heavy and the museum allows the audience to feel it.  The last exhibit lightens up things a bit by displaying joy stories where soldiers returned home to their loved ones. 

- Te'Keya Krystal

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