Just the name evokes images of horrific conditions. Of abuse. Of cruelty.
Andersonville was a Confederate prison camp for 14 months during the Civil War. While touring the area around Albany, Georgia, I decided to stop at Andersonville National Historic Site. I wanted to judge for myself - to see if the reputation matched the facts. The answer that I discovered is yes. And no.
Andersonville prison saw its first prisoner of war arrive in February of 1864. It would remain open until the end of the Civil War in April of 1865. During that short period of time, nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died within those walls.
Yes, the conditions were appalling. Due to a serious flaw in the placement of the walls of the camp, the creek (the one that was intended to supply fresh water and serve as a way for the sewage to be washed out of the camp) turned into a muddy bog that really did nothing other than make life more miserable and spread filth and disease. Due to changes from dams etc, this is all that is left of the creek.
The prison was built with an outer palisade wall and a smaller fence on
the inside of that wall. No one was supposed to be in the space between
those two walls. If a prisoner was in that space, he was shot - thus
the name of the inner line. This type of 'dead space' is still used in
prisons today. It is an extra measure of security to ensure your prisoners
can't just dig a small hole and escape under the fence.
But the abuse and cruelty? Of that, I really saw no evidence. Everything was in short supply - food, shelter, medical supplies, etc. The film and exhibits at the site tried really, really hard to make it seem as if the terrible conditions were intentional. But it was toward the end of the war and there were triple the amount of prisoners than the site was designed to hold. The shortages seemed to stem more from those facts than from anything else.
I did note one thing that this place tried to do right. Even with the huge numbers of those that lost their lives here, they tried to give them a decent burial. The deceased were buried side by side in a trench. Records were kept of their names and the location of their burial. This single fact allowed for grave markers to be placed after the war with the establishment of the Andersonville National Cemetery.
Unlike the mass burials at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Camp Douglas was a Union prison camp. Vol Fan's ancestor died of small pox while a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas. He is buried somewhere - no one is sure where because records were not kept and some were even destroyed.
But whether you know where your family member is buried or not, the fact is still the same - your family member is gone. Families were left without providers. Children without fathers. Parents without children.
So hopefully we can learn something bigger, something more important after a visit to Andersonville. Hopefully we can learn that war is hell. And we should do everything we can to avoid it.