What Andersonville Prison was like when my 3rd Great Grandad was there. Upon reading my very first post you probably thought I had family that fought just for the Confederacy but Yes I had family members that fought for the North and the South!
Here is a historical background of why it existed and the horrors that happened there.
The darkest and most horrible element did not come from the battlefields, but from within the confines of the prisoner of war camps. Both the Union and Confederate prison camps has their share of starvation, disease, and death. The famous of these camps was located in Sumter County, near Andersonville, Georgia. The Georgia heat with barely enough rations and inadequate shelter killed the Union ranks.
Early in the war, prison camps were scattered throughout the states. These camps were intended to be small and lightly supplies, for the sole purpose of exchanging prisoners. However, as the war progressed, the Confederacy began to run low on its resources and manpower. With the Union ranks becoming larger and larger, it was natural that the greater numbers of prisoners were sent to their camps.
On April 17, 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant decided to stop the prisoner exchange. His logic for this termination of the program was that every rebel prisoner who is exchanged “becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly.” With this order the number of prisoners in the camps grow.
By 1864, the southern cause was not looking good. The confederate forces met defeat after defeat. General Lee’s army failed to mount a campaign in Union territory. The southern resolve held firm and the confederate government began to search for ways to comfort the burden on their citizens.
The decrease in supplies made the construction of a new prison in a remote area a priority. At a new prison the Confederates assumed that the prisoners would be easier to guard and feed than in the center of a city. Construction began right away on a new prison in the heart of Georgia.
In February 1864, the first prisoners were packed into filthy cattle cars and transported to the new prison located near the tiny village of Andersonville. The prison camp was officially named Camp Sumter. The grounds were 16.5 acres surrounded by a fifteen-foot high stockade. Within the walls, Sweetwater Creek, a fresh water stream, flowed through the middle, which was used as a latrine as well as for drinking water. The camp was designed for 10,000 men; the first men at the camp found life tolerable. Supplies were meager, but sufficient to life.
The Confederates still believed that prisoner exchange was happening. As a sharp increase in the number of prisoners being held in Adersonville, the rations were tightened not only for the growth of prisoners but also because rations were harder and harder to find in the unsteadily confederacy. The camp’s population swelled to 33,000 by July. The camp was expanded to 26.5 acres, but there still was only about the area of a common grave available to each man.
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As 1864 drew on, conditions only grew worse. The south was unable to provide for its own forces, let alone the prisoners. This was a direct result of General Sherman’s scorched earthly policy, which killed the confederacy. Nothing was left behind undamaged, as towns, farms, and railway lines were all destroyed. Even food and medicine was considered contraband and put to the torch.
As conditions became worse, fear was that the prisoners would riot and emerge in a mass escape. Therefore, batteries of guns were aimed on the camp at all times. Talk was spread that if the Union army approached the battery was to kill all the prisoners.
Within the walls of Andersonville prison, the Union soldiers lived as best they could. The early arrivals were able to construct shanties out of scraps of wood and old blankets while others shared the crumbling fabric of a tent. Still others dug holes in the ground to live. The remainder had no shelter at all. They had to stand in the blaring summer sun, the pouring rain, and bitter cold. What was worse was that no clothing was provided for the prisoners. Many wore torn rags while others had nothing at all.
Rations were meager; they consisted of one and a quarter pounds of corn meal along with the occasional serving of beans, peas, and molasses. Rations of meat arrived inconsistently, with either a pound of beef or a third pound of bacon. Sometimes the meat was left in the sun for days and when finally handed out, the spoiled meat only aggravate the hunger and the intestinal distress of the prisoners.
As the months went on, the stream became polluted with waste and sometimes, human remains. The stench became unbearable and those who drank from it tended to develop dysentery and diarrhea while others would clean their wounds with the stagnant water they quickly suffered from gangrene.
One very interesting thing happened during this time. The river became a little trickle from the Georgia sun and the waste and muck of the riverbed attracted thousands of flies and maggots. During this horrible time, a fresh water spring burst inside the stockade and provided fresh, cool water for the men. Many saw this as a gift from God and named it Providence Spring. This permanent source of water still exists to this day.
As the prisoners lives within the prison walls became more desperate, bands of thieves called “Andersonville Raiders” began to form.
These men would steal anything from a prisoner, clothes, food, money, or trinkets. As their bands grew, they became bolder and more reckless, attacking prisoners in broad daylight. On June 29, 250 Regulators met about 150 raiders in an armed battle with clubs and bare fists. In the end, six of the leaders of the gangs were found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to be hanged while 86 were to “run the gauntlet.” This was a form of punishment by which two long rows men, armed with clubs and sticks, would form and the prisoner would be forced to run between them while receiving hundreds of blows. The following day the condemned men were hanged that afternoon.
By July the conditions had become so poor in the camp that five Union soldiers delivered a petition signed by the entire camp to Washington. Calling for a reinstatement of the prisoner exchange program, these emissaries pledged to return to the camp with news of their results. The petition was denied and the “hell on earth” continued.
In the heat of summer, disease, and famine slaughtered hundreds of men each day. The dead were carted out of wagons, piled up like cordwood, with arms and legs hanging over the wheels, glassy eyes, and open mouths. Each night the shrieks and moans of the dying were heard. The dead were laying about the camp for some time because the prisoners were too weak to remove them, and the guards feared catching a disease if they entered the prison.
By the end of 1864, the Confederacy offered to unconditionally release the prisoners if the Union would agree to send ships to retrieve them. These ships did not arrive until December. With the surrender in April 1865, the camp at Andersonville closed.
Over the fourteen months of its existence, approximately 45,000 Union prisoners were held within its walls. Thirteen thousand prisoners never returned home.
Although the death rates in the other prison camps scattered around the states were extremely high, none of them compared to the horrors witnessed at Andersonville Prison.