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Civil War Series

The Prison Camp at Andersonville

   

September 1, 1864

From the fourth of July until the first day of September, every day in those two months, I killed three hundred lice and nits. When I got up to this number I would stop killing until the next day.

Edmund J. Gibson
Pvt., Co. K,
25th Maryland Inf.


It was the beginning of winter and the guards relaxed much of their sternness and rigor. The prisoners entered into conversation with them, and trading became more prevalent. The prisoners made toothpicks out of bones from the meat they were fed. They made pipes out of green wood that they picked up while outside the stockade. Prices for the items depended on the amount of time a prisoner put into his pipe or toothpick. Another business opportunity was called "raising" in which the amount of a Confederate note was increased. The script was poorly made, both in design and execution. The prisoners always tried to get change in "ones" or "twos." The $1 bill would be converted into a $10 bill and the $2 bill would be made into a $20 bill. The counterfeiter guaranteed his work and style of art to his customers.


CAMP OGLETHORPE

Camp Oglethorpe Prison was located near Macon, Georgia. It was used to confine Union military officers during the last full year of the Civil War, 1864. The officers survived well. No ill-treatment was noted by the over 1,600 officers confined at Macon. Only one officer was shot and killed by a Confederate sentinel for crossing the dead line. The camp was located south of Macon on a sandy incline formerly used as the county fair grounds. Shelter was provided for the Union prisoners as well as water and wood for heating. The old Floral Hall, a one-story frame building located in the center of the fair ground, was used to house 200 men. A stockade 16 feet high and similar in construction to the Andersonville stockade, surrounded the enclosure.

A raid on Macon in late July by General George Stoneman's cavalry persuaded Confederate authorities to remove prisoners from Macon to Charleston and Savannah. By the end of September 1864 the prison virtually ceased operation.

(NPS)

PRISONERS ENTERING ANDERSONVILLE PRISON ILLUSTRATION FROM BATTLEFIELD AND PRISON PEN.

ELMIRA PRISON

Elmira, New York, is situated five miles from the Pennsylvania line. In the beginning the camp was used for new recruits, but by May 15, 1864, some of the barracks were set aside for prisoners-of-war. A twelve foot-high fence was constructed, framed on the outside with a sentry's walk four feet below the top and built at a safe distance from the barracks. Housing consisted of thirty-five two-story barracks each measuring 100 by 20 feet. Two rows of bunks were along the walls and as the prison became crowded some prisoners lived in "A" tents.

The first group of prisoners, shipped from Point Lookout, Maryland, arrived at Elmira on July 6 and numbered 399 men. By the end of July, 4,424 prisoners were packed in the compound with another 3,000 en route. By mid-August the number leaped to 9,600. The inmates of Elmira weathered hunger, illness and melancholia but, even worse, exposure to the elements. Late in the winter of 1864-65 some stoves were distributed to the prisoners but not enough for everyone. The southerners were exposed to temperatures of ten to fifteen degrees below zero and many succumbed to freezing.

Of the total of 12,123 soldiers imprisoned at Elmira, 2,963 died of sickness, exposure and associated causes. The camp was officially closed on July 5, 1865. All that remains today of Elmira Prison is a well-kept cemetery along the banks of the Chemung River.

(LC)

September 13, 1864

On the 13th of September the only remaining one of my company died, leaving me alone as far as my company was concerned. This event made me very sad. I, the youngest boy in the regiment, and sick besides, I nerved up for the worst and resolved to stand the thing through, that I might tell the poor boys' friends where they died.

Charles Fosdick


On November 8 the prisoners held an election for President. Four thousand six hundred votes were cast, Lincoln secured a 734 majority. The prisoners hoped he would be as successful at home.

Although the hot summer and over-crowding were over, the lice, graybacks as they were called, kept up their steady work. As one diarist wrote, "I tried to bear it but matters grew worse, till I hobbled out to a guard's fire nearby and begged a firebrand. Taking the blazing pitch pine brand and going back into the tent, I took off my clothes and killed over 400 graybacks by actual count. They were as large as a very large kernel of wheat, and the scars where they bit me I shall carry to the grave.

ANDERSONVILLE PRISONERS WHO HAD WASTED AWAY TO LIVING SKELETONS WERE PHOTOGRAPHED AFTER BEING EXCHANGED. THESE PHOTOS WERE LATER PUBLISHED IN NORTHERN NEWSPAPERS AND USED AS PROPAGANDA AGAINST THE SOUTH AND USED AS EVIDENCE TO HELP CONVICT CAPTAIN WIRZ. (LC)

1867 PHOTO SHOWS THE COVERED WAY, WITH THE MIDDLE STOCKADE ON THE RIGHT AND THE THIRD STOCKADE WALL ON THE LEFT. (NA)

FORT DELAWARE

Fort Delaware prison was located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River. Approximately 33,565 Confederate prisoners passed through during its existence. The prison was constructed as a fort to protect northern cities. A 12-foot-deep, 30-foot moat surrounded the prison. The granite walls were seven to thirty feet thick. The prison was plagued with the usual diseases and malnutrition of all prisons north and south during the Civil War.

At this prison 2,436 Confederate prisoners died. Their bodies were transported by boat to the New Jersey side of the Delaware River and buried in trenches at a place called Inns Point. A towering granite obelisk marks the spot and at its base are plaques with the names of the soldiers in the common grave.

(USAMHI)

September 19, 1864

A priest belonging to the Catholic church was almost daily among us, and worked faithfully among the sick and dying members of his own church. He had also always a kind word for all of us.

John W. Urban


In the latter part of November, four or five wagon loads of vegetables were brought in by the citizens of nearby Americus. The vegetables were never distributed to the prisoners and were consumed by the authorities of the prison. In December the toll continued with 165 deaths. The grounds of the stockade looked like a battlefield with abandoned shebangs and items such as cups, canteens and worn-out clothing strewn throughout the grounds. It had been a battlefield in some sense. Many, many deaths occurred here as the nearby cemetery could testify. These men had not been torn apart by bullets but by loneliness, disease, malnutrition, filth and vermin. They didn't die fast but slowly, perhaps remembering their wives, children, mothers and fathers.

At the beginning of December 2,000 prisoners arrived from Salisbury, North Carolina. On December 22 in a letter to General Cooper, inspector general of the Confederacy, General Winder wrote, "Savannah evacuated. Had not the prisoners from Columbia, Salisbury and Florence better be removed immediately to Andersonville. Only one road now open by way of Branchville to Augusta. I think there is not a moment to be lost. Please answer at once." General Winder would die of an apparent heart attack while on an inspection trip to Salisbury Prison on February 6, 1865.


CAMP FLORENCE

Camp Florence was located in Florence County, South Carolina and was one of the largest Southern Civil War prisons. The prison was 23 acres in size and was enclosed by a wall of logs 12 feet high. An embankment outside the wall stood three feet below the top of the wall and served as a walkway for the guards. No tents or shelters were furnished to the prisoners. Wood was left inside the stockade and the first arrivals used the wood for huts and cooking. Lack of adequate food, pure water, sanitation facilities and shelter was responsible for 20 deaths per day.

The prison was open for five months from September 1864 to February 1865. Between 15,000 and 18,000 Federal prisoners passed through the gates, and 2,802 died within the compound. Florence National Cemetery, in Florence, South Carolina, consists of 5-3/4 acres. Because the listing of the deaths was lost, there are 2,1167 unknowns.



October 23, 1864

As for myself, I never felt so utterly depressed, cursed, and God-for-saken in all my life before. All my former experiences in battles, on marches, and at my capture were not a drop in the bucket as compared with this.

Walter E. Smith
Pvt., Co. K
14th Illinois Infantry


As December 25 approached, Michael Daghtery, 13th Pennsylvania Cavalry, surely spoke for many of the prisoners when he wrote, "On Christmas Day thinking of our friends at home enjoying themselves, and how we are situated here no rations of any kind. Little of our friends at home think we are in this situation. God grant them health to enjoy many more. This is my sincere wish to my poor mother and sister. I hope I will see them soon."

Prisoners were again arriving daily. It was cold and wet, a typical Georgia December. To beat the cold some would band into groups and lay next to each other all night and most of the day to stay warm. They would only leave this huddled mass to answer roll call and receive their rations. Graybacks could also interrupt their attempt at warmth. Private Lassel Long, 13th Indiana Infantry, related that, "As soon as we would begin to get a little warm they would commence their daily and nightly drill. They would have division, brigade, regiment, and company drills, ending up with a general review. When those large fellows began to prance around in front of the lines it would make some one halloo out, 'I must turn over, I can't stand this any longer.' So we would all turn to the right or left as the case might be. This would stop the chaps for a short time."

THE BODIES WERE LAID TO REST SIDE BY SIDE IN SIX-FOOT WIDE BY THREE-FOOT DEEP TRENCHES. THIS PHOTO AT THE CEMETERY WAS TAKEN IN THE SUMMER OF 1864. (NA)

ILLUSTRATION FROM HARPER'S WEEKLY OF RELEASED PRISONERS EXCHANGING THEIR RAGS FOR NEW CLOTHING.

The new year claimed 197 deaths its first month. Four thousand to five thousand arrived from other prison camps during January with most of them occupying the south end of the prison. At the end of January, Captain Wirz complained about the prisoners stealing hospital property and selling it to the guards. There were also frequent escapes from the hospital. Wirz mentioned in a letter dated January 21 that a covered way and a third stockade wall had been started but asked whether this new stockade should be finished or the six-foot-high fence around the hospital be torn down and a real stockade built around the hospital to stop the stealing, trading and escapes. The covered way was never completed and a stockade around the hospital was never started.


December 29, 1864

We sit around our scanty fires shivering and hungry thinking of what good times we might enjoy were we permitted to be at home. We endeavor to keep a stiff upper lip.

George M. Shearer
Private, Co. E,
17th Iowa Infantry


According to historical documents the winter of 1864-1865 was the coldest winter in twenty five years in southwest Georgia. One night the temperature was eighteen degrees above zero. The prisoners were poorly clad and the wood they attempted to burn for warmth was too wet to do much good. Toward the end of January more new prisoners were brought in. As Charles Fosdick wrote, "We old dried skeletons gathered around them in such great numbers that it is a wonder they did not get frightened to death at our ghostly appearance.

February began more pleasantly than the long cold month of January. The captives knew that if Sherman had been defeated there would have been a larger influx of prisoners. The only ones coming in were prisoners from other locations in the South. The weather broke with pheasant and warmer days. The prisoners took more exercise, and they even began to sing patriotic songs. For the first time in twelve months the boys were optimistic. The rumors were good rumors: exchange, the end of the war, going home. Private Lassel Long wrote that a newly arrived prisoner made a speech to many of the prisoners saying, "I tell you this blasted rebellion cannot succeed. It was born in sin and cradled in iniquity, and it is going to pieces like a ship driven upon a rock. Bill Sherman is at this time cutting a swath through South Carolina forty miles wide." At this point the prisoners began cheering, and after they had cheered until they were hoarse, someone started up, "Rally around the flag, boys," then it was taken up all over the camp.

AN 1867 PHOTOGRAPH OF THE CEMETERY. (NPS)

THE EXECUTION OF HENRY WIRZ

Historians who have studied the tragic episode of Andersonville agree that even in the grip of understandable hysteria after President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, an indefensible travesty of justice was committed against Captain Henry Wirz. Worn and haggard, he was still at his post when Union Captain Henry E. Noyes arrived at Andersonville in early May with orders for his arrest. Noyes took Wirz to Washington where a military commission tried, convicted, and sentenced him to hang for: (1) conspiring with Jefferson Davis, Howell Cobb, John H., Richard B., and W.S. Winder, Isaiah H. White, R. Randolph Stevenson, and others to "Impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives.., of large numbers of federal prisoners.., at Andersonville" and (2) "murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war." Wirz was tried under these charges, convicted and sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out on November 10, 1865, on the courtyard of old Capitol Prison.

(LC)

February 24, 1865

Our clothes were nearly worn out, and we had to go around and seek out the dead and rob them of the clothes they had in order to keep from freezing to death ourselves.

Bjorn Aslaksan


In March death still visited Andersonville Prison. One hundred and eight died, mostly prisoners in the hospital. Through the guards, prisoners learned that the Yankees had captured Selma, Alabama, and would soon be coming. New prisoners, and there were very few, brought only good news. Still, at Andersonville rations were just enough to keep the prisoners alive. On March 25, 800 prisoners left and there was talk that a train would leave every day full of prisoners. On March 28 new prisoners brought word that General Wilson's Cavalry was on the way.

In April the end of the war was in sight. Twenty-eight died during this last full month of Andersonville's existence. Most of the prisoners were sent to Vicksburg for exchange. Slowly but surely the prisoners left Andersonville. When Union forces finally arrived at Andersonville in May, about three weeks after the war had ended, only a small number of prisoners remained. Arrangements were made to transport these sick and frail soldiers home. While the prisoners waited, Andersonville claimed its last victim.


March 7, 1865

In March, 1865, we began to hear rumors of the advance of our forces from the guards, and to look forward with hope to the time when we should once more be free.

Thadeus L. Waters
Private, Co. G,
2nd Michigan Cav.


It was over. The ground now was bare of the living. Where only a short time before had been masses of living and dying there was now an assortment of discarded blankets, handmade cooking utensils and worn-out clothing. In only fourteen months, 12,914 had died on this ground. Their sacrifice will always be remembered, their experience never forgotten.

What became of the prisoners who left Andersonville? Hundreds perished on their way home when the steamboat they were on, the Sultana, exploded and sank near Memphis, Tennessee. Countless others died in northern hospitals, or in their hometowns of the diseases incurred during their captivity at Andersonville.

ON JULY 25, 1865 CLARA BARTON ARRIVED IN ANDERSONVILLE WITH AN EXPEDITION OF 37 MEN. WITH THE HELP OF DORENCE ATWATER'S DEATH LIST, SHE MARKED THE GRAVES OF THE PRISONERS WHO HAD DIED WITH PAINTED BOARDS. SHE HELPED TO DEDICATE THE CEMETERY ON AUGUST 17, 1865. (HARPER'S WEEKLY)

MEMORIAL DAY AT ANDERSONVILLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE. (NPS)

Over the years, the finger of blame has pointed in many directions, but the facts show that events of the time made this national tragedy happen. As the war dragged on and the exchange system collapsed, thousands of prisoners-of-war, Union and Confederate alike, found themselves in hastily constructed and poorly supplied prison camps. Many never returned to their homes, families or friends. At Andersonville human misery reached its zenith. The tombstones in Andersonville National Cemetery and the written words of the prisoners tell a tragic story.

Andersonville National Historic Site
(click on image for a PDF version)

Back cover: Photograph of the Providence Spring Memorial at Andersonville National Historic Site. (NPS)
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