Visitors to Andersonville National Historic Site frequently inquire about prisoner escapes. Escapes are a major part of our popular culture, as films like "The Great Escape," and even "Escape From Alcatraz" or "The Shawshank Redemption" have ingrained into collective memory the heroic adventures of a prison escape. This is especially true at Andersonville. Even before the movie, "Andersonville," which featured an escape from the prison stockade, tales of tunnels and runaway prisoners being tracked by hounds are nearly as old as the prison itself.
The Wirz Trial was filled with testimony about the techniques used to track down escaped prisoners and the punishments doled out those recaptured. Nearly every published prisoner memoir in the years after the war told of an escape attempt either by tunneling or by running away from work details, and many survivors regaled family friends with adventures of escape. All of this has created a vision of Andersonville in which escape plays a major role in not only the prison's story, but in the experience of each individual prisoner. Many descendants who visit the site today share family stories of how their ancestor escaped from Andersonville.But how widespread was escape? If the published memoirs and family stories are any indication, it seems that a significant majority of the prisoners escaped from Andersonville, and that the forests and farmland surrounding the stockade were a superhighway crowded Union soldiers on the run. However, this is not the case.
According to surviving Confederate records, only 351 prisoners escaped from Andersonville, which means that only around 0.7% of all prisoners ever managed to escape. However, those same records indicate that many of these men were recaptured and returned to Andersonville or sent to other prison facilities. But how many of these men actually made it back to Union lines in a successful escape?
The US Army recorded each soldier who returned to Union lines as an escaped prisoner. This document is available in the National Archives as part of Record Group 249, M1878 as part of the Records of the Sultana. This document allows us to go through and identify exactly who successfully escaped from not only Andersonville, but from a variety of Confederate prisons. According to these records, 32 Union soldiers are confirmed to have escaped from Andersonville between February of 1864 and May of 1865. This means that 0.07%, or only one out of every 1,400 prisoners held at Andersonville successfully escaped. What happened to the remainder of these unaccounted-for escapees is unknown. Perhaps they quietly returned home instead of reporting back to the army. It is likely that many of these men died while on the run.
Successful escape from Andersonville was virtually impossible, and it was much rarer than what has often been portrayed. Even most of those who managed to successfully escape from Andersonville did so between the Fall of 1864 through the Spring of 1865, when the prison and its security systems were breaking down as the war ended. For example, Nicholas Williams, of the 4th US Cavalry is documented as having escaped Andersonville on May 1, 1865 when fewer than fifty Union prisoners remained. Many of the prisoners who claimed to have escaped from Andersonville often either escaped from other camps or in transit between camps. Ultimately, escape from Andersonville was not an everyday occurrence, but rather was a symbol of hope.
The men documented by the US Army as having successfully escaped from Andersonville to freedom are:
Last updated: November 29, 2022