By the winter of 1863-64 the Confederacy was near the last of its resources and manpower. Knowing this, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant refused to continue the prisoner-exchange agreement that had been in operation during most of the war. This action cut down on the number of Confederate soldiers Grant's army would have to face in the coming campaign, but it also meant death to a great number of Union prisoners who would otherwise have been exchanged.
Confederates recognized the need to move Richmond's crowded military prisons to a location more isolated from warfare. The concentration of war prisoners in the Confederate capital had drained local food supplies and attached soldiers for guard duty who were needed elsewhere. Further, as Gen. Robert E. Lee pointed out, prisoners would cause more problems if the Federals attacked Richmond.
On November 24, 1863, Capt. W. Sidney Winder was sent to the village of Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia, to assess the potential of building a prison for captured Union soldiers. The deep south location, the availability of fresh water, and at Station No. 8, of the Georgia Southwestern Railroad, made Andersonville a favorable prison location. In addition, Andersonville had a population of less than 20 people, and was, therefore, politically unable to resist the building of such an unpopular facility. The area was abundant in grain and produce, and it was a long way from the seat of war.
So Andersonville was chosen as the site for a prison that would later become infamous in the North for the thousands of prisoners that would die there before the war ended. An Augusta newspaper reported the site was near Andersonville, "on the Georgia Southwestern Railroad, about half way between Oglethorpe and Americus, in a fine agricultural region where supplies are abundant." But with devastation caused by Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's invasion of Georgia, the region could not produce adequate supplies for the number of prisoners that arrived, of for the defending Confederate army.
After the prison site was selected, Winder was sent to Andersonville to construct a prison. Arriving in late December, Winder adopted a prison design that encompassed roughly 16.5 acres which he felt was large enough to hold 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners. The prison was to be rectangular in shape with a small creek flowing roughly through the center of the compound. The prison was given the name Camp Sumter. It was the Confederacy's second prison built in 1864.
The local carpenters and laborers in the neighborhood refused to work on the construction of the project because they did not want a prison in the area. Because of this, labor was difficult to obtain and work was delayed. In January of 1864, slaves from local farms were impressed to fell trees and dig ditches for construction of the prison stockade.
Conditions in the South at this time, made it impossible to build barracks. Rail lines and food processing & distribution centers were crippled throughout the Upper South. In desperation, the Confederate government ordered that a simple stockade- in effect just a corral, the cheapest, most economical form of confinement- be completed as soon as possible.
Originally, the prison was built as both a defensive and offensive fortification. The stockade enclosure was approximately 1,010 feet long and 780 feet wide. The walls of the stockade were constructed of pine logs cut on site, hewn square, and set vertically in a wall trench dug roughly five feet deep. According to historical accounts, the poles were hewn to a thickness of 8 to 12 inches. A light fence known as the deadline was erected approximately 19-25 feet inside the stockade wall to demarkate a "no-man's land" keeping the prisoners away from the stockade wall. Anyone crossing this line was immediately shot by sentries posted at intervals around the stockade wall. Included in the construction of the stockade were 2 gates positioned along the west stockade line. Althoughofficer prisoners were not held in the actual prison, the prison did have a smaller, second stockade 1/2 mile west of the main facility, toward Station No. 8, to hold officers. This camp was called Castle Reed. It had a pen of hewn logs 15 feet high and 195x108 feet that surrounded open-sided shed barracks. Up to 65 Union officers were held there until May 1864, when they were transferred to Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, georgia. Afterward, the pen was used only to confine Confederate soldiers who committed various offenses.
Col. Alexander W., Persons was assigned as commandant of the prison on February 17, and was in charge of organizing a guard unit for the prison. He served in that capacity until he was replaced by Gen. Winder on June 17. Capt. Henry Wirtz arrived on March 25 and took over command of the prison while Winder still had the ultimate authority. Wirz became the most known "infamous" prison commandant of the Civil War. Throughout October 1865, the Federal Government and its public were still angry about Andersonville's noteriety. They insisted on revenge for the harsh treatment of the Union prisoners. Since Andersonville Prison was like a hell on earth, then Wirz must be the devil.
On November 10, 1865, Wirz was led to the same scaffold where the co-conspirators of Pres. Abraham Lincoln's asssasination were hanged 4 months before and escorted up the steps. He had reportedly been advised that his life would be spared if he would simply implicate Jefferson Davis, but Wirz refused. Moments later, he was hung, held responsible for what had happened in the Civil War's military prisons. In October 1864, Col. George C. Gibbs arrived to assume command of the prison. From then on, the prison took the role of a convalescent camp. Gibbs would eventually go on to parole the remainingf prisoners on May 4, 1865.
Like the North's Elmira Prison, Andersonville Prison was, from day one, one of the most wretched places of confinement that words could not describe. Some said that the prison was nothing more than a concentration camp.
Two regiments guarded the prisoners at Andersonville: the 5th Georgia and the 26th Alabama. There was also some cavalry units stationed there. The cavalry was mainly used to guard the outside of the prison and chase any prisoners trying to escape.
LIFE & CONDITIONS:
Prisoners began arriving at the prison on February 25, about 500 prisoners. By early June the prison population had climbed to 20,000. Most prisoners arrived at the prison already sick and diseased. With the majority of prisoners arriving there in such deplorable, sickly conditions, the reason for the prison's high death rate was quite clear. Inadequate shelter, bad sanitation, food shortages, and lack of medicines made living conditions hellish. Most Confederate guards were old men or young boys incapable of properly policing the crowded facility, and criminals-called raiders-terrorized their fellow prisoners. The stream flowing through the prison became polluted, most of the prisoners grew sick.
When the prisoners first arrived, they built huts with the scattered scrap wood left over from the prison construction. Later arrival lived in tents, lean-tos, out in the open under scraps of blankets or rags, or simply dug holes in the ground and covered the bottoms of the holes with whatever they could find and use.
A prison for enlisted soldiers, it was designed to hold 10,000, but by August 1864, due to deteriorating resources and the breakdown of the prisoner exchage system, the prison population had swelled to over 32,000. This atrocious overcrowding quickly led to health and nutritional conditions that resulted in 12, 912 deaths by war's end in May 1865. The prison guards watched from sentry boxes perched atop the stockade and shot any prisoner who crossed a wooden railing, called the "deadline." A small, slow moving stream running through the middle of the stockade enclosure supplied water to most of the prison. Eight small earthen forts located around the exterior of the prison were equipped with artillery to put down disturbances and to defend against union cavalry attacks.
Handicapped by deteriorating economic conditions, the Confederates lacked the necessary materials and amounts of food for 10,000 prisoners, not to mention the 26,000 that were confined there by June 1864. Available shelter was deduced to crude shelters huts of made scrap wood, tent fragments, or simple holes dug in the ground. Many had no shelter of any kind against the elements of rain, heat, and cold. No clothing was provided, and many prisoners were left with rags or nothing at all. The daily ration for the prisoners was the same as for the guards: one and one-fourth pound of corn meal and either one pound of beef or 1/3 pound of bacon. This sparse diet was only occasionally supplemented with beans, peas, rice, or molasses.
It was decided that a larger prison was necessary, and by mid-June work was begun to enlarge the prison. The prison's walls were extended 610 feet to the north, encompassing an area of roughly 10 acres, bringing the total prison area to 26.5 acres. The extension was built by a crew of Union prisoners consisting of 100 whites and 30 African Americans in about 14 days. On July 1, the northern extension was opened to the prisoners who subsequently tore down the original north stockade wall, then used the timbers for fuel and building materials. By August, over 33,000 Union prisoners were held in the 26.5 acre prison. At 10,000 prisoners at the prison, there were an average of 377 prisoners per acre. When the population reached 29,000, there was an average of almost 1,100 prisoners per acre.
Due to the threat of Union raids, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's troops were marching on Atlanta, Winder ordered the building of defensive earthworks and a middle and outer stockade around the prison. Construction of the earthworks began July 20th. These earthworks consisted of Star Fort located southwest of the prison, a redoubt located northwest of the north gate, and 6 redans. The middle and outer stockades were hastily constructed of unhewn pine logs set vertically in wall trenches that were about 4 feet deep. The middle stockade posts projected roughly 12 feet above the ground surface and encircled the inner prison stockade as well as the corner redans. The outer stockade, which was never completed, was meant to encompass the entire complex of earthworks and stockades. The posts of the outer stockade extended about 5 feet above the ground surface.
By August 1864, , the prison population had reached nearly 33,000 prisoners. The prison became, in effect, the 5th largest "city" in the South. As the prison became more and more crowded, the amount of rations continued to diminish. First, the salt went, then the sweet potato. In time, the amount of cornmeal was reduced, and finally meat was totally eliminated. Rations continued to diminish in size and the number of days they were issued.
By early September, Sherman's troops had moved into the area and had occupied Atlanta and the threat of Union raids on Andersonville prompted the transfer of most of the Union prisoners to other camps in Georgia and South Carolina. By mid-November, all but about 1,500 prisoners, too sick or too weak to be moved, had been shipped out of Andersonville, and only a few guards remained to police them. Transfers to Andersonville in late December increased the numbers of prisoners once again, but even then the prison population totalled only about 5,000. The number of prisoners at the prison would remain this low until the war ended in April of 1865.
The prevailing diseases and main causes of death at the prison were scurvy, diarrhea, dysentary, typhoid, smallpox, and hospital gangrene.
After the war ended, the plot of ground near the prison where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers had been buried was administered by the United States government as a National Cemetery. The prison reverted to private hands and was planted in cotton and other crops until the land was acquired by the Grand Army of the Republic of George in 1891.
With the unspeakably miserable conditons at Andersonville, almost 30% of the prisoners confined there died at the camp during its 15-month existence.
Andersonville became synonymous with the attrocities which both Union and Confederate soldiers experienced as prisoners of war. Conditions at Andersonville were worse than at any other war prison, North or South. The Georgia heat, along with disease, filth, exposure, and lack of adequate medical care, took a fearfull toll. Diseases such as dysentery, gangrene, diarrhea, and scurvy took many. The Confederates lacked adequate facilities, personnel, and medical supplies to combat the diseases. By war's end Andersonville had 12,912 graves. Estimates of the total number of deaths at the prison have been much higher.
The publicity about Andersonville's human misery and horror made a lasting impression on America's consciousness. The South was condemned for the "notorious Hell Hole", though in fact prisoners had the same rations as prison guards and Confederate soldiers, and had all the medical care possible in the impoverished Confederacy. Further, Grant's refusal to exchange Confederate for Union prisoners was a major factor in the suffering of Union captives. Of the 45,000 Union soldiers confined at Andersonville, 13,000 died.
In the months followingthe abandonment of the prison, local residents broke into the prison warehouses and took off with the remaining supplies that were still stored in there. Relic hunters later arrived at the prison and ransacked the entire stockade looking for souvenirs. The weather, roaming livestock, and additional waves of souvenir hunters continued to destroy the Andersonville stockade for years after the war.
In December 1890, The Georgia Department of the Grand Army of the Republic purchased the prison site. It was later turned over to the Women's Relief Corps, and still later, in 1910, it was donated to the people of the United States.