Andersonville NHS, Andersonville, GA

December 31, 2021

The day we visited was cloudy and dozens of vultures circled above us. While that felt eerie it also seemed fitting.

The Andersonville National Historic Site encompasses a portion of the notorious Civil War Andersonville prison camp. A road winds around the prison’s perimeter. As you walk the site make sure you listen to the audio recordings that describe the prison, the prisoners, their captors, life and death in the camp, and the good and evil that existed side-by-side here.

Only a few remnants of the original prison camp remain. But there’s enough left that you can imagine what it must have been like to be a prisoner here.

Map of Prison Camp

During the 14 months that Andersonville was open, 45,000 Union soldiers were held here and 13,000 died, about 1,000 each month.

As you walk around the site you’ll notice two sets of posts. One set marked the perimeter of the inner stockade while a second set of posts marked the perimeter of the so-called “dead line.”

Stockade Perimeter and “Dead Line”

Sentry boxes or pigeon roosts were built along the inner stockade. Guards had orders to shoot any man that stepped over the dead line. To end their suffering, more than a few prisoners took that route.

At the outside corners of the stockade the Confederates dug earthworks that faced toward the stockade. Artillery was placed behind those earthworks and aimed at the camp. Any attempt at mass escape would be made with deadly canister shot.

Artillery Emplacement Facing Stockade

Newly arrived prisoners were quickly stripped of everything of value – money, clothing, shoes, buttons – that hadn’t already been taken by their captors.

Escape was virtually impossible. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. In the overcrowded conditions, they dug escape tunnels. Almost all of the prisoners who escaped through the tunnels were recaptured. Because the water was so polluted, many soldiers secretly dug wells hoping to reach fresh water.

Well or Escape Tunnel?

A few Southerners took pity on the prisoners. The most revered was Father Peter Whelan, who came from Savannah, GA and stayed for four months. He ministered to the sick and dying and borrowed money to buy flour and bake bread for the starving prisoners. The prisoners never forgot him; many credited him with their survival.

A stream ran down through the middle of the camp. Prisoners were supposed to get fresh water from the uphill side of the stream. The sinks or latrines were built at the downstream end. But the way the stockade was built prevented the free flow of water, turning the stream into a festering swamp.

During a heavy rainstorm a fresh, clear spring suddenly gushed from the hillside. Some swore a bolt of lightning struck the ground and created the spring. Many prisoners believed it was a miracle and it became known as Providence Spring. After the war a monument was erected over the spring.

Providence Spring

Despite the horrid conditions, justice could still prevail. A prison gang known as the Raiders bullied, robbed, and killed prisoners. With camp commandant Capt. Henry A. Wirz’s blessing the prisoners formed a police squad called the Regulators who arrested the Raiders. Six Raiders were tried, convicted, and hung.

That act did not save Capt. Wirz, Andersonville’s last commander. After the war he was arrested, tried for gross violation of the laws of war, convicted, and hung.

One side of the road is lined with memorials erected by states whose soldiers were imprisoned here.

Michigan Memorial

The park site includes the Andersonville National Cemetery where more than 13,000 Union soldiers were buried. If you think these men were buried as unknown soldiers, you’d be wrong. A prisoner, Dorence Atwater, worked at the prison hospital. He kept a detailed list of the dead that matched grave numbers with names. After the war, he and Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, managed to identify 95% of the men buried at Andersonville. So the men who died here are not anonymous.

Monument to and Graves of Andersonville Prisoners


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