We thought we’d be able to see the NHS site in Plains and the one at Andersonville in one day. How wrong we were. After spending the morning in Plains we drove to Andersonville and arrived about 2:30 pm. We were surprised to find that the museum was not just about Andersonville but was the National POW Museum. We’d just started to look at the exhibits when the first of two movies was announced. The first one covered the history of POWs from the Revolution through the Gulf War and included former POWs recollections. The second movie was specific to Andersonville. All I knew was that it was an infamous Confederate POW camp. There was so much more involved. I found it fascinating. It was 4 o’clock by the time we left the theatre. We decided to come back the next day. Steve has a great interest in military history and has done research after our visit. He’d like to share this with you.
Andersonville, Part 1
In keeping with our tours whenever possible of Civil War sites and battlefields, one of the reasons we wanted to come to this area of Georgia was to see Andersonville Prison. I’m sure most people with an interest in Civil War history, like me but not real scholars of the subject, again like me, have heard of the notorious POW camp and its reputation as a “Death Camp” akin to the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. Andersonville’s commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried in our first War Crimes Trial. He was convicted on charges of conspiracy and murder, and hung. The real story was somewhat different.
There is no question that the Confederate Prison Camp, officially named Camp Sumter, was the worst of all Civil War camps. Between February of 1864, when it opened, and April of 1865 when the war ended, a mere 14 months, 45,000 Union prisoners passed through its gates, of which almost 13,000 died of starvation, malnutrition, dysentery, and other diseases, a mortality rate of 29%. But how many of us were aware that the Confederate dead from similar causes were more than 25% at the Union prison camp at Elmira, New York?
At no time in military history prior to the American Civil War did prison camps of this magnitude even exist. In ancient times, POWs were not even treated as prisoners; they were simply slaughtered or sold into slavery. There was no attempt to treat them humanely. In more modern times, there was a gentlemanly code that Western Civilizations adhered to. Prisoners were either paroled or exchanged. A paroled soldier was allowed to return home, and on his honor was bound to refrain from fighting until the end of whatever war was currently in progress. Many soldiers, especially ranking officers, would refuse parole, and instead wait to be exchanged. A prisoner exchange usually involved approximately equal numbers of equal rank. An exchanged prisoner was free to rejoin his unit and continue the fight. While waiting for exchange, they were generally well treated, sometimes being given a limited parole, giving them the freedom of the city or town where they were held, and often being treated as honored guests by their captors.
Much changed in the Civil War. Firstly, no one on either side expected that the war would last more than two or three months, and in the beginning, no provisions were made for prison camps by either the Union or the Confederates. It soon became apparent that this would not be the case, and prisoner exchanges were common. Things changed after January of 1863.
On January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation took effect. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free a single slave. President Lincoln knew it would never be accepted as anything other than a military measure to shorten the war. It freed all slaves currently held in areas of the United States that were currently in rebellion. Not a single slave in areas of the south already under Union control was freed. Not a slave in any of the slaveholding states remaining loyal to the Union was freed. In other words, not a single slave in any area where the Union could enforce the Proclamation was freed. But when slaves held in these areas heard of it, they were given hope of freedom, and knew that if they escaped to Union territory, they would be free, and they also knew they would be welcomed into the Union armies. In the beginning, most people thought the black man would not fight for his own freedom and blacks were assigned mostly to guard duty in behind-the-lines areas. But this changed after the Battle of Milliken’s Bend, which I mentioned in the post about the Siege of Vicksburg. At Milliken’s Bend, the black soldier proved to everyone that he could and would fight, and recruitment of blacks began in earnest. And not as guards, but as fighting men.
The South would not accept that an escaped slave, serving in the Union forces and taken prisoner during battle was anything other than an escaped slave, and he would be treated as such. At one point, General Lee wrote General Grant proposing an exchange of prisoners. Grant replied that no exchange could take place unless all soldiers would be equally considered for exchange. Lee answered that as the laws of the Confederacy bound him, he could not agree, and that any black troops would not be exchanged. Prisoner exchanges ceased.
Neither side was prepared for this. Camps had to be created to hold prisoners. Prisoners would have to be clothed and fed. In many cases soldiers of their own armies were not being properly clothed or fed. With limited supplies, it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see which direction those supplies would go.
The camp at Andersonville originally covered 16 acres, and was eventually enlarged to 26. Intended to hold 10,000 prisoners, more than 45,000 passed through its gates. A stream passed through the middle of the camp. Confederate soldiers were camped on the upstream side of this stream, using it for water, and below their camp, for their latrine. The stream then passed through the camp itself, where the prisoners used it for the same purposes. It was already fouled when it got to the prison, and didn’t get any better on its way through. Conditions were bad to start with, and quickly deteriorated.
A group of Union prisoners began attacking their fellow inmates, stealing whatever food and clothing they had. Calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, they were armed with clubs and would kill to get what they wanted. Soon another group arose, calling themselves The Regulators. They caught most of the Raiders, and tried them, with newly arrived prisoners acting as jurors. Punishments for those found guilty included running the gauntlet, being sent to the stocks, balls and chains, and in six cases, the ringleaders, hanging. Captain Wirz, unable to curb the Raiders on his own, approved the sentences. Six graves remain to this day separated from the rest of the Andersonville dead.
Captain Henry Wirz, originally from Switzerland, lost the use of his right arm after being wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. Due to his injury, he had been assigned to work with General John Winder, who was in charge of Confederate Prisoner of War camps. He received a special assignment from President Jefferson Davis to carry secret dispatches to Confederate Ministers in England and France, and after returning to Richmond, worked in various prison camps before taking charge at Andersonville. His treatment of prisoners was indeed brutal, by today’s standards. He greeted new prisoners with a pistol, threatening to personally shoot anyone breaking his rules. Even minor infractions were dealt with harshly, including balls and chains. Many, including Dorance Atwater, believed he was intentionally starving prisoners. Those of us of a certain age, remember that the Vietnam War was the first “televised” American conflict. The war was brought each evening into our living rooms, and this constant and direct exposure had severe political ramifications. Similarly, the American Civil War was the first widely “photographed” war. Americans newspapers daily published battlefield photographs from Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardiner, and other war correspondents. But even with this constant exposure, Americans were horrified at war’s end to see photographs of Andersonville survivors. The only things comparable in more modern times are photos of Holocaust survivors.
Wirz was arrested in May of 1865 and tried by a Military Tribunal between August and October in the U.S. Capitol building. The trial dominated the front pages of every newspaper across America. Witnesses included inmates, Confederate officers, and residents of the nearby town of Andersonville, but most of the testimony was hearsay. Felix de la Baume, a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette and a particularly gifted speaker, was able to give eyewitness testimony of a victim directly killed by Wirz. His testimony was so compelling that he was given written commendation by members of the tribunal, and rewarded with a position within the Department of the Interior even as the trial progressed.
Wirz was convicted of murder and conspiracy to imperil the lives of Union prisoners of war. He was hung on November 10. On November 21, evidence was obtained that Felix de la Baume was really Felix Oeser, of Prussia, was not descended from Lafayette, and was not an Andersonville survivor, but a deserter from the 7th New York Volunteers. Caught up in his perjury, he disappeared and was never heard from again. Was Henry Wirz any guiltier of war crimes than others in his position? Or did events of the time make him a scapegoat? The controversy continues to this day.
The Andersonville site includes a National Cemetery. Not only those who died at the prison camp are there, but also those who served in other wars. Wandering through the cemetery, seeing the thousands of graves, and reflecting on the men and women buried here is a very moving experience.
Andersonville, Part 2
Much to our surprise, the Andersonville National Historic Site is not only dedicated to the Civil War prison camp, but also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum, all administered by the National Park Service. This museum is fantastic. Dedicated to American Prisoners of War from all conflicts, dating back to the Revolution, it’s set up differently than we would have expected it to be. You don’t go from room to room, seeing first an exhibit for the Revolution, next one for the War of 1812, and so on. Instead, its purpose is to show the Prisoner of War experience, and is divided into sections explaining that experience. First are The Capture, and all the fear and uncertainness that comes from it. Next is Transport to Camp. Following that is Imprisonment. Finally comes Liberation. Each exhibit will take examples from all conflicts to describe that part of the experience.
But before even getting into these four phases is a very interesting exhibit which asks the question “Who is considered a Prisoner of War?” The answer is not as easily answered as it may seem. Are civilians? Are spies? Are terrorists? Who makes the determination? And how were these various categories of prisoners treated throughout history? What was the Geneva Convention? And when a conflict involves nations not signed on to the Convention, what rules apply? All very interesting and all very important. Many of the exhibits involve interviews and diaries of actual survivors of prison camps. Oftentimes diaries included drawings depicting conditions and events. And in some cases, exhibits included artifacts made by prisoners, such as a coffee cup made from a tin rations can. I was very impressed by a ship model made from bits of bone scavenged from soup by a prisoner during the War of 1812. There was an extensive exhibit pertaining to the second category, Transport, on the Bataan Death March in World War Two. Video interviews were included of prisoners from the Vietnam War and Desert Storm. Senator John McCain and Admiral James Stockdale were featured extensively. The torture endured by these men was brutal. Admiral Stockdale was the highest ranking American held during Vietnam, and was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy, including four Silver Stars and the Congressional Medal of Honor. He spoke of the communication codes they would use when held in solitary, by tapping out letters of the alphabet. The code was simple to learn, but the North Vietnamese never caught on. He said that being ordered to go out into the hallways and sweep the floor was an opportunity to “make a speech” by swishing the broom to the appropriate code.
Displays included ways the prisoners would offer resistance to their captors whenever and however possible. Who among us (at least in our age group) can forget the famous photo of the men of the USS Pueblo posed in a group by the North Koreans, supposedly admitting they were all “war criminals”, all standing there with their middle finger extended? The gesture went totally over the heads of their captors, but was immediately recognized for what it was by the American Public. Unfortunately, Time Magazine, in its infinite wisdom, published the photos telling the world, including the North Korean captors exactly what the men were doing, subjecting them to a week of hell.
Films were shown of the news coverage when the Vietnam prisoners were released. I remember being glued to the TV as these heroes kissed the ground when arriving in US territory and were greeted with the hugs and kisses of mothers, wives and children. Another exhibit spoke to the uncertainty of family back home, who sometimes for years did not know if their son, father, husband was alive or dead. A poem written by President Jimmy Carter, telling of a true event from his family was on display:
The Ballad of Tom Gordy
In ’41 the Japanese took our troops on Guam
Alive or dead, we didn’t know.
One was my uncle Tom.
He was the Navy Boxing Champ.
My Hero with his crown.
Now with him gone, his family moved down to our Georgia town.
My grandma and my aunts felt Tom was not his wife’s, but theirs.
She could feel the coolness but stayed on to join their prayers.
What bound them all together was the hope and faith and dread.
When two years passed, the dispatch came: my uncle Tom was dead.
His wife and kids moved back out west to start their lives again.
And after Tom was gone three years she wed a family friend.
The end of war brought startling news: Tom Gordy was alive.
Four years he had been digging coal deep in a mountainside.
The women took the feeble Tom and smothered him with care.
He never would tell anyone what happened over there.
Tom Gordy soon regained some strength and craved a normal life.
But mother and sisters told him lies about his absent wife Betraying him.
Tom wanted her but couldn’t figure how To bring her back, or overcome her second marriage vow.
He got four years back pay and made Commander, USN. It didn’t take him long to find a woman’s love again.
Tom closed the past except when his three children came to stay.
When I would mention his first wife, he’d always turn away.
Once my submarine tied up where she lived with his kin.
I went to visit them afraid they wouldn’t let me in.
But all the folks they knew were called when I first gave my name.
All night we danced and sang because At least Tom’s nephew came.
We had the opportunity to meet President Carter the following day, which Chari will talk about, and we would have loved to ask him about this story, but unfortunately, we were not permitted. There was a line of people waiting for their “photo-op” and if everyone wanted to stay and chat, he and Mrs. Carter would never get home! We came to Andersonville late one afternoon, expecting to see a museum dedicated to the Civil War prison camp, and found ourselves returning the following day to take it all in. Of all the National Park Service sites, and all of them are terrific, this is one of the best.