Andersonville Prison of the Civil War

Andersonville Prison, Georgia by J.W. Morton, Jr.

Andersonville Prison, Georgia by J.W. Morton, Jr.

The Camp Sumter military prison at Andersonville, Georgia, was one of the largest Confederate military prisons during the Civil War. Today, the Andersonville National Historic Site is a memorial to all American prisoners of war throughout the nation’s history.

In the latter part of the Civil War, the Confederate States government built a large stockaded prison in south-central Georgia. Between February 1864, when the first prisoners arrived, and April 1865, when the prison ceased to exist, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined there. Of these, more than 13,000 perished from disease, malnutrition, overcrowding, and exposure. Though the prison’s official name was Camp Sumter, it was generally referred to as Andersonville.

Andersonville, the largest and best known of all the southern military prisons during the Civil War, it was established after Confederate officials decided that the large number of Union soldiers being held in the Richmond, Virginia prisons should be moved elsewhere as they were a serious drain on the city’s dwindling food supply.

Robert E. Lee

Also, as General Robert E. Lee pointed out in October 1863, the Northern captives would become a liability in the event of an enemy attack. They would have to be guarded to prevent their release or escape, but every able-bodied soldier was being sent off to the battlefronts, and there were not enough men left to form an adequate guard force. In addition, city residents, fearful of a prison break, also urged the government to move the Federals to another location. In their search for a suitable prison site, Confederate authorities hoped to find a place more remote from the theater of war, where the prisoners could be more easily guarded, where enemy raids would be less likely, and where food could be more readily obtained.

In December 1863, after ruling out several likely locations in Virginia and North Carolina, they finally settled on the Georgia site because of its proximity to the railroad, the presence of a “large supply of beautiful clear water,” and the mild climate. At that time, Andersonville Station was a small community of about 20 people, and its only buildings were a depot, a church, a store, a cotton warehouse, and about a dozen houses.

Confederate soldiers and African American slaves from neighborhood plantations began clearing the land for the prison in January 1864. For the next six weeks, the hillsides east of the depot echoed with the ring of axes, the crash of trees, the thud of shovels, and the shouts of men as the sandy Georgia soil was stripped of its lofty pines. The trees were trimmed and topped to make logs about 20 feet long. These were then hewed to a thickness of 8 to 12 inches and set vertically five feet into the ground to form an almost impregnable stockaded enclosure. The enclosure originally encompassed about 16.5 acres of land but was later enlarged to 26.5 acres.

Andersonville, Georgia prison by John B. Walker, 1865

Andersonville, Georgia prison by John B. Walker, 1865

Sentry boxes, or “Pigeon-Roosts” as the prisoners called them, were positioned at intervals along the top of the stockade and afforded the guards “a comfortable place in which to stand and watch what was going on inside the pen.” A “deadline” was established inside the stockade and parallel to the palisades. It was marked by a wood railing “over which no prisoner” was “allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.” The ground between the deadline and the palisades was called the “dead run.” The Stockade Branch of Sweetwater Creek flowed west to east through the prison yard dividing it roughly in half.

To guard against enemy attack and to quell disturbances inside the prison, earthen forts equipped with artillery were constructed at points along the perimeter of the stockade and interconnected by a line of palisades. The principal work, known as the “Star Fort,” stood at the southwest corner of the prison.

Confederate Captain Henry Wirz

Confederate Captain Henry Wirz

Other structures were built adjacent to the stockade, including a bakery, a cookhouse, and two stockaded hospitals. The post commander in charge of the overall administration of Andersonville during the summer of 1864 was General John H. Winder, former provost marshal, and supervisor of Confederate prisons in Richmond. The prison commandant responsible for maintaining order and discipline was Swiss-born Captain Henry Wirz.

The guard force consisted of several Confederate regular regiments, who were, for the most part, made up of undisciplined older men and boys recently called into service. These guards were generally held in low esteem by both the prisoners and prison authorities. Both Wirz and Winder wanted to replace them with more seasoned troops, but their efforts were unsuccessful, as all combat-ready units were needed to oppose General William T. Sherman‘s Federal columns advancing southward through northern Georgia toward Atlanta.

The first contingent of prisoners, including 500 men, arrived at the camp on February 27, 1864, before the prison. In the weeks and months that followed, others arrived at the rate of about 400 per day. These included not only the Federals removed from prisons in and around Richmond but also soldiers captured on the battlefields of Virginia and Georgia and prisoners transferred from Confederate camps in Florida and Alabama.

Andersonville, Georgia Prison, 1864

Andersonville, Georgia Prison, 1864

Overcrowding quickly became a serious problem. By late June, some 26,000 Union soldiers were confined in a stockade built to accommodate 10,000. By the end of July, the constant arrival of new prisoners raised the total number of men being held in prison to 31,678. The largest number incarcerated at any one time was more than 32,000 in August 1864.

Next to overcrowding, the absence of adequate shelter caused the greatest suffering. The prisoners, except for those confined in the hospitals, were required to provide their own shelter. Early arrivals gathered up the lumber, logs, and branches remaining from the construction of the stockade and built rude huts. However, the wood supply was soon exhausted, and the more resourceful Federals improvised tents from odd bits of clothing and other cloth. Others dug holes in the ground for protection, and hundreds of others were without any type of shelter to protect them.

Many of the men who arrived from other Confederate prisons were literally dressed in rags before they even got there. Others brought directly from the battlefields wore clothes that showed considerable wear and which soon deteriorated. Some prisoners had no clothes at all.

Issuing Rations at Andersonville, Georgia Prison by Andrew J. Riddle, 1864

Issuing Rations at Andersonville, Georgia Prison by Andrew J. Riddle, 1864

The daily food ration, the cause of severe dietary deficiencies, consisted of one-quarter pound of meal and either one-third pound of bacon or 1 pound of beef. Occasionally, peas, rice, vinegar, and molasses were provided. Food was usually issued uncooked. Prison officials intended to cook the rations before distributing them, but the prisoners arrived before the facilities had been completed. By the time a cookhouse and a bakehouse were finished in the summer of 1864, the large number of men in the stockade rendered them wholly inadequate. The prisoners, who were allowed to keep their money and other valuables, could supplement their meager rations by buying food from the prison sutler and other merchants who set up shops inside the stockade. However, prices were high, and only those prisoners with a large cash reserve could do business regularly.

The major water supply came from the five-foot-wide stream that flowed through the prison yard, which was soon polluted. Afterward, several springs were found in the bottom south of the stream, and while the water from these was brackish, it was better than that drawn from the stream. Because they could not remedy the pollution problem, prison officials encouraged their captives to dig wells. Usually, several men from the same mess would undertake the project, using spoons, half canteens, mess plates, and borrowed shovels. The wells were about 3 feet wide and as deep as 75 feet. Ropes attached to buckets, cups, or boots were used to bail the water.

Andersonville, Georgia Prisoners

Andersonville, Georgia Prisoners

The overcrowding, inadequate shelters, meager rations, and poor sanitary conditions resulted in widespread disease and a high mortality rate. Altogether, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined in Andersonville at one time or another. Of these, 12,912 are buried in the Andersonville cemetery. Most deaths were caused by diarrhea, dysentery, gangrene, and scurvy – diseases that the Confederate doctors could not arrest because they lacked proper facilities, personnel, and medical supplies. During the prison’s 13-month existence, more than 900 prisoners died each month. On any single day, the greatest death toll occurred on August 23, 1864, when 97 prisoners died.

Besides the unhealthful, debilitating prison conditions, the Federal soldiers at Andersonville had to contend with depredations by their own comrades who frequently stole food, clothing, and whatever other valuables they could lay their hands on and who were not averse to using violence to gain their ends. The “Andersonville Raiders,” a large, organized group of thieves, cutthroats, and murderers, were the most notorious and dangerous predators. For nearly four months, the Raiders controlled the prisoners, and robberies and murders were daily occurrences. Finally, with the help and sanction of General Winder and Captain Wirz, the six ringleaders were captured and, on July 11, 1864, after a quick trial by fellow inmates, hanged from a newly built scaffold near the South Gate. Other members of the Raiders were forced to run a gauntlet of club-wielding prisoners. This ended the wholesale murder and pillage, although some petty thievery continued.

Execution of the "Raiders" at Andersonville, Georgia Prison by J.E. Taylor

Execution of the “Raiders” at Andersonville, Georgia Prison by J.E. Taylor

Escape from Andersonville was not impossible, but it was difficult. During the prison’s existence, 329 prisoners escaped. Many more got away temporarily, but they were caught and returned. This was because the prison was situated far from Union lines and because of the efficiency of the dogs used by the Confederates to track runaways. Although numerous tunnels were dug, usually on the pretext of digging wells, very few men seem to have escaped by this method. Successful escapees usually slipped away from their guards while on work details outside the stockade.

When General William T. Sherman’s armies captured Atlanta on September 2, 1864, most of the able-bodied prisoners at Andersonville were moved to Charleston and Florence, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, to prevent their release by Union cavalry columns sent out for that purpose.

Union soldiers released from Andersonville Prison in 1865 by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Union soldiers released from Andersonville Prison in 1865 by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

After Sherman’s forces set out on their march across Georgia to the sea, the prison continued to operate on a smaller scale until April 1865. On April 17, a powerful Union column under General James H. Wilson captured Columbus, Georgia. Within three weeks, the last Andersonville prisoner had been released, and Captain Henry Wirz placed under arrest.

When the emaciated survivors of Andersonville returned to their homes at the end of the war, there was widespread demand in the North for the punishment of those responsible for what many claimed were deliberately planned atrocities. Next to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Andersonville story was the most potent weapon in the arsenal of those who wished to impose a harsh reconstruction on the former Confederate States of America. Most public indignation, bitterness, and anger concerning Andersonville soon focused on prison commander Henry Wirz, as General Winder had died. The Northern press pictured him as a vicious sadist and used such words as “monster” and “beast” to describe him. He was neither, but because he spoke with a foreign accent and was the officer with whom the prisoners had the most contact, he bore the brunt of the blame for conditions at the prison.

Though Wirz had the reputation of a “firm and rigid” disciplinarian, he was not indifferent to the prisoners’ plight. He tried to provide adequate shelter and obtain food and medical supplies for his charges, but governmental red tape, labor shortages, high prices, local opposition, and the general economic deterioration of the Confederacy hindered his efforts.

Execution of Confederate Captain Henry Wirtz by Alexander Gardner, 1865

Execution of Confederate Captain Henry Wirtz by Alexander Gardner, 1865

After his arrest in 1865, Wirz was taken to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C., where he was tried and found guilty for conspiring with others to “impair and injure the health and to destroy the lives . . . of large numbers of federal prisoners” and for “murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war.” He was hanged in Washington on November 10, 1865.

Despite numerous claims to the contrary, mostly from understandably embittered former inmates, there was no conspiracy on the part of Wirz, Winder, or other Confederate officials to exterminate the Federal soldiers confined at Andersonville deliberately. The horrors of Andersonville resulted principally from the breakdown of the Southern economy. Captain Henry Wirz’s conviction and subsequent execution are still debated to the present day.

In the end, almost as many Confederates (25,976) died in Northern prison camps as the 30,218 Federals that expired in the Southern.

Andersonville, Georgia National Cemetery Today, by the National Park Service

Andersonville, Georgia National Cemetery Today, by the National Park Service

The cemetery, located 300 yards north of the prison site, was established in 1864. The first burial took place on February 27, 1864, only three days after prisoners first arrived. Prisoners were buried in trenches three feet deep and between 100 and 200 feet long.

Following the end of the Civil War, the burying ground for the prison was designated a National Cemetery on July 26, 1865. Afterward, former Union soldiers and volunteers came to identify and mark the graves of the Union dead and transform the place into the Andersonville National Cemetery. With the assistance of former prisoner Dorence Atwater, who had worked as a clerk in prison maintaining the death register, and Red Cross Founder Clara Barton, they were able to identify the vast majority of those who had died. Only 460 of the Andersonville graves had to be marked “unknown US soldier.”

By 1868, additional Union soldiers, whose bodies had been retrieved from hospitals, battlegrounds, and cemeteries throughout the region, were moved to the Andersonville National Cemetery, increasing the total burials to more than 13,800

Since the 1870s, approximately 7,000 more American servicemen and their families have joined the prisoner burials and made Andersonville National Cemetery their final resting place. The cemetery continues to be utilized today and averages over 150 burials a year.

Today the National Cemetery encompasses a 27-acre site. It includes a 4.5-foot high brick wall that surrounds the site. In between the many rows of marble headstones and large canopy trees, large monuments can be found.

Andersonville Prison, Georgia today by Carol Highsmith

Andersonville Prison, Georgia today by Carol Highsmith

The rest of the prison site reverted to private ownership in 1875, and over time the stockades disappeared, and all the buildings were removed as the land was used for farming.

In December 1890, it was purchased by the Georgia Department of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Union veterans organization. Unable to finance improvements needed to protect the property, this group sold it for one dollar to the Woman’s Relief Corps, which made many improvements to the landscape with the idea of creating a memorial park. Over the years, many patriotic organizations erected monuments to the soldiers imprisoned there.

The prison site, which contained 84.20 acres, was donated to the United States in 1910. The U.S. Department of the Army administered it until 1970, when it was made a national historic site and placed under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Today, Andersonville National Historic Site comprises three distinct components: the former site of Camp Sumter military prison, the Andersonville National Cemetery, and the National Prisoner of War Museum, which opened in 1998 to honor all U.S. prisoners of war in all wars. The museum, which also serves as the park’s visitor center, tells the story of prisoners of war throughout American History.

The historic 26.5-acre prison site is outlined with double rows of white posts. Two sections of the stockade wall have been reconstructed at the north gate and the northeast corner.

National Prisoner of War Museum, Andersonville, Georgia by the National Park Service

National Prisoner of War Museum, Andersonville, Georgia by the National Park Service

Located south of the National POW Museum, a tour road encircles the site, providing easy access to the most important locations. Roadside pull-offs and exhibits are located at the Wisconsin Monument, the North Gate, Providence Spring, the Star Fort, and the reconstructed northeast corner of the stockade.

The historic prison site may be toured on foot or by car. A free self-guided audio tour is available for checkout at the museum information desk.

Andersonville National Historic Site
496 Cemetery Road
Andersonville, Georgia 31711
229-924-0343

© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated August 2021.

Also See:

Union Prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia

Union Prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia

Campaigns of the Civil War

The Civil War

Georgia Civil War Battles

National Parks, Monuments & Historic Sites

Sources:

Andersonville National Historic Site

National Park Handbook