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.
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.
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.
Other structures were built adjacent to the stockade which included 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, which included 500 men, arrived at the camp on February 27, 1864, before the prison was completed. 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, as well as prisoners transferred from Confederate camps in Florida and Alabama.
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 the 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.
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. Prices were high, however, and only those prisoners with a large cash reserve could do business on a regular basis.
The major water supply came from the five-foot-wide stream which flowed through the prison yard which was soon polluted. Afterward, a number of 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, a number of 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.