The overcrowding, inadequate shelters, meager rations, and the 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 of the 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. The greatest death toll on any single day 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.
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 camps in Charleston and Florence, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, to prevent their release by Union cavalry columns sent out for that purpose.
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, and 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 of the 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 because he 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 as a “firm and rigid” disciplinarian, he was not indifferent to the prisoners’ plight. He tried to provide adequate shelter and to 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.
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 deliberately exterminate the Federal soldiers confined at Andersonville. The horrors of Andersonville resulted principally from the breakdown of the Southern economy. Captain Henry Wirz’s conviction and subsequent execution is 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.
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 the 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 as 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.
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. It was administered by the U.S. Department of the Army 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.
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
Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, January 2018.