Andersonville National Historic Site | HISTORY OF ANDERSONVILLE PRISON

Tent exhibit at Andersonville National Historic Site

Tent exhibit at Andersonville National Historic Site

From the start of the Civil War in April 1861, Union and Confederate prisoners were often exchanged to help alleviate the burden of having to take care of the prisoners. This system worked well until the Union allowed black men to enlist in the military starting in 1863. When captured, the South refused to exchange them, instead having them shot, returned to the slave market, or used as forced labor for the Confederate military. As a result, the Union refused to exchange any prisoners at all, forcing the creation of a prison system for both sides.

Union prisoners of war (POWs) were initially held in Richmond, Virginia, but the problem of overcrowding came quickly. Many prison camps were opened throughout the South, including the camp at Andersonville, officially named Camp Sumter. The location was chosen because it was deep behind the front lines at the time, and it was in a rural area. If the local population didn’t like the idea, they didn’t count much when it came time for elections, so politicians weren’t too worried about upsetting anyone. Furthermore, the location had a stream running through it, which would serve as a source of clean water for the prisoners.

Opening in February, 1864, Camp Sumter was originally built to hold 10,000 men on 16.5 acres. The prison was expanded to 26.5 acres later that June. However, by August over 32,000 men were imprisoned at Andersonville, far more than even the expanded prison site was meant to hold. Rations were low to non-existent, shelter from the hot sun in the summer and cold rain in the winter was under make-shift tents—if shelter could be found at all—and the once-clean stream was soon being used as a latrine. By the time the war ended 14 months after the prison opened, nearly 13,000 Union POWs had died from starvation, disease, or exposure to the elements. While some prisoners were beaten to death or shot by prison guards, this accounted for an insignificant number of the total deaths.

Arguably responsible for more Union POW deaths than prison guard abuse was the gang of Union POW ruffians called the Raiders. Headed by six men and numbering somewhere between 100 and 500 members, the Raiders stole food and other supplies from fellow soldiers, sometimes killing those who resisted. The loss of food or materials to build a shelter directly contributed to the deaths of many, particularly those who were already in poor health. The antics of the Raiders were eventually reported to Camp Sumters’ commander, Captain Henry Wirz, who allowed the prisoners to form their own police force, even giving them the ability to hold trials and administer punishment. The group was known as the Regulators, and while a small band of these men had been operating to stop the Raiders prior to Wirz’s blessing, the group swelled in number and now began making arrests. The six leaders of the Raiders were arrested between June and July 1864 and were eventually hung. Their graves stand separate in the Andersonville National Cemetery because no honest Union soldier wanted to be buried with them.

Graves of the six leaders of the Raiders at Andersonville National Cemetery

Graves of the six leaders of the Raiders at Andersonville National Cemetery

While Andersonville became the most infamous of all Civil War prison camps, and certainly the most deaths occurred there, it was not an anomaly among the 150 or so prison camps formed during the war, both Union and Confederate. In fact, a prisoner was more likely to die than a soldier who fought in combat. All told, about 195,000 Union and 215,000 Confederate soldiers died while being held as a prisoner of war.

Controversy over which side was responsible for the tragedy at Andersonville still exists today. Southern mentality says it was the Union’s refusal to exchange prisoners that led to the ordeal. Northerners say it was the South’s fault, claiming that if the South had agreed to exchange black prisoners this never would have happened. They also claim rations and supplies meant for prisoners were stolen by prison guards, and that the unsanitary conditions should have been addressed.

Andersonville National Historic Site was the last Civil War-oriented park to be formed within the National Park system, for Southern politicians feared the Federal government would create a park that would place the blame on the South. While all other Civil War parks have been around since the early 1900s, it took until 1970 for Southern Congressmen to finally vote for the creation of Andersonville National Historic Site, doing so only with the understanding that it was to be formed to honor POWs of all wars and not to harp negatively on the events at Andersonville. Park Rangers who give the prison tours today have to remain very neutral. Rangers often have angry Southerners and Northerners yell at them for supposedly taking a side, and threats of violence against them have occurred. It’s hard to imagine that there are still some cretins living 150 years in the past!

After the war, many of the dead were buried in what would become the Andersonville National Cemetery. Captain Wirz was tried for war crimes and executed. Southerners felt this was an injustice, and in 1908 the Daughters of the Confederacy had a monument erected in downtown Andersonville to honor Wirz. This is the only memorial in the United States honoring a war criminal, and it still stands today.

In 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic purchased the land where the prison was. The Woman’s Relief Corps soon took over the property and tried to create a memorial park. In 1910, the land was given to the United States government and operated by the War Department. Eventually, in 1933, the land was transferred to the National Park Service, though, as mentioned, it took nearly 40 more years for it to become a National Historic Site. Today, the park sees roughly 75,000 visitors each year.

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Last updated on September 12, 2023
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