Saturday, September 27, 2014

Tour of Andersonville: 'Hell on Earth' is tranquil today, but the past still speaks

A visit to Andersonville National Historic Site in central Georgia is always sobering. You drive around the Civil War prison site's perimeter in just minutes and wonder: How could it be possible for this many prisoners to live in such a small area? Earlier this week, acting Superintendent Eric Leonard provided me an overview of the camp's operations. Sobering indeed. (Please click photos to enlarge)

Robert Knox Sneden, who served with the 40th New York Volunteer Infantry, was one of the most famous prisoners at Andersonville and Camp Lawton, mostly for his sketches and watercolors depicting the sites. He is believed to have made a shelter that resembled this reproduction in the northeast corner of the Camp Sumter (Andersonville) stockade. A visitor to Andersonville wrote: "There was not a tree for shade, not a building or tent in the prison. There were all the rude contrivances that the men could arrange for shelter from the heat of the sun, the chill of the night, and the rain. ... Others dug down and burrowed beneath the surface."

On Aug. 7, 1864, Confederate photographer A.J. Riddle took a series of photos, the only such documentation of Camp Sumter during the Civil War. They were widely printed after the war. Did the Confederacy have him take the photos as a means of propaganda -- to shock the North into resuming prisoner exchanges?

More than 45,000 Union soldiers were sent to Camp Sumter over 14 months; almost 13,000 died -- a 29 percent death rate. Of course, other prisons, both Confederate and Union, witnessed their share of horrors. The death rate at the North's Elmira prison in New York, for example, was 24 percent, although the number of deaths was much lower (about 3,000).

Students from around the country are taking part in the Memory Star Project. "13,000 stars illustrate the physical scope of prison fatalities but also the infinite number of dreams, loves and unrealized futures that each person possessed.  Just as prisoners came from all over America, so too do we hope to have Memory Stars from every state."

The federal site north of Americus, Ga.,  is home to the National Prisoner of War Museum, which pays tribute to sacrifice and courage of those held captive in all American wars. This statue and detail is from "The Price of Freedom Fully Paid," with the sculpture by Donna L. Dobberfuhl. The water serves as a reminder of its essential need. The bronze figure is raising his eyes upward in Thanksgiving after taking a drink from the stream.

Two sections of stockade were built years ago to mimic the real thing, which was 15-feet high. This is the main gate, where prisoners entered after walking from the train station in Andersonville and undergoing rudimentary medical screening.

Soldiers from the Army's Fort Rucker in southeast Alabama take part in a "staff ride," programs meant to teach them leadership lessons from the Andersonville experience. They are near Providence Spring, a body of water that emerged after a storm during August 1864, the worst month of suffering.

Park officials update this board daily. By September 1864, Confederates were hurriedly moving soldiers to other Southern prisons, convinced, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman would move to free them after taking Atlanta. That did not happen.

Acting Superintendent Eric Leonard said there incredible management flaws at Camp Sumter, with little accountability because different men led different detachments with different responsibilities. "Not my problem," might be a common reply to a situation.

The so-called Star Fort southwest of the stockade served as one of the principal fortifications and headquarters area. The guard force had about 19 guns at Camp Sumter. Interesting, about half of the forts and earthworks were facing inward, toward the prisoners. Officials were concerned of a mass breakout, said Leonard. "They were afraid of the prisoners, more than the prisoners were afraid of them."

The 1912 Illinois monument at Andersonville National Cemetery, a short drive from the prison site. The figure Columbia, standing with America's children, points to thousands of graves as if to ask a question or demand remembrance.

From the National Park Service: "Headstone number 12,196 in Section H of the national cemetery marks the grave of L.S. Tuttle, a Sergeant in company F of the 32nd Maine Infantry Regiment. His death in the Andersonville stockade on November 30, 1864, resulted from diarrhea, a common cause of death in the crowded Confederate prison." To this day, no one knows who placed it there.

I made a stop at the village of Andersonville, where this United Daughters of the Confederacy monument in memory of Confederate Capt. Henry Wirz was erected in 1909. "Today few Civil War figures are as controversial as Henry Wirz. To some people, he is a martyr or a scapegoat for a failed Confederacy. To others he is the vilest criminal of the war," writes the NPS. He was executed in November 1865 for murder and conspiracy. His is a very complicated story. Click here for more about the commandant of the prison stockade.

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