Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Telling the stark stories of Andersonville

Union prisoners (NPS photo)
Visitors to a living history event will learn about conditions faced by prisoner and guard alike at Camp Sumter, the infamous Civil War miiltary prison in Georgia.

The program is Saturday, March 9, and Sunday, March 10, at Andersonville National Historic Site, about 10 miles northeast of Americus. Most of the activities will take place at a re-created section of the stockade wall, next to replica prisoner tents. Artillery and guard demonstrations will occur twice each day. Admission is free

Bobby Hughes in white frock
"Inside the stockade, we are now going to an approach that recognizes that while there was a routine to the life of prisoners, they certainly didn't set a watch by it," Eric Leonard, chief of education and interpretation at Andersonville, told the Picket. “This is also intended to draw visitors in to ask more questions and more actively experience the event.”

Camp Sumter was in operation only 14 months, but 12,920 Union prisoners -- 29 percent of the overall population -- succumbed to poor diet and water, disease, the elements and unsanitary conditions. 

Among the living historians and re-enactors on hand will be about a dozen members of the Georgia Sharpshooters, portraying Confederate guards.  

NHS photo
Bobby Hughes, who leads Company B, 2nd Battalion Georgia Sharpshooters, said he hopes visitors get “a better understanding of what it was like on both sides of the wall. It was not all peaches and ice cream for the guards.”

Approximately 3,600 men served as guards at Camp Sumter, with about 870 required to cover a 24-hour shift.

“They were doing their job,” said Hughes. “Many did not want to be there.”

They suffered from many of the same disease problems as the prisoners, although they sometimes received extra food to supplement meager rations. According to the National Park Service, 202, or 6.5% died, at Andersonville. Among the ill, the death rate was about the same as for POWs.

On Saturday, Hughes’ group will represent the 26th Alabama Infantry, which delivered the first groups of Union prisoners to Camp Sumter. They were more sympathetic to the growing plight of the prisoners, said Hughes, who lives in Savannah.

Eventually, old men and young boys in the Georgia Reserves did more of the guard duty. The Georgia Sharpshooters will portray that contingent on Sunday.

“They were a little more apathetic,” according to Hughes “They had never seen action.”

Photo: Bobby Hughes
Prisoners who crossed the stockade’s lower wood rails, or “deadline”, were shot dead. The number of those shot was probably exaggerated at the trial of camp commandant Henry Wirz, said Hughes. Wirz was the only man executed for war crimes during the Civil War.

Members of the Georgia Sharpshooters have portrayed Union soldiers in previous events at Andersonville. To Hughes, their story is of perseverance.

“You had your freedom taken away,” he told the Picket. “You learn to adapt, overcome and carry on.”

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