Thursday, January 2, 2014

First word: Andersonville NHS details 150th anniv. commemoration of notorious prison

Burial trench at Camp Sumter in August 1864 (NPS)

“We did this to ourselves.”

That will be the central theme of Andersonville National Historic Site's two-year 150th anniversary commemoration of the story of the infamous Civil War military prison formally called Camp Sumter.

That story is both complicated and emotional, Eric Leonard, chief of interpretation at the federal site in Middle Georgia, told the Picket on Thursday.

“We will not re-create it, cannot re-create it and probably shouldn’t. We are not going to re-enact a shooting at the deadline. It’s murder. It’s really awful.”

But what visitors will get is an overview of Andersonville and the 150 prisons across the North and South, the travails of those housed there, and the complicated history of how Civil War prisons were devised and operated.

The park, which has programs and exhibits about POWs in all wars involving American troops, this week released information on the Andersonville anniversary events. The program is entitled, "When We Held Each Other Prisoner."

Key events include a living history weekend in March 2014, October 2014 and March 2015; a memorial illumination (with nearly 13,000 candle luminaries on the prison site) on Sept. 18-19, 2015, coinciding with National POW/MIA Recognition Day; and a "Funeral for Thirteen Thousand," on Sept. 19, 2015, at Andersonville National Cemetery to remember the nearly 13,000 Union soldiers who died at the Confederate prison. About 56,000 soldiers died as prisoners of war during the Civil War.

"This service will be the funeral they never received," according to the National Park Service. Leonard said he expects descendants of POWs will be among those joining the public at the ceremony.

A scene of Camp Sumter (NPS)

The first Union POWs were in the 16-acre stockade at Camp Sumter on Feb. 24, 1864. The first of  12,920 deaths occurred three days later. The camp was expanded a few months later. By then, dozens were dying a day amid the overcrowding, fetid conditions and hot weather.

At one point, more than 30,000 Union soldiers were squeezed into the Andersonville prison, which was existence for 14 months. The camp effectively became the poster child for the inhumanities and loss at Civil War prisons.

“They did not have to die," said Leonard. "They are not victims in the simplest sense, but political passions, war passions conspire in many respects to end their lives far from home, in conditions far from ideal.”

While Andersonville is the most well-known Civil War prison, others in the North and South had appalling conditions and high casualty rates, too.

“Whatever prison you or your ancestors were held in, you consider the worst place of the war."

Andersonville National Cemetery (NPS)

Leonard says "First Saturdays" will kick off in February. They will be conducted every two months.

The focus of each Saturday program will be on a single word or theme that represents conditions, events and emotions. The themes include desperation, apprehension, sacrifice and accountability.

The living history weekends are March 8-9, 2014, October 25-26, 2014, and March 14-15, 2015. Lantern-light tours also are planned in January and March 2014.

As customary, Memorial Day observances will be conducted at the cemetery, which had 192 burials in 2013.

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