Monday, March 3, 2014

This weekend at Andersonville: A chance to hear voices of prisoners and guards

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, weary and worried Federal prisoners, after a long train ride from Virginia and a short march from the hamlet of Andersonville, were pouring into the new Camp Sumter in central Georgia.

“Every few days, about 400 come in,” says Eric Leonard, chief of education and interpretation at Andersonville National Historic Site.

Sign in lobby is being updated daily (NPS)

The camp grew exponentially in population and problems over the next months. By August 1864, nearly 33,000 men desperately clung to life amid squalid conditions. 

This weekend (March 8-9), the federal site northeast of Americus is putting on its free spring living history event. An estimated 100 participants will portray Union prisoners and Confederate guards.

Visitors, if they make a stop in the lobby first, will see a white board that helps tell the story of notorious Camp Sumter.

The board is updated daily to show the number of prisoners, those who died that day and total burials.

“It stops visitors and they stare at it,” says Leonard.

For now, the numbers are fairly small. The board, by this summer, will be especially shocking, as POWs died by the score each day in summer 1864. The mortality rate of prisoners was 29%. Nearly 13,000 would die over 14 months.

Camp Sumter was a relief valve for Confederate prisons in Richmond, Va., where authorities increasingly worried about escapes and liberation by Union troops just outside the capital.

The first prisoners arrived at Camp Sumter on Feb. 24. The first death was recorded just three days later.


Built over a few months, Camp Sumter filled rapidly; commanders and guards complained of shortages of supplies, food and medical material. And things only got worse.

Misery among the captives soared along with pestilence and the stifling middle Georgia heat.

Guards 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.

Like other parks, the staff at Andersonville has turned to social media to convey updates on camp life 150 years ago to the day of the postings.

“It allows us to reach dynamic audiences who are not necessarily going to come here,” says Leonard.

Attendance at the federal site is picking up with sesquicentennial interest and the increasing number of folks traveling to Florida’s beaches on Interstate 75.

This weekend’s programs will go from 10 a.m. to about 4 p.m. each day. An artillery crew from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park will give weapon demonstrations at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. each day. Guard drills are set for 2:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday.

In between, living historians will discuss life for prisoners and guards. For the former, time was a relative concept. They never knew what might happen next.

Most of the activities will take place at a re-created section of the stockade wall, next to replica prisoner tents. 

Visitors, of course, will be spared the smell that emanated from the prison in 1864 and won’t witness anyone losing a life at the deadline – a post beyond which a prisoner would be shot.

“There are limits to authenticity, thank goodness,” says Leonard.


Artillery was set up at Camp Sumter to control the prison population and prevent escape.

Historians know that a round was fired on Aug. 9, 1864, to bring out the entire guard force after flooding breached the stockade wall.

Prisoners later gave accounts of comrades being shot by prison staff, but there is no firm number.

“If you heard the crack of a rifle or shotgun that …. means an unarmed American soldier has been shot,” says Leonard.

March 1864 was an important month in the growth and life on the prison. Perhaps the most notorious person in military uniform during the Civil War, Maj. Henry Wirz, had taken over stockade operations by the end of that month. 

His role in what became the nightmare of Andersonville has been long debated. Defenders said he was provided insufficient resources, while critics claimed he displayed cruelty and indifference. Wirz was executed in November 1865 after his conspiracy and murder conviction.

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