Inside Andersonville: The Civil War’s most cold-blooded prison
Have you ever heard of Andersonville Prison? During the mid-1800s, it was known as the most notorious Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camp of its time. Even though the brutal institution was only in operation for one year, tens of thousands of its convicts lost their lives during their imprisonment. Read on to see why Andersonville was the Civil War’s most cold-blooded prison.
In February 1864, Andersonville Prison was constructed in Macon County, Georgia. Commanded by Captain Henry Wirz, the deplorable prison was constantly overcrowded and held more than four times the amount of allotted convicts. In fact, 13,000 out of 45,000 inmates had died by the time that the POW camp closed. Since the prisoners’ primary causes of death were scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery, their illnesses had a lot to do with the prison’s unkempt conditions.
Upon viewing the exceptionally poor living situation at Andersonville Prison, Sergeant Major Robert H. Kellogg pronounced that “a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us.” He continued, “Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, Kellogg elaborated that, “In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating.”
In addition to the prison’s disgusting environment, jailbirds were forced to endure a lack of food supplies. Although Confederate guards were also impacted by the food shortage, their Union prisoners received much less food than the guards did. Crazily enough, the inmates weren’t even given new prison uniforms to wear and had to spend their days chained up in tattered rags. Former prisoner John McElroy shared that, “Before one was fairly cold his clothes would be appropriated and divided, and I have seen many sharp fights between contesting claimants.” The struggle was real!
Whether they dealt with issues like starvation and scurvy or dysentery and hookworms, the prisoners of Andersonville started to die off like flies. Since their only source of water was from a dirty creek that doubled as a commode, many men were poisoned by the very substance that was meant to nourish them. If that wasn’t enough to break a soldier’s spirit, there was always the fact that they could be kicked out of their tent at any given time. With 400 prisoners entering the prisoner-of-war camp on a daily basis, those inmates that were weakened from diseases like typhoid were made to give up their tents to newcomers and to suffer from exposure.
Despite the ironic fact that the lowly prison was located near acres of forested land, there was actually a shortage of wood for the convicts to use to keep warm or to cook. In addition, there was barely any silverware to use in the kitchen, rendering their culinary dreams a virtual impossibility. After seven months of the war camp’s existence, almost 33 percent of its inmates had passed away. Mass graves became commonplace solutions for the prisoner’s frailest citizens.
Since POW camps were a fairly new invention at the time, there were very little rules to govern them. However, the few rules that President Lincoln did set in place – to provide food, water, and medical treatment – were totally ignored. As a result, the captives at Andersonville resorted to more primitive societal rules. It became a necessary evil to form alliances within the prison walls. Also, building a bond with other inmates provided a much greater guarantee for survival. According to one sociological study, it was determined that a prisoner with friends “had a statistically significant positive effect on survival probabilities and that the closer the ties between friends as measured by such identifiers as ethnicity, kinship, and the same hometown, the bigger the effect.” Guess there really is strength in numbers!
After a year of unspeakable atrocities, the infamous prison was finally shut down at the end of the Civil War. By May 1865, the nightmare that had taken many Union soldiers’ lives was over. Fortunately enough, it was reported that approximately 315 lucky prisoners had escaped from their filthy confinement – although 32 inmates were begrudgingly retrieved. One young soldier actually kept a list of all of the convicts that were interned at Andersonville. This list, published by the New York Tribune, served to establish a memorial at the prison site to honor the men who had perished during their confinement.
Following the prison’s shady aftermath, it was determined its commander Captain Henry Wirz should face a court trial for his potential war crimes. Ruled by Union General Lew Wallace, the case featured testimonies from several of Wirz’s former detainees. In addition to their witness testimonies, the judge also analyzed official documents kept by the Confederates. Once the judge read Dr. James Jones’ account of how he had thrown up twice and gotten the flu from a single hour spent at the camp, his mind was more than made up. By November 10, 1865, Wirz was found guilty, sentenced to the death penalty, and hanged for his crimes. Even though Andersonville was closed over 150 years ago, its vile legacy continues to rival modern-day detention camps like Guantanamo Bay.