“Can This Be Hell”

These words, written by Sgt. Maj. Robert Kellogg, of the Union Army were recorded as he entered Camp Sumpter in central Georgia in the summer of 1864.  My historically oriented readers may know Camp Sumpter by it’s more famous name,  Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp, near Andersonville, Ga.  In this day of attempting to erase history in the name of sparing segments of our society from the unpleasant aspects of America’s Great War, I thought I would offer a glimpse into a place and time that would make Dante’s Hell look like child’s play.  America was born out of war, and war, my good friends is not a walk in the park.

Andersonville was established in 1864, designated as a POW camp for captured Union soldiers.  In all, some 52,300 Union prisoners of war, nearly all enlisted men, were held in this camp.  It was established on a 16 acre parcel, immediately adjacent to the town of Andersonville.  As the need for more space became apparent it was later expanded to 26 acres, all surrounded by a rough hewn log wall some 14 feet high.  The acreage contained a swampy area or “sink” and was home to a small creek, the camp water supply.  Both the creek and the sink were horribly contaminated by human excretement, and hordes of flies and other insects feasting on this waste.  Approximately 13,200 prisoners died as a result of scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency), diarrhea and dysentery.  Approximately 20 feet inside of the wall existed a low, weak fence known as the “dead line”, marking an area that resulted in a prisoner being immediately shot dead should he venture into it. Shelter for the prisoners consisted of rotting tents or other improvised attempts to escape the scorching Georgia heat or chilling winter cold.  Well researched historians suggest that much mortality was the result of hookworm infestations among the prisoners.  The prisoners were fed a poorly milled corn flour gruel, twice a day.  Any vermin in this weak porridge was the only source of protein for the hapless prisoners.  In truth, the guards were not much better off, receiving very poor rations.  As might be guessed, the guards were not the best soldiers the confederacy produced.
As is the case in our prisons today, alliances formed between prisoners and two significant gangs formed within the stockade.  The first group was known as the Andersonville Raiders.  The Raiders banded together and roamed the camp, beating hapless fellow prisoners with clubs in an effort to take their rations, shelter or anything they deemed to have value.  To counter the Raiders, a second group, the Regulators was formed. If a prisoner did not establish an alliance, he was far less likely to survive in this environment, where death was an everyday occurrence.  As the fortunes of war shifted, prisoners from Andersonville were farmed out to other Confederate camps, such as Florence, S.C., a camp that I have previously written about.  Many were then returned to Andersonville to wait out the war’s conclusion or death, as the case may be.

Andersonville was placed under the command of one Captain Henry Wirz.  Wirz recognized the horrors of this stockade and unsuccessfully attempted to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Union Army.  The logistics of this exchange were deemed to be insurmountable, and his problems grew as the number of prisoners swelled to four times the number that it was supposed to house.  Wirz also made numerous requests for increased rations, for both his guards and the prisoners, but military prisons were not a priority with either army in the Great War.  At the conclusion of the war, Wirz was the only soldier from either side that was tried and convicted of a “War Crime” .  Evidence of his attempts to improve conditions were either omitted or discounted and he was hanged on November 10, 1865.  (War Crimes are defined as “Crimes against Peace”, “Crimes against Humanity” or “Conventional War Crimes”.  Many soldiers were tried for criminal activities or crimes against military order that did not rise to the level of War Crimes, a tool that was used quite effectively at Nurembourg in another Great War.)

Today, Andersonville is a National Historic site and the home to the National Prisoner of War Museum, established in 1998.  There are two cemetery’s here, an active National Cemetery and a Cemetery containing the graves of 13,200 or so hapless soldiers who perished in this camp.  Andersonville is a testament to the realities and horrors of war, and marks a pinnacle in the depravity of mankind.  Nonetheless, it is a part of America’s history, and must not be subjected to the ill conceived sensitivities of folks who suggest they are offended by it’s existence.  Sharon and I are planning a long RV vacation early next month and I am anxious to visit Andersonville, where I will offer a prayer for the souls who suffered there.

As to Sgt. Maj. Kellogg’s question, “Is this hell?”, the answer is lost to mankind.  I strongly suspect if it was not hell, it was one of hell’s suburbs.

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