We have finally tamed the inertia that propels one while on the road seeing the America that most simply drive by. The incredible inflationary cycle that we are living through, replete with fuel costs that were unimaginable just a year ago, have added extra meaning to the enthusiasm we felt on our swing through the fabled towns of the old south last month. Soon such trips will be cost prohibitive. Along the way, we stopped for a day at America’s preservation of man’s inhumanity to man, the Prisoner of War Museum and site of the infamous Andersonville prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, Ga. The visit left an indelible impression on my mind.
As a reminder, this place was chosen by the Confederate Army as the location to stockade Union prisoners during the Civil War. It was in existence for about 14 months before the advancing Union Army forced the living prisoners to be relocated to prisons in South Carolina and other locations. It was a scene from the gates of hell and you could, if you cleared your mind and concentrated, feel the despair, misery and death that still lingers in the Georgia breeze that blows through this piece of ground. From February 1864 through the end of 1865 some 30,000 Union prisoners were held here with more than 13,000 dying from various diseases and at each other’s hand. The prison, then known as Camp Sumpter, was located on 16 acres with a creek running through the middle of it that served as the source of drinking water and as a latrine for the prisoners. There were no barracks and the men existed under makeshift shanties to provide shelter. As in many growing communities, crime was rampant and gangs soon formed. One gang, the “Raiders” would roam about stealing and beating inmates, much as gangs do today. Another group soon formed, the “Regulators” who demanded relief from the criminal gangs. The prison Commandant authorized a trial with prisoners serving as judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors and the ringleaders of the Raiders were tried, sentenced to death and hung on the prison grounds by their fellow prisoners. They are buried separately in the prison cemetery, denied fellowship with the souls of those they terrorized.
There was soon to be another hanging. The prison commandant, one Cpt. Henry Wirz, was one of a few military officers hung after the Civil War. Historians today question the propriety of hanging the Captain, as he made every effort to secure rations and better living conditions for his prisoners, all futile as prisoners of war are accorded little consideration throughout history. He is thought to be a scapegoat for the political entities who needed to assuage the sensitivities of those who were familiar with the horror in this camp. When read the charges against him at his hanging, the Major responsible for carrying out the execution told Wirz he was only following orders, to which Wirz replied, “I know about orders, Major, I am being hung for obeying them”.
After the war and as a result of meticulous records kept by a prisoner/clerk named Dorence Atwater, the names of the inmates who died were used to identify and place the exhumed remains in proper graves, literally shoulder to shoulder, in what is now a National Cemetery adjacent to the prison site. Clara Barton, “The Angel of the Battlefield” was the driving and organizing force behind this task. It is a beautiful place, as all National Cemeteries are, with statuary from every state whose soldiers are buried here.
I’ll close this piece by reminding readers that it takes tremendous resolve and strength to survive being a prisoner of war, no matter which war the circumstance occurs in. The museum on this site takes the visitor through all of America’s wars and the treatment prisoners received. Often, a bullet to the head was far more merciful than captivity in a POW camp, and survival is a testament to those who were held, to their mental strength, resourcefulness and relationship with their God. America was conceived and shaped by blood, honor and triumph over the greatest adversities imaginable. We have earned the right to be a great Democracy, and we should never remove reminders such as this one, of our bloody and violent past.
Andersonville left a mark on my psyche. God bless the souls of those that perished.
Have a great week.