Punishment and Tragedy at Andersonville Prison

A Virtual Exploration of Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Georgia

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Andersonville Map

Plan of Andersonville Prison, Sumter Co., Georgia (1864) by Robert Knox SnedenGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Lay of the Land

Prisoner Robert K. Sneden drew this articulate rendering in 1864. He noted in the margins that, "During August the Union prisoners numbered 31,678, of whom 1,693 were in hospital. 2,993 died in August. There were 31,693 prisoners, Aug. 31st. Number of prisoners shot by Rebel guard 300. Number buried in graveyard 12,729."

Captain Henry WirzGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Swiss-born Captain Henry Wirz worked at several Confederate prisons before coming to Camp Sumter. Known for his tough demeanor, Wirz was sent to Andersonville in 1864 to serve as stockade commander.

For his role in the deaths at Camp Sumter, Wirz was arrested after the end of the Civil War and charged with conspiracy and murder.

General John WinderGeorgia Public Broadcasting

General John Winder was a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Mexican War. Upon joining the Confederacy, he was given the command of prisons in Richmond, Virginia.

To relieve overcrowding in Confederate prison camps, Winder's son was tasked with finding a new location near a railroad but not too close to a large city. Andersonville, Georgia was the perfect town.

General Winder assumed direct command of Camp Sumter in 1864 and enlarged the stockade to accommodate the increasing number of inmates, but to little avail. He died suddenly from a heart attack in 1865, which likely spared him the same fate as Captain Henry Wirz.

Six-Pounder Cannon (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

Inmates at Andersonville Prison greatly outnumbered guards and officers. But with weapons like this cannon, capable of firing a six-pound ball, prisoners were dissuaded from resisting authority or staging an uprising.

Star Fort: Andersonville Prison’s Command CenterGeorgia Public Broadcasting

How They Buried Them at Andersonville, Georgia (1864-08-17) by A.J. RiddleGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Death Before Dishonor

Most of the men who died at Andersonville were buried side by side in trenches. As Ohio prisoner Solon Hyde described the work of the burial supervisor, "He had a squad of negro prisoners to assist in digging and filling up the trenches…. The manner of burying was to dig long trenches, six feet wide and four feet deep, with a six-foot space between trenches. The bodies were placed side by side...."

Grave Yard at Andersonville, Georgia (1864-08-17) by A.J. RiddleGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Of the 45,000 Union prisoners detained at Camp Sumter, some 13,000 men died of malnutrition, disease, poor sanitation, overcrowding, and exposure.

According to records from August 1864, an average of 96 prisoners died everyday.

Andersonville Cemetery (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

At the end of the Civil War, Andersonville National Cemetery was established as a permanent resting place to honor those who served their country.

The graves commemorate Andersonville prisoners, fallen soldiers from surrounding Civil War battlefields, and recent veterans of the United States military. Today the cemetery includes nearly 20,000 burial sites.

Iowa Monument at Andersonville Cemetery (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

In the first decades of the twentieth century, many northern states erected monuments throughout Andersonville National Cemetery.

A common theme is of women or men in mourning, as seen in this Iowa monument, dedicated in 1906.

A Look Inside Andersonville's Prison CemeteryGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Dorence AtwaterGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Inmate Dorence Atwater was tasked with keeping a record of the individuals who died and were buried at Andersonville Prison.

He secretly kept an additional record that helped federal officials after the Civil War to better understand what had happened at Camp Sumter.

Along with Clara Barton, Atwater helped inform the families of the deceased about the final resting places of their loved ones.

Dove Headstone (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

A Curious Mark of Distinction

Graves at Andersonville National Cemetery are rather uniform. They typically include the name of the deceased and his home state, along with a number, but do not indicate faith or nationality. But one grave still perplexes historians and park staff. Atop this headstone is a dove without any explanation. No other marker includes a similar embellishment. 

Georgia Monument at Andersonville (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

In 1976, Georgia erected a contemporary monument by sculptor William Thompson. Dedicated to all Americans, the sculpture features three crippled men walking forward while leaning on each other for support.

The inscription at the base of the monument recalls the book of Zechariah: "Turn you to the stronghold ye prisoners of hope."

How Rogue Soldiers at Andersonville Prison Terrorized Fellow PrisonersGeorgia Public Broadcasting

#6 Execution of the Raiders by Thomas O'DeaGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Because the prison had so few staff, policing the large population of inmates was difficult. In an effort to protect themselves and create order, gangs formed among the prisoners.

One notorious group of 200 men was known as the Raiders. Because conditions were so dire, they began to rob other inmates of their food and shelter.

The six ringleaders were eventually tried by their peers and hanged for crimes against fellow prisoners.

Sergeant S. Foust, Andersonville Prison Diary (p. 33)Georgia Public Broadcasting

Sergeant Foust Journal

Raiders Headstones (2015)Georgia Public Broadcasting

Although the ringleaders of the Raiders gang were publicly disgraced, they were still buried in the same cemetery as their fellow prisoners.

However, there were a couple of clear differences in their graves. Some of their names were likely aliases because they had previously deserted their units and reenlisted under fake names. Their graves were also set apart from the other soldiers as an indication of dishonor.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope (1865-11-10) by Alexander GardnerGeorgia Public Broadcasting

Who Bears Responsibility?

In the wake of the Civil War, the northern public began to demand justice for the tragedy at Andersonville Prison. One the few Confederate officials detained for his actions during the Civil War, Captain Henry Wirz was tried in 1865 for violating the rules of war. U.S. officials hoped to prove that Wirz was just following orders in an effort to indict higher ranking Confederate officials. Wirz also argued that he was just following orders in an attempt to absolve himself of responsibility. However, in October of 1865, a military tribunal convicted Wirz of war crimes, and he was publicly hanged in Washington, D.C. 

Credits: Story

Andersonville National Historic Site

National Park Service

Library of Congress

Virginia Historical Society

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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