The Andersonville Prison has been a subject of several books, plays
and movies. Recently I watched the 1995 movie Andersonville, directed
by John Frankeheimer. Andersonville was presented on television in 1957.
Then in 1959 Saul Levitts created the Broadway play The Andersonville
Trial. It was made into a television movie in 1970 called The Andersonville
Trial. What is it about Andersonville Prison that has created such interest
over the years? Does it tell us something about the Civil War or about
the South? Is it an exaggerated myth that Andersonville was uniquely grotesque?
Andersonville Prison, located in Georgia and operated by the Confederate
army, is known for being the worst prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil
War. From 1864-65 some 14,000 Union prisoners died from disease, hunger
and abuse at Andersonville Prison, making Andersonville one of the tragedies
of the Civil War.
While Grant and Sherman marched through the Confederate states, men from
their armies were being killed, maimed or captured by the rebel armies as
the Union army moved south. In 1864 Grant started his Wilderness Campaign
around Richmond, Virginia. Grant brought huge numbers of soldiers into the
thicket around Richmond, which turned into a liability because of the inability
to move his men along the small roads and through the thick underbrush.
This lack of mobility caused 17,666 of Grant's men to die or be captured
by the Confederate army. Instead of retreating after the huge loss of men,
Grant continued to move forward. In 1864, Sherman started his famous "March
to the Sea" in which he waged "Total War" by burning cities
and towns and killing innocent people. Sherman met stiff resistance during
his March but did not lose as many soldiers to captivity or death as Grant
did. Grant lost most of his soldiers by doing everything possible to win
battles, even if it cost a huge amount of casualties and a large number
of captured soldiers. The Confederate army, not knowing what to do with
mounting Union prisoners, built Andersonville Prison.
Headed by the commandant Captain Wirz of Switzerland, a prison for 8,000
troops was set up. The actual number of prisoners eventually swelled to
33,000 troops by 1864-65. Andersonville Prison was built to encase a small
swamp that had a small creek running under the northern wall of the stockade,
then flowed through the prison camp and again under the southern wall of
the stockade of Andersonville. This creek provided the prison only water
except for the frequent bone-chilling rains. Andersonville was just a wall
of large pine trees in a rectangular stockade about 15-20 feet high that
covered 16 acres. It was also unsheltered and the ground was just bare dirt.
This left the Union soldiers exposed to the 100+ degree heat of summer,
along with sun stroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration. In the winter, the
soldiers faced below-freezing temperatures from snow and cold rain. Upstream
(outside the prison, at the camps where the guards and animals stayed) the
small creek was used for dumping trash, for bathing, for disposing of human
and animal waste and for other unclean uses. This creek then went a few
hundred meters downstream into Andersonville Prison where the prisoners
were forced to drink this dirty water and catch countless diseases that
caused the prisoners to suffer. The few clean wells there were took so much
time to fill that only a few of the 33,000 prisoners could drink from them.
The wells were also guarded by gangs of Union soldiers.
The Confederate states as a whole suffered from a lack of resources. There
was not enough food for all the prisoners at Andersonville Prison or for
the Confederate army. There was also a lack of supplies and soldiers which
meant that Andersonville Prison could not be adapted for the large amount
of captured Union soldiers coming to the prison. The southern states had
fewer soldiers then the North's unlimited amount of soldiers. There was
a lack of food because the South mainly had cotton plantations and tobacco
farms. Though there were food-producing farms there were not enough to
support a war. While at war, the South stopped trading with the North, where
much of the food and manufactured supplies for the South came from. The
reason for the lack of supplies was because the South did not have many
factories or industries. The North produced manufactured goods such as canvas,
guns and tools. New England, not having much farm land that could be used
for crop production, turned to the factories, industries and other non-farming
business and sent its manufactured goods to the South. The South sent up
its cotton products and tobacco to the North. The South did not have many
industries or factories of its own because the South could rely on the North
for its supplies and manufactured goods. The Confederate's lack of manpower
came from the fact that the South had a relatively small white population.
There were few whites because slaves did much of the work, so there was
no need for white workers on plantations. The Confederate army also did
not trust the blacks with weapons, for the fear that the blacks could then
rebel. This meant that the whites were the only people allowed to fight.
The lack of resources was the main reason the Confederate armies were being
pushed back South. Lack of food caused the Union soldiers within Andersonville
to slowly starve to death. The Confederate soldiers guarding the prison
received the same rations as the Union prisoners did but did not get sick
because they received better water and living conditions. The little food
there was, was sometimes withheld from the Union prisoners by Captain Wirz
as a form of punishment .
A factor that can be contributed to the misery of Andersonville Prison
was the fact that General Grant would not agree to a prisoner exchange.
This made the Union soldiers morale at Andersonville low. The soldiers felt
betrayed and forgotten. There was no prisoner exchange because the Confederates
would not exchange the black soldiers for whites and Grant wanted all or
none. The Civil War was being fought to free black slaves. To exchange only
white soldiers would have gone against one reason the war was being fought.
Gangs of Union soldiers and mercenaries within Andersonville were another
problem. These gangs stole all kinds of equipment from new arrivals such
as food, blankets, tools, tents, etc. The gangs also made raids on Union
soldiers who were not new to the prison. They would sneak up during the
dark of the night and beat them, take clothes, blankets and other belongings.
All the items that were stolen were either kept for themselves or used to
trade with the guards for whiskey and other unessential goods. In the 1995
movie, the gang that caused the most trouble was called the Raiders. They
were eventually put on trial by prisoners who became fed up with the death
and misery caused by Raiders. In the climatic movie battle within Andersonville,
the prisoners decide to stop the Raiders just before they were about to
jump a new group of soldiers that just entered the camp. When the battle
is over, the six ring leaders have been captured along with all the henchmen.
Several Union soldiers go to ask Captain Wirz to allow them to conduct a
trial. The Union prisoner longing for a return to civility, a lawful trial
is conducted and a verdict is decided, despite the misery of the prisoner's
Blame for the conditions that could have been corrected at Andersonville
should not go completely to Wirz. Blame should be shared by General Winder.
General Winder would not allow any extra food that was available, even from
donations of the townspeople to the Union soldiers. He was heard to say
with glee that he was "killing more enemies here [at Andersonville]
than being shot in the battle-lines". It was his belief that all Union
soldiers should die.
Towards the end of the war, the Confederate government finally saw the
horrible conditions at Andersonville and transferred the Union soldiers
into other prisons. At the end of the war, because Wirz was hated by so
many Union soldiers, he became the only Civil War soldier tried for crimes
against humanity. Wirz was not the only man though who committed horrible
crimes against humanity. Sherman killed many innocent civilians but was
not tried for his crimes. General Winder was not tried because he died in
1864. I cannot see why Wirz would have a grudge against the Union when he
came from Switzerland. Wirz dreamed of becoming a general but he became
frustrated when he was put in charge of running a Confederate prison instead
of being given his own command in the army. This may be what caused him
to treat the prisoners under his charge so cruelly.
Most likely, the lack of resources and the amount of men coming from the
North overwhelmed the Confederate army's capacity to feed and properly care
for their prisoners of war. Both the Union and the Confederates had horrible
prison camps equal to Andersonville, just smaller. The Civil war had caused
much hatred between North and South. Sherman's "Total War" had
ruined whole cites and he mercilessly killed hundreds of innocent people.
Terror and hatred came from this and induced some of the Confederate soldiers
to seek revenge on captured Union soldiers. At Andersonville Prison this
was taken to an extreme. General Winder's anger along with Wirz's morbid
craziness and the already grim situations, made Andersonville Prison one
of the most revolting and horrible places in the U.S.A.
Americans are fascinated by Andersonville because it shows that inhumane
treatment is not just something done in other countries. The Civil War's
gruesome battles and prisons show a darker side of American culture. One
cannot study Andersonville and still believe that the horrors of civil war
in places like Bosnia and Rawanda have never touched America.
Life inside the Civil War's most infamous prison...
by John Ransom
With an introduction by Bruce Catton
A Berkley Trade Book
$10.00 ($13.00 Can)
Cover art by Louis Jurado
Cover design by Tony Greco & Associates
John Ransom was a twenty-year-old Union soldier when he was captured
in 1863 and became a prisoner of war. Held in the infamous Andersonville
prison until he was near death, Ransom never gave up his love of life. He
hated the conditions of his captivity, but not his captors--men like himself
who were caught in the whirlwind of forces beyond their control. With a
rate honesty simplicity, and insight, Ransom unfolds a tale of struggle
survival in the worst of the confederate prison camps. His diary, enhanced
by his own drawings, is a testament to the indomitable human spirit and
provides a unique viewpoint of the most wrenching of America's wars.