Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Most Infamous Prison of the Civil War

"Five hundred weary men moved along slowly through the double lines of guards.  Two massive wooden gates with heavy iron hinges and bolts, swung open as we stood there, and we passed through into the space beyond.  We were in Andersonville." - Pvt. John McElroy, 16th Illinois Cavalry

One week ago Tim and I were in Andersonville, too, for a personal look at the site of the most dreaded Confederate prison.  Many of the historical fiction books I've read about the Civil War mention this prison.  I wished to see it for myself.

What must the more than 45,000 Union soldiers imprisoned here have felt upon their arrival?  When those inner gates opened, they almost certainly thought they'd arrived in hell.  The noise, the stench, the crowd of emaciated men desperate for news must have been overwhelming.

Within days of the prison's completion, on February 27, 1864, Adam Swamer became the first prisoner to die at Andersonville, the first of thousands.  Within 14 months, 12,914 Union prisoners had perished here.  They were buried in unmarked graves.  

However, in the summer following the end of the war, a former prisoner Dorence Atwater and Clara Barton, accompanied by an expedition of laborers and former soldiers, undertook the daunting task of identifying and marking the graves.  Only 460 bodies were marked with the epitaph "Unknown Soldier."  Now a national cemetery, Andersonville remains open and active for the interment of an eligible veteran or dependent.

Initially, the fifteen foot high stockade walls enclosed 16.5 acres, but in June 1864 an additional 10 acres was added.  

Still, at its most crowded and with no shelter from the elements, Andersonville held over 33,000 prisoners, three times more than planned.  Prisoners scarcely had an arm's length of space between them.

Sentry boxes called "pigeon roosts" built roughly 30 yards apart, were manned towards the end of the war by young boys and old men.  

Approximately 20 feet inside the stockade was the "deadline," which the prisoners were not allowed to cross.  Anyone who tread over that mark faced certain death.  

Indeed, it was at the trial of the prison's commander, Captain Henry Wirz, that the word deadline was first used.  Wirz was arrested, tried for murder and hanged on November 10, 1865.  He was the only one held accountable for the suffering the prisoners endured.

When Tim and I walked the perimeter of the site, it was hard to imagine the hopelessness of the men imprisoned here, their only water source the small trickle of runoff through a gully that bisects the site.

The wooden stockade is long gone, but the National Park Service has installed two portions of the fifteen foot high walls.

When we left through the South Gate markers, the powerful impact of this place remained with us.

Andersonville National Historic Site also includes the National Prisoner of War Museum, dedicated to the approximately 500,200 American soldiers who suffered captivity since the founding of our nation in 1776.  

"Turn you to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope." - Zechariah 9:12
That, too, was a moving experience.


  1. An amazing post of which so many today don't ever ponder the hardships and sacrifice these young men endured only those of us who appreciate what they did brings little solace. Ralph had two grandfathers who served in the Civil War. One of which died in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Thankfully he has a marker but was probably the only family that ever visited his grave back in 2012 as the family lived in Illinois. We can't imagine the life at that time as these men were just boys/teenagers. Living in those conditions was deplorable.

    We have never been to Andersonville yet have read about it. Thanks for sharing!

    We are enjoying your posts!

    Love you both! Continued safe travels ❤
    Yasmin and Ralph 😘

    1. I've read that Libby Prison was dreadful, too. How sad that Ralph's (great?) grandfather died there! Such a terrible war...

  2. With the beautiful sky and tidy grounds, it seems such a contrast to the prisoners' plight. Thanks for sharing more history on your journey.