I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of. During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food. The worst by far was Andersonville.
The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.
First and foremost was the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system. From the summer of 1862 to the summer of 1863, captured Union and Confederate troops would be released within 10 days after giving their parole. This was a promise not to fight until after they had properly been exchanged for a prisoner on the other side. The system operated by exchanging paroles from prisoners of equivalent ranks or of different ranks as follows: 1 general = 46 privates, 1 major general = 40 privates, 1 brigadier general = 20 privates, 1 colonel = 15 privates, 1 lieutenant colonel = 10 privates, 1 major = 8 privates, 1 captain = 6 privates, 1 lieutenant = 4 privates, 1 noncommissioned officer = 2 privates. The system worked reasonably well until the issue of the treatment of black troops came up. The Confederates refused to recognize black soldiers as Union troops under the system and reduced many of them to slavery. The Union as a result refused to abide by the system. General Grant also had suspicions that the system wasn’t being completely honored in any case. After Vicksburg he had paroled the entire Confederate army that had been captured after the fall of that city. In the fighting around Chattanooga later that year he was dismayed to find among the captured Confederate troops men who had surrendered at Vicksburg and who had not been exchanged. Realizing that the Confederates needed their prisoners back in their ranks , and that the Union had an endless supply of manpower, he thought that it was a benefit for the Union that the system had broken down and adamantly refused Confederate attempts in 1864 to revive prisoner exchanges. A good article on the exchange of prisoners is here.
Second was the series of small POW camps in the vicinity of Richmond, which, with the break down in the prisoner exchange system, were soon overflowing with Union prisoners. In November 1863 Captain Richard Widner came to the hamlet (population 20) of Andersonville, Georgia to investigate the prospects of building a large POW camp there. He liked what he saw: plenty of water near at hand, located near a railhead and situated in the Deep South, far away from the Union armies. In December of 1863 he began construction of Andersonville Prison. (The official name of the prison was Camp Sumter.) Local slaves were brought in to clear the land in January 1864 and to build the stockade. The Prison encompassed 16.5 acres with a small creek flowing through the site to provide water. No barracks were built to shelter the prisoners. The capacity of prisoners that could be held there was estimated to be 10,000. The first Union prisoners were shipped to in February 1864. With heavy fighting that began in May as Grant battled his way towards Richmond, the number of prisoners swelled to well beyond the capacity of the prison. By June the prison population had ballooned to 20,000. The boundary of the prison was extended using prison labor labor 610 feet to the north during June. By August 33,000 Union prisoners were held within the stockade of Andersonville.
Third, for security reasons, the prisoners were not given the materials to build barracks. Andersonville’s prison guards consisted of overaged men and underaged boys, and permanent barracks where the prisoners could live, and plot escape attempts unobserved, were thought by the authorities to be too much of risk with prison guards of this calibre. The Union prisoners, except for what makeshift shelters they could improvise, were exposed to the elements at all times.
Fourth, the creek flowing through Andersonville served both as a source of water and as a latrine. The Union troops, with appropriate black humor, labeled the creek “Sweet Water Branch’.
Fifth, medical care at Andersonville was basically non-existent, with the small medical staff completely overwhelmed.
Sixth, the Union soldiers were in theory to get the same daily ration as a Confederate soldier. What they received, if they were lucky, was rancid grain and a spoonful or two of peas or beans. To be fair, the Confederates during this stage of the war had a great deal of difficulty providing rations to their own troops.
Seventh, incompetence on the part of the camp’s commander Captain Heinrich “Henry” Wirz. Ironically trained as a medical doctor in Europe prior to the Civil War, the Swiss born Wirz took command of Andersonville in March 1864. Tried and executed after the war, the only Confederate to be executed following the war, Wirz has been called both an innocent scapegoat and a demon of cruelty incarnate. I will not venture into that battleground. I will note that in the face of the humanitarian disaster that developed at Andersonville Wirz did little and seemed to spend most of his time trying to get promoted, eventually getting his wish and attaining the rank of Major shortly before the end of the War.
All of these factors led to the deaths of almost 13,000 of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who passed through Andersonville. Surgeon Joseph Jones of the Confederate Army on an inspection tour wrote a report to the Surgeon General of the Confederacy on October19, 1864 regarding conditions at Andersonville: (more…)