posted: November 29th, 2010 | by:Bert
©Bert Gildart: “It takes 7 of its ocupiants (sic) to make a Shadow,” wrote Sgt. David Kennedy, a former Andersonville POW.
Though conditions in POW camps in the north were also horrendous, Georgia’s Andersonville is the Civil War prison that has come down through history as THE internment camp that will tell the most moving story of men and women who have been captured.
My above quote was taken from one of the many interpretive panels the park has so strategically placed throughout. It is located near the Prisoner of War Commemorative Courtyard and is adjacent to Donna Dobberfuhl’s creation, part of which is shown in my first image.
The art work here is magnificent and certainly provides the photographer with the opportunity to tell a most compelling story if he uses lighting appropriate to overcome the shadows inherent in the bright setting. For this image, I used two strobes.
Janie and I visited Andersonville about a week ago and firmly believe that its lessons should never be forgotten. To some extent they overlap with those from Gettysburg and Antietam, but as you will see, they remain unique.
RATIONALE FOR PRISON CAMPS
Though conditions were horrible at the prisoner camp, the alternatives for the South were not very good. If the Union prisoners were released they would most likely return to battle against the Confederates.
The only realistic alternative was to create a prison camp, which the Confederates did in February of 1864, maintaining their prisoners, it is presumed, in the best way they could.
Here, men were crowded together and lived in tents called “Shebangs,” guarded from above in watchtowers known as “Pigeon Roosts.” Guards were told to shoot to kill any man who stepped over a waist-high fence known as the “deadline.” Food was scant, water contaminated and, subsequently, disease rampant.
Each day, over 100 died. Sometimes, conditions became so unbearable that a prisoner would simply end it all by stepping over the “Dead Line.”
L TO R: “Fresh fish,” were the first words most new prisoners heard as they entered the stockade doors; “Shebangs,” was the term used to describe the makeshift structures most prisoners had to live under; historic image was part of an interpretive panel.
Like other camps north and south, prisoners would be granted freedom if they agreed to sign an “Oath of Allegiance” to fight for the “former enemy.” But none did and instead choose the abysmal conditions of a POW at Andersonville rather than to dishonor themselves, their families or their countries.
“HANG THE RAIDERS”
From a movie we purchased at the historic site and which we watched last night entitled Andersonville, we learned prisoners not only had to contend with harsh conditions, but battle the “Raiders,” a disreputable group that murdered their own to improve their lot. In the movie they were subdued following a prison revolt and later Captain Henry Wirz of the Confederacy, allowed prisoners to hang five of the Raiders. Books I bought at the Andersonville bookstore substantiate the movie’s story line.
L TO R: Touring the complex forming Andersonville POW camp; three striking figures stand at the entrance to this national cemetery at Andersonville, now a memorial to all American POWs.
During Andersonville’s 14 months of operation over 12,000 men died and today about that many marked graves fade off into the distance. There are an additional several hundred that are unmarked. The markers haunted me, and several nights ago woke me from a dead sleep.
These deaths resulted from Americans inflicting cruelty on Americans; but, again! It was not a condition endemic to the South!
DEMON OF ANDERSONVILLE
Some, however, thought conditions exceeded what was necessary to maintain prison integrity and at war’s end Union officials thought to try a number of Confederate leaders.
Initially, they blamed General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but both were found guiltless. Nevertheless, Union officials found a man on whom they could heap guilt, and that blame was placed on Captain Henry Wirz. Our movie painted Wirz as a demon and perhaps he was, though there were most certainly counterparts in the north.
At New York’s Elmira Prison 24 percent of the Confederate prisoners died, nevertheless, during a trial following the war they called Herny Wirz “the demon of Andersonville.”
In different times the captain might have escaped with his life for there was exculpatory evidence. But John Wilkes Booth had just assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, and officials wanted revenge. On November 10, 1865 soldiers surrounded a set of gallows in Washington D.C. and hung Captain Henry Wirz. Not far away men watched from treetops while some chanted “Wirz, remember Andersonville.”
Wirz was the only man to emerge from the Civil War (Union or Confederate) to be found guilty of “War Crimes.” Perhaps words from Lincoln’s inaugural address glimmered through the darkness that followed his death:
With malice toward none, with charity for all…
LESSONS FROM ANDERSONVILLE
Andersonville National Historic Site preserves all these poignant episodes and it is appropriate that it does so, for the function of history is not only to inform on our past, but to help us benefit from our past. Certainly Andersonville impacted Janie and me, always amazed at the manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man and its inescapable message. Unfortunately, it seems each generation must rethink this lesson, but perhaps if everyone were required to visit Andersonville the meaning would become indelible.
THIS TIME FOUR YEARS AGO:
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