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Andersonville Prison: Facts & Conditions

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Many people died on both sides during the Civil War. Not all deaths occurred in battle, however. Prisoners were held captive and died at several prisons, such as Georgia's infamous Andersonville Prison.

Building the Prison

The Andersonville Prison (officially called Camp Sumter) was named after Andersonville, the Georgia town it was built near. Built in 1864 to house Union soldiers, it was the largest prison of the Confederate army. It was a hastily built facility, as the South wanted to move their prisoners away from the battlefront as well as have a place to house the men after a prisoner exchange system between the North and South disintegrated in 1863.

Prison dimensions consisted of 16 1/2 acres enclosed by a 15-foot stockade wall. The walls were 1,620 feet long and 779 feet wide. Nineteen feet inside the wall was something referred to as the dead line, meaning if any prisoners crossed this line and got too close to the wall, guards in the tower were allowed to shoot them.

Andersonville Prison
prison

Populating the Prison

The first prisoners arrived in February of 1864. They were supposed to be housed in barracks, but the expense of lumber prevented them from being built before their arrival. Prisoners continued to arrive for the next few months, and by June of 1864, 26,000 prisoners were living in an area only meant for 10,000 people. By August there were 33,000, which was the largest number to be held there. As the Union Army moved closer, most of the prisoners were transported to South Carolina and other parts of Georgia.

Prison Conditions

Since the barracks weren't built, prisoners made shelters any way they could. They constructed shelters called shebangs, which could be anything from a crude shanty made of wood scraps and blankets to holes dug in the ground. The only source of water was a creek that flowed through the camp, but this quickly became polluted.

Prisoner Tents at Andersonville
tents

Overcrowding led to many of the prison's problems. There wasn't enough food or shelter, or even a decent place for prisoners to relieve themselves. A lack of medical care meant the prisoners became ill from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the elements. A total of 13,000 prisoners died in the 14 months the prison was open. The prison ceased operations in May of 1865.

After the War

The man in charge of the prison was Captain Henry Wirz. He did what he could with the resources he was given, but he was still arrested in May of 1865. Despite insisting he was just following orders, he was charged with murder and found guilty by a military tribunal. His trial began in August of 1865 and lasted two months. Some of the evidence used against him was made up, while some claimed he was a scapegoat for the prison's problems. After being found guilty, he was hanged on November 10, 1865, becoming one of the few people convicted of and executed for war crimes during the Civil War.

Captain Henry Wirz
wirz

Andersonville Cemetery

After the war, those men who survived returned home. In July and August of 1865, a group of laborers and soldiers came back to the site to identify and mark the graves of Union soldiers. Rather than move the bodies, the intention of those working was to turn the prison into a cemetery.

One of the former prisoners, Dorence Atwater, came back to assist in the work. Atwater had kept a list of the dead while he was a prisoner there. He was assigned the task of recording the names of the dead. Atwater was afraid the list he made would be lost, so he made his own copy in order that the relatives of the men could be notified. His list, along with confiscated Confederate records, helped identify all but 460 graves.

Dorence Atwater
atwater

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