Irony and Tragedy at Andersonville

I was travelling to Warner Robins, Georgia, an hour-and-a-half drive south of Atlanta, for an all-day work meeting.  Flights back to Cedar Rapids don’t leave Atlanta until 3pm the next day, so I had a morning to kill.  I knew Andersonville was not too far away.  Anyone who is an American Civil War fanatic like me knows what happened there.  I had to go see it.

In preparation, I dusted off a novel on Andersonville (1) that a friend had given me 20 years ago and started reading.  By the third chapter, I was absorbed in the story.  

I wasn’t sure what I was going to see as I wove my way through the pecan orchards and red clay fields of rural Southwestern Georgia.  Would it be simply a large, grassy field with a few markers and tombstones? How exciting can a national landmark of a former prison be?  

As I drove in, I skipped the Visitor’s Center.  My rule of thumb–go see the thing first, let your eyes behold it, interpret it.  Then let someone else tell you what you saw.  I drove past the gaudy memorials and started my personal tour.

I parked near the first landmark and climbed the gently sloping hill to the replica of the northern entrance.  This structure was built on the northern gate’s original site.  With its tall, pine posts stacked closely together and rising 15 feet above ground, it looks exactly as it appeared in 1864.  Historians can tell by the decayed wood content in the clay how well-placed and tightly packed the original posts were.

The gate gives you a perfect perspective of what it would have been like for a newly-arrived prisoner entering the prison for the first time, poor souls, “fresh fish” as the emaciated veterans of the prison referred to them.

Imagine being crowded into a boxcar, forced to stand for several hours as the train rocked and swayed the many miles.  You hope for “exchange”, but your hopes are quickly dashed when you’re unloaded at a strange depot surrounded by towering, dark pines, and paraded through a row of armed guards to this massive, wooden encampment.  Robert H. Kellogg, sergeant major in the 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, described his entry as a prisoner into the prison camp, May 2, 1864:

“As we entered the place, a spectacle met our eyes that almost froze our blood with horror, and made our hearts fail within us. Before us were forms that had once been active and erect;—stalwart men, now nothing but mere walking skeletons, covered with filth and vermin. Many of our men, in the heat and intensity of their feeling, exclaimed with earnestness. “Can this be hell?” “God protect us!” and all thought that he alone could bring them out alive from so terrible a place.”

The original 15-acre prison was designed to hold 9,000 prisoners.  But by its fourth month, the number of inmates swelled. Captain Henry Wirz, the prison commander, realized something had to be done.  The prison was haphazardly enlarged to 26 acres; the excavated evidence of gaps between the posts on the southern wall testify of the hasty construction in the rapidly-developing tragedy of Andersonville.

The Confederate military thought they had the perfect spot when they identified Anderson, Georgia, as the location for this prison–close to a rail station, ample trees for lumber, and the gentle, spring-fed Sweetwater Creek to provide fresh water.  The prison was designed so that the creek flowed through the middle of the grounds–providing fresh drinking water on the upstream side, and refuse disposal downstream.

However, the “Sweetwater” became more of an ironic symbol of tragedy than a source of refreshment.  The low placement of stockade walls and the unsupervised, careless felling of trees down-stream slowed the flow of the Sweetwater, reducing it to  a trickle, backing it up into a stagnant, inescapable quagmire of human waste.  Townspeople in Americus 12 miles away complained of the stench.  Major Kellogg describes it this way:

“In the center of the whole was a swamp, occupying about three or four acres of the narrowed limits, and a part of this marshy place had been used by the prisoners as a sink, and excrement covered the ground, the scent arising from which was suffocating. The ground allotted to our ninety was near the edge of this plague-spot, and how we were to live through the warm summer weather in the midst of such fearful surroundings, was more than we cared to think of just then.”

The shady pines that once towered over the area had been cut down en masse to build the walls, leaving nothing but a barren hillside and a few shards of wood and rags for shade.  Food was scarce for the Confederate army, and even less was available for the prisoners.  Gangs formed among the prisoners, terrorizing the weak and lonely souls.  By the end of the war, 45,000 Union soldiers had been held at Andersonville, Of these, 13,000 died, primarily due to the unsanitary conditions.  After the war, Captain Wirz was tried and hanged as a war criminal–an unfortunate scapegoat who had been handed a helplessly impossible situation.

Kantor’s excellent historical fiction adds color to the tragedy of Andersonville.  The novel begins with Ira Claffey roaming the familiar fields and refreshing himself from the springs near Sweetwater Creek.   Those same fields Claffey sacrificed for the construction of the prison.  Claffey had already sacrificed dearly, losing three sons and future son-in-law to the war.  Though the characters are fictitious, their experience was all too real for thousands of families like the Claffeys.

Accurate is Kantor’s account of local slaves requisitioned to build the walls of Andersonville prison–walls that held the men fighting for their freedom.  This, like other aspects of Andersonville, make it a story of irony and tragedy, a horrifying remembrance of man’s inhumanity to man.  It is stories like these that remind us…for all its glittery trappings, for all our praise of the general goodness of mankind…we are inherently selfish people, and our earthly existence is broken, cursed, and imperfect.  The soul of man mourns such tragedies because it was created for something more…for a more perfect state, a better place where righteousness and justice dwells.  The irony and tragedy of Andersonville underscores God’s desire for us to treat men justly and kindly…and to mourn his suffering.



  1.  Andersonville, copyright 1955, MacKinlay Kantor



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