(Photo credit: Illinois monument at Andersonville NHS, courtesy Michael Noirot, Flickr Creative Commons)
On October 16, 1970, Congress established as a National Historic Site one of the most notorious locations of the Civil War: Andersonville Prison, in Macon County, Georgia.
Andersonville was one of the prisoner-of-war camps set up by the Confederacy to hold Union troops after the practice of swapping prisoners had come to an end. Originally known as Camp Sumter, this site of a little over 16 acres, surrounded by a 15-foot high stockade (part of which has been reconstructed), was ready for use by February 1864. Between that time and the camp’s liberation in May 1865 it was to hold 45,000 Union men; approximately 13,000 of these men died in captivity.
Why build a memorial to a prison, especially a wartime prison? It’s an awkward question. Battlefield memorials typically emphasize the positive: the good guys securing victory, or at least putting up a good fight, against the bad guys. Memorials to prison camps are more likely to emphasize the negative: man’s inhumanity to man. That certainly was the case at Andersonville, where Union troops were kept in such conditions of squalor and near-starvation that thousands of them died. Decent clothing and sanitation were also non-existent, leaving many to perish from exposure, dysentery, diarrhea, and scurvy. The prison guards, themselves kept in conditions of squalor, hardly treated their charges humanely. Even among the ranks of the prisoners themselves, groups of stronger men preyed on their weaker fellows, stealing food, money, or clothing (Futch, 1968). After the war the camp commander was tried for murder and executed. In terms of sheer numbers, the 13,000 who died there is small compared to the 600,000 to 800,000 Americans who died in the Civil War. But it’s the manner of the deaths at Andersonville that makes the site exceptional. Certainly no prison camp, North or South, was particularly nice. But historians seem to have little doubt that the scale of suffering at Andersonville was in a league of its own. Andersonville was a nightmare.
The memorial to this nightmare today stands in the heart of the Deep South, operated by the National Park Service. In 1890 the prison site was bought by the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization once composed of veterans of the Union’s armed forces (all of whom are now long dead, so the organization has been dissolved). The site was transferred to the federal government in 1910, and eventually handed over to the National Park Service. Today it is operated as a National Historic Site and includes Andersonville National Cemetery (holding the graves of most of the Union POWs who died there) and the National Prisoner of War Museum, opened in 1998. The site is also home to many monuments commemorating the victims of the prison from Northern states.
On the same day that Andersonville NHS was added to the national park system, October 16, 1970, it was also added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Ovid L. Futch (1968). History of Andersonville Prison. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.