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Getting to know Georgia: Andersonville

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POSTED: March 20, 2009 11:39 a.m.
On the way home after attending a friend’s wedding in Americus recently, my wife and I made a small detour through Andersonville, home of the infamous prison during the Civil War.
The prison turned out to be such a disaster. As many as 30,000 prisoners of war were incarcerated there during the latter stages of the war, and nearly 40 percent of them died from disease and malnutrition. Part of that was due to the South being broke by then, and it just didn’t have the resources to feed and house decently that many people at that time and place.
Another part of it was the initial plan for providing water and sewage didn’t work out. And that led to the kinds of problems that bad water will cause. The original idea was to get water from a spring that ran upstream of the prison and to build latrines on the downstream side, away from the source point. But a drought came one year, followed by heavy rains. So, at first there wasn’t enough water at all, and then the grounds got all boggy and flooded. No such thing as “indoor plumbing” back then, you see. What a mess.
The entire site is a huge area, with the stockade housing the prisoners of war on one side and a vast cemetery on the other. It was raining when we visited so we didn’t get out of the car and walk around. We just rode through it and looked. Where the stockade had been was simply marked by a series of white poles, so you could easily look across the rolling acres and see how huge that area was. There was only one small section of a stockade corner wall standing, to show what it would have looked like, in part.
We were astounded to see the area that 30,000 people had been crammed into with no shelter at all but tents for cover. And not all of them had even that.
It started out as a humane effort, of course. The idea was to simply hold these prisoners until the war was over and then let them go home. But too many people got captured before the war ended and then other problems took over and multiplied beyond the point anyone could manage it. The Yankees later charged the prison commandant with murder and he was hung.
The cemetery is equally sobering. Initially, people were buried in pine boxes, as was tradition. Then they found they couldn’t keep up, so they discarded that idea and simply laid bodies in wide trenches, side by side. Things were so bad that if someone died with decent clothes on, they were removed before burial so that others could use them.
Most of the headstones in the older sections are simply placed side by side, many marked “Unknown Soldier.” Those sections make up most of the cemetery, acres and acres of them. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, came there at one point to investigate the conditions, but was so overcome by the rapidly deteriorating situation she found, she enlisted a fellow to help her document, as best they could, who was buried where while they were still able to. At that point, more than 100 people a day were dying. The records she made (record-keeping otherwise being sorely lacking) are the only way people later knew which names to put on the tombstones that did get names.
To our surprise, we also discovered the cemetery is still open to veterans for burial, in newer sections. These have the more standard spacing between graves.
The entire place is a very sobering reminder of the consequences of war, and the sacrifices that many people made to further the cause of freedom, however they perceived it.
I am glad we were able to see it.
Thank a veteran next time you meet one. We owe them a lot.

Semmes, himself, is a descendant of and named for a Confederate States Navy admiral, who was also promoted to brigadier general in the Confederate States Army. He lives in Woodland Lakes.
 

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