The prison, which opened in February 1864, originally covered about 16.5 acres (6.7 ha) of land enclosed by a 15-foot (4.6 m) high stockade. In June 1864, it was enlarged to 26.5 acres (10.7 ha). The stockade was rectangular, of dimensions 1,620 feet (490 m) by 779 feet (237 m). There were two entrances on the west side of the stockade, known as "north entrance" and "south entrance".
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. 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.
Further descriptions of the camp can be found in the diary of Ransom Chadwick, a member of the 85th New York Infantry Regiment. Chadwick and his regimental mates were taken to the Andersonville Prison, arriving on April 30, 1864.
Father Peter Whelan arrived on 16 June 1864 to muster the resources of the church and help provide relief to the prisoners.
At Andersonville, a light fence known as "the dead line" was erected approximately 19 feet (5.8 m) inside the stockade wall. It demarcated a no-man's land that kept prisoners away from the stockade wall, which was made of rough-hewn logs about 16 feet (4.9 m) high and stakes driven into the ground. Anyone crossing or even touching this "dead line" was shot without warning by sentries in the pigeon roosts. Dead lines were also used at other prisons during the Civil War.
At this time in the war, Andersonville Prison was frequently undersupplied with food. The Confederate Army and civilians also struggled to get enough food. The shortage was suffered by prisoners and the Confederate personnel alike within the fort. But the prisoners received less than the guards, as the latter did not suffer such emaciation, nor scurvy (caused by vitamin C deficiency). The latter was probably the main cause of mortality (along with diarrhea, caused by living in the filth from poor sanitation and the necessity to take drinking water from a creek filled at all times with fecal material from thousands of sick and dying men). Even when sufficient quantities of supplies were available, they were of poor quality and poorly prepared.
Although the prison was surrounded by forest, very little wood was allowed to the prisoners for warmth or cooking. This and the lack of utensils made it almost impossible for the prisoners to cook the main food they received, poorly milled corn flour. During the summer of 1864, Union prisoners suffered greatly from hunger, exposure and disease. Within seven months, about a third died from what was diagnosed as dysentery and scurvy; they were buried in mass graves, the standard practice by Confederate prison authorities at Andersonville. In 1864 the Confederate Surgeon General asked Joseph Jones, an expert on infectious disease, to investigate the high mortality rate at the camp. He concluded that it was due to "scorbutic dysentery" (bloody diarrhea caused by vitamin C deficiency). In 2010 the historian Drisdelle said that hookworm disease, a condition not recognized or known during the Civil War, was the major cause of much of the mortality.
The water supply from Stockade Creek became polluted when too many Union prisoners were housed by the Confederate authorities within the prison walls. Part of the creek was used as a sink, and the men were forced to wash themselves in the creek.
Survival and social networks
At the time of the Civil War, the concept of a prisoner of war camp was still new. It was as late as 1863 when President Lincoln demanded a code of conduct be instituted to guarantee prisoners of war the entitlement to food and medical treatment and to protect them from enslavement, torture, and murder. Andersonville did not provide its occupants with these guarantees; therefore, the prisoners at Andersonville, without any sort of law enforcement or protections, functioned more closely to a primitive society than a civil one. Therefore, oftentimes survival depended on the strength of a prisoner's social network within the prison. A prisoner with friends inside Andersonville was more likely to survive than a lonesome prisoner. Social networks provided prisoners with food, clothes, shelter, moral support, trading opportunities, and protection against other prisoners. One study found that a prisoner having a strong social network within Andersonville "had a statistically significant positive effect on survival probabilities, and that the closer the ties between friends as measured by such identifiers as ethnicity, kinship, and the same hometown,the bigger the effect."
The guards, disease, starvation and exposure were not all that prisoners had to deal with. A group of prisoners, calling themselves the Andersonville Raiders, attacked their fellow inmates to steal food, jewelry, money and clothing. They were armed mostly with clubs and killed to get what they wanted. Another group rose up, organized by Peter "Big Pete" Aubrey, to stop the larceny, calling themselves "Regulators". They caught nearly all of the Raiders, who were tried by the Regulators' judge, Peter McCullough, and jury, selected from a group of new prisoners. This jury, upon finding the Raiders guilty, set punishment that included running the gauntlet, being sent to the stocks, ball and chain and, in six cases, hanging.
The conditions were so poor that in July 1864, Captain Wirz paroled five Union soldiers to deliver a petition signed by the majority of Andersonville's prisoners asking that the Union reinstate prisoner exchanges in order to relieve the overcrowding and allow prisoners to leave these terrible conditions. That request was denied. The Union soldiers, who had sworn to do so, returned to report this to their comrades.
In the latter part of the summer of 1864, the Confederacy offered to conditionally release prisoners if the Union would send ships to retrieve them (Andersonville is inland, with access possible only via rail and road). In the autumn of 1864, after the capture of Atlanta, all the prisoners who were well enough to be moved were sent to Millen, Georgia and Florence, South Carolina. At Millen, better arrangements prevailed. After General William Tecumseh Sherman began his march to the sea, the prisoners were returned to Andersonville.
During the war, 45,000 prisoners were received at Andersonville prison; of these nearly 13,000 died. The nature and causes of the deaths are a continuing source of controversy among historians. Some contend that they resulted from deliberate Confederate war crimes against Union prisoners, while others state that they resulted from disease promoted by severe overcrowding, the food shortage in the Confederate States, the prison officials' incompetence, and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, caused by the Confederacy's refusal to include blacks in the exchanges, thus overfilling the stockade. During the war, disease was the primary cause of deaths in both armies, suggesting that infectious disease was a chronic problem, due to poor sanitation in regular as well as prison camps.
7,160: April 1, 1864
12,000: May 5, 1864
20,652: June 13, 1864
23,942: June 19, 1864
29,076: July 18, 1864
31,678: July 31, 1864
31,693: August 31, 1864
A young Union prisoner, Dorence Atwater, was chosen to record the names and numbers of the dead at Andersonville, for the use by the Confederacy and the federal government after the war ended. He believed, correctly, the federal government would never see the list. Therefore, he sat next to Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the prison pen, and secretly kept his own list among other papers. When Atwater was released, he put the list in his bag and took it through the lines without being caught. It was published by the New York Tribune when Horace Greeley, the paper's owner, learned the federal government had refused the list and given Atwater much grief. It was Atwater's opinion that Andersonville's commanding officer was trying to ensure that Union prisoners would be rendered unfit to fight if they survived.
P.O.W. Newell Burch also recorded Andersonville's decrepit conditions (in his diary). A member of the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, Burch was captured on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg; he was first imprisoned at Belle Isle in Richmond, Virginia, and then Andersonville. He is credited with being the longest-held Union prisoner of war during the Civil War and with surviving a total of 661 days in Confederate hands. His original diary is in the collection of the Dunn County Historical Society in Menomonie, Wisconsin; a mimeographed copy is held by the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Confederate records show that 351 prisoners (about 0.7% of all inmates) escaped, though many were recaptured. The US Army lists 32 as returning to Union lines; of the rest, some likely simply returned to civilian life without notifying the military, while others probably died.
Andersonville Prison was liberated in May 1865.
After the war, Henry Wirz, commandant of the inner stockade at Camp Sumter, was tried by a military tribunal on charges of war crimes. The trial was presided over by Union General Lew Wallace and featured chief Judge Advocate General (JAG) prosecutor Norton Parker Chipman.
A number of former prisoners testified about conditions at Andersonville, many accusing Wirz of specific acts of cruelty, for some of which Wirz was not even present in the camp. The court also considered official correspondence from captured Confederate records. Perhaps the most damaging was a letter to the Confederate surgeon general by Dr. James Jones, who in 1864 was sent by Richmond to investigate conditions at Camp Sumter. Jones had been appalled by what he found, and reported he vomited twice and contracted influenza from the single hour he'd toured the camp. His graphically detailed report to his superiors all but closed the case for the prosecution.
Wirz presented evidence that he had pleaded to Confederate authorities to try to get more food and that he had tried to improve the conditions for the prisoners inside. However, he was found guilty and was sentenced to death, and on November 10, 1865, he was hanged. Wirz was the only Confederate official to be tried and convicted of war crimes resulting from the Civil War (but see reference to Champ Ferguson). The revelation of the prisoners' sufferings was one of the factors that shaped public opinion in the North regarding the South after the close of the Civil War.
In 1890, the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Georgia, bought the site of Andersonville Prison through membership and subscriptions. In 1910, the site was donated to the federal government by the Woman's Relief Corps (auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic).
The National Prisoner of War Museum opened in 1998 as a memorial to all American prisoners of war. Exhibits use art, photographs, displays, and video presentations to depict the capture, living conditions, hardships, and experiences of American prisoners of war in all periods. The museum also serves as the park's visitor center.
The cemetery is the final resting place for the Union prisoners who died while being held at Camp Sumter/Andersonville as POWs. The prisoners' burial ground at Camp Sumter has been made a national cemetery. It contains 13,714 graves, of which 921 are marked "unknown".
As a National Cemetery, it is also used as a burial place for more recent veterans and their dependents.
Visitors can walk the 26.5-acre (10.7 ha) site of Camp Sumter, which has been outlined with double rows of white posts. Two sections of the stockade wall have been reconstructed, the north gate and the northeast corner.Medal of Honor recipients:
James Wiley (1835–1865), for capture of a flag of a Georgia regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
Luther H. Story (1931–1950), from nearby Buena Vista, for action in the Korean War, September 1, 1950 (cenotaph)
Andersonville (1955) is a novel by MacKinlay Kantor concerning the Andersonville prison. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1956.
The 1959 play The Andersonville Trial (presented on PBS in 1971) depicts the 1865 trial of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz.
Andersonville (2015) is a horror/alternate history novel by Edward M. Erdelac, set in the prison.
The TV movie Andersonville (1996), directed by John Frankenheimer, tells the story of the notorious Confederate prison camp.
Gene Hackman; Daniel Lenihan (2008). Escape from Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War. Macmillan. p. 352. ISBN 0-312-36373-7. Retrieved 2011-08-14.
Max R. Terman's Hiram's Honor: Reliving Private Terman's Civil War (2009, Hillsboro, KS: TESA Books, ISBN 0-615-27812-4), is an historical novel.
In the TV series Hell on Wheels, the villainous character Thor Gunderson is a survivor of Andersonville; his experiences there have left deep mental scars and fuel his hatred of the protagonist, Confederate veteran Cullen Bohannon, the railway foreman.
This camp is briefly mentioned in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) uses it as an excuse to rule his camp with an iron fist. This is one of the most visible historical errors (anachronisms) in the film, since it is set during the New Mexico Campaign, two years before the opening of the prison.
The novel Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, contains a brief reference to the camp; in the novel, set in Hell, Billy the Kid remarks that "the guy who ran the Andersonville prison camp" is being eternally tortured on an island in Phlegethon, the river of boiling blood.
A novel written in 2014 by Tracy Groot entitled "The Sentinels of Andersonville" depicts some of the Historical players such Capt. Henry Wirz and General John Winder and fictional prisoners in Andersonville Prison as rebel neighbors attempt to help the prisoners and vilified by the town of Americus, GA.
Stephen Vincent Benet's epic John Brown's Body (poem) refers to Andersonville and Wirz's trial as one of two incidents emblematic of the Civil War POW camps.