On this date in 1864 Union prisoners of war began arriving at Camp Sumter, a shadeless, sixteen-acre marsh stockade where, as one former inhabitant later described it, the “spewings of toads and reptiles and swamp ooze, decaying wood, weeds and rank grass are distilled into poison.” Known more conventionally as Andersonville Prison, the site became an enduring symbol of Confederate perfidy, the subject of dozens of ghoulish memoirs that sustained Unionist indignation for decades.
In a sense, the prison was a material consequence of the very cause for which the South was fighting. When the Union armies began enlisting African Americans — including escaped slaves — in 1863, the Confederacy declared its intention not to return captive black soldiers, whom they insisted were still the rightful property of their masters. In the wake of the Confederacy’s refusal, the prisoner cartel program dissolved entirely, and massive, makeshift facilities were constructed on both sides to warehouse wartime prisoners. Over the next year, more than 45,000 Union soldiers would be received at Andersonville, which had initially been expected to maintain a mere quarter of that number. Even a ten-acre enlargement of the camp in August 1864 left a mere 34 square feet per soldier.
Due to unspeakably filthy conditions and inadequate supplies of food and clean water, more than 13,000 of those soldiers — as well as numerous Confederate guards — would perish from some combination of scurvy or dysentery before the camp was liberated at the end of the war. Most succumbed between August and December 1864, a period that saw an average of 100 deaths per day.
By any account, Andersonville offered a squalid glimpse into hell. Sgt. David Kennedy, 9th Ohio Cavalry, wrote in his journal on 9 July 1964′
Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.
Clara Barton, visiting the grounds of Andersonville a year later after the camp had closed, wrote with horror of what she had seen there:
Think of thirty thousand men penned by close stockade upon twenty-six acres of ground, from which every tree and shrub had been uprooted for fuel to cook their scanty food, huddled like cattle, without shelter or blanket, half-clad and hungry, with the dreary night setting in, after a day of autumn rain. The hill-tops would not hold them all, the valley was filled with the swollen brook; seventeen feet from the stockade ran the fatal dead-line, beyond which no man might step and live. What did they do? I need not ask where did they go, for on the face of the whole green earth there was no place but this for them; but where did they place themselves? How did they live? Ay! How did they die? But this is only one feature of their suffering ; and perhaps the lightest. Of the long dazzling months when gaunt famine stalked at noon-day, and pestilence walked by night; and upon the seamed and parching earth the cooling rains fell not, I will not trust me to speak. I scarce dare think. If my heart were strong enough to draw the picture, there are thousands upon thousands all through our land too crushed and sore to look upon it. But after this, whenever any man who has lain a prisoner within the stockade of Andersonville, would tell you of his sufferings, how he fainted, scorched, drenched, hungered, sickened, was scoffled, scorged, hunted and persecuted, though the tale be long and twice told, as you would have your own wrongs appreciated, your own woes pitied, your own cries for mercy heard, I charge you, listen and believe him. However definitely he may have spoken, know that he has not told you all.
Henry Wirz, a Swiss doctor from Louisiana, served as prison commandant during the last few months of the camp’s existence after its original commandant, Brigadier General John Winder, died in February 1865. For his efforts, such as they were, Wirtz was hanged in November 1865. His last fourteen minutes of life were spent at the end of a rope that was too short, listening to Union soldiers taunt him with cries of “Andersonville! Andersonville!” as he slowly choked to death. Remarkably, he was the only Confederate official to be executed for war crimes.