Camp Sumter Civil War Prison
Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia tells the story of all American prisoners of war. The National Prisoner of War Museum is a major feature of the park, as is the site of the Confederate military prison officially known as Camp Sumter. The Andersonville National Cemetery is also on the grounds.
Camp Sumter was operated by the Confederate military for fourteen months as a detention facility for Union prisoners of war. Many such prison stockades existed in both the North and the South and conditions were terrible at all of them.
Overwhelmed with prisoners following the bloody campaigns of 1863, the Confederacy selected the small South Georgia community of Andersonville for the construction of a stockade. The station was little more than a rail crossing in those days, but offered the advantages of rail transportation, plentiful pine timber and isolation from points that could be easily threatened by Union troops.
The original stockade was designed to house 10,000 prisoners on a 10.6 acre site. It received its first prisoners in February of 1864, among them African American soldiers from the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry who had been captured at the Battle of Olustee in Florida. Those initial prisoners did not know it, but they would be at Andersonville for a long time.
President Abraham Lincoln and Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ended prisoner exchanges with the Confederate government. They knew that Southern men and boys would return to the fight against the Union as soon as they were released from Northern prison camps. Despite the pleas of Confederate authorities, this policy was maintained until the end of the war. The result was that thousands of both Confederate and Union prisoners of war died from disease, hunger and exposure in the primitive camps.
The prisoner population at Camp Sumter surged to more than 32,000 by August 1864. Confederates expanded the facility by 10 acres to provide more room but it was not enough. Human suffering reached tragic proportions as more than 100 men per day died within the pine log walls or adjacent hospital sheds. More than 12,000 Union prisoners of war died at Andersonville, making it the deadliest of all Civil War prison camps. The death rate was even higher at the Union prison in Elmira, New York, but fewer men died because that facility was smaller than Camp Sumter.
Capt. Henry Wirz was the commandant at Andersonville and was later tried and executed for war crimes. He was the only Confederate officer executed by the Union army after the war.
In truth, there was little that Wirz could have done about conditions at Camp Sumter. He did not control the number of prisoners sent there and blockade of the Southern coast by the Union Navy prevented him from obtaining medicines and other medical supplies needed for the treatment of sick prisoners. The destruction of infrastructure including rail lines by the Union Army made it impossible to secure necessary provisions.
Matters were made worse because many of the prisoners of war could not eat the coarse cornbread shared by guards and prisoners alike. Their digestive systems were unaccustomed to food which was a staple in the South. Red Cross founder Clara Barton later observed large piles of uneaten cornbread on the prison grounds.
In a desperate attempt to relieve the situation at the prison, the Confederates carried thousands of prisoners by rail to Union lines at Jacksonville, Florida, and offered to turn them over to the Federal army. The prisoners were turned away by their own government and trains carried them back to Andersonville. Many more deaths resulted from this catastrophe.
Visitors to the site can explore grounds on which the original prison stood. The outline of the stockade is marked and two sections restored. The forts once manned by Confederate troops are preserved and still ring the prison site. Several of the wells and escape tunnels dug by prisoners also still survive. Monuments dot the beautifully landscaped grounds.
Andersonville National Historic Site is also the setting for the National Prisoner of War Museum. A joint effort of the National Park Service and the American Ex-Prisoners of War organization, the museum provides an emotional reminder of the sufferings and
sacrifices of American prisoners of war from the American Revolution to the present.
Adjoining the park and accessible via the tour road is the Andersonville National Cemetery. Some 18,000 American servicemen and
women are buried here, including nearly 13,000 prisoners who died during their confinement at Camp Sumter.
Andersonville National Historic Site is on Highway 49 in Andersonville, Georgia. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The National Prisoner of War Museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Both are open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. There is no cost to visit either the prison site or museum.
The address for your GPS is 496 Cemetery Road, Andersonville, GA.