Friday, November 29, 2013

A Criminal Event

Andersonville Prison, Georgia, visited November 25, 2013

Sitting in the midst of the cotton fields and piney woods of south Georgia is a grim reminder of the fanaticism and carelessness of the southern planter class.  Thousands of tiny marble gravestones mark the emaciating, sick and starving bones of Union solider who died in an ill-conceived and shabby prison called Andersonville. Like the concentration camps of the Nazis, Andersonville became a vast warehouse where men died through neglect and brutality – though not through labor.

It is a vast field surrounded by woods that slopes from two sides down to a little creek ironically called “Sweetwater.” The field was surrounded by a 15 foot fence with guard towers every 50 feet.  The camp had no adequate housing, unlike most northern camps, but instead a field covered with homemade tents, blankets and canvas stretched over branches.  The was no ostensibly fresh water except for the creek running through it from the west.  However, the Confederates had their latrines and waste water upstream, so the water brought death-dealing diarrhea and dysentery.  Nearly 13,000 soldiers died in only 14 months. During its existence, Andersonville held 45,000 prisoners, 32,000 at its height at one time.  

The camp was commanded by Captain Henry Wirz, the only person hung for war crimes after the Civil War.  You must wonder why Jefferson Davis and the planter politicians  who clamored for war escaped any punishment whatsoever.  These men later combined to defeat Reconstruction and re-introduce  90 years of segregation and black labor oppression to the South.  Wirz was a crude, limited man who had no capacity to deal with the disaster that befell the prisoners at Andersonville.  He instituted the ‘dead line’ – an empty space between the walls and the tents in which anyone could be shot.  As he was quoted in the film shown at the National Park, “god” would be the prisoners only help.  

The film shown at the park indicates that these men were not exchanged for Confederate prisoners because Grant and the Federal government would not do so.  This was because the Confederate government had refused to exchange black Union soldiers, returning them to slavery or to work camps instead, or just killing them.  This principal irritated the white Union prisoners to the point where the small group of black prisoners had to keep together in Andersonville to protect themselves.  The film’s only reason for this policy was that it would deprive the Confederate army of soldiers, as many freed prisoners returned to that army.  An even more important reason was that by that time in 1864 the Union army was made up of between a ¼ and a 1/3 black soldiers.  To undercut a good chunk of your army and also the Emancipation Proclamation would cause unrest among black soldiers and civilians.  It was actually the racism of the Confederacy that created this situation, not the stubbornness of the Union.

Another flaw in the National Park is that the museum located there is not just about Andersonville, but is dedicated to all American POW’s in all wars.  No other civil war park shares a duty like this.  In a sense it dilutes the meaning of Andersonville.  John McCain’s book about being a prisoner in Hanoi shares space with the memories of various union soldiers who wrote about the dire conditions  in the camp.  The prisoners were marched to the stockade, let inside to a walled holding area, then the gates to Andersonville opened, and they saw a huge field of dirty canvas and thousands of skinny men in threadbare clothing standing, staring at the 'new fish.'  As they said, “Is this hell?” 

There are monuments on the grounds from various northern states where their soldiers camped, as units stayed together for protection.  The fence lines have been re-created in two places, including the entrance where prisoners entered the camp after a march through the town of Andersonville and its railroad station.  “Providence” spring still provides water.  This was the location where a lightning strike hit in the dead zone and fresh water began to burble out of the ground – the only actual fresh water the prisoners ever had.  Sweetwater Creek is still there, but much smaller than it was at the time.  Various outbuildings, like the shabby ‘hospital’ and others, are marked.  Confederate earthworks defending the fort remain.  One of the most interesting events at Andersonville was the battle inside the camp against criminal gangs that stole food and injured other prisoners.  Their leaders were eventually tried and 6 hung by the prisoners.  This event was the central focus of the film, “Andersonville.” 

One of the continuing controversies over Andersonville is whether the Union army under Sherman should have made more of an attempt to free the prisoners at the camp.  Union cavalry under Stoneman proceeded to Andersonville under Sherman’s orders at one point, but the camp was evacuated upon his approach and Stoneman captured.  Thousands of sick, wounded, hungry and dying men would have required either a serious wagon train or group of railroad cars, and massive amounts of rations and doctors, along with soldiers to protect them.  Sherman was about 95 miles away, heading to Savannah, and would have had to seriously divide his army.  The failed attempt by Stoneman probably also had a role.  Any rescue of Andersonville would have had to be planned long before Sherman headed to Savannah.

What is most important about Andersonville is that it was always a poorly planned and poorly supplied camp, just as the whole Civil War was a poorly planned and cruel attempt to defend slavery.  While the Confederate Army had successes, the material and most of all political will was not there.  Many in the South did not support secession and the war, and when the war turned against the Confederacy, the political support evaporated slowly, like air out of a hastily blown balloon.  The slavers had launched an ‘adventurist’ war through coercion and bluster, and all paid.  Visit Andersonville, which is ‘hallowed ground,’ and remember.  (Read review on "Travel," below.)

Red Frog
November 29, 2013