All wars in all Countries and Nations have a common thread. There are prisoners. Taken in battle (surrendered or captured), each “side” needed a place to keep them. Enter The Prisoner of War and a Prison Camp. The American Civil War (1861-1865), was not different. Each side thought that “The War” would be over very quickly – one way or the other. By 3 years in (1864), The South especially was burdened with not only loss of numbers (fighting men), but lack of war materials, food (and hope by this point). A common problem was what to do with the hundreds of thousands of captured soldiers. At first there was the theory of “Parole”.
A soldier was allowed to sign a document stating that he would go home and not return to fight. Violation (if caught and verified) – meant immediate death. Obviously this “theory” played out very early. So both North and South began to develop Containment Facilities or Military Prisons. Most often constructed away from Cities and Towns, enemy soldiers were supposed to be well carried for (medical aid, food and clothes). Although The North was far more kind with this regard, it was not so in The South. Initially, The Confederacy operated Libby Prison (Richmond, Virginia).
Designed for 2,000 Officers (only) – soon it swelled with more than 5,000 Northern prisoner of all ranks. Being located inside The Confederate Capital was also not a good idea to place 5,000 enemy soldiers. So, early in 1864, Camp Sumter (Macon, Georgia) was built. Better known as Andersonville Prison, this nightmare of a place was designed to hold 20,000 men. Within 6 months it swelled to some 45,000 men. Occupying some 26 acres, it was built on a muddy field and surrounded with 1,500 feet of wooden stockade containment walls. A few poor wells dug, was all the water that captured Union soldiers could afford. Lack of proper food, medicine and clothes, quickly began to create massive outbreaks of diseases (smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever – to name a few). It is estimated some 13,000 Union prisoners died in the 1 ½ years that Andersonville Prison was in operation.
Many soldiers (driven mad by the conditions), walked into an area around the Stockade known as “The Dead Line”. This zone (when crossed) – gave any Tower or Wall Guard license to fire upon (and kill) the violator. Many Prisoners felt that this was preferable to their continued suffering. In fact, many Union soldiers would rather have shot themselves, rather than be captured (for fear of being sent to Andersonville). The conditions were horrible. Often the dead lay in piles in the mud for days (even weeks), before Confederates removed them. All were buried in mass “trench graves” next to the prison.
All of them are still buried their today. Andersonville Prison also had the infamous distinction for being the only incident in which a Confederate Officer was tried (after the war) before a military tribunal – for war crimes. Captain Henry Wurtz (Camp Commandant), was arrested and put before a Northern Army Tribunal. The resulting court documents portray a chilling (and soon to be familiar tale) – of an Officer who was (by Wurtz own words), simply “Doing his Duty” and “Following Orders”. In fact many of his former “guards” testified against him. Wurtz was convicted and hung. Despite cries to demolish Andersonville Prison after the war, it had been carefully preserved to this day as a reminder of ALL the horrors of war.