The tragic legacy of the treatment of prisoners of war on both sides of the Civil War is a dark stain on our national conscience and must not be forgotten. Therefore, I am planing a series of four posts during the coming weeks about the infamous prison stockade known as Camp Sumter, or Andersonville Prison. The subjects covered in the four posts will be: 1) a brief history of the prison, 2) Dorence Atwater, a true Connecticut hero, 3) the roll of members of the 14th Connecticut who died there, and 4) the final installment of the three-part story of William H. Mott of Company F.
A Brief History of Andersonville Prison
The first shipment of prisoners arrived at the tiny hamlet of Andersonville, GA on February 27, 1864. A new stockade named Camp Sumter had been built by slave labor in an effort to reduce overcrowding at other prisons such as Belle Isle in Richmond. Only enlisted men were to be kept in the stockade which was a rectangular enclosure of timber walls fifteen feet high. A small stream ran through the center of the prison for fresh water. Guard towers were built atop the walls and artillery pieces were strategically placed outside the stockade with fields of fire that could reach any place inside the prison.
Shortly after the prison opened, prisoner exchanges, a practice that had been ongoing since the start of the war, was abruptly ended by Gen. Grant. This caused the populations at prison camps throughout the south to skyrocket. By summer Andersonville Prison, which had been built to hold about 10,000 men, held about 35,000 prisoners. As might well be imagined, the small stream became polluted by both human and animal waste. The small valley through which the stream flowed became a morass of filth and came to known as “the swamp.”
A few men had died nearly every day since the prison opened, but during the summer months of 1864, men died by the hundreds of dysentery, chronic diarrhea, scurvy, typhoid fever, pneumonia, and massive edemas. Bodies were carried by the wagon load outside the camp for burial at an ever-growing cemetery.
To make matters worse a group of prisoners known as the Raiders, committed every sort of heinous crime upon other prisoners, particularly those who were “fresh fish.” Beatings and thefts of food, clothing and possessions were commonplace. Even murders occurred. Late in June an opposing group of prisoners asked and received permission from the commandant of the camp, Captain Henry Wirz, to raise a police force to subdue the Raiders and bring their leaders to justice.
As many as 150 Raiders were placed under arrest. The prisoners established a court and tried the worst of the criminals. Six were sentenced to death by hanging, and the sentence was carried out on July 11, 1864. Many of the other Raiders were beaten severely when they were forced to run a gauntlet between lines of enraged prisoners.
July was very hot and dry. All of the prisoners suffered grievously. The stream almost dried up completely. Fresh water was nonexistent. Some of the men dug wells and sold the water for whatever they could extract from their fellow prisoners. Earnest prayers were sent heavenward for water. Early in August a severe storm lashed the stockade. The stream swelled to a flood and carried away a portion of both the east and west walls. The fallen timbers were quickly seized by the prisoners and cut up for firewood. But the storm’s greatest benefit was that the deluge uncovered a fresh water spring just inside the dead line at the western side of the stockade. The spring became known as “Providence Spring.” (photo Dec. 2012)
When Gen. Sherman took Atlanta on September 2nd, Confederate authorities thought Andersonville would be his next target. Most of the prisoners in the stockade were loaded aboard railroad cars and sent to other prison camps such as Camp Lawton in Millen, GA, Savannah, Charleston or Florence, SC. When Sherman began his march to Savannah, about 5,000 men were sent from Millen and Savannah south to Blackshear, GA. Some of these prisoners were sent west to Thomasville, Ga, and then north back to Andersonville, arriving there on Christmas Eve, 1864.
With the end of the war certain, the prison began to shut down in March, 1865. Federal POWs were sent by trains and steamboats to holding camps where they were to be paroled and exchanged. April 28, 1865, is recorded as the date on which the last prisoner was buried at Andersonville. In its fourteen months of existence, approximately 45,000 soldiers had been imprisoned there. According to the list of graves compiled by Clara Barton, 12,912 perished there.