The one Civil War prison most people have heard about is Andersonville, which operated from February 1864 to April 1865. This book by William Marvel, originally published in 1994, is based on many firsthand accounts from diaries and journals of prisoners, guards, and locals.
Andersonville is actually the prisonís nickname. It was really called Camp Sumter, but the locals called it Camp Anderson because of its proximity to the local depot of Anderson Station, north of Americus, Georgia. The prison camp became so large - 41,000 prisoners - that it became one of the Confederacyís largest cities.
The chief reason for the overwhelming number of prisoners was that the Union had halted the exchange of prisoners, a move by General U.S. Grant to help stop the Confederate Army. This action eventually helped to dwindle the numbers in the Confederate Army, while the Union Army had a large number of reserves to call on.
The Confederacy had extreme difficulty feeding its army and people, and it certainly had a hard time feeding its prisoners. Confederate officials tried to ensure rations for the prisoners, but they could only provide what they could find. The food they did give to the prisoners did not help them to stay healthy; scurvy and other diseases were major problems without proper food necessary for the prisoners to stay healthy. Some dug up roots and other plants to supplement their rations, and there was a huge black market of foodstuff in the prison run by the prisoners themselves as well as guards and locals. Prisoners used what money they had or they bartered. As the war went on, the Confederate currency became almost worthless while the Unionís currency, the so-called greenbacks became valuable. It was illegal in the Confederacy to use greenbacks as legal tender, but many ignored this.
The prison had to be enlarged several times to house the 41,000 prisoners who were eventually imprisoned there. Marvel details how the prisoners lived and died, and presents the medical care that was available to the prisoners. The doctors tried mightily with what medicines they did have, but they had not yet learned about bacteria and other important discoveries that came later, such as sanitation methods.
How were the legions of dead taken care of? At first things were very well organized and honorable, and records were kept. But as time went along and more and more prisoners died, this careful attention fell by the wayside. Some days a hundred prisoners would die. The cemetery at Andersonville is huge. Around 13,000 ultimately died at the prison, and other Union dead were added to the cemetery.
Captain Henry Wirz, who was in charge of the prison, was not as cruel as he was falsely accused to be. A physically sick man, he really did not have total charge of the prison. Several other commanders were in charge of the guards and the supplying of the prison; another person was in overall charge of the prisons. This conflict in command structure complicated things for Wirz and his prisoners.
Wirz ended up being the scapegoat for all the misery of Andersonville, but many others really shared the responsibility - not least of all the Union government. Many of the prisoners themselves, acting in gangs or individually, took advantage of weaker prisoners, especially if they did not have others to help them. Captain Wirz was given a huge task but little power to do his job. At his trial, many false witnesses testified against him, saying that he was present at such-and-such a date for some event when in fact he was at home sick. The federal judge and others did not care; they just wanted to punish someone for the atrocities of Andersonville and to remove the public eye from the Unionís culpability. Captain Wirz was found guilty and hung, and his wife was not allowed to have his body to bury.
Marvel includes the story of the visit of Confederate photographer A. J. Riddle, who took several pictures of the prison, its prisoners, and the guards, providing a photographic record of the prison and its misery. Many of the pictures were staged, of course, in these early days of photography. Along with some of Riddleís photos, Marvel provides a map of the prisonís location in Georgia as well as a map of the prison. He provides extensive endnotes, and a bibliography includes unpublished and published works. An index is included at the end of the book.
The story of Andersonville is horrible, and too many suffered there. This book is highly recommended to those interested in the Civil War, its prisons, or in prisons in general.
William Marvel is the author of Leeís Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox (2006), Mr. Lincoln Goes to War (2006), A Placed Called Appomattox (1999), The Alabama and the Kearsarge (1996, to be reissued in February 2007), and of other books on the Civil War.