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“Since the day I was born, I never saw such misery.”
September 3, 2013 11:04 AM   Subscribe

“I have read in my earlier years about prisoners in the revolutionary war, and other wars. It sounded noble and heroic to be a prisoner of war, and accounts of their adventures were quite romantic; but the romance has been knocked out of the prisoner of war business, higher than a kite. It's a fraud.”

Andersonville, Georgia was the location of the most infamous prisoner-of-war camp of the Civil War, North or South. At it's highest capacity, it held 33,000 prisoners in an area meant for only 10,000. That area was an empty field with no permanent shelter and only one small water source that ran the length of the camp. The prison only operated for just over a year, but in that time nearly 13,000 died from "disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements".

Today the location is part of the National Park Service and you can explore the boundaries of the camp site. Inside the park visitor's center is the National Prisoner of War Museum where you can view exhibits covering all American wars.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (32 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was just watching the episode of Who do you think you are with Kelly Clarkson the other day (stop laughing), and apparently one of her ancestors was in Andersonville. They showed her a couple of pictures of what the camp was like and what one of the survivors looked like - I will never forget the photo of the survivor.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:19 AM on September 3, 2013 [7 favorites]


If you can't feed both your prisoners of war and your army, that might be a sign to surrender....
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2013


Union prison camps were pretty awful too.
posted by usonian at 11:21 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Confederate government could not provide adequate housing, food, clothing or medical care to their Federal captives because of deteriorating economic conditions in the South, a poor transportation system, and the desperate need of the Confederate army for food and supplies.

And the deteriorating conditions were caused by.... could it have been the Federal invasion and blockade?
posted by three blind mice at 11:23 AM on September 3, 2013


Probably the death rate was as high or worse for a soldier outside the camp during this particularly bloody period of the war. Not that it excuses human rights abuses, though such a notion at the time was fairly limited to abolitionists, ironically.
posted by stbalbach at 11:25 AM on September 3, 2013


And the deteriorating conditions were caused by.... could it have been the Federal invasion and blockade?

Oh I'm sorry, I guess the Union should have been shipping supplies to the Confederacy.
posted by kmz at 11:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [19 favorites]


Not all of them. Prisoners sent to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor had a very different experience.
Bostonians were inspired by charity, but they also hoped that proper treatment of the prisoners might inspire equal compassion toward Union prisoners of war. According to The Boston Daily Journal, “The friends of our prisoners now languishing in the South will reach them by the shortest method if they set an example of magnanimity toward these rebels. The fact will soon become known at the south, and their hardships will be lessened.”
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:28 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


[I swear to god if you guys use this thread to have the Same Old Arguments about the Civil War, this site has officially become a parody of itself. Just read the articles and talk about them like normal internet people.]
posted by jessamyn at 11:29 AM on September 3, 2013 [56 favorites]


Is it wrong to be superficially impressed that the gentleman's diary entry is by far better writing than probably 75% of our educated masses could put out these days?
posted by tafetta, darling! at 11:32 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Note that a lot of sources blame the North for shutting down the prisoner exchange, without mention _why_: because the South refused to exchange black Union soldiers, and in fact enslaved and sometimes executed them. Rather than treat their soldiers differently according to race, the North refused to exchange at all.
posted by tavella at 11:33 AM on September 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


Hunh! I read this when I was 14. Should be required reading in English courses AFAIC.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:33 AM on September 3, 2013


talk about them like normal internet people

Hmmm.

This is all obviously part of Obama's socialist agenda.

Am I doing this right??
posted by dudemanlives at 11:44 AM on September 3, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is really just-post-civil-war, but reading about Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (used mostly to imprison Union deserters) is also horrifying. Dr. Samuel Mudd (known for setting Booth's leg and almost certainly being a conspirator in the assassination) was imprisoned there, and earned his pardon by handling the deadly yellow fever outbreak there while a prisoner. Basically, if you want to make a prison camp even worse just add malarial heat and no potable water.

On the other side of the coin, I grew up with stories of Camp Hearn, a World War II POW camp for German prisoners, situated in the extremely German-American town of Fredericksburg, TX, where the prisoners were basically treated as part of the town (there were even dances!)
posted by Navelgazer at 11:55 AM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sure the worst POW camp is the one you are in, but check out the British prison ships in New York, in the Revolutionary War, for another example of a place you'd not want to be.
posted by thelonius at 12:28 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


...the romance has been knocked out of the prisoner of war business, higher than a kite.

I saw that on the front page and came in to say,"I haven't believed in the romance of being a POW since I read Andersonville." But that seemed pretty superfluous after I read the inside of the post.

Doesn't this all just lead back around to 'war sucks?"
posted by SLC Mom at 12:33 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


The south was ill able to feed its own army, never mind its POWs. General Sheridan's mandate in the Shenandoah Valley was to "'take all provisions, forage, and stock wanted for your command … such as cannot be consumed, destroy.' Sherman was not much better. "Military necessity" is the bar for getting wanton destruction past current rules of war. You tell me if these two cleared them.

Meanwhile, up north, food was plentiful. So not a lot of excuses for Northern misbehaviour. (Though to be fair, as mentioned above, some did try.)
posted by IndigoJones at 12:34 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, that sounds disparaging. I didn't mean it that way.
There is absolutely value in knowing how awful things were. They are still awful today in different places and different ways.
posted by SLC Mom at 12:35 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


IndigoJones: Oh, the poor poor South. They were just *forced*, nay *forced* to refuse to exchange black Union soldiers. It's so hard being a racist autocracy discovering that the war they started isn't going the way they fantasized.
posted by tavella at 12:59 PM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


After all, such noble folk would of course behave beautifully in other people's territory. They wouldn't kidnap and enslave free blacks, for example.
posted by tavella at 1:02 PM on September 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just remember that when they talk about the crimes of Communism, they will neglect to tell you all about the historical incidences like this that happened (and still happen) under Capitalism. If we're going to tally deaths in prison camps under Stalin, we should tally the deaths in prison camps around the world under the might banner of profit. Same for famine, etc...
posted by symbioid at 1:20 PM on September 3, 2013


Just remember that when they talk about the crimes of Communism, they will neglect to tell you all about the historical incidences like this that happened (and still happen) under Capitalism. If we're going to tally deaths in prison camps under Stalin, we should tally the deaths in prison camps around the world under the might banner of profit. Same for famine, etc...

Andersonville existed only during the Civil War. It wasn't made a permanent part of the state infrastructure in the same way that gulags were integrated into the Soviet Union. So, I'm not sure your point holds. More generally, I don't know that Communism vs. Capitalism is a particularly useful way to look at the U.S. Civil War.
posted by Area Man at 1:29 PM on September 3, 2013 [10 favorites]


Back in the day, I saw this on television. Yes, the trial of Henry Wirz was made into a play and his prosecutor was played by William Shatner. This was at a time when German death camps were big in the news -- some major war crimes trials took place in the early 60s -- and the play touched on a number of sensitive issues. Just how responsible was Wirz for Andersonville? Was it just to try him (and hang him)? Shatner got pretty worked up over this as I recall.
This photo of Andersonville was on the blue recently, I think, but I don't recall seeing the photos of prisoners here before (may be NSFW).
posted by CCBC at 1:42 PM on September 3, 2013


Another aspect to the Andersonville tragedy was if you happened to be on board one of the worst maritim disasters in American history, the explosion of the USS Sultana whose casualties were 1200 of 2427 passengers, many of them returning prisoners of war.
posted by jadepearl at 5:42 PM on September 3, 2013


f we're going to tally deaths in prison camps under Stalin, we should tally the deaths in prison camps around the world under the might banner of profit. Same for famine, etc...

And you'd still be a ways under Stalin + Mao.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:12 PM on September 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


When Grant was given command of all Union forces in 1864 he proved to be the key on-the-ground person to finish executing Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan. Scott's blockade/strangulation strategy, combined with Grant's tactical "total war" vision contributed to the South's inability to properly feed itself, much less prisoners. This doesn't excuse Wirz' inept running of the Andersonville camp. And while I think the shutdown of prisoner exchange was partly due to the South's treatment towards black Union soldiers, it was probably more due to Grant's unwillingness to parole Confederate prisoners because they often rejoined the war effort upon release.

Beginning with the Wilderness Campaign, the key goal of the eastern forces (the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James) shifted from capturing Richmond towards destroying Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Add Sherman's campaign towards Atlanta and then onwards to the coast and up into North Carolina and the transformation towards modern total war reached a tipping point.

In addition to the excellent teleplay mentioned (I want to say that the Captain of the old show "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" played Wirz) and the not-so-great movie released more recently, there is MacKinley Kantor's novel, Andersonville. That book helped fuel my Civil War fixation when I was a tween and teen; I read it at least three times.
posted by CincyBlues at 7:24 PM on September 3, 2013


Really, CincyBlues? Would you like to provide evidence of it, or you could read Grant's actual correspondence, where once the Confederates agree to release all prisoners equally, he telegraphed instructions for exchanges to begin again.

It really is amazing to me how people will make up excuses for that bunch of traitors and slavers out of whole cloth.
posted by tavella at 8:34 PM on September 3, 2013


Grant to Butler--Aug 18, 1864.

"It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners in the North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here."
posted by CincyBlues at 12:10 AM on September 4, 2013


[One comment deleted. Everyone, cut it with the personal insults / suggesting people are liars.]
posted by taz at 2:12 AM on September 4, 2013


Where is the quote about the "romance" of being a prisoner of war? I can't find it at the cited link - I can't believe it was from a soldier. Any soldier experiencing the misery of war would have to be crazy to think being a prisoner of an Army would be better.
posted by corb at 5:27 AM on September 4, 2013


Where is the quote about the "romance" of being a prisoner of war? I can't find it at the cited link - I can't believe it was from a soldier. Any soldier experiencing the misery of war would have to be crazy to think being a prisoner of an Army would be better.

My fault, corb. The first website I linked to has an additional page with the quotes I used.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 6:23 AM on September 4, 2013


Thanks for the link! I still stand by his head being full of straw, though. I imagine he's thinking of Nathan Hale and the like? I feel like those used to be commonly taught. The danger of legends...
posted by corb at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2013


> It sounds like you're giving the North a pass for running POW camps as badly as they did, even though they need not have done so. Is that really your position?

Because that kind of thinking is what gets us things like Abu Ghraib.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:18 PM on September 4, 2013


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