“Can this be hell?” – The Horrors of Andersonville

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A quarter of a mile from the railroad, we came to a palisade of great squared logs standing upright in the ground. The fires blazed up and showed us a section of these, and two massive wooden gates, with heavy iron bolts and hinges. They swung open as we stood there, and we passed through into the space beyond. We were in Andersonville.

John McElroy, a prisoner at Andersonville

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was marked by unspeakable brutality. In 1860, following the election of Abraham Lincoln, seven slave-owning states, fearing that Lincoln’s premiership would lead to the abolition of slavery, seceded. After several months of failed negotiations, war erupted between the south (Confederacy) and north (Union), prompting a conflict which dragged on for more than four years and caused nearly 600,000 deaths – the largest number of American dead in any war. Whilst many are aware of the bloody battles which determined the outcome of the war – Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Antietam – the horrors of the prisoner-of-war (POW) camps have largely been forgotten.

With a few minor exceptions, POW camps had not been a feature of warfare before the American Civil War. Captured soldiers would either be released, ransomed or executed. Even in the first two years of the Civil War, POW camps were largely unnecessary. Both the Union and Confederacy were willing to exchange prisoners regularly.

However, the prisoner exchange system proved far more beneficial to the Confederacy than to the Union. Northern prisoners were often conscripts who, once released, would desert or refuse to fight. By contrast, their southern counterparts would typically re-enlist in the Confederate army once released, delivering vital manpower to the smaller Confederacy.

By 1863, the Union Secretary of State for War, Edward Stanton, was keen to stop this imbalance and shut down the prisoner exchange system. Not only did Stanton hope to deprive the south of soldiers, but it is likely that he was also aware of the economic strain which would be placed upon the south if they had to look after Union prisoners.

The southern economy was built around the export of cotton, yet due to the Union naval blockade of the east coast, the Confederates were only to export 10% of their cotton harvest. Inflation became so rapid that the Confederate government resorted to tithing instead of taxation as their currency held no value. As such, they struggled to finance the war effort, and were unable to afford to house (and feed) Union POWs – a fact of which Stanton was acutely aware.

Therefore, in 1863, General Winder, the Confederate Provost Marshal of Richmond, was ordered to expand the nascent Confederate prison system to accommodate the increasing number of northern POWs. The most developed prison network in the region was in Richmond – Winder’s base and the capital of the Confederacy – yet he was reluctant to expand the prison population there as he feared that this would encourage northern raids on the city. As such, he instructed his son, Captain Winder, to find a new site on which to build a camp for 10,000 prisoners. He quickly decided on Andersonville, Georgia. 

Captain Winder’s efforts to build a camp at Andersonville were hampered by a chronic lack of funds, materials and manpower. Indeed, by the time the first prisoners arrived, in February 1864, only three of the four walls of the camp had been completed. Nonetheless, the prison quickly became overcrowded, with 26,000 prisoners by June 1864. Predictably, such conditions led to the rapid spread of disease, notably dysentery and typhus.

The Union advance into the Confederacy had cut off southern supply lines, and so food was scarce in the camp, both for guards and for prisoners. The guards were able to supplement their meagre rations by hunting wild animals in the surrounding forests; the prisoners were not so lucky, only fed inedible cornmeal. Thousands died of starvation.

Perhaps more terrifying than the spectre of disease or hunger was a group of prisoners known as the ‘Moseby’s Raiders’. These inmates, former northern bounty-hunters who had been conscripted into the Union army, stole rations and murdered fellow inmates. Their reign of terror, thankfully, was short lived: with the approval of the Confederate commanders, the others prisoners formed a group of ‘Regulators,’ who investigated, apprehended and executed the Raiders.

Andersonville continued to grow in size, peaking in August 1864 at some 32,000 prisoners. Aware of the dangerous levels of overcrowding, Captain Winder was dispatched to find another alternative site to house the prison population, and settled upon Millen in eastern Georgia. However, Millen was razed in December 1864 by the Union General Sherman, and so Andersonville remained dangerously overcrowded until the very end of the war.

When the camp was finally liberated in May 1865, Union soldiers were shocked by the destitution they found, with prisoners gaunt and diseased. More shocking still was the Andersonville cemetery, which contained the graves of some 13,000 prisoners who had died during their imprisonment at Andersonville. The horrors of the camp were widely reported in the northern press, including photos of the emaciated inmates. Due to the public outcry, the camp commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was tried for war crimes, found guilty and subsequently executed.

The extent to which the Confederates were directly culpable for the horrific conditions of Andersonville remains a question of intense historical debate. Indeed, some historians have argued Andersonville, whilst undeniably tragic, should be attributed to bureaucratic mismanagement as opposed to malicious Confederate intent. One prominent southern historian, William B. Heseltine, maintains that Stanton’s refusal to continue the prisoner exchange programme, coupled with Winder’s inability to properly fund the camp, should be seen as the primary reasons behind the high mortality rate at Andersonville.

However, this narrative has been challenged, both by contemporary historians and by those who survived the camp. The majority of deaths were attributed to scurvy (due to a Vitamin C deficiency) and exposure (due to lack of accommodation), both of which could have been easily resolved. Indeed, the Confederates were certainly aware of conditions within the camp. In 1864, Joseph Jones, an infectious diseases specialist, had been commissioned by the Confederates to investigate the high mortality rate at the camp. Even then, Jones quickly concluded that the lack of Vitamin C, above all, explained the unacceptably high death rate.

Similarly, the former Andersonville inmate, John McElroy, argues in his book Andersonville that General Winder was not only a poor administrator, but also a brutal and vindictive murderer. Winder reportedly boasted that he could kill more Union soldiers at Andersonville than Lee (the commander-in-chief of the Confederate armies) could with 20 regiments. Andersonville allowed Winder to slaughter and maim defenceless Union soldiers whilst the tide of the war was turning decisively against the Confederates.

Inevitably, therefore, there is no clear consensus on the culpability of Confederate forces in the tragedy of Andersonville, and supposedly neutral historical investigations into the issue are often marked by overt bias and attempts to fit an overarching narrative. Nonetheless, regardless of whether Andersonville’s brutality was a conscious, political choice or a terrifying error, it remains a poignant reminder that the horrors of war extend even beyond the battlefield.

Browning, P., 2010. The Changing Nature of Warfare: the development of Land Warfare from 1792-1945. Cambridge University Press.

Destler, C.M., 1940. “An Andersonville Prison Diary.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, 24(1), 56–76. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40576683

Hesseltine, W.B., 1949. “Andersonville.” The Georgia Review, 3(1), 103–114. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41394808

Hesseltine, W.B., 1956. “Andersonville Revisited.” The Georgia Review, 10(1), 92–101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41396606

Percoco, J.A., 1993. “The Space beyond the Gates: Andersonville Prison.” OAH Magazine of History, 8(1), 37–43. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25162924