With Memorial Day here in the US approaching, I wanted to write a post that would help remind me what Memorial Day is all about. According to Wikipedia,” Memorial Day is a federal holiday observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the fallen Union soldiers of the Civil War. (Southern ladies organizations and southern schoolchildren had decorated Confederate graves in Richmond and other cities during the Civil War, but each region had its own date. Most dates were in May.) By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. As a marker it typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end. By the early 20th century, Memorial Day was an occasion for more general expressions of memory, as people visited the graves of their deceased relatives in church cemeteries, whether they had served in the military or not. It also became a long weekend increasingly devoted to shopping, family gatherings, fireworks, trips to the beach, and national media events such as the Indianapolis 500 auto race, held since 1911 on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. ”
It’s so easy to get caught up in the hype of planning the barbecues, and get together’s over the weekend without remembering the true reasons we officially remember or celebrate this day (weekend). In my opinion, we should remember the reasons we are free everyday, and honor those who fought for our freedom, with every breath we take.
So on that note, I want to write about my visit to Andersonville National Historic Site in Andersonville, Georgia. This historic site is comprised of the National POW Museum, Andersonville Civil War Prison, and the Andersonville National Cemetery. Visiting Andersonville is a sobering experience.
Opened in 1998, the National Prisoner of War Museum tells the story of prisoners of war throughout American History. This facility doubles as the park’s visitor center and is the best place to begin a visit. Two films, shown on the hour and half-hour, provide an excellent introduction to the story of the Andersonville Prison and the experience of American prisoners of war. The first exhibit gallery answers the question “What is a POW?” This is followed by exhibit areas exploring the themes of capture, living conditions, news and communications, those who wait, privation, morale and relationships, and escape and freedom. Throughout the exhibits there are touchable items and exhibit drawers that may be opened to find out more about prisoners of war.
The films were disturbing to watch, but it was the exhibits that made me stop. Not just to stop and casually cast a glance about and wander to the next exhibit, but to come to a dead stop. Nothing I write can help me explain what I felt. Visitors enter through a dark room, and suddenly hear the wail of sirens. Crazy-swirling spotlights appear, revealing dozens of rifle muzzles poking out of the walls, directly at you. You’ve been captured!
Sad music plays softly throughout the galleries. Plate steel display cases convey an institutional starkness. We saw sandals made of straw, socks knitted from string, a suit made of tent canvas. Some prisoners from the War of 1812 had the time to make a fully-rigged sailing ship model out of beef, mutton, and pork bones.
The museum’s most elaborate presentation is about Americans captured in the Vietnam War. Peering through a slot in a wall reveals a dark chamber containing the mannequin of a grim, barefoot POW sitting on a thin straw mat, manacled to a concrete slab. The sound of sickly coughing fills the cell, along with harsh commands barked over a loudspeaker (“On your feet! No talking!”), and the droning monotone of a prisoner reading antiwar statements at a staged North Vietnamese press conference. Next to the cell stands a life-size bamboo “tiger cage” (built for the museum by the U.S. military).
During the walk through the exhibits I felt claustrophobic and found I was unable to take any photographs. Not that it’s not allowed, I just physically was not able. All I could do was look and feel despair. I was thankful to get out… Freedom…The exhibits made their point.
Behind the museum is a courtyard with sculptures of gaunt POWs around a man-made stream cutting through the pavement.
The dramatic wall and sculpture in the museum courtyard is by Donna L. Dobberfuhl. It is entitled “The Price of Freedom Fully Paid”, and it is a work of art that beckons you to walk around it – to see it from every angle, to look into this man’s face.
Beyond the courtyard is the old Andersonville prison site. Small sections of its wooden stockade — including the main gate — have been rebuilt on what is now a pleasant grassy meadow.
On our visit, the sky was sharply blue and the grasses on the hill a pastoral green. Peaceful. And yet the ghostly images of those who were here seem to stare back across the open space. It’s beauty and peace belie the horrors this ground beheld. Looking back, I am surprised that I heard no birds, saw no squirrels scurrying about. There are ample trees and coverage.
Andersonville, or Camp Sumter as it was officially known, was one of the largest of many established prison camps during the American Civil War. It was built early in 1864 after Confederate officials decided to move the large number of Federal prisoners kept in and around Richmond, Virginia, to a place of greater security and a more abundant food supply. During the 14 months the prison existed, more than 45,000 Union Solders were confined here. Of these, almost 13,000 died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure to the elements.
The pen initially covered about 16 1/2 acres of land enclosed by a 15 foot high stockade of hewn pine logs. It was enlarged to 26 1/2 acres in June of 1864. The stockade was in the shape of a parallelogram 1,620 feet long and 779 feet wide. Sentry boxes, or “pigeon roost” as the prisoners called them, stood at 30 yard intervals along the top of the stockade. Inside, about 19 feet from the wall, was the “Dead Line”, which the prisoners were forbidden to cross upon threat of death. This is marked today by white posts.
Two entrances, the North Gate and the South Gate, were on the West side of the stockade. Eight small earthen forts located around the exterior of the prison were equipped with artillery to quell disturbances within the compound and to defend against feared Union cavalry attacks.
The first prisoners were brought to Andersonville in February, 1864. During the next few months approximately 400 more arrived each day until, by the end of June, some 26,000 men were confined in a prison area originally intended to hold 13,000. The largest number held at any one time was more than 32,000 in August, 1864. Handicapped by deteriorating economic conditions, an inadequate transportation system, and the need to concentrate all available resources on the army, the Confederate government was unable to provide adequate housing, food, clothing, and medical care to their Federal captives. These conditions, along with a breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, resulted in much suffering and a high mortality rate. On July 9, 1864, Sgt. David Kennedy of the 9th Ohio Cavalry wrote in his diary: ‘ Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.’
Flowing through the prison yard was a stream called Stockade Branch, which supplied water to most of the prison. June and July 1864 were terribly dry and hot. With overcrowding and drought this stream became polluted. There were several wells the prisoners had dug, but these were running dry. On August 13, 1864, a large cloud appeared east of Camp Sumter. It was described as being tall, with a sharp shape and a color that resembled gun metal blue. The huge anomaly moved slowly over the stockade, hovering over the Dead House for a time, before moving north towards the North Gate. The emaciated prisoners and guards stood awestruck by the sight. Normally loud with the cries of the suffering, yelling and camp talk the entire stockade became eerily quiet. As light rain once again began falling, a deafening roar broke the silence. Men that had become used to the boom of cannon claimed it sounded like the simultaneous explosion of a thousand heavy guns. The shock wave from the crash threw men, near the west wall, to the ground. Almost instantaneously a blinding bolt of blue-white light burst forth from the cloud, hitting the ground near the Dead Line at the North Gate. This was followed by another large explosion, causing dirt and steam to shoot into the air. As if by the hand of God, a flood of cool, clean water poured from the ground. The lightening apparently hit exactly at the high point of an underground stream. The water that flowed from the ground would be called Providence Spring and still flows unabated today.
In the area of the northwest corner of the prison stockade are twelve monuments, dating from 1901 through 1934. Seven of the monuments are dedicated to states who had soldiers imprisoned here or otherwise commemorate the prison experience. The remainder of the monuments remember the Woman’s Relief Corps, and others involved in preserving and commemorating the prison site a century ago.
The Andersonville National Cemetery includes the oldest and the youngest of the memorial monuments located in the park. Nine of the monuments commemorate Union soldiers who were imprisoned or perished at the Andersonville prison. The other three monuments are dedicated to the broader themes of the park, commemorating POWs in all or other wars as well as unknown soldiers.
In the cemetery, the rows upon rows of headstones are stunning. I’ve seen war cemeteries before – Normandy in France, other Civil War and Revolutionary War cemeteries. But at Andersonville, one is struck by the names. The majority of the headstones have names. And the names make it personal. Andersonville is different from most other Civil War cemeteries in this way. A careful record was made of those who died and so only a few headstones indicate an unknown soldier. These are the names of brothers and sons, husbands and fathers.
Andersonville Prison ceased to exist in May, 1865. Some former prisoners remained in Federal service, but most returned to the civilian occupations they had before the war. During July and August, 1865, Clara Barton, a detachment of laborers and soldiers, and a former prisoner named Dorence Atwater, came to Andersonville cemetery to identify and mark the graves of the Union dead. As a prisoner, Atwater was assigned to record the names of deceased Union soldiers for the Confederates. Fearing loss of of the death record at war’s end, Atwater made his own copy in hopes of notifying the relatives of some 12,000 dead interred at Andersonville. Thanks to his list and the Confederate records confiscated at the end of the war, only 460 of the Andersonville graves had to be marked ” Unknown U.S. Soldier.”
So in closing,
“Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.”
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow