American Civil War: Andersonville Prison

Inside Andersonville Prison
Andersonville Prison. Library of Congress

Andersonville Prison - Conflict and Dates:

The Andersonville prisoner of war camp operated from February 27, 1864 until the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Andersonville Prison - Construction:

In late 1863, the Confederacy found that it needed to construct additional prisoner of war camps to house captured Union soldiers waiting to be exchanged. As leaders discussed where to place these new camps, former Georgia governor, Major General Howell Cobb stepped forward to suggest the interior of his home state.

Citing southern Georgia's distance from the front lines, relative immunity to Union cavalry raids, and easy access to railroads, Cobb was able to convince his superiors to build a camp in Sumter County. In November 1863, Captain W. Sidney Winder was dispatched to find a suitable location.

Arriving at the tiny village of Andersonville, Winder found what he believed to be an ideal site. Located near the Southwestern Railroad, Andersonville possessed transit access and a good water source. With the location secured, Captain Richard B. Winder was sent to Andersonville to design and oversee the construction of the prison. Planning a facility for 10,000 prisoners, Winder designed a 16.5 acre rectangular compound that had a stream flowing through the center. Naming the prison Camp Sumter in January 1864, Winder used local slaves to construct the compound's walls.

Built of tight-fitting pine logs, the stockade wall presented a solid facade that did not allow the slightest view of the outside world.

Access to the stockade was through two large gates set in the west wall. Inside, a light fence was built approximately 19-25 feet from the stockade. This "dead line" was meant to keep prisoners away from the walls and any caught crossing it was shot immediately. Due to its simple construction, the camp rose quickly and the first prisoners arrived on February 27, 1864.

While the population steadily grew, it began to balloon after the Fort Pillow incident in April.

Andersonville Prison - A Nightmare Ensues:

On April 12, 1864, Confederate forces under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest massacred black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow, TN. In response, President Abraham Lincoln demanded that black prisoners of war be treated the same as their white comrades. This was refused by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As a result, Lincoln and Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant suspended all prisoner exchanges. With the halt of exchanges, POW populations on both sides began to grow rapidly. At Andersonville, the population reached 20,000 by early June, twice the camp's intended capacity.

With the prison badly overcrowded, its superintendent, Major Henry Wirz, authorized an expansion of the stockade. Using prisoner labor, a 610 ft. addition was built on the prison's north side. Built in two weeks, it was opened to the prisoners on July 1. In an effort to further alleviate the situation, Wirz paroled five men in July and sent them north with a petition signed by the majority of the prisoners asking for POW exchanges to resume.  This request was denied by the Union authorities.

Despite this 10-acre expansion, Andersonville remained badly overcrowded with the population peaking at 33,000 in August. Throughout the summer, conditions in the camp continued to deteriorate as the men, exposed to the elements, suffered from malnutrition and diseases such as dysentery.

With its water source polluted from the overcrowding, epidemics swept through the prison raising its monthly mortality rate to around 3,000. These prisoners were buried in mass graves outside the stockade. Life within Andersonville was made worse by a group of prisoners known as the "Raiders" who stole food and valuables from other prisoners. These were eventually rounded up by a second group known as the "Regulators." Following their capture, the Raiders were put on trial by the prisoners and found guilty.

Punishments for some varied from being placed in the stocks, running the gauntlet, and ball and chain while six were condemned and hung.  Between June and October 1864, some relief was offered by Father Peter Whelan who daily ministered to the prisoners and provided food and other supplies. 

Andersonville Prison - Final Days:

As Major General William T. Sherman's troops marched on Atlanta, General John Winder, the head of Confederate POW camps, ordered Wirz to construct earthwork defenses around the camp. These were not needed as following Sherman's capture of the city, the majority of the camp's prisoners were transferred to a new facility at Millen, GA. In late 1864, with Sherman moving toward Savannah, some were transferred back to Andersonville raising the prison's population to around 5,000. It remained at this level until the war's end in April 1865.

Andersonville Prison - Wirz Executed:

Andersonville has become synonymous with the trials and atrocities faced by POWs during the Civil War. Of the approximately 45,000 Union soldiers who entered Andersonville, 12,913 died within the prison's walls. This represented 28% of Andersonville's population and 40% of all Union POW deaths during the war. In May 1865, Wirz was arrested and taken to Washington, DC. Charged with a litany of crimes including conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war and murder, he faced a military tribunal overseen by Major General Lew Wallace that August. Prosecuted by Norton P. Chipman, the case saw a procession of former prisoners give testimony about their experiences at Andersonville.

Among those who testified on Wirz's behalf were Whelan and General Robert E. Lee. In early November, he was found guilty of conspiracy as well as eleven of thirteen counts of murder. In a controversial decision, Wirz was sentenced to death.  Though pleas for clemency were made to President Andrew Johnson, these were denied and Wirz was hung on November 10, 1865 at the Old Capitol Prison. He was one of two individuals tried, convicted, and executed for war crimes during the Civil War, the other being Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson. The site of Andersonville was purchased by the Federal government in 1910, and is now the home of Andersonville National Historic Site.

Selected Sources

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Andersonville Prison." ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, May 16). American Civil War: Andersonville Prison. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Andersonville Prison." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 21, 2018).