Andersonville Prison (1864-1865)

The American Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. During the 4 years of struggle between the northern and southern armies many battles were fought with an enormous lost of life on both sides. Antietam and Gettysburg were two battles in the war most often mentioned as having the most casualties. But few realize that over 12,000 men died at Andersonville, Georgia, which was not a battlefield but only a Confederate prison camp.

Andersonville claimed 4 of Poland’s sons. The names of Zabad Bissell, George Cobb, J.M. Hollibauch and John Park are inscribed on the Soldier Monument in the Riverside Cemetery. History does not tell us how they died but the chances are their death came from disease and inhuman treatment. They died amid indescribable filth brought about by the overcrowding of the prison. In January 1864 the 16-acre open-air stockade, enclosed by 20 foot-high log walls, was ready to accept the captured Union troops arriving from General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign and the large number of Federal prisoners from in and around Richmond, Virginia. The prison, designed for 10,000 men, soon held twice that number. By June 1864 the northern stockade wall was removed and another 10-acre enclosure was added. By August 1864, due to deteriorating economic resources and the breakdown of the prisoner exchange system, the enlarged 26-acre prison population swelled to over 32,000.

This atrocious overcrowding quickly led to health and nutritional conditions that resulted in the total of 12,912 deaths by war's end. Available shelters for the prisoners were reduced to crude huts made scrap wood, tent fragments, or simple holes dug in the ground. Many had no shelter of any kind against the elements of rain, the hot Georgia sun, or winter’s cold. No clothing was provided, and many prisoners were left with rags or nothing at all.

Running in the middle of the camp was a small, slow moving stream a yard wide and about 10 inches deep which was absurdly named Sweet Water Branch. It was used as a sewer as well as for drinking and bathing. Due to the lack of water, many prisoners went for over a year without washing their clothes or their bodies. Their meager food rations, consisting mostly of rancid corn-meal, contributed to the spread of diarrhea and dysentery. These two diseases caused eighty-six percent of the entire number of deaths. As many as 100 men died each day, their emaciated bodies being carried outside the stockade walls and buried without ceremony.

The Confederates lacked adequate facilities, personnel, and medical supplies to care for the sick prisoners but those in authority were also to blame. The officer in charge of Andersonville, Captain Henri Wirz, was called “a man who never had brains….sufficient to control himself let alone 32,000 men.” At the trial proceedings after the war it was revealed that he had shot and beaten many men, withheld the meager rations for as long as three days and used malicious dogs for police work. A U.S. military tribune sentenced him to hang for his inhuman treatment of camp’s prisoners.

After the war ended, the plot of ground near the prison where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers had been buried was administered by the United States government as a National Cemetery. The prison reverted to private hands and was planted in cotton and other crops until the land was acquired by the Grand Army of the Republic of George in 1891. Today the Andersonville prison site is a national park with a museum dedicated to American prisoners from all wars. It has a graveyard containing approximately 1,000 graves bearing the inscription “unknown.”