The history of Camp Sumter (Andersonville Prison)


Camp Sumter is the most famous of the 150 military prisons of the Civil War. The prison was constructed in 1864 after the decision to relocate Union prisoners to a secure location.  The site was picked for its remoteness and had a safe distance from the coastal roads. The area was sparsely populated. Camp Sumter operated for fourteen months. The prison was designed to accommodate 10,000 prisoners. However, due to a breakdown of the prison exchanges, the prison had 45,000 Union soldiers.  The imprisoned men found it hard to get space in the facility, and unfortunately, almost 13,000, among them, died. The prison was always crowded as it held more than 32,000 prisoners (National Park Service, 2015). The overcrowding led to problems of insufficient resource supply as well as the distribution of essential resources. The Confederate government failed to provide the prisoners with proper medical care, adequate food, clothing, and shelter. The terrible conditions made prisoners suffer greatly, further ending in high mortality rates. Prisoners died due to poor sanitation, malnutrition, diseases, and overcrowding. The Andersonville prison was the deadliest site of the Civil War.

It is essential to start by understanding the Civil war prisons to figure out about Camp Sumter. When the Civil War began, no side had anticipated a long conflict. In fact, they had no formal exchange systems, but parole prisoners. The captured men were imprisoned but eventually released after they took an oath of honor of not returning to the battle field. Consequently, men returned to camp as noncombatants (Page & Haley, 2015).  Besides, no side had to provide for the needs of prisoners. Unfortunately, the exchange system lasted until 1862, meaning it worked for less than a year. As a consequence, the North and South found themselves having thousands of war prisoners.

The South captured Union soldiers and housed them in old barns and warehouses. However, the number continued to increase due to the end of the exchange system. As a result, they built prisons in Millen, Andersonville, South Carolina, Florence, and Georgia.  Most of these prisons were stockades that were in enclosed open fields. On the other hand, the North converted most of their Federal camps into prisons (National Park Service, 2015).The confined soldiers had a hard time and suffered immensely. The problems facing these prisoners, both in the South and the North, was overcrowding, inadequate food, and poor sanitation. Worse of all, there were high levels of mismanagement by prison officials. The prisoners as well aggravated the situation.

The Andersonville prison was approximately 16 ½ acres that were enclosed by a high stockade wall. In 1864, the prison was expanded to cover 26 ½ acres to cater for the overpopulated prisoners.  Inside the stockade, there was a “deadline” of 19 feet where no prisoner was allowed to step in (National Park Service, 2015). The deadline was created to keep prisoners away from the wall to prevent them from climbing it. The deadline was a disadvantage to prisoners because they could no longer sit and enjoy the shade from it. They could as well not trade with sentries. Prisoners were warned against crossing the deadline as they would get shot as a result of breaching this rule. The guards from the pigeon roots, who were about thirty yards away, were allowed to shoot to kill the prisoners who trespassed the deadline. There were incidences where prisoners had crossed the deadline as a suicidal mission since they knew they would be shot by the guards. There was once an incident of a German, who was shot dead as he tried to get a cloth from the line. In another instance, there was a one-legged man who was shot dead as tried to support himself in the deadline because his crouches had dropped.

Captain Dick Winder was assigned to Andersonville and was responsible for providing the prisoners with shelter. However, Winder could not provide shelter successfully because there was a demand for timber for the railroads, inflation, and general incompetence. The prison had only one source of water that came from a torpid stretch of Sweetwater Creek in the prison yard. The prisoners got their drinking water and also deposited their waste in the same place. Besides, prisoners were forced to have their baths in the sink, resulting to dysentery. The captain was hindered by the deteriorating economic conditions and also inadequate transportation system (Reaves, 2015). Therefore, the Confederate government could concentrate all their resources and cater for the needs of the prisoners. The prisoners were left to build their shelters using the limited resources they received.

The conditions of the prison camp deteriorated rapidly as the number of prisoners increased. The most notable situation was that disease, such as dysentery, fungal and bacterial infections became widespread while there was inadequate treatment as well as medicine for the sick. Equally, there was a scarcity of food, which affected many prisoners turning them into emaciated people in captivity. Consequently, most of them died of starvation. Furthermore, water in prison became polluted due to overcrowding. The situation in the camps came from bad to worse, prompting prisoners to form raiding parties. They armed themselves with clubs and sticks and started assaulting others to gain any available valuables or food.

In conclusion, Andersonville prison was characterized by suffering starting from through diseases, violence to problems of overcrowding. The worst hardship the prisoners endured was the lack of food at Camp Sumter. One of the Union war strategies was to starve the Confederacy into submission. It meant that the Union armies had destroyed factories, farms, the transportation system, which prevented the movement of medicine and food. Andersonville prison was the facility that had the highest mortality rate in the Civil war prisons. From the 45, 000 men, who entered the prison, almost 13,000 men died, mainly due to malnutrition. The government failed to provide adequate living conditions as well as supplies for the prisoners. Prisoners, on the other hand, made the situation even worse by raiding and fighting for the meager resources. The greatest obstacle that prisoners encountered as they struggled to survive was disease outbreaks and poor diet. The overcrowding, which led to poor sanitation, also resulted in contamination of the only water supply in place. Beyond doubt, Andersonville was the worst place a human being could survive.

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  1. National Park Service (2015). Camp Sumter/ Andersonville Prison.
  2. Page, J. M., & Haley, M. J. (2015). The true story of Andersonville prison: A defense of Major Henry Wirz. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning.
  3. Reaves, S. W. (2015). A history of Andersonville Prison monuments.Charleston, SC: History Press, 2015.
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