The Civil War's Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives
The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives

The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives

Matthew Weber - October 4, 2017

The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives
National POW Museum, Andersonville, Georgia. Georgia Historical Society

The Enduring Reputation of Andersonville Prison

The question that has to be considered is what makes Andersonville so different than other POW camps during the Civil War. They were all atrocious when it comes to living conditions, both in the North and the South. Why does Andersonville continue to have the reputation as the worst of the worst?

Almost 1.5 million people visit the site of Andersonville prison each year (stat as of 2011). It is one of the most popular Civil War sites in the South. There have been numerous books written about the camp, and there have been even well-received documentaries and dramatizations of the camp produced by Hollywood over the years.

Why has Andersonville become the main representation of the horrors of Civil War POW camps? The answer is complicated.

From a historian’s perspective, one possible answer lies with a man named Henry Wirz. He was the commandant of the inner stockade at Camp Sumter. Wirz was the only CSA official to be tried, convicted and executed for war crimes after the end of the war (though others were executed for other reasons). Even Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America, and Robert E. Lee were granted clemency. Lee was never imprisoned at all or tried, while Davis was imprisoned for a while then released.

Wirz, on the other hand, was immediately captured, tried, and hanged for the atrocities at Andersonville, despite there being ample evidence of similar horrors at Northern prisons. Most historians posit that the reason why the legend of Andersonville has endured is because of how much more information was given to the public regarding the camp than any of the others. It is also a case of the victors writing the history, as the North was unlikely to prosecute its own leaders for the atrocities that happened at Northern POW camps.

The Civil War’s Deadliest POW Camp Claimed Thousands of American Lives
POW Graves at Andersonville. Georgia Historical Society

Another reason why the camp has endured is that it still exists. Many if not most of the Civil War POW camps were immediately dismantled. Most of the dead from those camps were moved to either national cemeteries or thrown into mass graves away from where the camps were located. Andersonville, on the other hand, is still standing. There is a cemetery there that holds the 13,000 that died, and as of 1998, there is a POW museum on the site that is dedicated to all POWs in every war that the US has fought in.

Finally, the reputation of Andersonville may be living on simply because of the memoirs of former prisoners that were released after the war. Those memoirs were used in a novel named Andersonville that was published in 1955. It won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a film and several other representations of camp life at Camp Sumter.

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