150 years ago, as Richmond’s war-time prison population grew, many of those prisoners were sent south to Andersonville, Georgia.
Change of Base. – It will not be long ere many of the Yankee prisoners, now in confinement on Belle Isle, will have an opportunity of breathing the salubrious air farther South, the Government having made selection of a spot in Georgia, near Andersonville, Sumtar county, for their reception and safe-keeping, their present place of confinement being rather over-crowded. The location is on the Southwestern railroad, between Oglethorpe and Americus, where no difficulty will be encountered in supplying their wants. Richmond Sentinel, 12/30/1863
December of 1863 brought more uncertainty to the cold and hungry prisoners living on Richmond’s Belle Isle. The island prison, which held captured Union soldiers, had been re-opened in May of 1863 after the Battle of Chancellorsville and would soon be closing again. Past closings of Belle Isle had been due to mass prisoner exchanges which were pretty common during the first few years of the war. However, the latter part of the Civil War saw prisoner exchange negotiations start to break down, and as a result, both Confederate and Union governments needed to address their growing prison populations.
For the prisoners on Belle Isle, that meant being sent further south to a brand new prison built for them in Andersonville, Georgia called Camp Sumter. The prison was a large 26.5 acre pen, surrounded by tall walls made of cut pine logs. The pen itself was a large field with minimal protection from the weather and other elements. A small stream ran through the center of the pen and provided the only source of water. Originally built to house 10,000 prisoners, Camp Sumter would soon grow to hold over 32,000 Union soldiers at its peak. Even though it only operated for a relatively short, 14-month lifespan, over 45,000 Union soldiers passed through the prison during the war–13,000 of which died there, victims of disease, starvation, malnutrition, and violence. Andersonville was a far cry from the rosy picture painted by the Richmond Sentinel. It was hell on earth.
John Ransom, a Union soldier from Michigan, was one of the prisoners transferred from Belle Isle to Andersonville. He thought the conditions on Belle Isle were bad until he saw what was unfolding in the new prison.
Andersonville is situated on two hillsides, with a small stream of swampy water running through the center, and on both sides of the stream is a piece of swamp. A very unhealthy climate. A good many are being poisoned…and there is a thick green scum on the water. All who drink freely are made sick, and their faces swell up so they cannot see…There is so much filth about the camp that it is terrible trying to live here. New prisoners are made sick the first hours of their arrival by the stench which pervades the prison. Everybody is sick, almost, with scurvy–an awful disease. New cases every day.
The man who ran Andersonville was a Swiss-born soldier named Henry Wirz who came to Andersonville via Richmond. After being wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines, he worked in an administrative capacity for General John H. Winder, who was in charge of the Confederate prisons. Wirz ran several Confederate prisons in Richmond before his tenure at Andersonville. In Wirz’s defense, he had very little control over the lack of food or inability to treat sickness in Andersonville: the Confederate government lacked the resources and refused to provide aid despite multiple requests. Despite these efforts, Wirz still played a large role in the hellish conditions in Andersonville, and he was universally hated by the prison population for his excessive use of violence and intimidation.
One of his most heinous tactics implemented at Andersonville was known as the “dead line”, a line approximately 20 feet from the prison walls. Any prisoner that crossed the line would be shot on sight. As conditions worsened at Andersonville, some prisoners willfully crossed the line as an alternative to a prolonged death from disease and starvation.
After the war, Wirz was captured and put on trial by the U.S. government for war crimes. Even though he was not fully responsible for the lack of food and resources, conditions in Andersonville were so appalling that the public demanded justice. He was found guilty by a military tribunal and was eventually hanged in Washington D.C. on November 10th, 1865. He was the only person to ever be executed for a war crime during the Civil War.