I knew what awaited. I wasn't sure how I'd handle it but I knew it was there.
But first things first.
There's a certain satisfaction that comes from seeing where your food comes from. I have the utmost respect for farmers and seeing them at work was like viewing art being made.
Watermelons. I'm not talking about a fruit stand. I'm not talking about a farmer's market. I'm talking about a 40 acre field where you can't see the ground for the watermelons. I'm talking about watermelons laying in the road like dead possums.
What do you do with that many watermelons? You cut the top off a school bus, pull out all the seats, stack the watermelons up to what would have been the bottoms of the windows and haul 'em off. A bus load of watermelons is a beautiful thing. A convoy of five such buses...I don't have the words...
And then there's just something about getting off the Interstate. You haven't really experienced Georgia until you've seen towns like Irwinville, DeSoto and Buena Vista. Many of these places have lost their luster. Some may have never had it. But if you really want to understand the South, you have to look in these places.
And such towns lead the way to the brick columns that I had been dreading, but knew I had to confront.
Just hearing the word makes my stomach quiver just a little. Seeing this in person is a must...even if you don't study war...especially if you hate war.
The traditional visitor's center at Andersonville is anything but. This facility is the National POW Museum. It covers the history of American POWs from the Revolution to the present. It serves as a witness to the cruelty of war and the way it impacts captives, captors and the families involved. While Andersonville is specifically covered, there are also accounts from Union prisons such as Rock Island, IL, where similar atrocities were carried out on the Confederates unlucky enough to find themselves there. There are also memorials from POW experiences from every other American war.
And then I walked outside.
A bas relief on brick and a bronze sculpture stands as a visual of the misery at Andersonville. A water feature symbolizes Sweetwater Creek, a name that almost evokes it own cruelty when it identifies the poison stream that eked its way through the middle of the camp.
The camp has much in common with the war. It seemed good at first - reports of plentiful food in the area, far from the fighting, railroad depot downtown and a creek that would be a source of clean water and wash away waste...until they built the stockade across it...on both sides.
And then it got worse. The blockade and the truth of the area's food supply began to send the situation downward. Then the Union realized that their superior numbers made cessation of prisoner exchanges to be to their advantage (this assessment is part of the official audio tour offered by the park and not just Southern propaganda) so they just stopped. The situation deteriorated further. A band of prisoners began terrorizing other prisoners. This bunch was eventually brought down with the help of other prisoners that had enough of their violence and thievery. The six "raiders", as they were called, were hung, 149 years, to the day, prior to our visit.
As food and medication became more scarce in the South, so went supplies in the camp. The guards consisted of men too old, too young or too sick to be on the lines trying to hold off Sherman's advance. And no matter how remorseful anyone felt about it, if there wasn't enough supplies for the citizens and soldiers in the area, there sure wasn't enough for enemy prisoners.
Sitting on the hill overlooking the camp was the man given charge of the place. Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born Confederate captain was witness to it all. Looking at the verdant field and the quiet creek in the midst, it is hard to imagine the din of over 30,000 human beings, some merely talking, others moaning or crying out. The residents of Americus, some ten miles away complained of the foul stench wafting from the camp - the smell of body odor and human waste festering in the Georgia summer.
The stones in the cemetery stand in memory to the horrors of the camp. The dead were buried shoulder-to-shoulder in trench graves. The Federal Government later placed stones over each prisoner using the meticulous records of the Confederate Surgeons Corps. And the number of stones - rows and rows of white stones - gives the eye perspective as to just how bad the situation got.
I could explain that the Union had similar prisons - Rock Island, Camp Douglas, "Helmira", just to name a few. I could point out that the abundant supplies were withheld from those prisoners for spite and to be maliciously cruel. I could point out that at Camp Douglas that the dead were piled into a common hole and buried without the dignity of a grave. I could mention that, in spite of the northern camps, after the sham trial by military tribunal and a mis-tied knot that 250 paying spectators at Washington's Old Capitol Prison watched Wirz swing and writhe as he slowly suffocated while the crowd chanted "Remember Andersonville" - an event that is widely believed by historians and the National Parks Service to be the murder of a scapegoat.
And every bit of that is true. But none of that would change what happened at Andersonville. To try to deflect or deny what went on at Andersonville would not change one second of the tragedy that was the Confederate Military Prison at Camp Sumter. And to deny this place would be to insult the honor of the prisoners and custodians of this horrible place. Even as a Georgian and one that leans heavily toward the gray, I cannot look at such a place and not feel pity for the people imprisoned there. It was terrible, period.
What I took from it all was all the terror of war, crammed into a compact package. To think of lives lost, of irreversible damage from illness and disease, the images that a mind just never forgets and the horrible cruelty of it all, no matter what lengths are taken to prevent or alleviate it - war is a terrible tragedy. For all the glory we attach to it, it can never be made anything other than tragic, even when it is necessary. That being said, we should never enter in to it brashly or flippantly. Such cruelty must never be celebrated or enjoyed.
And so that brought us to midday and time for a change in venue. I'll pick up the afternoon section of this day in the next update. I promise that it will be a much happier entry....
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire