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A Fate Worse than Death

By Kathleen Walls

Death was not always the worst fate

During the War Between the States, the two greatest disasters to befall a soldier on either side of the conflict were death or capture. The two fates were almost equally horrifying to the fighting men. Death was final. An end to their struggles. They would go to meet their maker knowing they had served their countries as best they could.

Capture meant imprisonment, loss of their freedom and complete control by enemies over their every action. A captured soldier could only hope their jailers would respect their status as prisoners of war and treat them humanely.

There was one prison on each side that caused brave fighting men to quake with fear. These prisons were notorious for their horrifying conditions. For a Yankee to be sent to Andersonville or a Confederate to be sent to Elmira was the worst fate possible, perhaps feared more than death.

The monument to Michigan's dead at Andersonville


The prison at Andersonville was officially called Camp Sumter. It only functioned as a prison for 14 months but during that time 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned there. Of that number, 13,000 died from disease, unsanitary conditions, or exposure to a bitter winter cold. Conditions were so bad there that one prisoner, Sgt. David Kennedy, described it as "this hell on earth where it takes seven of its occupants to make a shadow."

The memories of man's inhumanity to man are imbedded in its soil. Just as the war that spawned this hellhole was not a clear-cut case of good versus evil, so the two principal figures that dominate Andersonville's bitter stage cannot be visualized as either saint or devil.

Captain Henry Wirz, the only Confederate officer hanged as a war criminal and Father Whelan, the only chaplain able to endure the rigors of the war's worst prison camp, were mere mortals whose paths were fated to cross at our nation's lowest ebb.

Captain Henry Wirz was a Bavarian who had joined the fourth Louisiana Infantry. Assigned as commander of Camp Sumter in March of 1864, he was placed in an untenable position. He was charged with the responsibility for the care of the Union prisoners. The Union blockade had cut off all supplies to the South including medicine and anesthetics. There was no food to feed the citizens. Soldiers lived on what they could forage off the land which was little. The prisoners had even less. The situation would have eased if the prisoners could have been swapped for Confederate prisoners languishing in northern prison camps however the United States had stopped that practice in an effort to strike the final blow to the Confederacy. Lincoln and his secretary of War, Stanton, felt the exchanged prisoners would return to fight for the South thereby prolonging the war.

The prison had been built early in 1864. It consisted of little more than a 15-foot high stockade enclosing about 16 ½ acres. In June, that was enlarged to enclose 25 ½ acres. Sentry boxes, called pigeon roost, by the prisoners were built every thirty feet along the wall. About nineteen feet within the wall was the "deadline." Any prisoner who entered this space was shot. The only water in the camp was a tiny stream that meandered through the stockade. The stream was used for all of the prisoner's sanitation needs as well as cooking and drinking. Naturally disease was rampant. Shelter consisted of what the prisoners themselves could fashion from their limited resources. During the fourteen months of its existence, the prison housed up to 32,000 prisoners.

To make an impossible situation even worse, bullies arose within the prison. A group of the dregs of the Union prisoners preyed on their weaker compatriots. Led by Willie Collins, these renegades called themselves "The Raiders". They stole what little other prisoners had and often killed other prisoners. Finally the prisoners informed Wirz. He allowed the prisoners themselves to try and convict several of "The Raiders". Six of the outlaws were hung from a makeshift gallows inside the stockade to the cheers of the prisoners. Willie went to his death defiant and cursing his accusers. The graves of the raiders are located near the front of the cemetery.

In this netherworld one man did tried to ease the pain of the wretched prisoners. Father Whelan, a Catholic priest, was the only chaplain who could endure the conditions at the prison. Although he was a Southerner, he ministered to both Protestant and Catholic prisoners. He begged for help, food and medicine. Other chaplains came but could not stand the conditions and left.

At the end of the war, horrified Federal officers brought Wirz to trail as a war criminal. He was accused of conspiracy to "murder in violation of the laws of war." There was no conspiracy but the conditions so horrified the Northerners that Wirz was convicted and hanged. The United Daughters of the Confederacy have since tried to clear his name, claiming he was just a scapegoat. They have erected a monument to Capt. Wirz in the town of Andersonville in the hope of making people understand that there was nothing he could have done to change the conditions that created the horror of Andersonville Prison.

The bronze stature honopring POWs at Andersonville Prisoner of War Museum

Andersonville, it's very name conjured up horror during the Civil War. Now, it spreads a message of hope. Today, it is a national historic site and houses the National Prisoner of War Museum as well as the Andersonville National Cemetery.

In 1970, Congress designated the cemetery a national monument dedicated to preserving the heritage not only of Andersonville and the Civil War prisoners but of all prisoners of war in American history. A humble museum began on the site in the 1980's with a partnership between the National Park Service and the American Ex-prisoners of War. Then on April 9, 1999, the magnificent structure that today tell the horrifying story of what life is like in a POW camp is really like was opened.

The structure is stark and foreboding with "guard towers" to evoke the image of a prison as you enter. The art work, an emaciated bronze "prisoner" with his cupped hands outstretched begging water, a bas relief on the brick wall of prisoners in chains and others including the cemetery monuments built by many states whose citizen-soldiers died here, are worth the trip in their own right. It is impossible not to be moved to tears when you view "Echoes of Captivity," a film, narrated by Colin Powell, about what it means to be a prisoner of war.

Then begin your tour of the museum. In one room you are surrounded by guns and told "Lay down your weapons." From there the experience leads you through the horror of capture and imprisonment suffered by soldiers since the Revolution on up to present day Americans fighting in Iraq. Since the beginning of our country, fair treatment of prisoners of war has been a part of the American way. However, when King George III of England threatened to treat Colonial prisoners as traitors instead of soldiers, the Father of Our County made his intentions clear regarding mistreatment of American prisoners General Washington stated that he would treat British prisoners "exactly by the rule you shall observe toward those of ours now in your custody."

The little town of Andersonville offers an annual reenactments that mix history with festival fun. In October, as you stroll the streets of the tiny Civil War Village, you are apt to meet Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and other personages of the time. Music, dancing and reenactments are among the entertainment. The heart of the village is the Depot Museum housing Civil War memorabilia.

Be sure to visit the old log church just west of town and the Pioneer Farm at the north end of the village.

Andersonville is a part of our American heritage and should be seen by every man, woman and child to understand the terrible cost of war. Now, more than ever, this place represents the indomitable spirit of the United States. What other country could take the scene of horror representing the greatest division this country has ever endured and turn it from a reminder of grim horror to a symbol of hope.

The monmument honoring Confederate Soldiers at Elmira


With the advent of the War, Elmira was designated as the site for a prison camp. It had previously been a Union barracks designed to hold 4.000 men. At its peak, it contained over 10,000 Confederate prisoners. There was no housing for over half the prisoners who had to sleep in the open or in rough tents. Although the prison only operated for one year, the casualties were horrific. Poor sanitation, lack of basic necessities and the cold New York winter compounded by a smallpox epidemic earned the prison the nickname Helmira. Just the fear of being captured and sent there struck fear into the sturdiest Confederate soldier.

Just as prisoners at Andersonville looked to Father Whelan for what little confort they could find there, there was one person at Elmire who took pityon the Confederate prisoners. John Jones was the last person anyone would expect to have sympathy for these prisoners.

Some of American history's most unusual stories were spawned by the War Between the States. Perhaps the most intriguing of these stories brings together the Union 's most hellish prison camp, a runaway slave and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

John W. Jones was a young slave on a Leesburg, Virginia plantation, on June 3, 1844. John had belonged to the Elzy family and, as the head of the family grew older, the young man feared he would be sold.

He and four others used the Underground Railroad to help their escape. He settled in Elmira , NY and became an active worker for the Underground Railroa d. As the respected sexton for the Woodlawn Cemetery across from the First Baptist Church , one of his duties was to bury the dea d. For this he was paid $2.50.

During the term of the prison's use, John was the person in charge of burying 2,963 prisoners. He was so conscientious in his efforts to award the dead soldiers their proper respect that he undertook personally to locate information about each of the deceased and farther buried any possessions they might have had with them in a small urn just a foot or so deep in each grave. Coffins and small wooden headboards were painted with the name and unit of each soldier. Of all the Confederate prisoners Jones buried, only seven are listed as unknown. His records were so precise that on December 7, 1877 the federal government declared the burial site a national cemetery.

Shortly after the war, the United Daughters of the Confederacy began their project to send home the remains of Confederate soldiers buried "inhospitable Northern soil." However, when they arrived in Elmira and heard of Jones care in burying the Confederate dead and other acts of kindness shown by him and other Elmirans during the Confederates imprisonment here. The Daughters made the decision to leave their fallen war heroes to continue to rest in peace in Elmira 's Woodlawn Cemetery . The wooden headboards Jones had erected were replaced by the uniformed stones now seen at Woodlawn's National Cemetery . When you visit Woodlawn, you will note a slight difference between the stones marking Confederate graves and those of all the other Woodlawn dea d. The Confederate stones have a pointed top while the others are rounde d. The legend goes that the Daughters of the Confederacy specifically requested the point "so that no damned Yankee will sit on their graves!"

In 1938, the daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument with a granite base and a bronze Confederate soldier to honor the fallen Confederates. It is the northernmost Confederate monument in the United States.

For more info:

Andersonville National Historic Site www.nps.gov/ande/ 229-924-0343

Andersonville www.andersonvillegeorgia.com/

Elmira National Cemetery www.cem.va.gov/CEM/cems/nchp/woodlawn.asp 607-732-5411

Other Elmira Attractions www.westernny.com/cornelmthings.html

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