ANDERSONVILLE PRISON, established in February 1864 in Andersonville, Georgia, became a symbol of Southern brutality toward Northern prisoners of war. The breakdown of a military prisoner exchange system in the summer of 1863 resulted in an excess of war captives. A Confederate policy ordering the execution or reenslavement of black soldiers and arbitrary violations of the exchange agreement led to this collapse. Built to accommodate excess prisoners from Belle Isle in Virginia, Andersonville was intended to hold ten thousand prisoners on sixteen acres, but little preparation went into its establishment. The prison lacked barracks. It was a field surrounded by a log stockade and intersected by a stream, which served the prison both as a sanitation system and water supply. The dwindling economic state of the Confederacy, an ineffective railroad system, and military necessity prevented prison officials from supplying the captives with shelter, cooked food, clothing, medical care, or basic means of sanitation. The prison diet was inadequate, and captives were typically malnourished. Lack of nutrition and poor sanitary conditions led to the rapid spread of respiratory diseases, scurvy, and diarrhea.
As captives from the eastern and western theaters swelled the prison, it was expanded to twenty-six acres. By August 1864, 33,000 Union prisoners packed the camp, and more than a hundred prisoners died each day at Andersonville that summer. The advance of William T. Sherman's Union army in September 1864 forced the evacuation of Andersonville. Of the 45,000 men imprisoned in Andersonville, 13,000 died from disease, exposure, or malnutrition.
The Northern public regarded Andersonville as a Southern plot to murder prisoners of war. As such, the prison's commandant, Henry Wirz, was tried by a Northern war commission in August 1865. Sentenced to death and executed in November 1865, Wirz was the only Civil War participant tried for war crimes. Subsequent investigations and recent scholarship have cast doubt upon Wirz's guilt as a war criminal, but he provided the North with a scapegoat for the crimes of the South.
By the early 2000s, few historians viewed the South as deliberately mistreating prisoners of war. Instead, a lack of resources and the disintegration of the Confederate economy were the chief causes for the suffering of Northern prisoners. Unable to feed its own soldiers and citizens, the South certainly could not feed prisoners of war. The lack of an industrial base prohibited the South from producing barracks or even tents for shelter for prisoners. Poor planning and inefficient prison management also contributed to the mistreatment of Northern prisoners.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
See alsoPrison Camps, Confederate ; Prison Camps, Union ; andvol. 9:Prisoner at Andersonville .
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