Wednesday, July 24, 2013

You will find what you come for at Andersonville

Andersonville cemetery. Photo © by Debi Lander.

History, military and Civil War buffs. Descendents in search of family, former POWs, their families and soldiers in search of validation. Just curious. Most of the 130,000 to 150,000 who come to Andersonville, this National Historic Site, POW Museum and active cemetery, have a purpose.

As Chief Interpretive Ranger Eric Leonard said, "This is a very, very reflective place. It's not where you come to picnic or play a game. Your experience depends on what brings you here in the first place."

As travel writers, we came to see what was here, to learn what had happened and to experience and share with readers what it's like. What we left wanting was more time to see, learn, experience and reflect.

That 13,000 people died here in 14 months, making it the deadliest place on American soil, is a tragedy but as Ranger Eric reminded us, the real tragedy is that it is not alone; there are more like it all over the world. There were 150 other prisons like it between the Union and Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Outer courtyard sculpture. Photo © by Judy Wells.
After seeing the museum's outer courtyard with its moving statuary of a prisoner with precious water dripping through his hand, we examined the infamous prison site.









Photo © by Debi Lander.


The prison

Looking across the expanse that was once Andersonville Prison. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Originally 16 acres, at war's close it had been expanded to encompass 27 acres of hilly ground with a creek running through it. In all 45,000 men were imprisoned here over the 14 months of its operation; the highest concentration some 33,000 in July 1864.

The stories of sorrow, cruelty, kindness, hope, achievement, infamy, bravery and cowardice are endless; we could have listened to our eloquent ranger recount them for hours.

The ironies are as numerous. After the war ended, the last of three hospital buildings where so many men had died was taken over by New England female missionaries who used it as a school for the former slaves those men had died to free.

POW Museum

Clothes worn by a prisoner at Andersonville Prison. Photo © by Debi Lander.
Staring out across at that now empty expanse we tried to mentally populate it but the task was too daunting. We are lucky; such misery is beyond our experience.

Hanoi Hilton cell. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Sadly, it is not beyond the understanding and empathy of thousands of other soldiers who were and are captured and held prisoner during our other wars, which is where the POW Museum comes in. It makes tangible what those men endured from their morale to their torture, the agony of loved ones waiting at home and the indomitable spirit of the survivors.

Gone but not forgotten

One small section of many at Andersonville Cemetery. Photo © by Debi Lander.
The cemetery where the dead of Andersonville are buried along with today's military and their spouses is 27 acres of silent honor and respect, idyllic in its green and treed expanse, silent statuary and row upon row upon row of simple headstones.

Here you learn the story of the brave teenager Dorence Atwater who was responsible for keeping track of the burials as the war raged. He secretly copied the lists of numbered graves and the men buried in them and slipped it out. Clara Barton then used that list to find information for grieving families and to shame the military into erecting headstones identifying them.

One of the few unknowns. Photo © by Debi Lander.
The results are remarkable. Only four-percent of those buried here are unknown vs. the 40-percent unknowns of other campaigns.


To say we left subdued is an understatement. The village of Andersonville, directly across the highway, was the perfect antidote. We were afraid it would be the usual hokey, commercial rip-off attraction that surround so many of our notable sites, but there wasn't a phony thing about it.

Five of many uniforms at Drummer Boy Museum. Photo © by Debi Lander.
We were met at the Drummer Boy Museum by its dedicated and indefatigable director, Cynthia Stormcaller, who took us inside and watched as our jaws dropped. One of the finest collections of Civil War uniforms you will ever see, including one of only two known Confederate Zouave drummer boy uniforms known to exist. We were stunned by this unexpected find.
Confederate Zouave Drummer Boy. Photo © by Debi Lander.

Andersonville Village.Photo © by Judy Wells.
The village it is in is another jewel with its simple antebellum churches and buildings. It is here that the trains came to unload prisoners. Then it was bustling with a hotel and 300 residents, including four families of freedmen. Today it is quiet, with 300 residents proud of their heritage and determined to preserve it.
1843 Andersonville Baptist Church. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Filled with sadness for the past but hope for the future, like all travel writers we hit the road again to see some more.

Of course we had a moment or two of levity. Wouldn't be the Good Girls without it, would we?

Post by Judy Wells

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