Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Attended a family reunion in south central Georgia the weekend of June 25-26th. As I was in the area, I took the opportunity to go by the Andersonville National Historic Site. This was the site of Camp Sumter where "over fourty five thousand Union soldiers were confined (as prisoners or war) at the prison (and) almost thirteen thousand died from disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding and exposure to the elements." This according to the National Park Service's brochure. Toured the POW museum there which was an amazing couple of hurried hours. One could spend many more hours in the museum combing over the collection of POW artifacts and presentations. What was interesting was the manner in which the museum was laid out with different sections explaining different aspects of life as a POW including clothing or uniforms, games and means to pass the time, religion and how they managed to practice their faith, diaries and communications with family and the outside world etc. The sections were not divided by time period but by these topics and it struck me how POWs from the time of the Revolutionary War thru to the Vietnam War and Desert Storm all confronted similar hardships and trials. While the museum presented the dire conditions in which the prisoners or war at Camp Sumter lived and died, they did also mention at least the truth about one of the main reasons why there was such overcrowding which led to the poor santitation, disease and malnutrition, that the North refused to release Confederate POWs in a swap for these Union troops held at Camp Sumter and elsewhere. In what has been described as one of the most shining testaments to the fighting courage and tenacity of the Confederate soldier, General Grant stated, "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners in the North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here." What was not as thoroughly explained was that the shortage of medicine to treat the diseased and sick at Camp Sumter was caused largely by the Union blockade and refusal to allow medicine thru to the Southern States. Similarly, the shortage of food especially once General Sherman's pillage commenced caused hunger and malnutrition among the Confederate soldiers and civilian populations also. The terrible conditions and high death tolls at Union POW camps was largely a footnote and certainly the graves of the thousands of Confederate soldiers who died interned as Union prisoners of war are not similarly honored at those sites north of the Mason Dixon line. All in all, a stark reminder of the horror of war when one gazes at the thousands of tombstones lined in countless rows in the cemetary there.