Listening

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Andersonville. It is one of our nation’s blackest memories, a reminder that we, too, once succumbed to ancestral barbarisms, slipping back to a time when men peered out from the mouths of caves and feared the darkness.

It began early in 1864, when General Robert E. Lee ordered that all Union prisoners then held in Richmond be moved out of the beleaguered and badly supplied city. The site chosen for relocation was a piece of land a little over twenty-six acres in size near the hamlet of Andersonville Station, Georgia. It ended early in 1865, when Sherman’s presence in Georgia forced the removal of most of the Andersonville prisoners to such other locations as Charleston, Savannah, Millen, and Florence.

Within that span of little more than one year, in that space of some twenty-six acres, there was erected an architecture of horror, the briefest outline of which is still staggering. At its height, the prison—designed to hold an absolute maximum of ten thousand men—was home to more than thirty-Bye thousand. Most were already weakened from their previous imprisonment, from disease, or from wounds received in battle; most were execrably clothed; most were shelterless in heat that often exceeded one hundred degrees. The weakest were prey to gangs of prisoner thugs who robbed, beat, sodomized, and murdered; all were prey to prison guards who were only slightly removed from thuggery themselves. The prison’s only source of water was a turgid creek slick with the offal of the prison, its banks mounds of garbage, excrement, flies, and maggots; the food—beef, pork, and rawly ground corn meal, usually uncooked—was dismally short of that necessary to sustain even minimal health; medical facilities were primitive, woefully understaffed, and normally devoid of necessary medicines. Scurvy, dysentery, gangrene, blood poisoning, malaria, typhus, heatstroke, pneumonia, malnutrition, murder, and despair did their work: In March, 1864, a total of 283 prisoners died; in April, 576; in May, 708; in June, 1,201; in July, 1,817; in August, 2,993; in September, 2,677; in October, 1,595; in November, 499; in December, 165; in January of 1865, 197; in February, 147; in March, 108; in April, after most had been removed, 28. In all, there were 12,994 recorded deaths in Andersonville—not counting those who later died from the effects of the experience.

Those who survived that experience never forgot it, and it was not long before their memories took effect: on November 10, 1865, Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of Andersonville, was executed by the federal government for what our century would call “war crimes.” Some then and some since have maintained that Wirz was a scapegoat, the victim of a system he could not control, one whose ineptitude and meager resources made Andersonville inevitable.

Perhaps, but one hundred and fifteen years later the guilt or innocence of any individual hardly seems to matter. What does matter is that it happened, that it was done by Americans to Americans in an enlightened age, and that to forget that fact on the assumption that it could never happen again would be to tempt fate.

And so, in 1970, the National Park Service created Andersonville National Historic Site. Today, visitors can wander the well-kept grounds of the old stockade, can see desperate little wells dug with bare hands and even more desperate tunnels dug in hope of escape, can stand on the clean banks of Stockade Creek, which carries no hint now of the death it once harbored, can view memorials and thousands of tombstones in the cemetery.

Beyond the prison grounds lies the town of Andersonville, and it, too, is doing something to fix itself permanently in the prison’s history. In 1973, the Andersonville Guild was formed, with the stated intention of “turning back the clock in Andersonville to make the town look much as it did in Civil War days.” Century-old buildings in the tiny downtown area were restored and refurbished; more modern buildings were modified or removed; an old railroad depot was moved in for a Welcome Center, town office, and museum; and now every October visitors can attend the Andersonville Historic Fair featuring a dramatization of the trial of Captain Wirz.

A grim, even grisly, remembrance? Possibly, but before passing judgment on the people of Andersonville, we might consider how far what they are doing goes toward meeting the spirit of the words written by Elie Wiesel after he revisited the death camp of Auschwitz in 1979: “Auschwitz souvenirs, Auschwitz post cards. … It’s an old story: To attract a wide public, you have to use a language it can understand. Some concessions are necessary, perhaps even permissible, if the end is a good one—and is there a better purpose than that of recalling the crimes … against humanity that were committed here?… So as not to betray ourselves by betraying the dead, we can only open ourselves to their silenced memories. And listen.”