Being incarcerated sure is far from a pleasant experience. If you did something against the law, jail time is your punishment. In prison, you are away from all the luxuries of life: no entertainment, no clothing of your choice, and isolation.
Then there’s being a prisoner of war when where you’re forced into labor, starved, and tortured. That was pretty much the reality of the POWs of Camp Sumter, which housed Union soldiers captured during the Civil War. Here’s what life was like there.
Whether it was called Camp Sumter or Andersonville prison did not matter to around 45,000 Union soldiers locked in the camp. It was described as hell upon earth. The conditions were so horrific that 13,000 of the imprisoned soldiers perished. Overcrowding, starvation, thirst, and exposure were all their reality.
The camp was originally built in 1864 after the prisoner-exchange system between the North and South broke down in 1863 due to disagreements on handling black soldiers after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1. Per the proclamation, persons held as slaves within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” As a response, the Confederates said that they would not return the captured Black soldiers of the North. They then had the Andersonville camp hastily built through Black slave labor.
The camp was built on about 16 acres of land in the Georgia woods near a railroad. With that size, it was supposed to house 10,000 POWs only. However, more than three times that number were all cramped up in the area with nothing sheltering them from the open skies, no fresh water, and barely any food.
Exposed to the World
What’s worse than being cramped up in a prison where 100 men die each day from malnutrition, diseases, fighting, and at the same time facing all those while naked and exposed to the world?
As one of the Camp Sumter survivors, Private Prescott Tracy recalled and described their unimaginable and terrible conditions,
“The clothing of the men was miserable in the extreme. Very few had shoes of any kind, not two thousand had coats and pants, and those were latecomers. More than one-half were indecently exposed, and many were naked.”
Aside from that, they had no protection from the outside elements. Private Tracy further said,
“Our only shelter from the sun and rain and night dews was what we could make by stretching over us our coats of scraps of blankets, which a few had, but generally there was no attempt by day or night to protect ourselves.”
The Dead Line
The Union prisoners of war rarely escaped, not because the camp was protected with the highest fences to keep them from escaping. Instead, it was because the Confederate forces guarding the prison set up what was called the “dead line” to keep the prisoners from escaping. How it worked was that anyone who passed or just touched the narrow strip of the board around four feet in height would be shot dead. Another enlisted soldier named John Levi Maile described,
It consisted of a narrow strip of board nailed to a row of stakes, about four feet high… Shoot any prisoner who touches the dead line’ was the standing order to the guards… A sick prisoner inadvertently placing his hand on the dead line for support… or anyone touching it with suicidal intent, would be instantly shot at, the scattering balls usually striking other than the one aimed at.
Anyone who usually managed to get past the deadline at night was typically discovered the next day through a roll-call the following day and then a search operation with the help of man-tracking hounds.
Gangrene and Other Diseases
Unsurprisingly, the lack of proper nutrition or a reasonable amount of food, water, and livable conditions resulted in the deterioration of the prisoners’ health. Infectious diseases were prominent, but gangrene was shocking and dreaded by the prisoners. Acting assistant surgeon at Andersonville, Dr. John Howell described,
I saw too some awful cases of gangrene – cases where the flesh has been destroyed to the bone. But before you can imagine such pictures, you must first see some sufferings like these. I can give you no idea of them. In comparison an ordinary death is pleasant to contemplate.
Ezra Ripple, one of the Union prisoners, recalled how the “bones would protrude white and glistening” as surgeons amputated the gangrenous parts of the patients.
On November 10, 1865, the prison commander, Henry Wirz, was executed by hanging. His last words were, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hanged for obeying them.”