Horror and Hauntings at Andersonville
The camp that became known as the worst “hell hole prison camp of the Confederacy” saw the arrival of its first Union prisoners on February 25, 1864. The camp had originally been intended merely to provide some relief for the city of Richmond. The city was experiencing a food shortage in 1863 and after General Grant ended prisoner exchanges and paroles, the people of Richmond found themselves with many more Federal prisoners than they could possibly feed. No one could have predicted that it would become the Civil War’s greatest example of man’s inhumanity to man. Also known as Camp Sumter, the prison camp was so notorious for its brutal treatment of Union prisoners that to this day, the very mention of the name “Andersonville” can send shudders down the spine of any military history buff.
And so does the name of the camp’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, who was arrested after the war for “conspiring to impair the lives of Union prisoners of war.” His two-month trial was a newspaper sensation and ended in his being sentenced to death. To the bitter end, Wirz protested his innocence, but to no avail. He was hanged on November 10, 1865, but as many have claimed, this was not the end of him.
Some say his ghost has never left the place of death and torture for which he took the blame.
In 1863, Confederate General John H. Winder sent his son, Captain W. Sidney Winder, to scout out a location for a new prison in Georgia. He discovered what he believed was the perfect site around November 24. The parcel of land was located deep in the heart of the Confederacy, and was far removed from attack. It was also a site where food would be abundant. Confederate officials planned a new prison on the property to be called Camp Sumter. It would contain a number of barracks, which were designed to hold between eight and ten thousand men.
The site Captain Winder chose was in southwestern Georgia, along Station Number 8 of the Georgia Southwestern Railroad. Because of this, it would be easily accessible by train. A local resident named Benjamin Dykes, who owned a sawmill and gristmill, offered a parcel of land for the prison (which was extremely convenient for Dykes, since the Army would be forced to buy his wood and grain for the prison construction and for food for the prisoners). The piece of land was heavily wooded with pine and oak and the ground sloped down on both sides of a wide stream.
Orders were given from Richmond to start construction, but the local people were violently opposed to the prison being located so close to them, so much so that labor was impossible to find. Work was delayed for some time before finally, soldiers were forced to commandeer slaves from nearby farms.
Just as construction of the prison compound was getting started, conditions in the South made it impossible to build barracks for the prisoners. Rail lines and distribution centers were greatly stressed by the war, so out of desperation, the government ordered that a simple stockade be erected around the compound as quickly as possible. This work began in January. Trees were felled and then stood on end to form a large fence around the camp, enclosing an area of just over sixteen acres. Only two trees were left standing inside the compound itself.
On February 25, 1864, the first 600 prisoners arrived from Libby Prison in Richmond. One wall of the stockade was still not completed when they arrived. Confederate artillery pieces were trained on the opening until the wall was completed. Just shortly before the first prisoners’ arrival, the camp’s first commander, Colonel Alexander W. Persons, took over his duties. He continued to serve until June 17, when he was replaced by General Winder. In March, the camp’s most infamous commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, arrived at Andersonville.
Heinrich Hartmann Wirz was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1822. He graduated from college in Zurich and then went on to medical school in Paris and at the University of Berlin, receiving two doctor of medicine degrees. In 1849, following the failed revolutions of 1848 in the German states, he emigrated to the United States and settled in Kentucky, where he married and established a medical practice.
When the Civil War began, Wirz enlisted as a private in the Louisiana Volunteers. At the Battle of Seven Pines, in May 1862, he was badly wounded and lost the use of his right arm. The Army found work for him, though, promoting him and placing him at prisons in Alabama and then in Richmond. Eventually, he was assigned to the staff of General Winder, the man in charge of Confederate prison camps, and ended up at the village of Andersonville in Sumter County, Georgia.
From the very first, there was no organized arrangement for the compound. The prisoners had simply been put in the stockade and then left to themselves. Many of the prisoners who were transferred from other camps were in horrible condition when they arrived, infested with disease and vermin, which quickly spread to the other men.
The first arrivals at the camp had built huts within the compound, using pieces of scrap lumber that had been left within the stockade. Later arrivals lived in tents or in holes they dug in the ground and covered over with blankets or scraps of cloth. In July 1864, the stockade was enlarged to accommodate more men, and within a week, the camp’s population had risen to 29,000. Less than a month later, it would rise again to its highest point of more than 33,000. Bizarrely, Andersonville technically became the fifth largest “city” in the Confederacy.
As time progressed and the stockade became more crowded, food rations began to dwindle. The first staple to vanish was salt, followed by sweet potatoes, which had once been plentiful in the region. In time, the authorities reduced the amount of cornmeal handed out and later, meat was eliminated altogether. The rations continued to decrease and soon they were not even handed out every day. On one occasion, when the bread wagon entered the stockade to make a delivery, it was mobbed by the inmates and all of the bread was stolen. Captain Wirz responded by canceling all further rations for the day. According to some prisoners, the more sadistic guards (usually those of the 55th Georgia) would toss chunks of cornbread into the pen, just to watch the men scramble and fight over them.
Many of the prisoners began to devise ways to capture low-flying birds, which swarmed about the stockade in the evenings. The swallows that were snared were often eaten raw, such was the hunger of the starving men.
Security precautions at the prison camp became almost as legendary as the horrible conditions. The two regiments of Georgia and Alabama troops who guarded the camp were assisted by a battalion of cavalry and a large pack of savage bloodhounds. These dogs had been used before the war to track down runaway slaves and they now were being used to bring back any escaped Federal prisoners.
Conditions at Andersonville
Despite the ferocity of the bloodhounds, there were still 329 successful escapes from Andersonville during the fifteen months when the camp was in use. Most of them took place during work details, although the very first attempt occurred within a week of the camp’s opening. A group of fifteen men managed to scale the east wall, using ropes made from woven pieces of cloth. All of them were recaptured, thanks to the dogs, but the attempt caused the establishment of the “deadline” within the stockade. This deadline was a boundary that was erected inside the stockade walls, made by placing a rail of pine logs about twenty-five feet inside and parallel to the walls. Guards sitting in “pigeon roosts” located every ninety feel along the wall were ordered to fire without warning if a prisoner crossed, or even touched, the line.
Soon, word got in the Northern press about the Andersonville deadline and it became infamous. The newspapers railed about the savagery of the Southern prisons and the barbaric design of the deadline. At war’s end, it would even be publicly condemned by the Union government. The problem was that, despite all of the public posturing, the Federal condemnation of the deadline was sheer hypocrisy. All stockade-type prisons had some sort of deadline for security, including the Federal ones. This fact was hidden from the American public until after the war, when Confederate prisoners returned home. It is ironic that while the American press was fulminating against the deadline at Andersonville, Confederate prisoners were being shot for crossing the same sort of lines in places like Camp Hoffman, Rock Island, Camp Douglas, and other spots.
Once the deadline was established, tunneling became the preferred method of escape. With the digging came many problems. Every tunnel required a huge amount of secrecy and in a situation where thousands of men were packed into a stockade, privacy was hard to find and, as with most prisons, Andersonville had its share of informants.
In one well-known situation, in May 1864, the commandant entered the camp with a squad of guards, searching for escape tunnels. One prisoner, thinking that he might get special treatment for informing on his comrades, told the commander about a tunnel that was under construction. The Confederates punished the prisoners involved and forced them to fill in the escape route. That night, the informant was nearly beaten to death by other prisoners. He was pursued through the night and into the next morning and finally, he crossed over the deadline and called for protection from the guards. He was sure that he had earned it because of the assistance that he had given them. Instead, they shot him for crossing the deadline.
Soon, escapes grew more innovative. There were so many dead men being carried out of the camp that little attention was paid to them. When a prisoner died, he was placed in front of his tent and then carried away by a detail of other prisoners. Several quick-thinking men pretended to be dead and were carried outside the gate, then placed in a pile to await burial. As soon as darkness fell, they would escape. This plan was successful a number of times before Captain Wirz got wind of it and changed the burial policy. After that, all of the bodies were left inside the stockade until a surgeon could examine them.
There were certainly many opportunities for escape using this method, since death was no stranger to the camp. The main causes of death were scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, gangrene and diarrhea but outright murder became commonplace as well. In fact, the murder of prisoners by guards, and even by other prisoners, became a daily occurrence.
Among the prisoners were groups of men referred to as “raiders.” These groups ruled the stockade using fear and retaliation against any who opposed them. They preyed on the other inmates, taking food and belongings from them and even beating and killing anyone who crossed them. The largest and most vicious of the raider groups was led by William Collins of the 88th Pennsylvania Regiment. His men dominated not only the other prisoners, but the other raid as well, looting and murdering as they saw fit.
A survivor of the horrors of Andersonville
Finally, a group of prisoners banded together and they somehow obtained aid from the commandant. He allowed them to take matters into their own hands and they arrested the raiders. A military trial was held and twenty-four of the raiders were punished, with six of them hanged. Three of the other eighteen men later died from retaliatory beatings.
In the years that have passed since the closing of Andersonville, and the end of the war, the ghosts of the raiders have been blamed for most of the strange happenings in the area. This is perhaps merely legend, but many have claimed the raiders to be responsible for numerous weird events. The odd sights and sounds include apparitions of soldiers around the location of the former camp, the sounds of groans and echoing voices, and the sound of what seems to be a number of men tramping about the site of the former camp.
By September 1864, the majority of the prisoners had been transferred out of Andersonville due to Union activity in the area and because of the Northern occupation of Atlanta. In the weeks that followed, it was reported that as many as 6,000 were sent to other camps. Those who were too weak or sick to travel remained behind, leaving just over 8,000 men in the camp. A huge number of those prisoners died in October, so by November just over 1,300 men were left.
In October, General Winder was transferred out and Colonel George C. Gibbs arrived to assume command of Andersonville. From that point, the camp took the role of a convalescent prison. As soon as the prisoners gained enough strength to travel, they were transferred to other facilities for a short time. The remaining Andersonville prisoners were paroled in May 1865. It is believed that as many as 13,000 prisoners died during the time that the camp was in operation.
The last prisoner paroles brought an end to the history of the Civil War’s most notorious prison camp. Or did it?
To this day, the ghost of Henry Wirz is believed to haunt the site of Andersonville prison. Legend has it that the ghost was also rumored to have haunted the Old Brick Capitol in Washington for a number of years but apparently, his spirit returned to the place of his greatest notoriety. Some believe that it may be Wirz’s ghost that has been seen walking along the road near the site of the old camp. They believe that his spirit does not rest because of the terrible blot on his reputation that came about after the war. Captain Wirz always insisted that he was unjustly accused of crimes committed at Andersonville. He went to the gallows claiming his innocence. But was he?
Wirz was never a popular officer, even before his arrival at Andersonville. He was disliked by nearly everyone, including his subordinates and his own staff. He was especially hated and ridiculed by the prisoners for his heavy accent and overbearing personality.
In 1864, Wirz was sent to Andersonville as the commandant and continued in service there until after Lee’s surrender. At that time, he turned over the camp to Union General J.H. Wilson and ended his career in the Confederate military. A short time later, he was placed under arrest by Captain Henry E. Noyes and charged with misconduct against Union prisoners at Andersonville. Wirz protested the arrest, stating that conditions at the prison had been beyond his control. He begged his captors to allow him to leave and take his family to Europe. Instead, he was taken to Washington and officially charged with “impairing the health and destroying the lives of prisoners.”
The arrest of Wirz was part of a much wider response to the American thirst for revenge against the Confederacy. It was believed that by arresting Wirz, the government might be able to placate the public. Whether Wirz was responsible for all of the horrors of the camp, though, was questionable. There was no question that terrible suffering took place at Andersonville and little doubt that Wirz was a harsh and possibly sadistic commander. However, Southern contemporary accounts insisted that he did the best job possible under extreme conditions. There was no question that Andersonville was the South’s most impoverished and overcrowded prison. There are many today who believe that Wirz was nothing more than a scapegoat for the poor condition of the Confederate prisons and a victim of the post-war backlash against the South.
The trial of Henry Wirz began in August of 1865, ending a three-and-a-half month feeding frenzy by the press. While the former captain waited in jail, the Northern newspapers had already tried and convicted him many times over. He had been portrayed as a monster who maliciously sent scores of Union soldiers to their deaths.
Attorneys for the federal government began their case against Wirz, presenting evidence in the form of records, documents and testimony from former prisoners and from Union officers who had inspected the camp after its surrender. The witnesses were not always reliable, as several of them stated that they had seen Wirz “strike, kick and shoot prisoners” in August 1864, during a time when the commandant was absent from the camp on sick leave.
Of all the testimony, perhaps the most damaging came from a man named Felix de la Baume, who claimed to be a nephew of the Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette. He spent several hours on the witness stand describing the defendant’s cruel treatment of prisoners and his total disregard for the nightmarish conditions of the camp. Baume’s testimony appeared in newspapers across the country and in the end, it sealed Wirz’s fate. Baume was rewarded for his testimony with a position in the Interior Department. After the trial, it was learned that he had been a deserter from the Union Army and was not descended from General Lafayette.
On November 6, 1865, Wirz was condemned to death. Not long before his sentence was carried out, a secret emissary from the War Department offered him a reprieve in exchange for a statement that would convict Jefferson Davis of conspiracy to murder prisoners. Wirz refused.
Henry Wirz was hanged in the yard of the Old Brick Capitol on November 10, 1865. He was the only Confederate officer to be convicted and executed for war crimes. He maintained his innocence and was defiant until the very end. As he said to the officer in charge of directing his hanging, “I know what orders are, Major. I am being hung for obeying them.”
Was Captain Wirz ultimately responsible for the horrific conditions at Andersonville? Was he to blame for the deaths of thousands of Union soldiers? The question remains unanswered, but it seems that his spirit remains behind to try and restore his reputation. There is little doubt in the minds of witnesses that the apparition that they have seen pacing through the site of the former prison camp is that of the infamous prison commander. The officer in the neat gray uniform is, like Wirz, ruggedly handsome, with a short beard and the hat that the commander always wore. Often he wanders the grounds, restless and looking inconsolable, shaking his head or talking silently, yet wildly animated, to himself. On other occasions, he is seen standing in place, by the road or in the stockade area, a mute reminder of his possible innocence.
Or perhaps he is merely sentenced to remain in this world as punishment for his crimes.
The story of Andersonville appears in the book Soldiers and the Supernatural by Dave Goodwin and Troy Taylor. For dozens of stories of soldiers, war and the ghosts that linger in the wake of the destruction, pick up an autographed copy of the book here – or it’s also available in a Kindle or Nook edition.