Andersonville, Ga., Museum Honors the Nation’s POWs

Times Staff Writer

I am dying, comrades dying Far away from friends and home In this rebel den I’m lying suffering, staring, all alone --From poem written by an unknown Andersonville prisoner

All that is left of the infamous Confederate prison in this small, central Georgia town are graves. In the 3-foot-deep trenches are the remains of 12,912 Union soldiers and sailors, buried side by side, shoulder to shoulder.

Usable clothing was removed to be worn by surviving prisoners or guards. Then dirt was shoveled on top of their partially clad or naked bodies.

For the living, Andersonville was a place of horror. Prisoners lived in squalor, their excrement everywhere. Many went insane. Many killed fellow prisoners for a few morsels of food. Still others committed suicide, died from scurvy, gangrene, dysentery and other diseases caused by poor sanitation, malnutrition, contaminated water, overcrowding, exposure to the elements.


Largest of the Confederate military prisons, Andersonville existed for 14 months--from February, 1864, to the end of the war in May, 1865. More than 45,000 Union troops were held here.

All prison buildings were torn down after the Civil War. The grounds are now occupied by the Andersonville National Cemetery, National Historic Site and National Prisoner of War Museum.

Only POW Museum

Since November, 1987, the National Park Service, in cooperation with the American Ex-Prisoners of War, has operated the National Prisoner of War Museum, the only one of its kind in the United States.

“It is appropriate that here at Andersonville, where so much suffering occurred to Union prisoners, we honor and commemorate the sacrifices of all American POWs throughout history,” said Helen Smith, 62, historian since 1972 of the 30,000-member American Ex-Prisoners of War.

She is the wife of Allen Smith, 66, a retired Diana, Tex., millwright and World War II Army Air Corps sergeant who was captured in the Philippines and held prisoner by the Japanese for 42 months.

Helen Smith worked with John Tucker, 40, superintendent of the Andersonville National Historic Site, to establish the POW museum, housed temporarily in a 62-year-old storage building on the cemetery grounds. Early this year, the organization will launch a $2.5-million fund drive to help finance construction of a larger permanent POW museum in Andersonville.

Letters and Diaries

The temporary museum is filled with memorabilia from POWs of World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. “We have space in the present museum to display only about 10% of our archival resources,” Smith said. “The museum’s purpose is to tell the POW story to the American people through interpretive exhibits.”

On display are letters from POWs, prison camp diaries and artwork, exhibits explaining psychological warfare, photographs of emaciated POWs upon their release from the camps and maps showing their locations.

WWII Prison Camps

Another exhibit describes the 666 U.S. prison camps that housed 400,000 Germans, 50,000 Italians and 5,000 Japanese during World War II.

POWs from throughout the nation come to Andersonville to meet with museum visitors and explain their lives as prisoners of war. Often they are accompanied by their wives, who detail their own nightmares--not knowing whether their husbands were dead or alive, sometimes for months or years.

New Jersey Monument

William J. Thompson’s haunting sculpture of a crippled POW leaning on a crutch stands in front of hundreds of marble headstones marking the burial place of Andersonville prisoners. Presented by Georgia in 1976, the statue honors all American prisoners involved in all of the nation’s wars, and carries the words of Zechariah: “Turn you to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope.”

New Jersey erected a monument here in 1899 in memory of its residents who died in the Confederate camp.

The graves were cared for then by the Grand Army of the Republic’s Woman’s Relief Corps auxiliary. From 1910 to 1970 the GAR served as caretaker of the graves. Since then the National Park Service has had the responsibility.

At the turn of the century, 20 states whose soldiers died here erected monuments in their honor. The monument for Iowa is particularly poignant, a weeping woman with the inscription: “Iowa honors the turf that wraps their clay. Death before dishonor.” The names of all Iowans buried here are on the monument.

Kept Records of Dead

At war’s end Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, came here with a detachment of laborers and soldiers, and former prisoner Dorence Atwater to properly identify all the graves.

While a prisoner, it was Atwater’s duty to keep records of the Union dead. When a man died, a wooden stake bearing a number was hammered into the ground over his remains. Atwater kept the list of names corresponding to the numbers.

Later, he and Barton directed the placement of wooden markers bearing the names and state of each of the dead. In the 1870s and 1880s marble headstones replaced the wooden ones. Barton also directed the successful campaign to convert the Andersonville Prison graveyard to a National Cemetery.

Perched atop the marble headstone of Lewis S. Tuttle, a young soldier from Saco, Me., is a marble carving of a dove. No one knows how it got there, when or why. It’s the only headstone different from all the others.

Only Person Charged

Capt. Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison, was the only Civil War veteran charged with war crimes, was found guilty and then hanged on Nov. 10, 1865.

Charged with “conspiring to impair and injure the health and destroy the lives of federal prisoners in violation of the laws of war,” Wirz was described as a monster and a fiend by Northerners. Southerners claimed he was a scapegoat, a good soldier, a hero and martyr.

The Daughters of the Confederacy erected a large monument to Wirz on Andersonville’s main street “to rescue his name from the stigma attached to it by embittered prejudice.”

Wirz’s daughter and granddaughter unveiled the monument on Nov. 10, 1909, the 44th anniversary of his hanging. An annual memorial service is conducted there.

Honored Posthumously

In 1981 Wirz was posthumously awarded the Confederate Medal of Honor at a convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Dallas. Wirz Street in Andersonville is named in his honor.

“Feelings continue to run deep to this day about Capt. Wirz, about Andersonville Prison, about the Civil War,” said Mayor Lewis F. Easterlin, 79, grandson of William Easterlin, a Confederate drummer boy at Andersonville Prison. “It’s good to research history and research it right, good to remember history and remember it right.”