Remember that song? I don’t recall who sang it, but let me tell you, the title would be incredibly apropos of Andersonville. Camp Sumter, the official name, was nothing short of hell on earth. But, let’s be clear here: no doubt, it was a terrible, awful stain on the Confederate States of America (CSA), but there is no way the Union walks away scot-free, either. There is so very much blame. Plenty to go around. Andersonville was a veritable embarrassment of riches if blame is your game. We visited the Andersonville National Historical Park in southwest Georgia this past Wednesday; it has taken me until now to wrap my mind around it ever so slightly.
Commandant Henry Wirz took the fall for the fiasco and was hung for war crimes in Washington, DC right where the Supreme Court building stands now. He didn’t die instantly from a broken neck. He swung for about a half hour while the people who held tickets to watch his execution cheered and applauded as he writhed and slowly strangled.
What responsibility do the politicians have for denying prisoner exchanges? I’d love to ask General Grant that question, since he denied pleas to make exchanges. What about when five prisoners from Andersonville went to Washington to appeal to Congress for anything to ease the suffering of those prisoners of war (like maybe some food or potable water?), but were rebuffed and sent back to Andersonville? Shame shame shame on all of you.
This is a quote attributed to a Southern woman who climbed a guard tower and looked down upon the stockade in 1864: “My heart aches for these poor wretches, Yankees though they are, and I am afraid God will suffer some terrible retribution to fall upon us for letting such things happen. If the Yankees should ever come to southwest Georgia and go to Anderson and see the graves there, God have mercy on the land!”
But looking to assign blame won’t mitigate the horrible ugliness of what happened at Andersonville. It seems to me that there was more than enough finger-pointing going on, so I started looking for a hero or two. Well, just when you start to despise your fellow man, you come upon people like Dorence Atwater and Clara Barton. Dorence Atwater, all of nineteen years old, and Clara Barton, showed us what honor and service look like and we need to focus on those two.
So now, in case you aren’t familiar with Dorence and Clara, I will tell you their story. Dorence was a Union soldier from New York and was captured in July 1863. At first, he was imprisoned in Richmond, VA, but in June of 1864, he was sent to Andersonville. There he was detailed to work in the hospital. The patients were dying at an unbelievable rate and the graves were marked only with a number. Dorence recorded the names of the prisoners who died along with any information he could about where they were from and what caused their deaths. He also recorded the grave number that corresponded with their name. (Later, when the death rate climbed to one hundred per day, the dead were buried shoulder to shoulder in trenches.) But Dorence hoped to notify bereaved relatives after the war, so he secretly copied all that information and smuggled it out in the lining of his jacket when he was released. After the war, he asked the War Department to publish the list, but his request was refused. I find that stunning.
Then he met Clara Barton. I am aware that she is called the Mother of the Red Cross, but for this nurse, she will always be remembered as a compassionate and caring bedside nurse. And, yes, I am aware that Florence Nightingale is considered the Mother of Nursing, but I love Clara because of her tireless work in the United States. Florence is a Brit; I respect and admire her. We’ve even been to her museum in London, but Clara was a force of nature right here on our soil.
During the Civil War, Clara served as a battlefield nurse and when the war was over, she went to work trying to find missing soldiers. She eagerly accepted the challenge that Dorence proposed to her. Together, they accompanied the US Army Quartermaster expedition, a crew of thirty four people, to Andersonville to locate the graves of the dead. Because of Dorence’s register, published in 1866, so many families were able to find the graves of their loved ones. Thanks to the documentation of Atwater and his work with Barton, over ninety five percent of the graves were identified. Imagine the peace of mind that gave those soldiers’ families. Close to 13,000 soldiers died and were buried during the fourteen month period that Camp Sumter imprisoned Union soldiers at Andersonville, GA on the 26 1/2 acre field. The work of Dorence Atwater and Clara Barton resulted in only 460 of the graves at Andersonville being marked as the final resting place of unknown US soldiers.
Some things never seem to change. Heroes don’t roam halls of Congress. Heroes walk among us, performing acts of bravery, strength, and courage all around us every single day, then go back to their lives, never looking for praise or accolades.
Congress, on the other hand….