February 1864 - April 1865
Sumter County, Georgia
A cotton field near the site of the Confederate prison Camp Sumter in southwest Georgia.
In early 1864, after a breakdown of the prisoner exchange system between the North and the South, Confederate officials decided to move the growing population of Federal prisoners in and around Richmond to a place of greater security. They chose a remote location in Georgia, near a small agricultural community 140 miles south of Atlanta called Andersonville.
The first prisoners were brought to Camp Sumter in late February, and during the next few months approximately 400 more arrived each day. At the end of June, 26,000 men were confined to a 16.5-acre area meant to hold only 10,000. By August, the pen had been enlarged to 26.5 acres and held 33,000 Union soldiers, making it the fifth-most populous 'city' in the Confederacy.
The prison was surrounded by a stockade made of hewed pine logs that varied in height from 15 to 17 feet. At 90-foot intervals along the top were sentry boxes, called 'pigeon roosts' by the prisoners. Inside the pen the perimeter was marked by a simple post and rail fence 18 feet from the wall. Known to prisoners as the ‘deadline’, the fence designated a no-man's-land intended to prevent inmates from climbing over the stockade or from tunneling under it. The guards had orders to shoot any man who crossed the fence, or even reached over it.
Although Camp Sumter was surrounded by a forest, very little wood was allowed inside for inmates to build shelter, and most of the prisoners lived out in the open or in small lean-to tents called ‘shebangs'. A branch of Sweetwater Creek called ‘Stockade Branch’ trickled through the prison yard and was the prisoners' sole source of water for both drinking and sanitary purposes. Food was scarce and of bad quality, consisting mainly of poorly milled corn flour. Scurvy, along with dysentery and chronic diarrhea, were the main causes of death.
In addition to the difficulties imposed by their captors, a group of prisoners called the Andersonville Raiders terrorized their fellow inmates. Armed with clubs and other homemade weapons, and willing to kill to get what they wanted, the Raiders stole food, jewelry, money and clothing from the other prisoners and ran a black-market within the prison, often trading with the guards. Eventually another gang of prisoners called the Regulators formed and captured nearly all of the bandits. With the approval of Camp Sumter’s commander, Captain Henry Wirz, a judge and jury was selected from a group of new prisoners, and the Raiders were put on trial. Found guilty, they were sentenced to punishments including running the gauntlet, being held in the stocks, and in six cases, death by hanging.
During the 14-months it existed, more than 45,000 Union soldiers were confined in Andersonville. Of these, nearly 13,000 died and were buried in mass graves outside the prison’s walls. Captain Wirz was the only Confederate officer tried and executed after the war for murder.