Going to Andersonville

Andersonville on August 17, 1864 (Library of Congress)

A trip to the site of the Andersonville prison camp, along with the sites of other, lesser known camps at Millen, Georgia and Florence, South Carolina, is a unique civil war trip for me for a number of reasons.  Firstly, a drive from my home in  Westchester county of New York state to Southwestern Georgia is a very long haul.  Secondly, though I have walked literally dozens of Civil War battlefields, seeking to make meaning of the places and what happened there, a visit to Andersonville is to a place whose events were harrowing in distinctive ways.

I had in fact visited the site of a Civil War prison in the past, but in a very different light.  Johnson’s Island, Ohio, near Sandusky, was the site of a prison for Confederate officers.  I visited many years ago, before I started writing about the Chasseurs but after my desire to visit spots associated with the regiment had developed.  After a brief summer stint taking a class at the Ashbrook Institute in Ashland, I swung northwest to Johnson’s Island in order to visit the place where the 65th New York Volunteers, along with the rest of General Henry D. Terry’s 6th Corps division, served as prison guards in the winter and early spring of 1864.  The prison was long gone, but a small cemetery with the graves of Confederate officers who had died while in captivity at the prison was a testament to the prison’s onetime existence.  I had since read a few books and articles on Johnson’s Island, and I had written a chapter in No Flinching From Fire on the Chasseurs’ time there.  

The Confederate Cemetery at Johnson’s Island, Ohio (Library of Congress)

But despite the poignance of the small cemetery with two hundred sixty-seven Confederate graves, visiting the infamous site of the worst of all Civil War prisons, where over 13,000 graves of Union dead are a record of the horrors there, was different.  A dozen identified Chasseurs lay among the dead at Andersonville, with perhaps more lying unidentified, and likely more among the three thousand unidentified dead at Florence National Cemetery.  In reading several memoirs and accounts of life at Andersonville, Camp Lawton (in Millen, Georgia), and Florence prison camps, the slow death there due to dysentery, scurvy, or diarrhea was incredibly grim and moving.  Knowing how deep the suffering at these places was, and how uniquely horrifying they were, made a trip there take on added meaning for me.

As an American history teacher for thirty-one years, I have a tendency when I travel to visit Presidents’ houses; I have built up a “collection” of them over the years.  In fact, in the two times I studied in Ashland, Ohio, I managed to get to see Warren G. Harding’s house as well as James Garfield’s.  So, knowing I could stop by and see Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Warm Springs, Georgia retreat on the way to Andersoville, the long drive became more appealing.  There was also the chance to retrace the April 1865 march which the Chasseurs had to make to Danville, Virginia after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.    Danville was a great halfway point, and a lovely room in an old home there was available on AirBnB.  And they had a low A-level minor league baseball team, the Danville Braves.  Federal route 360 largely paralleled the old railroad which the Chasseurs had marched along as they moved to Danville, and on which the end of war “Danville Train” carrying the Confederate government as it retreated from Richmond had traveled.  

I reached Danville after the drive from Burkeville through tobacco fields was complete, and the room in the house I stayed at was lovely.  I even got a foul ball at the Danville Braves game.  The eight and a half hour drive was long, but at least tomorrow’s drive to Americus, Georgia was likely to be an hour shorter if all went well.  And I could visit Warm Springs and add a Presidential house to the collection.  And the relatively obscure march of the 6th Corps to Danville after Lee’s surrender was something I had now retraced, at least in a general way.

The car traffic getting around Atlanta was more than I had anticipated, however, and as I sat in bumper to bumper traffic it became clear that making it to Warm Springs in time before they closed was going to be tricky, and the extra time for my excursion there might not be worth it.  So, I gave up that part of my itinerary, and headed straight for Americus, near Andersonville, when I finally broke free of the Atlanta-area traffic jams.   The Windsor Hotel, in the middle of Americus, an old 19th century inn, was my destination, and I was looking forward to getting off the road after so much driving.  Sure enough, though the smell of farm fields was palpable even in the center of town, the grandeur of the old hotel was apparent upon arrival in the lobby.  Though the room was a bit musty, the restored hotel was beautiful, and the cold Sweetwater 420 pale ale, locally brewed in Georgia and served in the lounge of the hotel, was refreshing and delicious.

The Lobby of the Windsor Hotel, Americus, Georgia (photo by author)

The next day I drove the short twelve miles northwest to Andersonville National Historic Site, through cotton fields and some peanut farms.  Knowing that my book chapter on Andersonville was the last planned for No Flinching From Fire had me excited.  But visiting the site of all the horrors I had been reading about in primary accounts over the preceding months was also exciting.  Pulling into the site and touring the museum there on POWs in American history was interesting.  But it was the prison site itself, along with the huge cemetery with its thousands of graves and beautiful monuments built by the states for their dead, which was what I truly needed to see.

Andersonville (photo by author)

The large grassy hillsides sloping down to the Prison branch of Sweetwater Creek, the misnamed stream which served as both drinking water supply and sewer for the prison camp, was empty and peaceful now.  I had it practically to myself as I parked my car and got out to walk the grounds.  Thinking about the famous photographs which showed the overcrowded prison in August 1864, and walking in the heat of July 2017, it was not so hard to evoke the horrors which the men experienced here.  For one thing, the stockade is marked by white posts around the perimeter, with one of the gates and one corner of the stockade reconstructed.  Also, the “deadline” is marked by the same type of posts, so one can get a picture of the confines of the prison, as well as a reminder of the deadliness of life there.  I walked along between the deadline and the stockade line, able to do in 2017 what no Union soldier in 1864 would dare to try unless contemplating suicide.  Any soldier venturing across the line was liable to be shot by the guards overlooking the stockade.  A number of states have built monuments to their soldiers here by the prison site; others have built monuments within the national cemetery just down the road. One particular monument near the stockade worthy of note was the monument to Clara Barton, who along with the prisoner Dorance Atwater, who kept a list of prisoners who died while he was working in the hospital as a prisoner, managed to preserve the record of who had died at Andersonville, so that the vast majority of the thirteen thousand dead buried at the Andersonville National Cemetery have stones denoting their grave sites.  This epic job of preserving the record of who died there and where they rest is not only of great interest to researchers like me, but it also provides a fitting memorial to each individual victim of this horrid place.  Barton’s monument is certainly well deserved.

The deadline on the left, the stockade line on the right, with the Michigan memorial in the background (photo by author)

The Clara Barton Monument (photo by author)

Reconstructed North Gate, Andersonville (photo by author)

Andersonville (photo by author)

I  drove around the prison grounds on the road with circles the stockade site, getting out in spots to walk around and read the signage, visiting the lovely structure built over “Providence Spring,” a source of fresh clean water which emerged during a violent thunderstorm on August 16, 1864 near the stockade. It was a tremendous relief and godsend to the men. Then it was time to do the next thing I had planned.  Down the road a half mile or so from the prison site itself, 13,000 men lay buried, victims of the conditions there.  Twelve of them were members of the 65th New York Volunteer Infantry, and I had come to visit them and reflect on their suffering, as well as to take photographs of the graves themselves for my first book.  The last chapter of No Flinching from Fire is an appraisal of the experience of the Union prisoners at Andersonville and Millen, Georgia, and at Florence, South Carolina.  I took the pictures of the men’s graves, hoping to bring some humanity to those dozen men among the 13,000 graves.  I also noted and photographed the lovely New York memorial within the cemetery.  It is a wonderful and well executed tribute to New York’s victims of the horrible prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

Andersonville National Cemetery (photo by author)

New York Monument, Andersonville National Cemetery (photo by author)

One can have an interesting debate, as I generally do in the class on the Civil War which I teach, on whether the Confederates can be blamed for the poor conditions, inadequate diet and water supply, and lack of shelter for the Union prisoners of war at Andersonville, given their own lack of the basics by 1864 as they strained to sustain a war effort against a more industrialized and much better organized foe.  The suspension of the Dix-Hill cartel for exchanging prisoners between the two sides, a suspension which doomed Union prisoners to stay at Andersonville and other rebel prisons, and which hurt the Confederate war effort more than the Union side as Union soldiers could be replaced much more readily than Confederate, is often pointed to as a cynical Union effort, led by General Grant and President Lincoln, to allow its own men to die in rebel prison camps so that the Confederates could not get their own prisoners back.  But it is crucial to remember that the Dix-Hill cartel was suspended only after the Confederates refused to treat African American Union soldiers as prisoners of war.  Treated as captured slaves to be forced back into slavery, rather than the fighting men that they were, these men deserved to be treated as any other Union soldier did, and for this reason Grant, with Lincoln’s approval, suspended prisoner exchange.  The graves at Andersonville National Cemetery, alsong with thousands of others at places like Florence National Cemetery, are a testament to the human cost of this policy.  The Union men who died in prison camps, among them at least a dozen Chasseurs, were ultimately victims of the white supremacy, racism, and inhumanity of Southern policy, more than of cynical Union war calculations.

Jimmy Carter Childhood Home, Plains, Georgia (photo by author)

I did take a swing over to Plains, to add to my collection of Presidential homes, since it was only fifteen minutes from Americus.  The center of town is a sort of throwback to simpler times, and I bought a few political campaign buttons in the general store there, which has an impressive collection of such political relics.  I also spied Jimmy Carter’s former peanut processing plant, which he sold before becoming President in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest.  In these days of the corrupt Trump administration, Carter’s actions seem particularly quaint.  His boyhood home was similarly simple and void of any ostentation whatsoever.  The farm around the house, still working on a small scale, featured chickens and rows of pecan trees planted by the President’s father.

After two days lingering at Andersonville, and staying in the lovely old Windsor Hotel in Americus, it was time for me to move on to the lesser known site of Camp Lawton, where many Union prisoners were held for several weeks, before the advance of General Sherman’s army made it untenable and forced Confederates to transport the Union prisoners there to prisons at  Charleston and Florence in South Carolina.  A little over three hours from Americus, and just north of Millen itself, Magnolia Springs State Park contains the site of Camp Lawton, where in early September 1864, the healthiest of the prisoners from Andersonville were moved in an effort to put some distance between the thousands of prisoners held there and Sherman’s army.

Though Camp Lawton only briefly served as a prison camp, and Sherman’s men burned it to the ground upon arriving there too late to rescue the Union prisoners held there, I planned to visit in the interest of historical accuracy, continuing to follow the Chasseur prisoners even though I could not positively identify any particular members of the regiment held there.  Knowing that at least a dozen Chasseurs  had died and been buried at Andersonville, logic told me that at least some 65th New York soldiers saw the inside of Camp Lawton.  With one report of a Chasseur buried in Florence National Cemetery, the remains of what was once Florence Prison, the place where many Andersonville prisoners were taken from Camp Lawton, it is almost certain that at least some Chasseurs lived at Camp Lawton in its brief existence.  Magnolia Springs was worth visiting for the trails there, and the small history center which contained some interesting artifacts from the prison which had been discovered from archaeological research which was ongoing and conducted by students from Georgia Southern University.  The trails were good to walk and explore after the many hours of driving that this particular trip entailed.  The trail that roughly followed the perimeter of the stockade location was basically walking on an open field on a hot day, but I walked most of it.  The remains of a rebel fort which guarded the prison can be seen here.  The wooded trails away from the stockade location offered shade and more nature.  They also allow visitors to see the site of the artesian spring which was a prime reason for the siting of Camp Lawton here, and which offered a far superior and safer water supply for Union prisoners than that afforded by prison Branch of Sweetwater Creek, the fetid and sluggish stream at Andersonville.  Today the spring offers a home for numerous turtles, and I spotted one alligator as well, the first I had seen in Georgia.

The remains of Fort Lawton, which guarded the prison camp (photo by author)

Artesian Spring at Camp Lawton (photo by author)

Find the alligator? (photo by author)

The B & B at nearby Waynesboro which I had booked turned out to be magnificent.  The antiques decorating Wisteria Hall were gorgeous, the breakfast I had was delicious, and Nancy, the owner, was friendly and warm, and also interested in history.  We talked about civil war history as she served me breakfast, and also a bit about how she had come to own Wisteria Hall.  The sounds of a freight train rolling through town that night was not intrusive as much as it was a reminder of how much railroads still matter, a good reminder for a Civil War historian/traveler like me.

It was a little less than a three hour drive to Florence, South Carolina, the sight of the third and last Confederate prison of my visit.  Though a walking trail led to the site of the stockade, which had been reconstructed in some small sections, the bulk of my visit was to the national cemetery there, confined within the by now familiar brick walls which are standard at the national cemeteries I have visited, an attractive and respectful feature which denote, I think, the seriousness and permanence of these sights.  Almost 3000 Union prisoners, many of them former prisoners at Andersonville who were transferred to Florence in a severely weakened condition, are buried there.  Sadly, the vast majority are in trenches of unknown graves.  At least one Chasseur is buried there, according to The New York Times, and it stands to reason that there are more.  So, a visit to this place was important to me as I finished up my research for the last chapter of my book, on the conditions of Union prisoners of the Confederacy, among them 65th New York soldiers.  Though Andersonville is much more widely known, and no doubt gets many more visitors than Florence, the fact that these nearly 3000 victims were almost all unknown made the walk through the cemetery feel more tragic and sadder.

Florence National Cemetery (photo by author)

This unique Civil War trip was nearing its close as I pulled away from Florence, and headed into North Carolina.  Though the next stop, about two more hours up the road, did not concern any actions or places in which the Chasseurs are associated, I did think that a visit to the Battle of Bentonville, the last battle between General W.T. Sherman’s army and General Joseph Johnston’s forces, was worth a stop since I was going through the area anyway.  The rural roads passed through tobacco fields, a change from the cotton fields I had gotten used to in Georgia.   I had done some reading on the Bentonville battle before the trip in preparation, so that I was somewhat oriented.  Though touring a battlefield where the 65th New York Volunteers played no role lacked the import or intensity of most of my battle visits, it was a pleasant distraction from my normal course, and of course was a noteworthy battle on its own.  The rebels did relatively well here, near the end, and General Sherman chose not to push the pursuit too strongly in the aftermath, feeling that the end was near and wishing to avoid needless bloodshed.

General Joseph Johnston Statue, Bentonville Battlefield (photo by author)

A drive to nearby Goldsboro completed my day.  Sherman had stayed in Goldsboro for a time after the Bentonville battle, before continuing the pursuit of Johnston which would end on April 26, 1865, at Bennett Place, North Carolina.  I had a simple but clean room, with a nice breakfast of fruit provided in the fridge, within walking distance of the Goldsboro center.  Like many small cities, Goldsboro featured a downtown which had seen better days.  However, a revival already seemed underway, and as I sat at Goldsboro Brew Works, founded the year before, and saw the number of visitors come in to fill a growler or purchase other craft beer, I saw an economic future for our country featuring high quality, locally made items sold in venues in traditional downtowns with great service.  The place appealed to me, and I was glad to see the entrepreneurs in Goldsboro experiencing success.

The next day would feature a very long eight and a half hour drive home to New York.  All good trips must end, and I knew the decision to drive all the way to Andersonville from home was an ambitious one.  My wife was understanding and, perhaps a little worried about the planned drive,  told me to stop for the night if I got tired along the way.  The drive up route I-95 is in my view one of the worst, least satisfying or appealing routes to drive in our country, so it was a slog home.  Traffic in Maryland was also very heavy, and I crawled along in bumper to bumper traffic from the Baltimore area north.  Finally, wearied of the stop and go traffic, I decided to pull off the road at Aberdeen, knowing there was a Class A minor league baseball team there, the Aberdeen Ironbirds, an affiliate within the Baltimore Orioles minor league system.  I pulled off the road, found a nearby hotel, and planned to hit the game.  However, a bad thunderstorm came on, along with my own lethargy, and it appeared the game was off.  The storm passed through quickly, however, and feeling a bit stir crazy in my room I made the snap decision to make it to the game, which was right up the road.  As always, I enjoyed the vibe at the minor league park, which had a brick hotel beyond the outfield wall designed to mimic The Warehouse beyond the wall at Camden Yards. I even enjoyed a National Bohemian beer in a can. “Natty Bo,” I knew, was an old local favorite, and though much superior local craft brews were available at Cal Ripken stadium, I decided to taste some traditional cheap local beer, and save a few bucks to boot.

The return to New York on I-95 was not bad, and certainly the cars moved better than they had been moving the previous night in Maryland.  My wife had been right to have me rest to be safe.  She is always right.  And driving the nondescript route on the New Jersey Turnpike for hours, as always I thought about whether such crazy long civil war research trips alone are worth it.  For me they are.

Published by 65th NY Guy

I am a high school history teacher in my 31st year of teaching. I have been studying the 65th NY Infantry, my great-great grandfather's regiment, since 1993. After 8 years of writing, I recently finally published my history of the regiment, "No Flinching From Fire." I also coach cross country and track and field, and I have a wife and two daughters.

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