Fate had it in for Wallace as his next and last stop was at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. A prison that historians today consider the world’s first modern concentration camp. It was certainly the Civil War’s most notorious.
Andersonville started out as an unfinished stockade wall on almost 27 acres of land in a sparsely populated part of Georgia. There was a small creek running through the center and it was relatively close to the railroad for easy access to supplies. The stockade enclosure that was finally built on the land encompassed about 16 1/2 acres and was approximately 1000 feet long and 780 feet wide. The walls of the stockade were constructed by local farm slaves who cut pine logs on site and set them in a trench about 5 feet deep so close together that you could not see to the outside. The stockade wall included two gates on the west side. After the first wall was constructed, a second wall was set about 19-25 feet inside with the space between the two walls being named No-man’s land, any prisoner crossing into No-man’s land was immediately shot by sentries posted around the stockade. This prison was built to hold 9,000 – 10,000 men. It ended up holding at its peak 33,006.
When Wallace arrived at the prison at the end of June, it had been in operation for about 6 months and already there were well over 20,000 men confined in this small space. It was at this time that prison administrators decided to expand the walls to the north adding another 10 acres using prisoners and slaves as the laborers. By July 1st the prison was now its final size of just over 26 acres, and by August it was housing just over 33,000 men. It was the largest prison in its time and ours.
The stockade had no buildings or shelter other than the ‘hospital’ that had been constructed just outside the walls. Even that was inadequate in size. The men huddled around any burning embers they could find to keep warm at night and lay in holes dug into the ground to keep cool during the day. Because the walls of the prison were built so tightly together, there was not much in the way of breezes during the day. Alexander McLean a former prisoner recalled:
“During the day the sun would pour down scorching hot, and owing to the lowness of the ground where we were, and our nearness to the stockade, not a breath of air could reach us; when night came, the men would stretch themselves on the ground where they would soon become stiffened with the cold, and, during the night wold be so tormented by vermin and worms, with which the ground was perfectly alive, that they could get no sleep till their strength was completely exhausted. Oh! how we would long for the dawn…Some days there would be a slight thunder shower, and immediately after, the sun wold come out so hot that it would be almost impossible to endure it. I hardly know which we most dreaded, the clear noon-day, the chilly and dewy nights, or the passing shower.”
It was in June that summer when it rained down on the prisoners for over 20 days. Their uniforms rotted to such an extent that they provided little to no cover or fell off completely and some men went around naked. Wallace would have been harassed daily by lice, flies, fleas, and mosquitoes. The ground became so infested with maggots that it look to be alive. Having no adequate facilities for reliving themselves the marshy area around the center of the prison became their latrine, eventually accumulating several inches of excrement, a situation that added more problems to the already horrendous conditions of the camp as it helped to spread disease, and of course rendered the only water source undrinkable.
Scurvy, the disease of starvation, was rampant in the camp. The men who could walk around were nothing but skeletons with skin holding them together. As James Jennings remembers:
“You could almost hear their bones rattle as they walked around and were being eaten alive with graybacks [ticks]. Some of these poor fellows were so covered with lice and nits that their hair would be matted tight to their heads; and their hands and faces and bodies almost as black as a negro from the dirt and smoke of pitch pine fires as they huddles over [them] to keep warm.”
Because the dead were buried outside the walls of the camp, burying the dead became a fiercely fought over opportunity to leave the stifling confines of the camp and get some fresh, insect free, air.
|Burying the dead.
The ration wagons, when they arrived, would be swarming with flies, with all the food just dumped into them, cooked or raw, what ever the cook felt like that day. The food was then passed out with buckets that had just scooped it up off the floor. The camp baker would not allow the prisoners to wash the wagons, even though some of them were also used to carry the prison dead.
It was bad enough that the prisoners were abused by their captors, they also had to contend with “raiders,” other prisoners who were remembered as thugs not unlike the gangs of New York City. Transferred from other camps, these thugs continued their illicit activities after they were transferred to Andersonville. Their main activity was stripping the ‘fresh fish’ (new prisoners) of any valuables or useful items. Their goal was robbery, but they had no problem adding murder to their resumes. Eventually the abused prisoners had had enough of the raiders and names were named and men were hanged. The abuse stopped, for a while. The men who formed a police force to keep the peace eventually became abusers themselves.
General Sherman began to move his army into central Georgia in September of 1864 in what was the start of ‘Sherman’s March’. The Confederates, fearful of multitudes of freed Union soldiers rampaging in the southern countryside, evacuated the majority of prisoners from Andersonville to a new camp at Millen and later evacuations to Savannah, Charleston, etc. Only those too sick to be moved were left at Andersonville, of which Wallace was one.
Sherman never did free any prisoners, although an attempt had been made in July of 1864 – the real goal had been to destroy one of the South’s major supply sources, the railroad, in that area and possibly free some prisoners if the chance presented itself, but the attempt failed, and resulted in more prisoners being added to the already swelled ranks of Andersonville. Freeing prisoners was not a large priority for Sherman, and it is not that he didn’t care, because if he had freed them, the politics of it would have been a boon for Lincoln, instead, he was focused on ending the war, a much better way of getting the prisoners released.
For Wallace a rescue might have made a difference. The scurvy he had contracted was finally taking it’s toll. He lay in the ‘hospital’ on his spot on the ground in the open air by the swamp and the stench of the latrine. If he was lucky he had a blanket. He breathed his last foul breath of air sometime on October 26, 1864. His body was probably stripped of any valuables by other inmates, including any gold fillings he might have had. By the time Wallace died there were no coffins or shrouds for the dead so his body would have been place in a shallow ditch, poorly covered with dirt and became food for the vultures. The only item provided at his death was an entry in the burial records of the camp.
All together the filth, sickness, and starvation rations contributed to just under 13,000 men dying in this prison. History attributes the atrocities at Andersonville on the South’s inadequate rail system, the federal blockade, widespread corruption, greed, fraud, local politics, and administrative incompetence. All of this added together makes Andersonville the first excellent example of bureaucratic collapse due to an administration’s inability to run itself in the modern age. It was this ineptitude that caused the creation of the horror known as Andersonville. The South is not alone in its prison horror stories as the North had comparable administrative problems, but they also had much better resources, so prisoners of war did not suffer the same, but they did suffer. Only Andersonville retains the honor of being the worst.
7 James A. Mowris, A History of the117th Regiment, NY Volunteers (Hartford CT: Case, Lockwood and Company, 1866) 298. [From Ghosts and Shadows of Andersonville, by Robert Scott Davis: p21&22].
8 A Story of the Trials and Experiences of James Jenning: Late of Co. K 20th Illinois Infantry At Andersonville Prison During the Civil War, by James Jennings. [From Ghosts and Shadows of Andersonville, by Robert Scott Davis: p54].
9 Scurvy: Early symptoms include malaise, lethargy, loss of appetite, peevishness (ill-tempered), poor weight gain, diarrhea, fever. After 1-3 months patients develop shortness of breath and bone pain. Skin changes with roughness, easy bruising, gum disease, loosening of teeth, poor wound healing, and emotional changes occur, irritability, pain and tenderness of the legs, swelling over the long bones, hemorrhage. Late stage symptoms include, jaundice, generalized edema, oliguria, neuropathy, fever, and convulsions. Left untreated fatal complications include cerebral hemorrhage or hemopericardium. Definition from: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/125350-clinical.
10 The majority of information regarding prison experience at Andersonville is from Ghosts and Shadows of Andersonville, by Robert Scott Davis, a highly recommended read.