February 27, 1864 (Saturday)
The United States government was in the process of slowing to a stop the practice of exchanging prisoners of war. Though there wouldn’t be an official ban on it until late April of 1864, it was becoming clear that the exchange benefited the Confederates far more than the Federals.
Previously, the commanding generals of the two armies would negotiate the exchanges. As the Federal armies grew in number, and as the Rebel armies dwindled, exchanging an equal number soldiers handed the Southern forces a much larger percentage. Also throwing their weight around, the Confederate government balked at dealing with the new director of exchanges – Benjamin Butler. He had demanded, as had President Lincoln, that black troops taken prisoner be treated the same as quite prisoners. This wasn’t something the South was keen upon doing, even threatening to put to death or sell back into slavery anyone captured who was of African descent.
Talks between both sides would continue into October 1864, but in the end, the North refused to treat with the South because the South refused to recognize black soldiers as anything more than slaves.1
But still, as of February 1864, the exchange had not stopped and was trying to be fixed by both North and South. As more troops were captured, however, there came a bottleneck. While the North had more facility for keeping Southern prisoners, the same could not be said of the government in Richmond. The prisons nearby, Libby Prison and on Belle Isle, were grossly overpopulated, and it was obvious to all that even if the exchanges were continued, new prisoner of war camps were needed.
The Confederate government began to seek out places to put prison in southwest Georgia. The reasoning was simple. The cold climate in Virginia made it almost necessary to house the inmates in large buildings. If a prison was located in the deep south, however, it could be a camp surrounded by a stockade.
Besides, the land had been virtually untouched by war – save for the male population who was either still in the army or dead. The rolling hills had never seen battles, the soil never soaked with blood, the water never tainted with the waste of 70,000 campaigners. Rather, the hills were still farmland, the light sandy soil wasn’t the most perfect for growing, though it would do, and the water, in the words of a local professor, “may be considered as equal in purity to the purest well-water in the world.”
The area along the Southwestern Railroad, near Anderson Station, was specifically selected for such purity. The same professor concluded that “there is no recognizable source of disease in the water and soil of Andersonville.”
Captain Sidney Winder arrived in Americus, Georgia on November 28th. He had been tasked with establishing the new prison by his father, General John Henry Winder, who was himself in change of all military prisons. He, along with local official, selected a plot of nearby ground that had once served as a place for camp meetings. It was clear that the water and land could maintain hundreds of people. They began to call it Camp Sumter, naming it after the county where the prison was situated.
Winder staked out a square stockade, 750 feet to each side with a small stream running through it. After the younger Winder told the elder Winder of his find, the elder Winder sent yet another Winder, a cousin, to begin building the stockade.
This was a most difficult task. Lumber, labor, and other materials had to be procured from the surrounding populace, who had no desire whatsoever to have a prison in their backyards. In southwestern Georgia, they had at one time supported the Southern cause, but by late 1863, many were reconsidering.
Winder the builder did everything he could to convince local slave owners to turn over their chattel – but it was of little use. Senators and even Georgia’s governor stopped by to give rousing speeches, which the Winders hoped would convince them to give. Again, nothing seemed to work.
Finally, in January the Winders decided that impressment was the only way they could build their prison. Lumber, supplies and slaves were all taken by threat of force, though a paltry sum was paid in return.
Quickly the stockade was erected with two gates located on the west wall. Picket roosts were constructed every ninety feet. Other buildings and facilities were also construed at this time. A cook house, a makeshift hospital, a sawmill, and gristmill were planted close enough to be useful.
But one last task remained – finding someone to run the place. Captain Winder was certainly a fine young man, but nobody in Richmond thought it a great idea to place a captain in command of an entire prison. Since this was Georgia, it was decided that the overseer had to be himself a Georgian. And so they selected Lt. Col. Alexander Persons, who had been a lawyer before serving in the 55th Georgia, which had been captured en mass several months ago. Without a command, Lt. Col. Persons became Col. Persons and Camp Sumter was his.
By the middle of February, when Col. Persons arrived, the stockade was but half completed. Winder the builder had done everything he could do to procure supplies, but in the end, he fell short. When a message from General Winder arrived telling that the first group of prisoners would be soon arriving, slave women were transformed into laborers, heaving whatever logs and planks could be found to close off the walls of the prison. Captain Winder’s original plan allowed the prison to hold 6,000. Winder the builder, however, expanded it to 9,000, thinking that it would never go much higher.
On this date, the first 500 prisoners entered Camp Sumter. A like number would arrive almost daily until the population reached a steady 30,000, and would become the infamous Andersonville as the war dragged itself bleeding through the rest of 1864.2
- See the correspondence between Grant and Lee, October 2-3, 1864 in Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 7, p909, 914. [↩]
- Sources: Andersonville Civil War Prison by Robert Scott Davis; The Southern Side: Or, Andersonville Prison by R. Randolph Stevenson, (chief surgeon at Andersonville); Andersonville: The Last Depot by William Marvel. [↩]