What is Andersonville Prison? (with picture)

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen
Andersonville Prison was a Confederate war prison during the Civil War.
Andersonville Prison was a Confederate war prison during the Civil War.

Andersonville Prison, which was also known as Camp Sumter, was a Confederate war prison during the Civil War. It was located in southwest Georgia in the US, and it was put together in 1864 as a place to handle increasing numbers of Union prisoners of war (POWs). The prison generally developed a terrible reputation for mistreatment of soldiers and poor conditions. By the time the war was over, many people in the north were angry about Andersonville, and the commander of the prison was prosecuted for war crimes.

The prison wasn't complete when it was opened, but many prisoners were moved into the location. According to some reports, it was overcrowded by three times its actual capacity. Prisoners were forced to use the same stream for drinking and sewage. There was little shelter, and, allegedly, most people simply slept outdoors. The conditions at Andersonville prison generally worsened as the war continued, and things became progressively more dangerous.

Late in the war, the Confederacy had a serious problem with supplies. Even basic necessities like bullets and food were extremely scarce. In some cases, their own soldiers were actually starving, and sometimes their rations would be nothing more than a little bit of bread or some moldy vegetables. In this situation, prisoners suffered even more severely, and many of them starved to death. Andersonville prison was particularly hard hit because the area was so hot and the structure itself so overcrowded.

Inside Andersonville prison, conditions became completely unsanitary, with diseases like malaria and dysentery leading to dehydration and death on a massive scale. According to reports, the situation eventually got so bad that more than 100 prisoners were dying on a daily basis. There was so much anarchy and disorder that prisoners were allegedly killing each other to steal basic provisions. Eventually, many of the prisoners were moved to different prison camps on the orders of a Confederate medical commission. Overall, approximately 30% of the prisoners held in the camp died, resulting in a total of about 12,000 fatalities.

At the end of the war, there was a call for retribution against the people who ran the camp. This resulted in the prosecution of Captain Henry Wurst, who was later hung as a war criminal. The grounds of Andersonville prison have since become a national cemetery specifically used for American war veterans. There is also a national park in the area that serves as a memorial for all missing POWs.

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Discussion Comments


What happened to the pay of the Union soldiers who were imprisoned at Andersonville? Did they receive their back pay when they were released?


According to sworn testimony at Congressional hearings from U.S. Army officials, one reason Andersonville was so overcrowded is because the Union stopped prisoner exchanges. They did this in order to deliberately overtax the South's resources to feed and house prisoners, thereby hoping to force an earlier surrender. The entire South was blockaded and the guards didn't eat much better than the prisoners did.

Here's another historical tidbit: *All* medications were named as contraband of war below the Mason-Dixon line. In other words, pharmacies in the South could not get the few effective medications available, like quinine or opium. And, when Union troops took a town, the first thing they did was to raid the pharmacies to see if they had any "contraband." Since the factories that produced the medications were in the North, it was easy to ban their sale and transport below the Mason-Dixon line. This was an action by the U.S. government against people who had no part in that awful war, like children.

In fact, the federal government and Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, were getting regular reports about conditions at Andersonville. They knew what was going on, but allowed it to continue because they wanted to force that early surrender. Tens of thousands suffered in that place, and were allowed to do so by the very government whose uniform they wore.

Incidentally, I lost three ancestors in federal POW camps: two at Fort Delaware, N.J., and one at Point Lookout, Maryland. Both were infamous for their treatment of CSA prisoners. In fact, one of the Baltimore newspapers reported that ladies of the city gathered blankets and foodstuffs from citizens and took them to Point Lookout to be given to the prisoners. The commandant was sympathetic, but could not allow this humanitarian gesture, because it had been forbidden by the U.S. government.

The bottom line is there were enough atrocities committed on both sides to go around. Neither side had the market cornered on bad behavior.


Does anybody know why the Union soldiers didn't fight back at Andersonville?


@Izzy78-- I can recommend "Andersonville" by the author John McElroy and I think "Battlefield and Prison Pen" by John has a chapter on Andersonville as well.

@anamur-- There is another good theory about why the prisons were so packed. I read somewhere that the Confederates didn't want to exchange prisoners because the Union had more soldiers. The Union also didn't want to exchange, because Confederates didn't mind putting their newly released prisoners out on the fighting field, whereas the Union did not do that. So the Union felt like the exchange benefited the Confederates a lot, whereas they did not benefit at all.

I agree with you about the Union and Confederate prisons being equally bad. Although it hasn't been proven, Elmira and Andersonville might have equal death rates because Elmira might is said to have under-reported their death rates.


@Izzy78-- I haven't seen any books on this subject. I have seen a film about it though, it's called "Andersonville" and I think it was released back in 1996. It's a really good film, intense, but does a great job getting across the conditions at Andersonville.

It also had a feel close to that of Nazi prison camps, because the conditions at Andersonville Confederate Prison were pretty similar. A lot of people became ill, died, some tried to escape and so forth. The movie showed all of that. I'm not much of a reader, so I'm happy that they made this film. I feel that everyone should see it because Anderson and the people who lost their lives there need to be remembered.


@Izzy78-- From what I've read so far, Union's prison camps were definitely not much better than Confederates'. I even saw some statistics on the death rates at various prison camps during the Civil War. The Union's Elmira Camp in New York had a close death rate to Andersonville, at about 25%.

I'm sure there was some abuse by the Confederates at Andersonville prison during the Civil War. I don't think that there were any prison camps in that time period where this didn't happen. But I agree with you that the major problem was just a lack of space and resources. But this goes for the Union side too.

Prison camps on the Union side were just as crowded because Abraham Lincoln stopped exchanging prisoners. There was some disagreement between the Union and the Confederation about equal treatment of soldiers, so soldiers ended up paying for it when the exchange program stopped. The prison camps on both sides literally filled up after that.


@Izzy78 - There were a few dozen Civil War prisoner camps. The Union had their fair share, as well. I believe the largest was Point Lookout in Maryland. I have been there, and it is now a State Park. I don't think the Union camps had nearly the same number of deaths, since they were better stocked like you mentioned.

As far as prisoner abuse goes, I don't think it was nearly as bad as POW camps in places like Japan or Vietnam, but the thing that always seems odd to me is that you can read the descriptions of prisoner of war camps from all over the world and they all sort of sound the same. Just like the Andersonville prison camp, most of the others end up with more people than they expect, and there is no way to get supplies for all of the prisoners when you have to worry about your own army first.


Was Andersonville the only Civil War prison or just the most famous? I know it is the only one I have ever heard of. What about the Union, did they have any prison camps with similar conditions?

From reading this article and from what I already knew, it sounds like a lot of the problem with Andersonville was just that the South didn't have a lot of food or supplies in the first place. Was that the biggest problem or did the Confederate soldiers also abuse the prisoners? Were there ever any attempts by the North to liberate the camp?

I am always interested in reading more about these things, and this article just sparked my interest in Andersonville. Does anyone know of any good books about the camp?


@TreeMan - I live fairly close to Andersonville, so I have visited the area before. I don't think it is for everyone. A lot of the stuff there is pretty depressing. If you are a history or military buff, I would say it is worth checking out. The cemetery is there of course, but they also have some monuments and things.

Something the article kind of mentions is the National Prison of War Museum. It doesn't just deal with Andersonville prisoners, it is for all of the POWs from different wars.

To answer your other question, yes, there are pictures from the time period. There are a couple fairly famous Andersonville prison pictures. One of them is just a distant shot of the whole prison. The other is of one of the prisoners who survived and literally looks like a skeleton.


I always thought it was interesting reading about Andersonville, since it is one of the few famous POW camps that have been located in the United States. I think the fact that it existed in the 1800s is interesting, as well, since you usually don't get a chance to hear about prison camps from other places during that time period.

Something else I think is pretty amazing is that everything that happened at Andersonville happened in a relatively short time span. The article says the prison was completed in 1864, and the war was over in April, 1865.

Since cameras had just been invented, I am wondering if anyone knows if there are any good pictures of the Andersonville prison camp? I would also be interested to hear anyone's opinion of the memorials and things if you have ever been to the place.

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    • Andersonville Prison was a Confederate war prison during the Civil War.
      Andersonville Prison was a Confederate war prison during the Civil War.