I feel ghoulish for admitting this about a place where 13,000 people died in just over a year, but Andersonville has a very special place in my heart.
I wanted to go for years. It nagged at me, the way Harpers Ferry did until I finally went and made it the first real post on this blog. And the minute I pulled into the parking lot for the very first time, in 2009, I was struck with the brainstorm that wound up becoming “AfterShark,” my post-show for ABC’s Shark Tank. Before I even went inside, I’d scribbled the concept down. It feels uncomfortable to say it, but something revelatory happens to me every time I visit here.
A few weeks ago, I went back, in the red-earthed rolling hinterlands of mid-Georgia, for the third time, this time to research a big project I’m working on. It was mostly empty, as it always is. I think that’s a shame. Americans should know what happened on their turf. We shouldn’t forget about it. We shouldn’t excuse it. Andersonville makes me indignant about ignorance.
So I made this quick video about it: what it looks like there, what happened there. It’s quick, and I hope it’s evocative.
Is it sad there? Not really. It all happened so long ago. My visits are spent not in an emotional mire, but trying to conjure up the imagination of the storm that passed over this land. It’s hard to envision.
My ancestors were Georgians who fought in the Civil War. The worst wardens of Andersonville, which was known then as Camp Sumter, were from Georgia. They were a volunteer unit summoned after the real professional soldiers were needed on the battlefield. The guards were inexperienced old men and young boys who didn’t understand what their prisoners had gone through. They had no respect, no sense of mutual honor, because they had never been in battle themselves. To them, they were just the dirty Yankees who were causing all this trouble, who’d been winning, and who were suffocating their culture.
After the war ended, General Grant was adamant that for the sake of national unity, Southerners were not be punished harshly for the Civil War. “Let us have peace,” became his epitaph. Many high-ranking Confederates fled abroad, but they needn’t have bothered. Although he was arrested, even rebel president Jefferson Davis was set free after two years. People lost their fortunes, but despite the treason on a national scale, the only Confederate officer to lose his life at the end of a rope was Andersonville’s Swiss-born commandant, Col. Henry Wirz.
This man, who in retrospect was no better or worse than so many military servants caught in an insoluble nightmare, was railroaded by Union representatives in a brazenly unfair trail not unlike John Brown’s railroading by the South in Virginia six years earlier. He was hanged in a public spectacle on Capitol Hill. In a rich twist of history, the Supreme Court building stands in the same spot as his gallows today.
There were other prisoner of war camps in the Civil War, on both sides of the slavery divide. There were others ones with huge losses of life. But none were worse than Andersonville, and none survived so well-preserved to today. From the very start, Americans knew that Andersonville had to be enshrined. Because it fell into the stewardship of Union sympathizers, it remained undeveloped (if well plundered by amateur archeologists) until the National Park Service took it over.
They forced the South to stomach the memorial by also making it a memorial to every American who’s been a P.O.W., ever. I think that framing eviscerates the ugly moral of this place. Andersonville wasn’t done to Americans by the Viet Cong or the Japanese. Americans did this to other Americans. This is our burden entirely. If we forget it, we forget it’s possible.
Within a few minutes of my uploading this video to YouTube, some troll commented thusly: “Who cares nothing but yankees nothing of real value was lost.”
I deleted that unsurprisingly incoherent sentiment. As a Southerner and a human, I expect more to be the lesson.