Providence Spring – A Miracle At Andersonville
In the summer of 2016, I drove down an isolated road in Southern Georgia. There wasn’t much around – just a few run-down houses here and there. Cotton fields stretched to the horizon. Silence hung heavy along with the heat.
Only a few signs with arrows pointed me to my destination. I followed them to a small parking lot that was practically empty of cars. A quiet visitor center beckoned. Behind it lay a sprawling field, fully exposed to the hot, Georgia sun. A few concrete monuments were scattered across the horizon. I also spotted a row of gnarled shanties, and a section of a stockyard wall. Other than that, there was nothing. Nothing… as far as the eye could see. This was all that remained of one of the most notorious Civil War prisons – Andersonville.
Back then, a lot of boys called the place “Camp Sumter,” and it was known for miles around. In fact, the mention of it sent a chill down the spine of every soldier in the Union army. The stories leaking out of there were so bad some soldiers opted for death on the battlefield rather than getting captured.
Indeed, there weren’t many worse places a soldier could wind up than Andersonville. Even the journey there was hard. In an overcrowded train racing over torn up tracks, some prisoners didn’t even survive it. The ones that lived had little better to look forward to. Once those wooden doors slammed shut behind them, they found themselves in a whole other world.
The prison yard comprised of a vast prairie split in half by a swampy, stinking stream, surrounded on all sides by a towering stockade wall of felled logs. Prisoners had no shelter from the grueling heat, other than pitiable self-made shanties of torn blankets and wood scraps. Thirty-thousand people were crammed into this awful space, which was built for a third of that. Their foot traffic had turned the terrain into a slimy mud pit covered in corn-bread crumbs, human waste, and hordes of vermin. The stream, Andersonville’s only water source, was used communally for bathing, a latrine, and laundry by everyone in the prison yard, which made it far from sanitary. Food consisted of scant helpings of moldy corn bread, and weevil-filled spoiled pork. Starving and emaciated prisoners cooked the rations with sprigs of pitch pine, which left a heavy black residue all over their skin.
With such poor living conditions, sickness paid frequent visits to Andersonville. The most common, and lethal, was scurvy. A disease caused by poor diet, the first symptom was bleeding and irritation in the gums. This progressed into loose teeth and rotting tissues in the mouth. Then it worked its way to the extremities such as fingers and toes. Prisoner John McElroy lamented that once scurvy reached a patient’s legs, he was dead by the end of the day. Dysentery and infection also struck down plenty of men, along with measles and even the occasional small pox outbreak. Disease became so prevalent that at the prison’s peak, over one hundred people a day died from illness alone.
Along with disease, violence from other prisoners was also a common killer. A band of murderous thugs known as “the Camp Raiders” preyed on people throughout the prison. Mostly from criminal backgrounds before the war, they found a home befitting their skills in Andersonville. Newcomers were their favorite targets, and the Raiders pounced as soon as fresh feet landed inside the stockyard. Already at a bad disadvantage, new prisoners fared even worse when Raiders robbed their food, blankets, and any goods they managed to carry into the prison.
All of that, combined with the brutal antics of Commandant Captain Wirz and his Georgia guards, meant prisoners only lasted a few months in Andersonville. This was especially true as the summer months wore on, and the heat took its toll. Mountains of bodies piled up in the dead house, and the hospital got overwhelmed with malnourished, dying prisoners.
Lack of drinking water put more people in the hospital than anything. Anyone who dared drink from the putrid swamp water died fast and without mercy. All other water had long-since run out. Rainstorms, although they brought their own sets of troubles like flooding, mud, and disease upticks, were the only source of water. And with August pressing in, those dropped off to a trickle. Along with running out of faith, the prisoners were running out of time.
Then, there came a miracle.
Accounts are mixed on how the spring first appeared on that August night of 1864. The more dramatic tales have it bursting out of the ground after a lightning strike from a towering storm cloud. Other accounts say it sprung up after a heavy rain storm saturated and shifted the grounds underneath the prison. Still others say it just appeared during the night while the prisoners slept. Either way, to the Andersonville prisoners, the sudden emergence of a bubbling spring of fresh water on the North side of the stockyard felt like the work of divine Providence.
Prisoner John McElroy wrote – “…the camp was astonished beyond measure to discover that…a large bold spring had burst out…about midway between the swamp and the summit of the hill. It poured out its grateful flood of pure, sweet water in apparently exhaustless quantity. To the many who looked in wonder upon it, it seemed as truly a heaven-wrought miracle as when Moses’ enchanted rod smote the parched earth in Sinai’s desert waste…”
Prisoner John Ransom, who kept a diary during his entire imprisonment, also mentioned the sudden appearance of a spring. “A nice spring of cold water has broken out in camp,” he wrote. “Enough to furnish nearly all here with drinking water. God has not forgotten us.”
The story of “Providence Spring” is one of the most legendary ones of the Civil War. It brought hope to thousands of battered prisoners who felt forgotten, and for many of them, it made the difference between life and death. In their most desperate hour, deliverance arrived out of nowhere. The story is so miraculous it might not even seem credible to people today. However, if one needs proof of Providence Spring, all they need to do is visit the Andersonville Historic Site. Because the spring still flows there to this very day.
On that hot summer day in 2016, I made my own visit to the prison, and I beheld the miracle water source of 1864. Indeed, the cool water still bubbles, and visitors are allowed to bottle some to take home with them (although you are highly discouraged from drinking it – what counted as sanitary back then is not as much so today). I could hear the words of John McElroy as I dipped my hands in the refreshing water. He said of the spring – “When I hear of people bringing water for baptismal purposes from the Jordan, I say in my heart, how much more would I value… the divine flow from that low sandhill in Western Georgia.”
As the sun beat on my back, and my eyes stung from the sweat and searing heat, I caught a small glimpse of what he meant. I took a look around at the vast, open space. It had no protection or nourishment to offer. Back then, this was hopeless ground where death lurked in every corner… until this spring appeared. If that is not a miracle, I’m not sure what is.
All of that sadness still hangs in the air at Andersonville. You can feel it when you walk by the stone-cold monuments in the burning hot prairie. You can hear it in the thirsty grass crunching under your feet. It’s all so heavy with tragedy. Until you kneel at the banks of Providence Spring, and let a miracle run over your fingers.
“This Was Andersonville” – J. McElroy
“John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary” – J. Ransom
“Andersonville” – M. Kantor
“Army Memoirs” – L. Barber
Andersonville National Historical Site
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on Andersonville National Historic Site and the Civil War, please visit my photo gallery